Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Getting a handle on arch-door openings.

I have built many arches over the last 10 years. I did quite a few roman arches before I did my first gothic one. That was in collaboration with Dan Snow in 2005 at the second Canadian dry stone festival in Port Hope Ontario. We had a heck of a time trying to figure out what the correct angles for the vousoirs would be. He admitted that it was his first gothic arch too.

Dan took a while and figured something out and drew some lines for us on the wooden form, where he thought they should be, but as we built over it we realized the guide lines were not looking like the correct angles at all.

When Im building a 36 inch wide arch, I still use that form sometimes and smile when I look at the old pencil lines drawn on it. Gothic arches, it turns out, are actually a bit easier to construct and as far as I can tell produce a much more stable structure than roman dry stone arches. I build mostly gothic arches now.

Sometimes a client wants a door in an arch I will be building them. Most of the time they are for decoration, as this one in Oakville, Ontario. Actually the door was the form in this example. ( It was doubled up and had plywood bent over the top to support the stones). We lowered it an inch after the stone arch was built, and left it there to look like a door. It didn't go anywhere. (Neither the door, nor the arch)

Speaking of not going anywhere, many of the doors to the arches I have built don't have handles, as is the case with this one above that we built in Uxbridge Ontario in 2008. They don't need door knobs if they are just decoration. They often have keys though, which is kind of amusing.

In a Gothic opening if the door is actually going to be used and is to open properly at all, it needs to be hung flush with the outside or inside wall (the pintles can't be located in the middle of the wall), otherwise the top of the door catches on the top of arch (unless the door is hung much lower) Who knew? These are little things you discover as you go. Sometimes you find out the hard way.

Below is a door we placed in an arch we built for Mariposa Gardening at the 2009 San Francisco Flower and Garden Show. I borrowed the door from a vendor at the show who had several rustic hand-made doors on display. We met up during the show and decided one of his doors would look good in a photo standing inside the arch. This door has a handle, but clearly doesn't have hinges....... It's held there by 'hand'.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


I have to confess that I don't know my next door neighbour very well. I have yet to learn his name (first and last) and have no clear idea which of the many people of ages who come and go actually live there.
On the other hand, I am certain I know more about his professional life from the endless parade of trucks and cars that arrive broken (and muffler-less) and disappear after a few days spent hidden in the plastic portable garage that takes up so much of the driveway, that everyone has to park on the lawn.
Repairing vehicles is a year-round pursuit but summer time brings out what I take to be the neighbour's real passion so now the place is packed with seriously dented, heavily reinforced sedans whose gas tanks sit proudly in the back seat and whose windshield and door glass is long gone.

I try to see all this in a positive, creative light.
While I was building the dry stone tree sculpture on our property last weekend (see July 28 entry) my neighbour spent Saturday and Sunday a rather different way. He towed his car somewhere and entered it in some sort of demolition derby. I guess we both spent our free time smashing things with our hands, me rocks, him cars. The similarities end there. My new tree installation, set back nearer the house, can only be seen by people who come up our driveway. His car, 'Demo Demon' (written in yellow dribbly letters) sits on a trailer behind his truck in front of our property right on the street for all to see.
Actually this is where he always parks his trailer and truck and it continues to be a bit of an eye sore. Today it looks more like two eyes sores! The poor bashed up car and grimy trailer have been parked there all day. I'm guessing they will be there for a while. In my desperation to see this in a creative reflective light I decided it deserved a photo (and a blog post).

The nice dry stone wall in the background is mine. It was built a few years ago partly to make the front of our property look pleasing from the road. I was wondering about asking my neighbor not to park there. But I probably won't.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Handy dandy obelisk.

I built a dry stone tree today. Well, it is more like a truncated tree with 6 cut off limbs. It's over 8 feet tall. I was inspired to build it after I came across a few longer stones ( that I thought would make good 'branches' ) and had put aside for just such a tree sculpture. One stone had a particularly nice curve to it. By placing another long 'double-branch stone' over it for weight, I was able to place it in the trunk, curving upwards, like a branch.

