Monday, May 31, 2010

Grasping the real meaning.

Let's be definite and ecologically correct. The reign of concrete must come to an end in our vocabulary too. We no longer need to have 'concrete' be the word to represent the concept of precision, fact or sturdiness.

We dont want the word to dominate the better choices we have to describe something which is permanent and structural, any more than we want it dominating the landscape and building industry the way it has.

Something that is considered to be 'real' and 'understandable' should not be degraded to the level of something as objectionable as concrete. Let's use words like bonded, connected, fit together, secure, tight, factual, fixed, inseparable, conjoined, entwined, integral or interwoven. There are many more words too. If you think of some good ones please feel free to submit them below in the comments section.

Concrete is not 'essential'. Stone is 'elementary' and walls made without mortar do not pollute, corrupt, crumble or degrade the way concrete does. The word concrete has been used incorrectly for too long.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

It's All In The Grist Movement

The two day dry stone wall workshop in Bethany Ontario is turning out to be a unique experience. We had our first day of hands-on glutten free-walling on Saturday.

The meals were scrumptious and completely gluttenless ( though we nearly made gluttens of ourselves) and there was even glutten free beer !

Our host is a celiac and informed me about the condition. Celiac is an inherited trait, like blue eyes, or curly hair. Since it is a recessive inherited trait, both parents of a person with celiac may not have the disease, but are carriers. It is also more prevalent in Scotch-Irish people, red heads and fair complexions. Celiac is not an allergy to wheat or gluten, but an autoimmune disorder. This means that the body attacks itself when gluten is consumed. As an autoimmune disorder, the only treatment is to avoid all products that contain gluten.

I looked it up on the internet.There are many people that inherit the trait for celiac, but it also requires a trigger, such as massive consumption of gluten, stress, or viral infection, for celiac to become an active disease. It can begin as early as infancy, and as late as adulthood.
Gluten is part of the elastic, rubbery protein found in wheat, rye, barley and oats. It binds the dough in baking and prevents crumbling. Gluten can be found in breads, cakes, pastries, cookies, biscuits, crackers, battered foods, cereals, snack foods, pastas and pizza and yes beer.

Pretty much all beers, ales, and lagers contain gluten. Those insideous grains are just so excellent at creating beer that about 99% of all beers on the market contain gluten.

New Grist Beer is our host's 'glutenless' beer of choice. It appears as a pale golden liquid with a traditional cap of snowy white. Light hop aromas of mint and wet hay awaken your olfactory senses, while complex sorghum flavors, reminiscent of saki, glisten over your tongue. A medium mouthful finishes clean, leaving you refreshed and all ready to go out again and move some grist-mill-sized stones into the wall.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

An idea sent to me yesterday from Christopher Barclay. Thanks Christopher. Maybe it will give the ipad a run for its money.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Getting your picture taken.

Building dry stone walls is different from taking pictures. A wall can't be taken. It usually can't be stolen either, not without a lot of trouble. Thieves may try and take some of the stones but they will have trouble reproducing your beautiful wall.

I once had the coping stones stolen from a wall I helped build . The property owner asked me to come back and put new ones on. She had a pretty good idea who had taken them. This time she put a small red dot of nail polish on each one. Shortly after, some of the copes were stolen again. The lady told me she had an idea who it was and drove over to confront them. Apparently they were caught red-nail-polish-handedly. I never found out if they returned them all or just said they were sorry and promised not to take any more.

Usually though, a well built stone wall with a good home and people who care for it will live a long happy life and isn't in much danger of being stolen.

Photos, on the other hand, often get 'taken'. In fact they keep getting taken all the time. Once a picture has been taken it can be reproduced easily, and then, in a sense it is as though it has been abducted. If it is stolen this way, you never know where it might end up. You may not even know it has gone missing, and even if you do, it would be counter productive to put a 'missing' notice up all around the neighbourhood, with a picture of your photo.

If you are lucky it may show up on the news or appear on someone's website or in some newspaper article about another waller. Someone may report it. Still, it's more likely you may never know about it.

If you get your picture taken, all you can assume is that the picture was a good one, and probably has a good home in someone's portfolio now and if you don't get any credit for it, just take consolation in knowing it was worth stealing.

On the other hand, if you take any pictures, just make sure they are yours!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A chip on the block!

Robert Frost in his poem, Mending Wall, couldn't have said it any better. "Something there is that doesn't love a wall". Some people seem to despise them. They look at them suspiciously like they are going to rise up and fall on top of them. These people generally look the other way when they see one. If they do happen to run into one somewhere, it will more likely be in a car.

This week we have been working in Cobourg Ontario building two lovely dry stone walls on the north and south sides of a residential property. Our client already has a beautiful wall built for him along the front of his property. It is the best looking house on the block. This man is not a tyrant, or a serial killer or a lawyer, but for some reason the neighbors seem to hate him. The new walls we are building are not making his neighbours any happier.

On one side, a Bob Newhart kind of character (without the humour) looks on all day with a deadpan expression. Finally after much blank-stare glaring, and in a rather zombie-like voice, he manages to verbalize his concern that we make sure no stone chips fly off and damage his new windows. They are 20 feet from where we're working! Heck, a lawn mower or a weed-eater is likely to do more damage. Other than that sardonic remark, he just stands and stares at us as we build. No comments. Sometimes he goes off and washes his driveway.

On the north side where we are building the other wall, a lady in her housecoat, who sits all day reading the paper on her screened-in porch, will not allow us to stand on her grass to access the wall we are trying to build. We have to tip-toe along a very narrow strip between the wall and her property with the stones we need to build with. She watches from her porch. Again, no comments, expressionless, nothing. At noon she orders us to stop working while she backs her car out of the driveway. Flying chips might mutilate the vehicle? Not likely. I managed to find only three confetti-size flakes on the driveway from a morning of working near her side.

If we were building fences with noisy power tools, screaming grinders, chain saws and earth pounding compacters, using toxic glues and sealants, and dangerous air hammers, the neighbours would probably love us. Oh wall.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

An Element Never Forgets

Understanding what an 'element' is, should not be that difficult, in fact it's really the simplest matter. Aristotle defined an element as one of those bodies into which other bodies can decompose, and that itself is not capable of being divided further. Basically an element is a substance made of just one type of atom. To date, there are 103 elements known to man, and they are neatly listed in a thing called the periodic table. Ninety-two of these elements or various combinations of them (called minerals) occur naturally and many of these minerals and elements are found in the stuff we commonly refer to as 'rock' or 'stone'. The most common ones are Oxygen, Silicon, Aluminum, Iron, Calcium, Sodium, Potassium, Magnesium but there is a truck load of other trace elements too.

Elements because they can't be subdivided are not just the building blocks of matter they are basic units of being, which means they have a great capacity to stay the same and be unaffected by time. If a thing, or a substance, can not be divided any more, it exhibits and continues to retain only the quality and essence of itself. Because it contains great concentrations of these fundamental elements, stone is one of the most enduring materials on earth.

People, on the other hand, are all in an Aristotelian state of decomposing. Besides the obvious downside, one of the main problems this presents is that we have a annoying tendency to forget things. Ultimately, at the point where our memory is lost, we literally, cease to be. In fact many psychologists say the thing that defines us as a species is the human activity of 'remembering'. Memory is the thing that moves us and keeps us going. Stones, which hardly ever move on their own, and have very few 'activities', have in fact a far greater ability to 'go the distance'. That's why mankind, since the dawn of recorded history, has tried to utilized this material as a means of being remembered and keeping the records straight.

Obelsks, inukshuks, walls, monuments, pillars, cairns and a whole pile of other stone structures have all at one time or another been stacked in unique configurations for the purpose of remembering something or other. For the ever prone-to-forget human species these things become an expedient extension of our human memory. While the significance of many of these stone edifices may sometimes be lost over time, the structures themselves, because they are built of stone continue standing for a long time after. The point is that stones have been, and still are, the most efficient way of storing knowledge. Amazingly in our computerized age, nothing has changed. Silicon for example, which is found in almost all of these ancient stone memorials and shrines of many past civilizations, is the same basic element used in computers today, providing trillions of gigabytes of memory, which apparently we need to help us remember who we are, and what it is we are doing, as well as enable us to store all our collective knowledge as a species.

Would that we could, rather than scurrying around in a frenzy, trying to remember and be remembered, discover the one basic elementary secret of stone and rocks - that of merely knowing how to just 'be'.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Where-With-All Walls - Conclusion

