Dry stone walls have been created for thousands of years and, if done well, will look as if they have been in place for at least that long. Yet anyone can learn how to lay a dry stone wall, insists Richard Ingles, a master craftsman who has built these structures in the UK for more than four decades. (Ingles began dry stone walling on his father’s farm as a boy— and quickly realized he had an affinity for it.)
If you want to create something of beauty and permanence, however, the skill can take many years to master, says Ingles, who kindly agreed to walk us through the steps of dry stone walling.
Is a dry stone wall the right element for your landscape? Read on for everything you need to know:
Photography by Britt Willoughby Dyer for Gardenista.
What is a dry stone wall?
As the name suggests, these walls are made of nothing more than dry stone. There is no mortar and the structure is made strong and stable with nothing but the careful placement of stones.
What is the history of dry stone walls?
Some dry stone walls in Europe have been dated to the beginning of the Neolithic age (circa 7,000 B.C.), an era when animals became domesticated and barriers were developed to keep them from wandering off. In upland areas, this ancient craft has left its mark on rural landscapes.
In recent years, photographer Mariana Cook traveled around the world to capture images of stone walls (including those of Malta’s Hagar Qim Temple, built in the 4th century B.C.); her photos are collected in Stone Walls: Personal Boundaries ($42.25 on Amazon).
In America, in areas with rocky subsoils, English, Scottish, and Irish immigrants brought the skills to lay dry stone walls with them. Stone walls are prevalent in New England, where receding glaciers deposited rocks in the landscape.
How do you build a dry stone wall?
Styles vary slightly in different areas too, because of the different stone formations. But the procedure for building a stone wall is the same almost everywhere. There are no foundations for dry stone walls (unless there’s a very unstable subsoil).
First, remove turf and then lay a base of large stones. The higher the wall the wider the base will be as the wall tapers in slightly from the base upwards and inwards. Then each course needs to be built up, as carefully graded stones sit harmoniously together.
How do you cap a dry stone wall?
How long will a dry stone wall last?
In the Cotswolds where a oolitic limestone is used, it will perish sooner, perhaps after 100 years. In other regions such as Cumbria where there is granite, the time frame will be much longer because the stone is harder and more durable.
If there are slopes then a slightly different technique is used with some courses running at a right angle level with the terrain.
How much does a dry stone wall cost?
More expensive than other options, the price of building a dry stone wall starts at about £40 per linear meter (or roughly $20 per foot). But the beauty of the walls —and the contemporary resurgence of traditional skills—has created a surge in demand for this craft at the moment.
N.B.: See other wall and fence options: