Saturday, April 30, 2011

Do Not Remove Stones

Sometimes you just have to ask people nicely. Sometimes people think that stones in walls are placed conveniently there in straight lines for them to pick and choose the ones they want to take home. It's the people that need to be put straight. Maybe they need to be informed that the walls are there for a purpose and that even though they can be taken apart fairly easily, it's not a good idea. Sometimes they need to be made to understand that it is against the law to wreck beautiful structures like these even if it is only a dry stacked wall. I think a sign appropriately placed here and there is a good idea.

Maybe we should have other signs too put up in obvious places that say 'Please do not toss your empty Tim Horton's cup on the ground', or 'Please do not leave your front lawn covered with ugly plastic toys'.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Safety In Numbers

I am sure there are not enough dry stone walls in Canada. We need to see lots more of them being built. The DSWAC is committed to seeing this happen.

Some people think that they are too likely to get vandalized and so we shouldn't be trying to build them all over the place. I say the more there are, the less likely they'll be fodder for defacing or being purposely damaged.

Take the photo above for example. It looks like this telephone booth in Grasmere in the Lake District of England has been vandalized quite a few times but the walls next to it (and all around it ) haven't been damaged at all and look just fine.

There are only 15,000 red kiosk telephone booths in Britain, and there are more than 180,000 miles of dry stone walls in the UK ( sure lots of these walls are in bad repair but this is due to 'low maintenance' - they last, even when people neglect to maintain them at all!)

Anyway, I'm guessing that because walls are much more common in Britain, they are less enticing than the kiosks to bother trying to wreck, plus the phone booths are made of things that take spray paint better and are made of manufactured parts that are easy to break. The booths will always be much more expensive/difficult to repair.

Vandals like to think that their efforts are not going to go wasted on something that people can just come along and fix the next day.

Let's get out there and work towards more Dry Stone Walling Across Canada and soon we'll see our walls begin to outnumber the ugly concrete ones that people have to look at everyday, leaving them even more vulnerable to the vandal's critical eye.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

It's not always a Rock Walk

They say if a rock turns out to be sharp and vicious it's the owner's fault. I think that's true. If you treat rocks badly, if you shout at them, threaten them and hit them all the time they'll either get so intimidated they crumble and become useless or they will become aggressive and turn on you (or other people) without any warning.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Lost in the Curves

Went to visit Andy Goldsworthy's curvy wall in Stanford California a couple of years ago. It was hard to find. This is because its below ground level. You can walk and scan the Stanford University campus grounds and never see it. You can ask people and they won't know. But when you find it , it's like discovering a hidden source of water - a dry stone river bed.

It starts out like dragon scales just barely visible sticking out of the ground and then it morphs into the winding tail and huge sinuous torso of a long thin dry stone snake. It is was built from salvaged stone from a historic building that was taken down not far from the place where this amazing installation is situated. It invites you to get lost in it's curves.

It is not as famous as the 'Wall' at Storm King but it deserves to be up there with Andy's best works. It was built sometime before that wall and I'm guessing the learning curve was still pretty steep for all those involved in helping Andy build it.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Rock On A Line.

Oh the rock on a line
It's a mighty fine shape
Oh the rock on a line
It aint gonna escape.

Oh the rock's on a line
And it aint too small
Oh the rock's on a line
And it's goin' in the wall

Oh the rock's on a line
Won't wander away
Oh the rock's on a line
Gonna teach it to obey

Oh the rock's on a line
Won't ever let it go
Oh the rock's on a line
Gonna stack it, don't you know

Oh the rock on a line
It's a mighty fine stone
Oh the rock on a line
Needs to find a new home

Oh the rock on a line
Gonna stick it so it stays
And the rock'll do fine
When it's walled in place.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Stepping it up.

I know I go on about not using heavy machines and wonder why people don't work enough with stone using a more hands-on approach. Contractors seem to like to keep their distance from big stones and move them around at 'arms length' without considering the benefits of getting to know them more personally.

It occurred to me to take a more positive approach today and share a short clip about moving a big stone.

This is a big chunk of flag stone that got lifted on to the roof of the dry stone tool shed we completed last fall. The limestone slab must have been about 120 lbs. I got it onto the roof and into place without any help.

I used scaffolding and maneuvered the stone up on to boards pivoting the stone on edge up each board until it reached the top one. I jumped down to take photos at each stage to document of the process. I know it's not a great feat. And I know I could have done it easier with help. However it was a rewarding little exercise. It got the job done without bringing in a machine and more importantly it was another opportunity to enjoy 'thinking with my hands'. By the time I got the big flagstone slab up there I knew a lot about it and how best to make use of its shape and size on the roof.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Waller Walker

Landscaper and Canadian dry stone waller Patrick Callon organized a dry stone walling demonstration at the London Home and Garden Show a couple of weeks ago. During the build his mother Carmen dropped by to encourage all of us as we stacked rocks into a unique 'moongate' shape. She is a delightful lady with a kind face and with lots of get up and go. I couldn't help but notice how she was getting around. The walker was a sturdy looking economically engineered walker designed and built in Sweden. She told me she liked having it but that she didn't need it all the time . I was intrigued by the name. Dolomite is apparently the leading manufacturer of walkers. Who knew?

Here is one of their sturdier looking 'rock 'models.

Coincidentally, we were actually building with quarried 'dolomite' that day and I wondered if Carmen's walker would be good for transporting rocks around. She graciously allowed me to try it out. It worked well. Then she wanted to try it.

The bottom line is that when (somewhere in the Futura?) I become old enough to be legally allowed to drive one, this aging waller is going to buy himself an official Dolomite walker for getting stones around, while hopefully not forgetting what it is I do with the stones when I've got them there!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Wall In The Family

Our grandchildren always look forward to the dry stone wall Easter egg hunt that has become part of the Shaw-Rimmington tradition here in Port Hope. While others celebrating this holiday must look for suitable hiding spots in the less exciting places each year, like the lawn, the dog house, window wells or the outdoor barbecues, our chocolate eggs can be imaginatively hidden along an easily accessed, child height stone surface of intriguing and varied hiding spots. The turf-top stone walls which I built on the side of our house when we first moved here provide a wide assortment of egg hiding opportunities. With their many cracks and crevices, the eggs can be cleverly hidden so that a variety of age group levels are accommodated. This year the walls were again festooned with shinny foil wrapped eggs and gladly gave up their chocolaty treasure to the children, amidst wild screams of delight. The walls almost seem like part of the family.

Happy Easter from the family.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Rain Mud and Stones

We had the opportunity to completely redo a circular dry stone wall this week. The weather was so cold and rainy on the last day we had to take several breaks just to dry off and warm our hands while we sat in the truck. Ontario spring is slow getting off the mark this year.

This project which I wrote about in a previous post ( see..Gravel Travels ) was a bit of a challenge. The wall had to be widened and the shape reconfigured to ensure that the wall would not fail the way it had done before with the pressure of the circular patio pressing out. This required bringing in a lot more of the same kind of limestone fieldstone to add more mass to the new wall. I knew of one farm an hours drive away that had a similar looking stone dotted in the fields and piled all around the perimeter. I phoned my farmer friend and arranged to make the trip up there on Friday to get a pickup load of stone.

Stone picking is usually a lot of fun. The stones in all the hedge rows on this farm are lying around crying out to be picked up to be used again in a wall somewhere. Much of the farm is shallow soil on bedrock while other parts have a soggy bog-like terrain. I cautiously drove onto a field that looked fairly firm, filled up my truck with choice stones and then tried to drive away.

Even with 4 wheel drive the truck got stuck as I began to drive away. There was mud flying everywhere and the truck eventually managed to crawl its way out of the mushy field looking like it had been in some sort of grueling off-road event. You can just make out how dirty it was in the photo.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Invisible Walling

Dry stone walls just look right. They don't jump out at you like billboard signs. They don't get in your face that way. They fit into the scenery. They don't need to be noticed. The better a wall is built the less it stands out, to the point that people stop noticing it all together. Walls allow people to see other things like the houses or the view or the garden or the trees in the neighbourhood. A dry stone wall is the perfect compliment to its surroundings.

Often people don't realize they are looking at a damn good wall. They might, as they stand there forget that they were feeling so cold for instance. They might stop being so bothered about what someone said about them - or that the mail was late - or they had to cut the lawn soon - or any number of other unimportant things.

They take a deep breath and enjoy where they are. The wall, the very thing that created this inner sense of rightness, is often not even in their sphere of consciousness. It's a funny thing. The wall is not actually in the picture. A good dry stone wall is sort of like invisible fencing. Most people just don't see it.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

I know I have stopped thinking with my hands when...

I look at everything that still has to be done rather than enjoy what has already been completed.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Christopher Barclay

Christopher Barclay is a waller and mason who I met five years ago when I traveled out west to teach a dry stone wall course at the Horticultural Centre of the Pacific . He gave me some valuable help preparing the site and supplying hearting to the students. He works primarily out of Victoria BC. This is a design for a raised garden plot he recently built using a difficult but fairly inexpensive local stone. The curved emerging terrace shape is quite a pleasing solution to this uneven backyard setting. Christopher often lets the stones dictate the design and he is quite good at thinking with his hands.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Handling the invisible.