And each one 'shakes our hand' and says “You’ve got a friend,
In Cumbria or Yorkshire or Crieff, have you been?
Because I’ll take you around, you can stay in my home!
I’ll show you walls built by kings, built by Rome!!
The most wonderful sites you’ve inspired me to share
Your excitement and energy, you’ve caused me to care.
And I’m proud to see that our humble stone roots
Have spurred such a movement… oh wow, what a hoot!
So, my new friend in the tan overalls,
Do you still think I lack the right stone where-with-alls?
I’ve walled ‘round the globe, dry stone walls are my life.
In bed I fantasize about walls with my wife!
Her breasts are perfect copings as I run my hands through her hair,
And talk about cheekends, well, lets’ not go there!
So welcome to Canada please come see our walls
While all the other tourists line up at Niagara Falls.
If you must, call us canuks, call us beer-guzzling hosers,
Polite Tim Hortons sippers or hockey pond frozers.
But please, for the love of God please, don’t claim that you own
The right to say who can and can’t pile up stone!
But in true Canadian tradition, I offer an apology
To the way Canadians are connected to our architectural geology
So for my final words let me set my beer on this Inukshook shelf
And say to you Brits, …like, sorry aboot that, eh?!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Where-with-all Walls part 3

We can be original and creative while still being true
To laying two over one and one over two
And don’t be offended, please don’t get me wrong
We get that the stone’s face exposes the short (and buries the long).
We respect your traditions, in fact we teach it,
Your fundamentals and ethics, hell, we preach it!
Our founder was brought up on your patented “invention”
And to disrespect your techniques is not our intention.
In fact at every beginner workshop we fashion
We teach your philosophies with the greatest of passion
And instill in the hearts of each potential stone waller
The traditions found in your hills and your hollers.

Be proud of your roots but please never forget
That the farmers who made them didn’t have doctorates.
And the wallers that were inspired by our intitial workshops and meetings
Have grown to become building leaders – and they’re still not cheating!
There have been so many members of the DSWA
Who come to our festivals and all of them say
I can’t believe you Canadians, you stray from tradition
And have so much fun as if it’s your mission
To get people excited about dry stone creations
And build a dry stone wall across this entire nation!

Conclusion to be posted tomorrow

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Where-with-all Walls part 2

Don’t get me wrong, I admire what you’re doing,
But here, in this country, your frustration’s not worth pursuing.
Because Canada wasn’t all built from techniques brought from England
But rather France, Denmark, Spain and New Zealand.
Settlers from the Ukraine built walls made of sod,
And Vikings made walls to dry out their cod.
French fishermen built shanties to store their preserves,
And Acadians built dykes and farmed the reserves.
In the north the Inukshuks mark food and direction
And in the south dry stone walls kept our soldiers protected.
Loyalists from Kentucky, New York and Vermont
Built bridges so you could cross streams if you want.
In the woods there are sacred stone piles dressed with carvings,
And Scandinavian stone gardens kept silver miners from starving.
And along the highways in every province of this land
Atop rock cuts tiny wee stone sculptures stand
To remind us of travellers from far and from near
Who stacked a few stones just to say “I was here”.
There are sculptures and features uniquely Canadian
Not just British walls here so let’s stop these shenanigans

Part 3 tomorrow.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Where-with-all Walls - A hand written poem by John Scott

I saw a report in the news about a man,
Who, to his surprise, was caught with a rock in his hand,
Piling stones up stones in the back of his yard
Found in some dirt that his neighbor discarded
“Halt!” Screamed a man wearing tan overalls
“Who do you think you are? You’ve got some balls!
Yes YOU, the one stacking limestone and granite
What are your qualifications? I’ve the right to demand it!”
The man looked up and asked “What is the problem?
My father showed me this and his father before him.
He was a poor highland farmer from the land of the Crieff
Who came to this country in a great time of grief.
He showed me to batter and to keep a wall hearted
And to lay throughs half way up, every three feet or so parted
He showed me just ONCE and I got it, but then needed practice
So that my joints were all crossed and copes were as even as matches”
“I don’t care,” said the man in the tan overalls
“Clearly you don’t have the right stone where-with-alls!
I’ve just come from across the Atlantic Ocean
To put an end to all this dry stone commotion
We’ve heard in this country there exists the potential
Of Canadians who build walls without proper credentials
First you must prove that the stones you’ve been fittin’
Correspond to the way that we do it in Britain”
“Surely”, said the man, “We can make an alliance”
I’m piling up stones, it’s not rocket science!
Besides”, said the man, “Who exactly are you,
To say what it is I can or can’t do?
You’re rebuilding walls built by farmers and horses.
You’re taking down 'random' rubble and rebuilding in 'courses'!

( part 2 will be posted tomorrow )

Friday, May 21, 2010

Difficult to understand ?

Arches are very unpredictable. They make people do strange things. This man needed to do a hand stand after he helped complete this double arch structure we built in Victoria BC 4 years ago. It was a pretty cool thing under the circumstances; actually it was more of a hand spring. Or was it a double vault? I dont remember. Luckily he didnt fall backwards and die. Who's vault would it have been then? But in any case, the dry stone arches stopped him from falling. In a sense, he was not only standing on his hands, he was leaning on his and our — in this case the students at the Glendale College DSWAC workshop— handywork.