The trunk is about 2 feet in diameter and in fact the tree is built on the stump of a rather large ( 70 feet tall) pine tree that our son Robin the arborist handily cut down for us last month, because it was very dead and dangerous. Below is a clip of him cutting it down.

In the photo above Mary is seen planting a newly purchased, fragrant, climbing Hydrangea at the base of the stone tree. She wanted me to build her an obelisk for it to grow up on. I'm not sure what I built is exactly what she had in mind.

Anyway, now we have a stone tree as a monument commemorating the 70 foot pine tree, erected on the very site where it once grew.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Hand to hand combat.

There is a growing battlefield out there. Fields and gardens in our area (Southern Ontario) are being invaded by a insidious green enemy: Dog-Strangling Vine or Black (or Louis’s) Swallowwort (Vincetoxicum rossicum or Cynanchum louiseae).

It reproduces by seed and also by runners under the soil. In the wild, it sneaks up and begins to twine itself over shrubs, trees, beloved perennials and peace loving wildflowers. About this time of year, it blooms with seemingly insignificant pinkish-brown flowers but once fertilized, the plant makes narrow pods that will later release milkweed-like puffy pods and burst with airborne seeds when the time comes. Unsurprisingly, it is a cousin of the common milkweed. However this enemy is proving to be almost unstoppable.Trying to yank it up through weeding can cause breaks in the root system -- and each break can encourage a new growth top. It can cover large areas in a frighteningly short time.

The energy, discipline and hard work needed to build beauty into our gardens are the sane qualities needed to stop such a focused and insidious foe as Dog Strangling Vine. Like any serious battle, we need to marshal our resources. The best, most earth-friendly thing to do is to cut the stem(s) off at, or just below, the soil level. Repeatedly mowing over throughout the growing season will eventually wear the plant out but farmers and forest managers are dealing with thousands of hectares where a home lawn mower simply won't do.

Will a well built dry stone wall hold back the botanical deluge? Probably not — though I have clients willing to find out. Walls of stone can be the demarkation zone between lawn and bushland, garden and wilderness, or just your proeprty and the neighbours. Weeds and other garden enemies tend to quickly occupy any well intended buffer zone, so eliminating the no man's land with a wall is generally a good idea. An engineered wood or wire fence will not do as good a job and will definitely not look as nice. Stone walls give the landscape less of a modernday 'battlefield' look. They add character and create a sense of time and place to the battlezone which at least makes it seem more like an historic re-enactment.

Saturday, June 26, 2010


Do you have an exciting web site? It doesn't have to be a site for sore eyes, but it should change once in a while! It should do what it purports to be. Pictures should help tell an interesting story, not gobbledegook words or just more of the usual industry jargon. It needs to at least attempt to justify its existence in the vast ocean of cyberspace fecundity. It could give the impression that it is worth visiting more than once, or at all. It should not be boring.

It might be best to be a hands-on site, one where people can interact with what has been posted and allow some sort of 'flow' to the material being presented as significant. It should give good information and accommodate replies and offer responses to topical issues that the creator claims to be interested in. It requires an accountability and a continuity.

It should be like a flowing well-built dry stone wall. It should look nice and be structural, but also have a reason and purpose. It should be supporting and be supported. Where there are gaps, they should be addressed and fixed. Where there are weaknesses, they need to be mended, rather than let the typos, misprints, dead links, empty pages, and missing follow-up reports of events and discussions go unchecked, unattended and uncorrected. Such websites, like stone walls, shouldn't be allowed to clutter up the virtual landscape. Even though it's called a web site, catching and boring unsuspecting visitors to death isn't how it is supposed to work. We need to be inspired, or at least left with enough energy to move on and visit better sites that have more thought and care put into them. An unloved, cobwebbed site, like a badly built, crumbling wall, needs to be taken down. Whoever is responsible for creating it shouldn't just leave it there on the www.doorstep like an abandoned child.

