Thursday, September 30, 2010

Old Reminders of Older Hands

Not far from South Monaghan Ontario along Line 3 Road east of Smithson Road there are the remnants of old dry stone walls either side of the road. The stone is predominantly glacially deposited granite which has been painstaking cleared from the fields many years ago. I was told about these walls last week and wanted to see them for myself, and so, as I was driving back yesterday from a quarry where I picked up 4 tons of rubble limestone to be used (in Toronto) in the Nuit Blanche 'bell sculpture' we will be building this Saturday (an all night 'ringing in' of next Sunday) I took a detour to go see them.

They are in sad disrepair and have obviously had many of their stones removed, probably by people who don't consider these historic features of the Ontario countryside to be of any worth. I think of them however, as valuable architectural landmarks on a historically dissolving landscape. They are as important as any other valuable Canadian antiques. You can't buy them at an auction or purchase them in an antique store to bring home and hang on your wall, but you can appreciate them where they lay, and respect them for the history they hold and the story they tell.

As I look at the old walls I think about the hands that built them. Judging by the moss and lichen on the stones, the last time these stones were moved must have been over a hundred years ago. The placement of each rock was accomplished by hands that are no longer with us. There is only the stoney memorial to them in the clever placement of the silent stones along the wall. The antique furniture tools and dishes we own have value often because we can imagine the people who made them and once used them . So too with old stone walls. As we 'hold' these stoney antiques in view, we join an unspoken line of admiration and respect for the people who held them before and left their timeless mark throughout the country side(roads)

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Dry Stone Dutchman

We were doing a big job up at a new cottage at Cameron Lake in Ontario all last week and this. It involves tall retaining walls built of quarried limestone brought in by truck. There is also a lot of surface limestone on the property which we wanted to use in the wall and got the go ahead to do so. First few days were quite productive. Landscape architect arrives and says she likes what we built except she doesn't like the blackish stone, (see top photo) which was one of the 'on-site stones' we were incorporating into the wall. Convinces the clients that they don't like it too.

So? What to do? Remove it ! Hmmm.

Thought of taking the wall all the way back down to that height to remove the offending stone but instead decided I'd try to pry it out first. I used a crow bar and my fingers but it was too big and too tightly fit into the wall. So I chiseled it out. It took a while. Argh.

And I replaced it with some stones the client and the architect like.

Resolved even more in my mind that dry stone work is NOT decorating.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Thumbs-up from a new believer.

The comments below were sent by Dr. Dan O'Connell and are representative of several other people who have contacted me indicating a new found
enthusiasm for traditional dry stone walling and how effectively local stone can be used to build beautiful structural walls and garden features.

"I just completed the dry wall course in Metchosin British Columbia using local blasted basalt . This "rubble" has vexed me for years and I considered it useless unless equal amounts of mortar were available to beautify and substantiate any structure composed of it . The mortar always cracks and grey stone looks dreary in the dim winter landscapes of our coast, so I considered it "flawed" and would go far afield to find a flatter easier to use stone with more character.

Needless to say I am reborn with fervor based on three base teachings I learned at the recent DSWAC workshop.

One - putting the best face out usually results in "veneering" guaranteeing it will roll out with the subtle shifts of time. The wall we built now has structural integrity confidant enough to support even a permanent arch! (As a former civil engineer I was a big time skeptic let alone now being a physician and worried about crushed children)

Two - it is a handsome wall to the eye, not in the way of the fitted stones @ Machu Pichu,but rather overall feel as it courses and accomadates the rolling pitches with its unchanging batter and constancy of individual rock shaddowings. (one cornerstone stands out however which is a hewn white granite from my private reserve).

Thirdly - I had been told by my Italian neighbour about hearting before, but thought it was a primitive idea for people needing to get rid of all the little ankle turners in the pile - after two days of learning how to do it properly, I say it again, I am now a Believer!

Dr. Dan "

Monday, September 27, 2010

Stone Story. Segment Two. Part 10

Andy desperately looked around to see if there might be someone hiding behind the wall, someone playing a trick on him perhaps.
It was just him and the stones.
He had always been able to make the pieces fit, but now he was beginning to think he was going crazy.

"It looks like a window into our world has been open to you, Andy. Don't be afraid." Myron whispered.

"Who are you, and what do you want?"

None of the stones could think of what it was they wanted. Stones, as noted before, don't actually experience want or fear. They have transcended these temporal sates, and while they might imagine how things could be better and have preferences sometimes, they are not technically wants, in that their needs are not affected by uncertainty and selfishness, but more by purpose. The lack of any sense of purposelessness amongst the entire mineral world has been the main stabilizing factor of the universe. Rocks are 'rock solid' and sure of what they are and what they are about. That the animate world is in transition and is always leaning this way and that, trying to achieve some localized temporary end, some self-seeking advantage, some higher evolved state, is of little concern to them.

While the rocks are grieved that humans are so unenlightened as to be excessively extracting and constantly grinding them up to make concrete aggregates and other manmade products, (that neither last nor look as beautiful as stone) rather than continuing along the true path and ancient craft of 'stonework', it is not 'wishing' that will change any of this. And though they know that everything would be much better if men resolved to continue in cooperation with stones, rather than trying to look for more and more so-called concrete answers, it is stone's firmness and resolve which has always prevailed in the end, not any wishy-washy 'desire' for change.

Change after all is only a measure of the temporal.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Stone Story. Segment Two. Part 9

Rhonda who herself had just been placed in the dry stone wall that he was repairing, had figured out by this time that, impossible as it seemed, Andy had somehow acquired the ability to hear whatever it was the stones were saying. The round stone had merely commented on Andy's previous very clever placement of the square stone in the wall. Andy, on hearing this, had become visibly shaken.

Michael, one of the twin stones, glared disapprovingly at Rhonda, indicating that she should have just stayed quiet. All the stones watched as Andy, an extremely competent waller, and quite in the habit of talking to them in the past, when faced with the possibility of actually having an intelligent conversation with them, was completely incapacitated and unable to think of anything to say. The stunning realization that stones might be fully cognizant and have the power to think and communicate with one another, though confirming his deepest suspicions, now left him utterly speechless.

"You're afraid you'll say the wrong thing?" Rhonda suggested, unable to stay quiet any longer. Several of the other more cautious stones on hearing this winced and looked the other way.

"You feel sheepish? Intimidated? Overwhelmed?" added the Squire, from his perch two courses below "That's understandable."

Andy stared at the square stone in disbelief.

"If it helps," added Myron, "We are as surprised as you."

Andy, even more dumbfounded now, turned to see where these words had come from and saw merely a pyramid-shaped chunk of sandstone lying near a pile of other rocks waiting to be built into the wall.

Andy stepped backwards. "Wha.. what is going on?"

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Triumphant Hands

Completed Willowbank Raised Garden Wall

Above is what the raised flower garden looked like at 8:00 am on friday morning. I had taken the Thursday morning to do a thorough instruction on dry stone walling techniques to the nine students who were taking the historic restoration course at the prestigious Willowbank School of Restoration Arts on the Niagara Parkway in Queenston Ontario, and then the whole afternoon working with them to dismantle the slumping circular stone retaining wall that was to be our 'repair project' for this year's two-day hands-on workshop. This dry laid terrace garden at the Niagara Horticultural School in the Botanical Gardens, just south of the Butterfly Atrium, had been 'rebuilt' only sixteen years ago by professionals, but was now looking pretty sad.

It was unbearably hot for September here in Ontario, but everybody plugged away on the Friday at it and somehow we managed to complete the new wall by four that afternoon. Sixty linear feet (two feet thick) of carefully laid reclaimed limestone later,( and lots of blisters and aching backs to prove it) we had just enough energy left after rebuilding this raised garden wall and cleaning up the site, to raise our hands in triumph and say, 'hey, look what we did.'

Friday, September 24, 2010

stone Story. Segment Two. Part 8

Andy knelt down and picked up Rhonda, the round-shaped stone. He carefully studied the subtle gradations of pink and grey banding on the smooth outer surface of the stone. He bounced it up and down in his hands, getting a feel for its weight, and then gently rolling and turning it over as if it were alive, and hesitating briefly, he said.

"You are a very round stone. Very round, and very smooth. Where am I going to put you?"

He turned to the wall and shifted a couple of other stones and then cleverly placed Rhonda not far from the square stone.

Feeling good about his decision he announced in a matter of fact tone, "Right there is a good place for you, I think " as if it was the most normal thing to be talking to a stone.

"Well done."

He heard it ! As clearly as if someone had spoken it. No doubt. No confusion. It was the stone that had spoken to him. A stone! A cold hard lifeless inanimate object. A dumb stone. How could that be?

Andy stepped back and looked at Rhonda.

He knew inside that the next moments in his life were going to be monumental. He knew that if he chose to, he would be stepping beyond anything explainable, beyond the bounds of mankind's experience in terms of communicating with matter, beyond the realms of human interaction with anyone or anything except their own species. He paused and took a great breath.

Was he going to really try to try to talk to a stone? Yes, he had done it thousands of times. Cursed them, complained, told them what he intended to do with them, wondered where they came from, praised them when they broke the right way, and so many other meaningless insignificant comments. But here and now was something of such a different order of magnitude, the strangeness, the awkwardness, left him almost paralyzed.

"How do you talk to a stone?" He thought. "How do you really talk to a stone? What do you say? Do you say, I am Andy, who are you?"

The idea of saying anything became completely unimaginable. His heart was racing. He purposely tried to slow his breath down.

"Can you hear me?" was not going to work. It sounded pathetic, too needy, he thought to himself.

The stories of Saint Francis came to mind - the monk who was friends with the animals, and yes even spoke to the sky and the earth and all sorts of things.

"Hello brother tree, hello brother stone," Andy sounded the words in his mind. "That was pretty much what he said, wasnt it? A formal greeting, not overly familiar, just a natural convincingly understated acknowledgment of another's presence"

Andy was frozen in time, his mouth was drying up, his thoughts blurring into one another.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Stone Story. Segment Two. Part 7

The next day the valley, which is often shrouded in mist, was unusually dark and foggy. The Scribe who had spent most of the morning deep in meditation, suddenly sensed someone approaching. A solitary waller appeared out of the mist, walking up the footpath. He was carrying a black rubber bucket, the type wallers use to carry their tools in or fill with hearting stones.

The Squire (the square stone) nudged Rhonda and whispered "He's back."

Andy put down his bucket, looked around, took out his gloves and sat down on a large rock to rest for a moment. Then he began to put a few stones on the wall.

He looked at the Squire, bent over and picked him up slowly.

The Squire felt heavy in Andy's hands. The wetness was abrasive and Andy thought about putting on his gloves. Instead he shifted the weight of the cube shaped stone from hand to hand, as if pondering some deep mystery. The regular planes of the stone with its several right angles actually made it a challenging shape to place in a wall of otherwise irregular rounded beck-stones. Andy studied the bedding plane. He looked for a natural batter. Though it had several faces that could be described as 'desirable', in terms of colour and patina, Andy would be committed to placing it in the wall in a way that was structurally correct. Dry stone walls built so as to be decorative are often not very beautiful and certainly not well built. Walls built to be strong and permanent end up being structural and almost always beautiful as well.

Andy studied the wall. Where was he going to place the Squire? The course of stones he had previously started needed a 'next' stone that straddled a gap between two roundish ones. The natural tendency with any 'square' stones would be to lay them level, placed flat across the joint. 'One over two, two over one'. Andy intuitively knew this. He also knew there was a solution which augmented that rule in this case. He placed the Squire on the diagonal so that one corner nestled between the two round stones below. It was a spacial solution that allowed for the stones in that part of the wall to tighten up along the wall instead of just slump downwards with any shifting of the foundation.

"Nice" said Rhonda, looking up and admiring how the Squire had been placed.

Andy was sure he heard something. He stood up and looked around. No one was around.
The valley was still cloaked in a dark haze.

He started back to work again, placing other stones on the wall. They all fit perfectly.

"Nice work" said Rhonda.

Andrew turned his head quickly and looked directly at the round stone.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Weighing in on different ways to lift heavy stones.

In keeping with the 'Thinking With My Hands' theme, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of methods we have used to lift heavy stones up onto a tall wall or dry stone structure .

1. The first and most primitive way of lifting involves wooden boards or poles system. You simply slide or flip large rocks up along strong boards onto the top of the wall. In the video above you will see how DSWAC members managed to lift a huge lintel stone into place, as we completed the last stages of the traditional Scottish Blackhouse, which was built during last year's 2009 'Rocktoberfest'.

We had a fork lift there which could have easily done the job, but we felt it was important to do it manually, partly because we had all the manpower there that we needed and partly because none of us wanted to use machinery unnecessarily when we were building an authentic dry stone structure trying to duplicate how they would have authentically built it in the past

2. The three pictures above demonstrate a second method, that of using pulleys. We used a simple pulley from a rent-all store for all the vault stone we lifted onto the Cabane roof at the three day 2008 'Rocktoberfest' held near Cobourg Ontario. It was quiet, efficient, good exercise and extremely satisfying to build the entire structure without relying on heavy machinery.

3. The third method of using hoists is useful if the stones you are lifting are very heavy. We set up a hoist to lift the large rung stones that connected dry stone towers of this unusual 'rubble helix' which we built during the Canadian 'Rocktoberfest' in Garden Hill Ontario in 2007. This structure was a very unusual shape and required scaffolding to suspend a beam with a hoist attached to it to pull the long flat heavy stones up near the middle of the paired ascending spiraling dry stone walls.

4. And of course there is the technique of going up along with the stones you are using. We have often had projects requiring that will we stand in the bucket of a front end loader tractor for example (filled with choice stones) in order to complete the top section of a tall structure. Here you see me finishing the Alban Beacon we built for Farley and Claire Mowat at their summer residence near St Peter's Nova Scotia in 2006.

5 Finally there is the method of having the stones moved up to your working area with a Caterpillar, Gradall or some other type of large excavator/boom tuck/rock-picker-upper type machine, as we did in Stone Symposium in Ventura, and at the Marenakos StoneFest held near Seattle recently.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Handily Stepping Out

Beehive Hut in Washington

Dry Stone Cabane in Ontario

Corbelling is a structural method of jutting stones or bricks out from a wall in ascending courses to support more and more material above. Each stone is placed so that the bulk of the stone is deeper into the wall than the part that is projecting. In this way a lot of weight of the building can be suspended over an open space.

In the case of dry stone huts, such as the beehive recently built in Washington and the cabane in Ontario, corbelling the stones towards the centre of the interior space defined by the circular walls eventually creates an enclosed stone ceiling and support for a roof. There are various methods and formulas for doing this. Obviously stepping out too soon or too far each course can make the structure unstable. Stepping out too slowly involves using a lot more material than necessary and makes the structure disproportionately tall.

The beehive corbeling involved long stones straddling the inside angle of another pair of corbelled stones below along the circumference of the opening.The outer corners of the stones are fully supported and it is only the middle overhanging 'delta' of the stone that projects out.

The corbelled stones of the Canadian cabane, on the other hand, have edges (and corners) that project unsupported but with more of their interior length acting as a counter-weight with wall material simultaneously placed on top so as to weigh down each course of corbelling below. The inside corners of these stones touch in a circle at the interior of the structure and the stones slant out and downwards into the wall so that any tendency for the corbel stones to slump is counteracted since each circular course of corbels would have to spread (and the open space get larger) before any stones could begin to drop.

In both methods of construction a functional roof can be created without having either to build a true arched vault or having to use wooden beams.

It is fascinating to see stones used in ways that their weight and mass seem to contradict the force of gravity.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Handing down a tradition.

The amazing dry stone beehive hut project that was recently completed by those of us who participated in this year's Marenakos StoneFest near Seattle is a structure not unlike the vaulted roof Cabane we constructed in 2008 at our annual Canadian 'Rocktoberfest'. The French version of the Irish clochan is also a traditional round building made completely of dry laid stone and various historical examples of these buildings can be found in many parts of southern France.

The cabane that members of the Dry Stone Wall Association of Canada constructed 2 years ago had dimensions that were slightly wider and taller and the domed ceiling actually corbelled in using medium sized flattish stones set carefully in place so the tiled surface of the roof also shed water.

We finished the roof during the festival held near Cobourg, Ontario, Canada while nearly 1200 people came to watch over the three days of the Canadian Thanksgiving . Above are two photos comparing the the beehive hut and the French Cabane at similar stages of construction.

(This Thanksgiving October 8-11 our Canadian festival will be celebrating its 7th year where wallers from all over the world gather and show off their talents. Amongst other demonstrations and presentations during this 4 day event, a crew of professional wallers will be building a dry stone 'footbridge' along a forested trail at Landon Park on the 1000 island parkway off the 401 between Toronto and Montreal.)

Tomorrow I will post photos of the two structures as they stand completed, and also post shots of the inside stone ceilings of both the beehive and the cabane.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Handy Cap Stone

Graham Watt put a lot of time (nearly four days) and a lot of skilled handiwork into changing the shape of a huge square chunk of limestone into an impressive cone cap for the clochan that StoneFest participants built last week near Seattle Washington. Christopher Barclay another Canadian and several other Americans also put in hours of hand-chiseling on the large white block to coax a geometric curve domed shape out of the stone. The shape had to be the exact dimensions to make a final seamless transition from the dry laid contour of the rest of the hut up to the peek. And it it had to be finished on time to hoist it on to the beehive structure by Friday afternoon.

It was decided that the final surface of the cap stone should be detailed with the shapes of all the hands of those who were involved in this project. Dry stone wallers, carvers and sculptors in stone traced a profile of their hand on the dome and then they, or one of the letter carvers, carefully chiseled each hand print out. The large white limestone capstone ended up looking like everyone had put their hands into plaster of Paris before it set.

The huge stone was lifted on to the stone hut using a large Caterpillar with a massive mechanical claw, and with the help of many more hands it was eventually lowered into place. Professional sculptor John Fisher is seen here using one hand to guide the stone down onto its final landing spot on the top of the clochan. The 'handy' capstone proved not to be a handicap at all, in terms of finishing the race towards having this magnificent beehive hut project completed in time.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Listening with my hands

For nearly five days a continual beehive of activity went on here in Washington as workers assembled all the stone pieces of an unusual circular hive - a completely dry laid structure known as a Clochan.

Towards the end of Friday the final cap stone went on and the work-bee came to a celebratory end on September 18 at the Marenakos 2010 StoneFest.

The drone of the machinery and the hum of the workers who had been busily chipping and shaping and fitting stones faded away and a new sound could be heard, an even sweeter sound than chisels ringing as the many stones were dressed.

The haunting drone of the bagpipes filled the air, as 6 traditionally dressed pipers arrived at the site and began playing for the wallers who had worked so hard on the project and played too for the others who had participated at this year's StoneFest including the letter carvers and the stone sculptors. After playing a couple of tunes, including Amazing Grace near the entrance of the newly constructed clochan, several pipers actually crawled through the small granite-stone opening and began to play inside the clochan.

It had been a special 'hands-on' week which ending appropriately with a special 'hands-on' moment when we gathered around the structure and 'listened' to the drone of the pipers playing inside the beehive, and placing our hands on the outside, many of us could almost feel the stones singing, as the far away sound of bagpipes seeped through the walls.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Within reach of rightness

There is something about being surrounded by stone. Here inside this chunky enclosure - the traditional Irish dry stone 'clochan' we are building near Seattle Washington, there is this undefinable 'sense of place'. It's something you have to experience by going inside, it's not enough to stand on the outside and imagine what it's like.

There is this 'energy'. A kind of, I dont know what. I don't want to get spooky about it, but there is something that happens. There is this grounding - this focusing of your self with the stone. Even though the structure isn't finished and the roof isn't completed yet, there is already a feeling of 'historic presence', as if the building, just by its mass and structural integrity has claimed it's rightful place in time and space and that it has somehow 'archived' itself and become part of the past, a history that is only felt, but not yet documented.

None of this could be achieved with concrete or phony stone. It definitely could not be reproduced with nonstructural veneer stonework, or any other manmade material. This is a purely natural stone phenomena, which if you're lucky enough, and the enclosure isn't too crowded or too detached and too far apart, then the stones let you know they are in agreement with their proportions. If all these things comes together, when you stand between the walls of such a structure, it wraps you in 'rightness'

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Grasping the obvious.