I am a firm supporter of arch structures: the more people can learn about the dynamics and principles of how stones stay together the better. Stone and stonework shouldn't be a mysterious thing. There are no arch villians. And there are no villian arches. Except if they are fake ones, or made of plastic.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Fixed By Hand with the Materials At Hand.

Joe Mitchell who works with me quite often, exclaimed yesterday "Man we redo nice work!" We laughed. I noticed he posted his comment on facebook that evening.

We were doing a small repair on an installation that members of the Dry Stone Wall Association of Canada had built last year in a municipal park in Port Hope, Ontario. It was a dry stone sitting-area around an historic memorial dedicated to Joseph Scriven. A circular enclosure had been created around the monument to bring more attention to the fact that it was there, commemorating the famous hymn writer's accomplishments and the fact that he lived in Port Hope, Ontario. That we merely 'redid' a section of this very nice looking circular wall, (which had been purposely damaged the week before) made the statement 'Man we redo nice work' seem like a harmless, yet still very poignant comment. In fact, it was absolutely fitting for what we had done (or rather, redone) but the more I thought about it, the more the significance of this remark struck me.

For sure, this was not a slogan that you would want to have printed on your business cards or your truck. And I don't think we need to confuse people by telling those who ask us, that we never advertise for work, because most of it is 'repeat business' (even though apart from referrals, it's absolutely true). Our 'repeat work' of course is for clients who want us to do more nice work, not keep fixing things we've built badly, but in this case it was a good honest repair needing to be done on a vandalized section of well built wall, and it was done at no cost to the town. I wonder how many other things in the park get fixed at no cost to the town?

But I digress. The fact that a construction company comes back to fix what they do, seems like the kind of thing they wouldn't necessarily want to advertise. Most people dont want to think about, or have anything to do with the idea of something needing any maintenance. That's why municipalities love concrete.

But concrete fails too. And often it has to be redone or sawn out at great cost when there has been damage or changes needed to be made, or more often than you would think, when it has been poured in the wrong place. We built a dry stone wall next to a parking lot being built where we saw a municipal construction crew working for weeks surveying and forming and pouring concrete curbs that all had to all be painstakingly jack-hammered out afterwards and redone, because it was all built to the wrong grade specifications. When concrete has to be torn out or fixed it usually isn't what you would call redoing 'nice' work.

As we unceremoniously rebuilt the section of dry stonewall at the Scriven monument, the mayor and a council member came over and watched us. They just happened to be there to be filmed by a TV crew doing a news segment about the new playground that had been recently installed in the park. I sensed they only saw that our 'wall' needed fixing, not that it was getting repaired without delay, without any fuss or bother, without ordering in expensive replacement parts or materials, and all of this done without having to take a lot of damaged material away to the dump; which is where the old busted steel, wood and concrete from the previous playground had probably been trucked off to.

A public school playground in Ambleside, Cumbria UK
enclosed on all sides by a free-standing (easily repairable) dry stone wall.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

There's a hole in the bottom of the Cement industry. Hold on !

Stone emerging from concrete - a photo I took in California last year . The image communicates the victory of nature over industry gone off the rails. It is a cap on the insanity. Perhaps they can find one big enough to drop on the hole BP drilled in the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, which is continuously spewing out black blood.

Perhaps we can still find enough 'real looking' ones not to have to keep making substitutes and fake ones. Perhaps architects and engineers can source out suitable ones, and masons skilled enough, to actually design buildings that incorporate natural stone structurally; strong stones that can support wooden beams and heavy floors and beautiful peeked roofs. Maybe they can discover a way of getting them to hold together which doesn't involve huge amounts of glue, threaded rod, rebar, steel cages or tons of cement.

There may come a time when old barn and house foundation stones are not just pushed over with bulldozers and buried in the ground, but reused. A time when the big 'freezer-sized' ones are no longer quarried just to push up against the sides of buildings as the only solution to holding terraced earth back. Or maybe they wont use all the random truckloads of rip-rap to merely dump it along ditches as quick fix to erosion. Then again they may consider not quarrying all of them just to ground them up into gravel and various grades of crushed aggregate. Maybe they wont need to burn it all at incredibly high temperatures predominantly to make concrete and unappealing concrete products.

Maybe natural stone, just as it is found in the ground, could be part of a much needed solution for this planet. There may in fact be hope. It might be a gradual change, or it may come along like a big bump in the road.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Do not touch.