Friday, June 25, 2010


Just like handwriting, every waller has a style of building. Just by looking at a wall it is sometimes very obvious who built it. There are signature combinations of stones. There are clues in how much the stone is worked, how the coping is done, whether there is a lot of straight coursing or not, or if the pattern it is broken with jumpers and a lot of random sizes. There are the tell-tale fittings of interesting contours, the attention to detail, the funkiness of the shapes and the overall design of the wall. Of course the standard of workmanship is the best indication of who built the wall.

When I was in Scotland two years ago I thought I recognized the waller who had done some exceptional repairs to some walls we discovered near Drummond Castle Gardens. It turns out I was right. Mastercraftsman and waller Norman Haddow was the one, and he was quite chuffed that we had come across these walls and identified them.

Anonymity and monomorphism within a region or locality is more often the other 'norm' I suspect, as individuality in Britain, with walling in general, is more likely something to be frowned upon.

While I am getting good at recognizing Norman's handiwork, Im not sure I could always recognize his gloves. Here is a picture of them drying out on some batter poles- a shot taken by his host when he was in Italy.

Back here, across the ocean, there are very few dry stone wallers. They have their signatures written in the walls they build. There is room for walling to be thus, here in this great land of Canada, where there is enough space and freedom for people to grow and develop their art as well as their skills.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Shaking and Waking Bedrock.

Four of us are working up at a cottage in Stoney Lake, Ontario. Yesterday morning Akira asked me how I slept. I answered that I slept like a rock the whole night. I thought about how apt this common expression is. Rocks are really good sleepers. We laughed at the fact that basically they are always sleeping. In fact you really can't ever wake them up. No matter how hard you hit them they just keep sleeping.

Later that day, just after lunch I asked Akira to smash up some rocks to make a bit more hearting for us to be able to finish off the dry stone wall we were building. He uncovered some big rocks sticking out of some bedrock on the property and was hammering them and shouting " wake up rocks, wake up "

Apparently the rocks heard him. Later that day we were very surprised to find out that just around that time there was a strong earthquake tremor that was felt across most of Ontario

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Handing it In (over the internet)

We spent a lot of the last week trying to meet a deadline for a stone sculpture proposal for the city of Saint John New Brunswick. Evan likes to do everything at the last minute. There were forms to fill, bios references and resumes to come up with, designs to rework, discussions over the phone, a whole lot of downloading pdf files and emailing back and forth to bring the thing together to send it off on time today. This was all done between muddy sessions of walling and gathering stone in the rain all day.

There was a time, not long ago, when coming up with, and handing in a proposal in the middle of a place like this, off to the left of nowhere, deep in mosquito infested cottage country would have been impossible. It is a marvel that all the various files and communication back and forth to those involved in this project across Canada and the States, could all take place from this remote place via internet using a little iphone hooked up to a laptop.

We put the proposal package together and emailed it to Evan's mom for her to print up all the text files, while the design images and photos were emailed back to my wife to be burned on to CD (our printer isn't working) and then she hastily collected the printed stuff and got it mailed priority post just in time for it to get there tomorrow. I think its safe to say that our proposal got 'handed in' on time, though the analogy of hands is (appropriately) a bit of a stretch.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Hand Grip

Joe is watching Evan and Akira rock climbing. Actually in this case it is 'dry stone cairn climbing'. The cairn is a 14 foot structure we built this year at the 14th hole at the Royal Ashburn Golf Course near Oshawa. It is made entirely from granite fieldstone found on the property. It took us 5 days to build. We dropped by to see it last week on our way home from another project.