Third day of the StoneFest at Marenakos. The sides to the beehive hut are steadily going up under the careful supervision of Patrick McAfee. The 8 large rectangular stones form the canted sides of four crude window openings. Also note the batter is starting to go in faster to form the signature curve of the Irish clochan.

It is interesting to compare the 'noise' level in this video compared to the previous posting where there are no machines running.

It always amazes me how dependent stonemasons have become on large machinery. This powerful mechanical 'hand' does the job of 8 men lifting these stones into place. Unfortunately there are those of us who didn't come here to watch heavy machinery move stones. Most of us see that every day in our working environment. What many of us came to see and experience was a transfer of knowledge, including a passing down of an inheritance of stone moving skills different to those used on every job site today.

Im just saying.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The sound of hand tools.

We continued building a beehive Clochán Tuesday September 14 at the Marenakos StoneFest near Seattle Washington. Participants worked enthusiastically together adding height and thickness to the dry laid circular structure to the point around 4 pm where there was enough height to begin the corbelling of the roof. Various tasks were shared such as pinning, fitting, building, shaping stones and making hearting. Hear is a short clip of what it looks and sounds like when people get together to build traditional structures of stone in the traditional way - with their hands. "Yeah!"

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Thinking Clocháns

Patrick McAfee, an author on restoration masonry and an expert on lime mortars as well as traditional dry stone and masonry methods, is leading a group of us this week from all over North America in replicating a small 14 foot diameter Clochán.

Patrick explained to those of us at Monday evening's opening session of this year's Marenakos StoneFest in Seattle that it will be a traditional round dry-stone hut with a corbelled roof, dating back to the 5th century in Ireland. Most of these original dry laid structures were built like round beehive huts, but rectangular plans are known as well. Some clocháns were not completely built of stone, but may have possessed a thatched roof. But this one will be all stone. The walls are very thick, up to 1.5 meters. Sometimes several clocháns are joined together by their walls. Clocháns are mainly found in the Southwest of Ireland, a good example of this kind of structure can be found at Skellig Michael (Saint Michael), Church Island off Beginish Island and County Kerry on the Dingle Peninsula . They were used by the monks following the teachings of Saint Patrick and later his successors continued building in this style in the Scottish Isle of Iona and then further parts of Scotland beyond.

The one we will be building during the five days of the StoneFest has the shape of the curve for the beehive established by displaying the dimensions marked on a 'boom and mast' trammel arrangement which Patrick devised (and Russ Beardsley of Borrowed Ground LCC cleverly erected beforehand) where the height of the mast (measured in numbered intervals of 3 inch vertical jumps) corresponds to numbers on two 'booms' showing marks where both the inner and outer diameters of the wall extend.

Both booms swivel freely in a circle around the pole. The pole will be removed when the last course goes on and then a huge cone-shaped capstone (made of limestone) be placed on the top. This beehive capstone is being carved this week while the structure is being built by carving students under the instruction of Bobby Watt's son Graham who is a restoration mason in Ottawa Canada.

The stone material being used in the Clochán will probably be a combination of large chunky granite (some of this has already been installed near the bottom to form the base of the hut on Monday afternoon) as well as an interesting grey crunchy basalt to be used mostly on the inside (described by one of the masons as a 'young basalt' ) with quarried sandstone on the outside gradually worked in more and more towards the top.

The contour of the Clochán changes slowly at first, but the curve becomes more pronounced nearer the top and this will require thinner and thiner sandstone slabs to accommodate the angle the corbelled roof as it steps in.

Monday, September 13, 2010

A Hand for the Arch

Stone carver and friend Colleen Wilson dropped by and took a short video clip of the last part of our dry stone workshop in Metchosin B.C. last Saturday. The two day hands-on course was attended by 12 enthusiastic students (4 women 8 men) with Chris Barclay and myself doing the instructing.

I thought it was an interesting enough clip (showing the removal of the centering) to merit a 'stand-alone' posting on the blog. Normally (and probably this is for the same reason magicians don't like to reveal how they do their tricks) I don't like to show pics of an arch in progress showing the actual form still in place, but this clip captured a lot of the excitement of these workshop 'arch-removal' moments and particularly because this form remained suspended in the opening even after the supports were taken away, and was evidently in no hurry to leave.