Dry stone wallers have only a few natural predators. Apart from power wielding town planners and permit officers, who make sure that only concrete contractors get any approval for municipal projects (in their continuous regime to eradicate dry stone walling and wallers in their natural habitat) the only other thing that poses any dangerous threat to the existence, and well being, of wallers is the looming presence and insidious incursion of the ominous plant species known as 'toxicodendron' in Latin, and commonly referred to as 'poison ivy'.

This dreaded 'weed of prey', if allowed to prowl unchecked and attack indiscriminately, can render an unsuspecting waller helpless, turning them into a writhing mass of itchiness within two days of exposure to its venom. In many parts of Canada wallers put themselves at risk anytime they are working in any area where there are rocky fields or overgrown farmland. Essentially the plant thrives in the same environment as most wallers do.

If it is hot day and a waller walks through a patch of the mature plant wearing shorts, or rubs against the plant with their bare arms, unless he or she has an immunity to the toxin, the poison ivy will affect them in an adverse and potentially disabilitating way. Contact with poison ivy can make skin bubble and fester and cause itchiness of unparalleled magnitude. Gasoline applied to patches of inflammation, if discovered early enough, can sometimes reduce the extent of the irritation. Prednisone and various special creams will often help the irritation to eventually subside in more severe cases.

Here we see a picture of the dreaded flora lurking about masquarading as a harmless broad-leafed plant amongst the grasses. Patches of the tender ivy are unobtrusively snuggled up to this small boulder, leaving any unsuspecting waller at risk who may be attracted to pick up such a rock and use it in their wall. Moving the stone, even while avoiding any skin contact with the actual poison ivy plant may still yield nasty skin irritation, just from handling the stone itself, which may have been 'primed' with toxic residue from the plants growing adjacent to it.

Thinking hands need to maintain a 'hands-off' strategy when working near this exploitive and sinister species of vegetation.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Waller's Song

Hire me, and you will be,
Sure to see,
Your walls will stay together
See how they look, from pics in a book,
We build em dry
That's 'dry-laid' !

Fitting even poor slate
Waiting for more stones to come
Scuffing up our T-shirts, stupid bloody
Why are there not enough
Or every face is wrong?

I'll am a 'sneck' man
Pay me a check man.
I am the Waller.
Who (else) could you choose?

This here city needs some pretty
Little walls all stacked in rows.
See, why they're dry,
Cause glues you can't disguise.
See how it runs.
It's a crime,
Not trying,
I mean 'dry stone'

To hell with all your concrete
Dripping down the sides of forms.
Brick or block that's really poor work
Let's have it all destroyed.
Why would you not agree?
Or try to stick stones down?

I am a craftsman We need more craftsmen.
We need more 'wallers'.
Who else would you choose?

Sitting in an English Garden
New brick walls look dumb.
But If the walls are dry.
They really stand and keep on
Standing, cause at least they drain.

Its not an enigma, Im not for bricks, man
I'm a stone waller

Desperate housewives choke on brochures
Do you think just photographs will do? ha ha ha ha
See how they'll smile, with walls which have style
They're more satisfied
With, 'Dry-laid'

Some of them prefer, not just walls but also towers.
Elementary feng shui, phony stone just wont do.
Man a dry stone wall keeps
Looking better every day.

They are the 'best' man - the way they're made man!
I'm for stone walling
What else would you choose?

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Hands On Inspection of an Arch and Walls Without Mortarboard or Scaffolding

Akira Inman is a stone mason in Toronto who came to our Rocktober Festival in Grand Valley in 2009 , and then through having met with Thomas Lipps (who we sponsored to be there) was invited to be a translator in Ventura last January, for the Japanese stone masons who came over for the Stone Symposium in California, and were demonstrating the ancient Anoh tradition of dry stone construction.

While there, he and I worked together and I invited him to do some projects with us including the wall repairs at Balsam Lake Ontario we just recently completed. During the week he worked with us I invited him to see this arch. He hung on with his 'hands' and took a closer look at this permanent arch I had built some years ago with Cam Reed, a homeowner who wanted to help and learn too about arches. (not so that he could then go and build them all over Ontario, but just so that he could say he helped build his one)

Anyway Akira told me the arch looked pretty cool and that it probably wasnt going to fall down.

For those of you who would like to learn a bit more about arches, I include a very good description of the 'former' centering used in bridge and arch construction written (and sent to me recently) by my friend Norman Haddow (a dry stone bridge builder, and yes you'll be relieved to know, a certified master craftsman waller with the DSWA of UK)

The Former

Prior to the 20th Century, the support for a new arch was called centering. The arrangement was similar to the technology involved in the construction of a wheel. Another method used for smaller arches was to pile sand on a wooden platform to create the desired shape for the stonework above. It was quite simple then to remove the loose sand when building was complete.