It is interesting to note how many masons/wallers also enjoy rock climbing. Whether it be bouldering, belaying up and down rock cliffs or full scale mountain climbing, the attraction to stone and rocks always seems to be a common denominator. Wallers are inexplicably drawn to this very common yet fascinating natural material. Those who cant 'get over rocks' by merely stacking or shaping them all day go the next step and become true stone huggers as they try their hand at climbing bigger and bigger rocks. Both rock stacking and rock climbing involves upward progression. Where so many seem to be involved in a race to the bottom we prefer a more rarified air.

Akira and to some degree Evan, are climbers, but today they dont have their special rock climbing equipment with them. All they have is the standard equipment - their feet and hands. Relying on your grip in this case is just another way of 'thinking with your hands'. Often they not only communicate more information than our eyes or ears, they also are an important part of the cognitive decision making, when it comes to actually handling rocks, whether it be scaling mountains or just small scale walling.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Thinking about one special pair of hands.

I was thinking today that this is the first Father's Day ever for me, that my father is not around. He died last January. This picture is a close up section of one of the last photos I took of him. He has his hand around my mom. I am thinking his fingers look frail and thin and boney. He had strong hands for many years. They sculpted birds and animals and children and women in wax and then bronze, and copper and polyester resin and wood. And those same hands among many other things, fixed appliances, moved furniture, painted portraits as well as house and gallery walls. They drew cartoon characters and built me numerous kites, boats and model airplanes. His hands were a source of creative output. His heart was good. His words were funny and clever and encouraging. All of this is now in the past. I miss him.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Not always stopping with your hands.

Ever get the feeling that traffic lights are just there to stop traffic? More specifically that they are placed along the route you are traveling to stop you. How many hours of an average human life are wasted sitting at a red light while there is no traffic crossing the other way.

The common hand held, palm facing you, hand signal to stop is the equivalent of the red light . The hand signal to 'proceed' is far less common. In fact the whole idea of going or proceeding efficiently is quite uncommon. Road construction flag persons have only two signs. Stop and Slow. Many drivers stopped at an intersection where there is a policeman directing the traffic seem to not recognize the furious gesturing that indicates- come on it's your turn, get moving. In fact in terms of traffic, the whole concept of 'go' is actually quite a foreign one.

The roundabout is a splendid solution to the stop-traffic light. No stop signs, no red lights, and no confrontational hand signals gesturing to you to stop. It's all proceed. It's all about going, rather than stopping. There is the common sensible understanding that you will be able get where you're going by merging with others who will be coming into the circle too, who will also be getting where they are going at the same time.

The dry stone wall is like the roundabout of fencing and landscaping. Its all 'proceed' too. With walling it's all about go. It assumes you are a fairly intelligent person and with some basic training you may proceed to go and make your wall. There is a hands-on let's go approach to the problem rather than the usual hold it right there stop where you are right now attitude. There's very little, let's wait and get the tractor, somebody find the mixer, did you order the blocks, who's getting the permit, call the architect, call the police, check for underground wires, dig the footings, take out a loan to pay for the new materials we'll need, find and engineer, get the doctor, no I couldnt possibly do this myself, where are my power tools, where's the power outlet?

In this picture the proverbial dry stone wall and the roundabout merge into one tidy solution to traffic congestion and the roadside ugliness.

It is a roundabout at Boxden Business Park in Scotland which is bordered with a beautiful dry stone wall designed and built by David F Wilson,

In the States and Canada some forward thinkers are starting to introduce roundabouts.

There are two new ones in the Cambridge Ontario area. They seem to be working. But we still have a lot of catching up to do with Britain. Let's hope we dont have to stop all the time.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Handing The Job To A Half Brain

The right hand brain and the left hand brain not only occupy two different hemispheres of the cerebrum they control very different functions. People with a tendency to think more on the right hand side of brain are sometimes less logical than the left brain people. The left brain people like things to be more concrete. If they choose masonry as a career they will probably not like working with stones. They prefer to believe that civilized people only use blocks and bricks and that's the way things that are cement to be. They like rules and rulers. They usually vote for left wing dictators.

