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So what can you build with dry stone?

For those in the know, dry stone is an amazing building material. Using nothing to bind it, bar the way the stones are placed together by the skill of the waller, there is a huge variety of structures and features that can created. Traditional dry stone walling in the UK was all about building livestock proof boundaries or retaining walls to hold up earth banks.  Consequently much of the work that I do is a development of this type of walling – traditional in a contemporary setting; usually for clients in their gardens.

However, there is so much more going on with stone, and so in this article, I wanted to demonstrate, describe and show what can be done. Today’s post is really an infomercial or an advertorial celebrating dry stone walling in some of its fantastic forms.

Many of the images below are my own work (well, I am promoting Stone Inspired); some are not. For instance, I have no shame in admitting that I have never built an arch or a bridge – mainly because I have never been asked to do one! However, other people have. I would love to do something like an arch. This is one of the reasons why I love walling as a career: the learning never stops.

The images and text below show some of the more common types of walls and some of the more interesting uses of stone.

Thanks to the John Shaw-Rimmington, Thea Alvin for the use of their pics.

Free-standing walls
Free-standing boundary walls – straight or curved –  are self-supporting structures built with a classic capital A-shaped profile (wider at the base than the top). The usual dimensions for farm stock walls are 4′ 6″ or 1.2m high, although you could in theory build as high as you liked.  Long through-stones are placed at regular intervals and at about half height to provide strength.

Walls can be topped off either with a semi-circular cope (as in the image) or with turf (see curved wall below).

Cheek or gate ends are built into free-standing walls to provide a strong structure where the wall butts up against a gate post or such like. A good cheek-end should have stone courses running alternately length-ways and across the wall to give it strength.

Retaining walls
Designed to hold up earth banks, retaining walls are usually single-sided walls with one face visible.  The unseen part of the structure is built of more irregular stone to provide the retaining wall with bulk to support the bank behind.

The example here is low, curving wall to provide a pretty backdrop to the paved area.

There is theoretically no limit to the height that one could be built. The only real limitations are the stength of the stone to bear the weight of the structure, and the ability to find enough stone to build with!  One of the tallest dry stone retaining walls is at Cei Mawr in Wales which is more than 18m (62′) tall, and used to carry the Ffestiniog Railway’s slate trucks over it.

CharterhallIf you build a retaining wall in a garden, you generally need stairs too! The steps that I build are usually made with stone for the risers and paving slabs for the treads.  These are one of only two things that I build with mortar – the other are benches made using slabs. Unfortunately, it’s unavoidable using mortar where the stone is going to be sat on or stood on.

Wonky Wall, CollessieWhy go straight when you can go curvy?  When I build, I use metal poles and a tight string-line to keep me straight.  But sometimes you’ve just got to put a nice curve in a wall.  I still use poles and strings, but how do you make a bend with a straight line? Well, you need a little bit of skill and lots of practice.  Its fun!

Notice that the wall is topped with a thick layer of turf.

This example of an arched gateway built by Irwin Campbell is a great example of a dry stone arch.  Like the bridge below, no mortar was used to build this. This is a fantastic gateway – the stone and wooden door really compliment each other.

This is a dry stone bridge built by members of the Dry Stone Walling Association of Canada in Wellington (Prince Edward County) Ontario  2007.  Built using the same techniques applied in the arch above, this bridge has no mortar to bind it.  It’s a beautiful structure. Thanks to John Shaw-Rimmington for the use of the image.  For more info go to the DSWAC website.

And just wow!
Sometimes you just have to think out of the box…

This amazing helix design is by Vermont, USA artist Thea Alvin.  You see more of Thea’s work at

6 Responses

  1. Wow, really informative article, thanks! I’ve seen so many of these types of wall in the countyside and admired the fact that someone had to get the stone to these remote and difficult to access area’s. I never realised the finer intracasies required to build them. Great pictures too.

  2. Great article Jason. Very informative and gives a good indication of different structures that can be done, other than the traditional drystane walls to edge the farmers fields. Would be good to see the different bonding styles as well.

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