Nowadays it is much more common to cut the required shape on at least two boards then to cover these with strong cross pieces or with bendable strong materials such as marine ply. It is essential that the former of whatever type is strong enough to bear the weight of not just the arch rocks but also any material which will be built on top before the former is removed. Any area of weakness can result in failure.

The support for the former should be resting on a solid base. Bricks or blocks are ideal for the support as they can be easily knocked away when required.

Care is necessary when arranging these support so that the former can safely be dropped down to allow its removal, without interfering with the stone work. I have heard of people being required to set fire to the former to remove it as it was not possible to get it out any other way!

With a half moon former it is possible and useful when placing the arch stones to mark lines on the outside to indicate the required slope of the builders and especially the risers.

When the desired arch is not a half circle, the lines should be drawn from the theoretical centre.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Caught on the way down.

Wouldnt it be nice if you could just levitate the stones up to where you need them. This one looks like it is on its way up to Joe, but it's caught in time on its way down. Most stones are on their way down. They are normally moving very slow in that direction, unless of course if you push them or throw them.

Stones like to be heavy. They like to be close to the ground. It is this quality that makes them useful. It is this consistencey that makes them stay where they are in a dry stone wall, in an arch or a cairn.

People are not always as reliable. They may change their minds on you. One day they may think that it is very cool to be given an opportunity to learn how to build challenging structures like the one above, and the next day decide that it's wrong to teach anyone else. Luckily stones are more consistent.

Stones, if fitted together properly, even though they are 'pulled' in that direction, will support each other and don't end up being in that great a rush to get to the bottom.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Experimenting with your hands.

People shouldn't be afraid of stones. They shouldn't be intimidated either by people who call themselves masons or experts. They shouldn't stop from experimenting and practicing and working with stones every chance they get to build and shape and organize and arrange stones in pleasing arrangements. Discover how structural they are. Take a course if you need to. If you get a chance to actually learn and get some hands-on practice with someone who is experienced in creating landscape features, such as walls of benches or stiles and arches, you may really benefit and actually be surprised what you can learn, and how satisfying it is.

It's not rocket science. It is a lot of fun and the basics are not so specialized that it should exclude people from rediscovering that primeval connection we all have to stones from the beginning of time.

I am disappointed with those who would have others kept in the dark about these elementary things and trying to hinder people from even wanting to find out about the many wonderful aspects of creating with something natural as stone. Leave the concrete and steel structures for the experts. Build something real, something simple and at the same time hug some stones.

Synthetic materials are bombarding us from every direction. Our contact with stone by contrast is getting more and more scarce. Pick some up while it is still lying around for 'lay people' to work with. Lay some, one on top of the other, and handle it and then use it in configurations as you see fit on your property and in your garden. Start with something simple. Let the stones speak to you.

Perhaps take a workshop or a seminar. Look around and see where stones are being used creatively, effectively and without any pretension ( hopefully somewhere in your area) and start to learn more about what is possible. If you can find books or people knowledgeable in using this basic material and doing cool things with the stones (who aren't hung up on hiding the basic rules of masonry from people who dont want to join some secret or elite club) and try to learn all you can from them.

How else will you know if you want to devote yourself to learning this honourable and very timeless craft?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Learning From Old Hands.

I thought this was very interesting in terms of getting across the amount work, passion and involvement required by someone who has been given the task of instructing others.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Hand Picked

It was as though all the participants for this weekend dry stone wall workshop were all 'hand picked'. Aaron a landscaper from Quebec and Simon one of his employees were quite a team who worked really well together building up one side of the arch and needed very little supervision. Mike and Ewen, two brothers from Ottawa and their friend Doug caught on to the concepts very quickly and covered a lot of the building of the other shoulder. Jake form Lindsay and Dan from Rochester carefully applied all they had learned in previous workshops and worked on the arch voussoirs and made sure the quality of the hearting was up to standard. Everyone had a chance to try their hand at shaping the rugged chunky sandstone material as well and very few stones broke the wrong way. I could not have asked for a better bunch of guys to get this unique Frontenac arch structure completed in the two days alloted for this workshop considering the scope of the project and the cold and windy weather. It seems amazing that 16 tons of random stone could be transformed to one beautiful looking arch and about 3 tons of very useless looking left over material at the end of Sunday.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

How Handy Is Sandstone?