Right hand brain people lean towards the right. They like things that are correct. They enjoy being creative, whether it be writing letters, plays, notes and songs, or righting boats and righting wrongs.

The left hand brains are just left with the dull things to do, like crunching numbers and being authorities about everything. Usually the right hand brain just lets the left one go right ahead thinking it knows it all. It simply gets right to work and fixes things that are left undone. If you see some hand righting something on a wall, it is probably a right brained waller replacing a crooked stone that has slipped out of place and was just left there.

Left to his own devices a left brain waller will order squared metric sized stones to be delivered on pallets and left on the job site, and then he'll build a boxy coursed wall and won't know what to do with all the left-over stones. Right brain people handle things a bit differently. They like to let some randomness and spontaneity influence the way the wall is built. If it looks too regimented it does'nt look right to them. They'll find stone material right from farmers fields or get random loads right from the quarry. Their wall may break a few rules but it wont fall down.

Right brainers like round stones as much as square ones and even like mixing round stones with squarish ones. They like using up left-overs. The left hand brain would rather have all new material. Their walls look brand new. They think old things look bad and out of date and should be torn down so that only new masonry is left.

There is no wrong right way of thinking. There is no left, or right way of thinking. One is intuitive the other mechanical. One is spatial and broad minded, the other is linear. One approaches things with open hands, the other with clenched fists and a critical spirit. One adds character and life to a project, the other worries about everything. One takes risks and the other gets annoyed that it has to adapt to change.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Oven hands.

A friend of mine asked to see more pictures of the bake oven we built near Grimsby Ontario.

It was built by Evan Oxland and myself with sandstone from an historic stone house which was taken down by the the owners of the E D Smith jam factory and the land sold to the Winona Gospel Church.

There were thirty tons of squared stone from this house (not unlike this one which still standing on the E D Smith property)

It was stored on skids on the site until it was purchased by Bob Chrystian of Garden Strategies.

He contacted me and asked if we could build a dry stone oven with some of this reclaimed stone, based on this simple prototype his son David ( a prominent chef in Toronto) had cleverly constructed the year before.

This first oven was built for a 2009 Canada Day celebration at the Chrystian family farm, where over a hundred people came to partake of a roasted meal which David had prepared in his makeshift dry paver brick oven.

I designed a dry stone version of the oven using the same dimensions, using fire brick and the squared sandstone and incorporating a steel door and angle iron jamb. Bob had a local farmer make up a steel frame which incorporated the oven door idea with a skeleton of strapping delineating the inside dimensions of the oven. We built the oven in two days of grueling heat just two days before the DSWAC dry stone retaining wall course which was held on the same property.

We used some of the leftover squared limestone for that weekend workshop too.

A special exterior brick was used to line the interior of the oven, and we used this brick also to create the vaulted roof by creating a form out of sand. Everything was dry laid. The stone walls of the oven were battered and started at 16 inches thick at the base. We worked into the design of the oven a large counter top serving area made of concrete patio slabs and a small sunken bbq/grill was also incorporated into the design. The low pitched roof was created with well hearted dry laid sandstone and then 'tiled' with Credit Valley flagstone. The finished product looked like a kind of hobbit house and was vaguely reminiscent of something one might find in some remote European village.

David arrived on Sunday and was delighted with what he saw, and gave the new, old-looking dry stone oven the two thumbs up. It will be put to the test this coming July 1st Canada Day. I will give a blog report the day after on how well it works.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Second Hand Information

I don't read magazines. Just the thought of trying to keep up with them exhausts me. Anyway, I'm guessing the dazzling selection of magazines I see at news stands and supermarket displays do not reflect any meaningful long term body of knowledge. It is pretty safe to say that the greater proportion of these periodicals are padded with insignificant drivel and mostly regurgitate the same stuff, over and over, in order to meet the publication's weekly deadline.

We get a daily paper here, the Globe and Mail, and a quarterly gardening magazine and an unfathomable weekly publication called The Newyorker. It is all my wife can do to stay ahead of this amount of reading material. My daughter can hardly keep up with the cartoons. I dont even try anymore.