Progress went well on the Saturday of the Frontenac Arch workshop. The sandstone turned out to be fairly easy to shape. The guys working on the project picked up the principles fairly quickly and were making some good structural decisions. The hearting is a bit of a problem. The sandstone we are using doesn't seem to be nestling or fitting into the spaces as nicely as we would like. It is abrasive and a bit brittle. It's turning out to be not that handy as for wedging either. The smaller pieces have much less of an ability to shim the bigger building stones, the way limestone or granite chips would do, and so to avoid the wedges getting crushed with the weight and pressure of the bigger stones we think that we should to introduce granite instead for the important pressure points. Apparently limestone pieces would not work in combination with the sandstone, as acid solutions that wash carbonates from the limestone can chemically affect the durability of sandstone.

I have not read anything that says granite and sandstone should not be used in combination, but if anyone has heard this isn't a good idea, please let us know. But for this project at least it's off to find some nice granite rocks to break up and make better wedges to work into the arch structure today. It's not like there isn't a lot of granite to choose from in the this granite epicentre of the Ontario, here at the Frontenac Arch Biosphere.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

More than a Hand Span

Sometimes I have to remind myself why I do this sort of stuff. Today Saturday it is rainy and cold and a good day to stay in doors. It is not the sort of day to be getting excited about building a wall out of stone. In fact I have to teach a course on how to build an dry stone arch. There are people coming from far away and this has been planned for many months and smugly labelled a 'rain or shine' event. There is no escape.

The large pile of irregular stones looks very unattractive this morning. Many of the stones are really big. There will be some 'mud wrestling' going on for sure, and we will all get very wet, but we will try to encourage one another and not let the weather dampen our enthusiasm for this unusual project.

A dry stone arch is to be built at the Frontenac Arch Biosphere Office near Gananoque Ontario. This will be the first dry stone arch to be built on public property in Canada that I know of and what better place than here. Im still learning about the this unique importance of this designated area of the planet. There is a geological connection to the naming of the Frontenac Arch. The bedrock here is all granite and is a part of the Canadian Shield here in Ontario and continues down into New York State as the Adirondack Mountains. On a map of Ontario and New York it roughly forms the shape of an hour glass. The neck being formed being the same geological makeup that passes through Thousand Islands, (islands which were apparently, millions of years before the glaciers came along, a thousand very high mountains.) The neck, if you will, is like an arch from one area of the Frontenac Biosphere to the other.
So then the idea of building a stone arch here isn't a completely arbitrary notion. Hopefully it will get people stopping and thinking about the geology going on in this area. I just hope it doesn't rain all weekend while we try to build it.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Higher Hands.

All the 'hands' had a great day today. The weather cooperated and the atmosphere on-site was charged with energy. Five of us created this Scottish-type dry stone cairn north of Whitby Ontario and enjoyed every minute of it. After 5 days of working on it ,on and off over the last two weeks, we finished the structure at 5:30 on Thursday May 6th. (a bit too late to take the scaffolding down until tomorrow)

The fieldstone was all found locally around the perimeter of the golf course property. There was lots of hand lifting and fitting and hearting and measuring. The width at the base is 10 feet. The width at the top is 5 feet. The cairn is a whopping 14 feet 4 inches high. It was really exhilarating to build such an unusual feature. It required a combination of vision, confidence, cooperation and structural knowhow. Special recognition goes to Peter, Steve, Craig, Corrie, Joe, and especially Wilson for doing their part in making this towering 'celebration in stone'.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Hand Ball

People often assume they can't build dry stone walls with 'round stones'. But that is not true. When I have to use smaller, chunky, somewhat rounded fieldstones, I definitely have to think more with my hands than my head. Amazingly these stones are not as difficult to fit as they first seem, once I get into the groove. The fact is, in any given pile of stones, there are very few completely round 'ball shaped' ones. Most of them are more like eggs or odd shaped potatoes and will have some length to them, and I have to use this 'elongation' to my advantage. The rule is simple, every stone needs to be laid lengthwise into the wall.

The basic pattern I am going for (as I look at the wall face on) is a kind of layered honeycomb, not a grid or jig saw pattern. As I place stones snugly up to one another in horizontal lines (called “courses”) whenever I can, I not only make sure they fit well on two surfaces, (the bottom and one adjoining side) but I try to actually lean each stone against it's neighbour, working right to left, to create a dynamic force along the length of the wall. Of course the bulky mass of each individual stone must always be set 'leaning back' into the wall too, so then even rounder stones are 'trapped' and won't want to fall out.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Just Be Leaving Any Stone That Lets You Know It's Too Big To Handle.