I have decided that the volume of information around the world, made available to the common public, in the form of magazines, is not worth bothering with. Many of these articles are "set down without rigour and challenging no one and nothing at all, unless it's the reader's already shrunken attention span" (Byeli Gottlieb)

How wise is it to be constantly trying to stay plugged into every article that comes along purporting to be about some subject or other that we are interested in. I figure creatively speaking, any inspiration or wisdom contained therein will more likely be lost in an ever writhing sea of works and publications, that I know I still haven't read. While it may be true 'nature abhors a vacuum', quietness and voluntary unknowing, like a vacuum, insulate me from all this journalistic hot air and the glossy array of printed, processed 'cold cuts'.

Because it can never be successfully assimilated, it is better to let this continuous flow of printed material merely slide by, unabridged. We shouldn't allow anything to 'gloss over' the fact that first hand experience is far more important than any second-hand information we may bombarded with, no matter how well documented it is.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Amour stone, not armour stone.

There is a lot of excitement at the end of a day of walling. The sense of accomplishment is invigorating. Yesterday we completed over 50 feet of terrace using a lovely workable squarish sandstone in order to have students get some practice learning the principles of building dry stone retaining walls.

By contrast to what we taught the students, landscapers here in Canada often use Armour Stone to do terracing, using much bigger 'freezer sized' stones to hold back the soil. The word armour makes it sound like they are at war. When you see all the heavy equipment , the saws, drills, grinders and other powerful weapons, it does look like a bit of a battlefield.

Dry stone wallers are not at war. Many of us love what we do. The stones we use could well be called Amour stones. Oui?

This project is not quite completed, but at the end of the second day we were happy with what we had got done. Family and friends of the students dropped by to have a look and take pictures. We cleaned up the stones around the work area a bit and raised our hands for a celebration photo as is often the custom at the end of a DSWAC workshop.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Baking in the Sun.

There was a beautiful old squared sandstone stone house on the E D Smith fruit canning factory property in Grimsby Ontario. It was taken down a few years ago (dont ask me why) and 30 tons of lovely stone was scooped up by my friend Bob. He moved it to his property on the Niagara escarpment where most of it will be used for a workshop this weekend, but we used some of it just this Thursday and Friday to build a little oven. It was really hot working in the sun all day but it seemed like the stones really wanted to be put back into a building, even if it was only a little oven hut. Bob joked with us when it was finished and said that all he said was he wanted a little lovin', but I think he doesnt mind what we built for him, in fact , there he is standing there looking in and I think it's safe to say he loves it.

Friday, June 11, 2010

In My Palm

The Dry Stone Waller Muses About Chipmunks and Transubstantiation

Often chipmunks move in before the wall is thigh high

and, with Franciscan robes and indifference to mallet blows

earthquaking their dark, meditative chambers below,

remind me of Christian mystics leading contemplative lives

while armies catapulted stones against monastary walls

before pillaging meat, grape, and grain for this or that king,

and so I praise these brothers faithfully chanting morning prayers

before bravely foraging acorns through another day where

stone shards might spear into their soft shoulders, though

not keep them, I see, from losing faith in the inherent

goodness of nature as, when the wall is almost complete,

few see evil in the acorns of alms I offer in my palm

and, before eating, look like a priest holding a host

up to the lapsed catholic in me again a believer

by Dennis Camire

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Staying in Touch

Amina and Gary had this lovely wall built on their property near Valentyne Ontario Canada in the summer of 2006 during a dry stone wall workshop run by the DSWAC. I can't find the original picture I took of them in that position just after that event, but I visited them last week, 4 years later, and had them pose in the very place they posed back then, sitting on the traditional stile we made in the wall. They look so happy with their new rounded granite dry stone wall. It's great to still see them and the wall looking so good. They are obviously still proud of their 'baby'.

It is always nice to keep in 'touch' with the walls I have been involved in making. Unfortunately it is fairly common not to hear back from the people who we have built walls for and I suppose this is quite understandable but it still is a little sad. For me it's a bit like leaving a baby on the doorstep. The various dry stone features we build are often quite stunning and I know the people are very satisfied with the new 'additions' to their family, but they seldom think about 'staying in touch' or sending pictures, as the wall gets older.

Fortunately Gary and Amina said we could come back any time and take more pictures.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Handling getting older.

Yesterday on the way home from work we took a detour and visited an old stone house I hadn't been back to in many years. It is an historic squared granite fieldstone house dating back to the early 1800s built by skilled Scottish masons. When I was first starting out learning the trade, I had the opportunity to work with a heritage mason who had been hired to do careful restoration on this house, repointing and replacing some stones, where the previous owners had done some rather unsympathetic renovations. I learned a lot that summer about traditional structural stonework.

I remember seeing the new owners planting trees one day either side of the long driveway. I hadnt thought about those trees until now.

As the guys and I walked down the shaded lane way towards the house this day I noticed these maple trees had grown to become very tall. I became acutely aware of the great span of time which had elapsed and that I had become 'older'. It was a strange and somewhat foreign experience.

Seeing these trees, like running into people I haven't seen for a long time, suddenly made me aware of the aging process. The gradual changes youth and beauty are subjected to over time on these occasions, doesn't seem that gradual. By contrast, the stone house we went to see looked just the same, old and beautiful.

The thing about handling and working with stones instead of trees everyday is that you don't notice that you're getting older. Trees and animals and people remind you that time is at work. You may not 'feel' your age particularly, but you will often recognize you are not as young as other people or things around you.

Stones, on the other hand, are so old, that no matter what age you are, you always feel young around them.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Hand Spans

Last Saturday and Sunday many hands got together to acquire more dry stone walling skills by building together a small double-arched dry stone bridge which I designed as a workshop project for heritage masonry instructor, John Scott's students at Algonquin College in Perth Ontario.

The exercise was fun as well as challenging. Decisions had to be made concerning the specific structure, the best proportions and shape for such a bridge to accommodate the many hands that would be working on it at one time, the actual size of the project, whether the kind of local random limestone material that had been provided (which was donated by Tackaberry Quarry) had enough variety of shapes and sizes to build such a structure, whether enough corner stones would be found in the mix and/or if not whether this rough bubbly type of limestone could be adequately shaped to provide enough good corner stones for the double set of vousoirs we would need.

We had to consider the time frame too, taking into account both the weather and whether the project suited the varying skill levels of participants ( some returning graduates, some first year traditional masonry students) The whole thing seemed like a great stretch; a great leap of faith. Though we would not be bridging any water, we would be bridging a big gap of uncertainty and apprehension. There was an element of risk . Not that there was any physical risk, but there was a healthy 'concern' for doing it right and having a successful structural, good-looking bridge as a finished project (rather than just giving ourselves the opportunity of improving our walling skills) and this kept us very focussed for the full two days.

Hands got bashed. They got muddy. They got wet and sweaty even in the gloves they were wearing. They got worn out carrying and gripping and hammering. They lifted heavy stones and struggled to place them precisely. They got pinched and scraped. They were called upon to fit securely thousands of hearting stones too. They were required to constantly feel the contours of spaces and cavities to interpret the proportions and send messages to our brains as to the shapes of the specific stones that were needed.

They got confident placing each rock in such a way that it didn't !

They acquired new skills to wedge vousoirs, pin interior vault stones and fit horizontal stones into the radiating angles of arch stones. They performed their tasks well. And then our hands celebrated by getting their arms to wave them excitedly at the camera.