It is a fairly practical idea to use the heavier boulder-type stones at the bottom of a wall so that you don't have to lift them and so that you can bury any irregular bottom surfaces of these stones in the ground and orient the better faces outward. If you use the bigger stones first, you will then be able to determine the number of irregular contour problems which you are going to have to deal with, (and fit other stones to) as you come along the wall with the next row (course) of stones.

The biggest stones you have in your stockpile should give you and idea of the width of the new wall you are going to build. If the wall is too narrow the boulders will stick out the sides of your wall, which is okay, if you are okay with how that looks. If the wall you are going to build is only a little bit wider than your biggest stones then you will not be leaving yourself much space to build on the other side of these stones properly. It's not good to be not believing yourself too much.

I generally plan on leaving at least a foot or more on the other side of the largest stones I will be using, and so determine my initial wall width that way.

If you do have to lift big stones up onto the wall don't lift them, roll them up a plank or up a ramp of stones.

Remember too that you don't have to use every big stone you come across. Some of them will be too big or so round that they will be almost impossible to build with and no matter how much you would like to believe they could work in the wall, they may in fact, compromise the structure and completely drain you from doing much more on the wall for the rest of the day.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

April showers bring May flowers.

John Scott recently sent me this picture and commented. " Spring in the stone pile. Amazing how flowers find a way to co-exist with stone."

It is May already. The year 2010 is a quarter over and 'Thinking With My Hands' is now into its fifth month. Inspiration it seems, much like these flowers, spring out of what might be considered by some to be the dullest, hardest, most lifeless material on the planet. Words and ideas, ( and walls too) materialize almost effortlessly in the quest to understand the mind-hand process which is simply thinking about what can be done with (and through) a random piles of stones.

Order comes from chaos. And as Shakespeare so aptly phrased it in 'As You Like It',

And this our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and 'good' in every thing.

As I continue throughout the year writing this daily account of 'hand held opinions', I am anticipating that there will be more and more of this 'good' to discover.

But for today, May 1st, for the regular readers, and for those of you who like to check in here just once in a while, I can't think of anything better to leave you with than this picture of stones and flowers.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Putting our hands on the heart of the matter.

If a person puts his or her hand on their heart and begins to say something you can be pretty sure that what they are about to say is the absolute truth. There are many truths referring to dry stone walls. Wallers may disagree about some of these truths or 'rules of walling' but there is one rule that is pretty much an absolute must – 'A dry stone wall needs to be properly hearted, which requires that there be enough small sharp shaped small pieces so as not to skimp on the filling and pinning of the stones throughout the inside of the wall'.

What do we mean by enough? I would guess that a normal dry stone wall requires that almost a third of the amount of stone used to build it be this small hearting material, being no bigger than small lemons ( and most of it being even smaller) and their optimal shapes being that of lemon wedges.

To find this much small stone is very labour intensive and almost impossible. It's easy to fill a wheel barrow with five medium size stones and it doesn't take any time at all, but to try to fill that same wheel barrow with very small wedge shaped pieces might take over an hour. This is often the problem when gathering material to build a wall – the heart isn't in it.

A wall, if it did have hands and had an opportunity to be truthful would likely put its hands on its hearting, if it had some, and say I am an honest wall because I have been hearted right, and I will stand the test of time. That would be the truth. A wall without much hearting will be an untruthful wall and will probably not stand for much.

I always make sure people have enough of this right type of small hearting material always available in a location near them when they are working . To try to use lots of round stones won't work, even if they are small. The stones act like marbles between the bigger stones causing the wall to eventually slip apart. To try to build without much hearting too, just making do, is often the temptation. I have even seen certified testing where there wasn't enough hearting available for the wallers to build a proper wall. This is not right.

For most of our projects then, over the last ten years the only solution we could come up with for our walls was to have one or two guys making hearting all day by breaking some larger odd shaped rocks up, in order to supplement the inadequate amount of small stones that usually come with a normal tandem truck load of random building stones. There is even a technique on how to hammer rocks so as to make 'good hearting', but that is for another blog post.

Quarries in Ontario, almost without exception, don't seem to specifically make any 3 to 4 inch clear material ('railroad ballast' is the best description for what it is we tell them we would like) which is what we always need for walling. They usually just supply smaller gravel material, or a 3 inch minus material, which means it is filled with tiny stones and dust and 'fines' as well.

But recently we have come up with a source for a very reasonably priced, perfectly suitable, quarried, 'hearting material'. It's really great stuff and makes the wall building go so much better. We now have several tons of it brought to every dry stone wall project and that way we free up all the wallers on the job to be just be building and of course doing it 'with all their hearting'. If DSWAC members want to know where they can get this material from, just email us for the information.