My hands are tired now. They want to curl up and go to sleep.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Hand Rhymes

Dress socks,
Dress crocks.
Dressed hands,
Dressed rocks

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Held In Place, Untouched

I held this historic round cope stone in my hands yesterday. It sits balanced on a heritage dry stone wall that John Scott showed me in front of an old church in Beckwith township, Ontario which John tells me is made of potsdam sandstone . The Hamlet of Franktown is about 40 miles south of Ottawa and began as a half-way stagecoach stop between the military settlements of Perth and Richmond. Many of the orininal settlers were Irish who refused to join the Church of England and built this quaint stone church in 1822. There is no documentation on the date of the dry stone wall in front of the church, however it certainly is reasonable to assume it goes back to the church's early days. The original drive opening in wall was expanded around 1900 with concrete posts and the wall was crudely rebuilt in places. Other than settlement from tree roots and some tampering here and there, a lot of the wall remains in it's original bond. The round granite coping stones seem small and out of place....kind of delicately placed on top. However pictures from 1895 and then again in 1925 reveal that they are (possibly) not not only original, but some of them haven't moved from their original position for over a hundred years!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Hand Doubts

There are lots of rules. There are lots of authorities. There are any number of people who will tell you that what you are doing is wrong. It is normal that you will start to doubt yourself. It can be quite intimidating at times. There are many critics in this world. Many people who will take shots at you for risking doing something different, or something new or something out of the ordinary. Being creative is not for the weak hearted. Having a vision and sticking to it will require that you don't succumb to the jeers of the naysayers but it also requires that you refrain from seeking the applause of those who are impressed merely by fashion and novelty. Real living requires that you learn all you can from history and from those you esteem to be wise around you, that you learn how to handle yourself and the material you have chosen to work with, that you consider carefully the limitations imposed on you by time and space and the environment which you find yourself in, and that you humbly explore any paths and options that sometimes magically open up to you. If you discover any principles or truths along the way, share them freely with anyone who genuinely seeks your advise. And don't take yourself too seriously.

Friday, June 4, 2010


Building a dry stone wall is an exercise in regrouping. The mass of random stones which have been collected or dumped in a pile onto our property are going to have to be systematically regrouped into a much smaller more ordered space. There is something inherently pleasing about this undertaking. Regrouping stones can often become a visual or physical equivalent to regrouping mentally or emotionally. We are taking the time to turn the seemingly random aspects of our lives into a 'better' organized structural pattern. The activity of regrouping is a valuable exercise that greatly contributes to our sense of well being and contentment. If we have an opportunity to arrange even a small selection of stones in a wall and stand back understand the decision making and how it works we begin to understand what the benefits are and what is involved in regrouping in the more complex and abstract applications of daily life.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

June is at hand.

Did you know June is Dry Stone Wall Month?

Celebrate with us the fact that there are many of these wonderful structures in Canada and that they can be made by hand with local natural stones and when built right, they will last many many years

Increase your awareness of the benefits of walls made without mortar across Canada.

Everyone can help in a nation-wide campaign which hopes to educate and encourage others by involving the help of the media, promotions, toolkits, children's contests and activities - the engagement of municipalities, schools, community groups, families and individuals in more walling activities during June - dry stone wall month, and on, into the rest of 2010.

The campaign theme FIT A STONE IN A WALL EVERYDAY! reinforces the message of how important it is for all of us to participate in some form of dry stone walling activity each and everyday. Regardless of ability or age, Canadians are enjoying walls in an increasing number of ways. This year's theme recognizes that walling activities are varied and numerous. "Activities of all kinds, not just physical, are acknowledged and celebrated. Whether it's creating garden features, hearting, learning to build an arch, reading a walling book or wall gazing ... walling is about celebrating life and stones... Live it Everyday!"

Take pictures of walls, collect stones, help a farmer clear his field, visit a quarry, give a stone as a gift to someone, organize a group to fix a wall or retaining wall that needs repairing in your area, write a stone wall poem, build one in your back yard, take a dry stone wall course, join a dry stone walling organization, or sponsor a community wall to be built in a public place near you.