"Abandoned stones which I become interested in invite me to enter into their life's purpose. It is my task to define and make visible the intent of their being." --Isami Noguchi

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Getting to gather.

Students at the Niagara School of Horticulture gather stones
to use in the wall built during the two day dry stone wall workshop we ran there in 2008.

To everything there is a season....

A time to build up, a time to break down.
A time to dance, a time to mourn.
A time to cast away stones, a time to gather them and build dry stone walls.

One of the many dry stone walls along the Niagara Parkway

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Friday, April 15, 2011

Gravel Travels

Worked this week on a repair to a circular patio retaining wall that someone had built less than 9 years ago. The wall looked like this when I went to see the job on Monday. It was leaning badly.

And it looked like this when I arrived Tuesday to start taking the wall down. (It had started taking itself down.)

There are many reasons this wall failed.The blocks had no strength laid along the wall this way.Why use blocks at all? The convex curve gave the wall no structural advantage at all. (Better to make retaining walls straight or concave if you can) The thin, one-stone-thickness of the wall in front of the blocks offered no resistance (mass or friction) to the surcharge force of the ground pushing out from the patio. Movement will always happen either from hydrostatic or frost pressure building up against the wall.

But I think the main reason the wall failed was the gravel. It had been poured in behind the stones and in front of the blocks instead of fitting in proper sized/shaped hearting stones.

'Gravel travels !' It is NOT structural. It just keeps slipping down and leaves gaps. It also pushes the stones outward where it piles up lower down at the base the wall. The clients told me the squirrels kept digging out the gravel from inside the wall too.

Never never use gravel in a dry stone wall.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Completed Student Project

Hi John, I finally finished my wall at home. I started mid-September and just finished last weekend (April) . I didn't have that much time to work on it because I was organizing a conference for October, went to China for 3 weeks in November (climbed the Great Wall - awesome experience) and given Vancouver rains there were weeks that I didn't touch it at all. I have attached a few pictures. The first attachment, the Word doc, is a before and after compilation. Then there are a few of the wall from different angles. I can send more if you like, lots more of progress along the wall.
The wall is 40' across the front and 40' up the driveway. Most of the stone was free or cheap. I got some from Craig's List when people were tearing down walls to build with Allen Block, some from building demolitions (including the 300' of granite capstones which I also used for the stairs), and even from the side of the road. I collected stone for 1 1/2 years before I started the project and in the end still had to buy maybe 1/4 of what I needed. I would guess that there is about 40+ tons of stone in there.
I learned a lot, but it was your course at Northwest about 2 years ago that gave me the confidence to tackle the project. I have already had job offers to build for neighbours! Maybe after I retire.

Brian Thom

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Internet is Handy for Walling Inquiries

Brian Thom and I have been emailing each other over the last few years. I thought it would be interesting to post some of these correspondences.

Hi John
I just saw the announcement for the Dry Stone Walling Workshops in Vancouver starting April 13. I really want to register!!! I have been monitoring your site for a long time but missed the workshop last year. I go to Northwest Garden and Landscape Supply regularly, sometimes just to hang out and visualize, and I have seen the walls that were built during the last workshops, beautiful. I really want to learn. I have a cabin in the Cariboo district of BC (just east of 100 Mile House) that is the rockiest lot in the subdivision so I have lots of material to work with.

Unfortunately, it is hard stone to work with, some type of blue/green stone that is hard to break, but when it does it breaks into random pyramidal shapes. I am determined to learn how to work with it and make some nice stone walls instead of just large stone perimeter boundaries. Please send the registration info ASAP so I don' t miss out this year. I can send a couple of photos of what i have done so far if you are interested.

I am currently the Faculty Development Coordinator at the BC Institute of Technology and am looking to retire in a couple of years. I love my job, but stonework is my passion.
Hi John

First of all, thank you so much for the workshop earlier this week John. I had some sore muscles (to be expected for an out of shape 62 year old), but I loved every minute of it! I can't wait to tackle my own project, either at home, or at our cabin in the Cariboo. I loved your teaching methods - understand the concepts, but don't sweat the small stuff. I feel confident that I have learned the basic concepts and will be able to create something structurally sound and am eager to try it with it our odd shaped stones.

Hi John, hope you are well.
During the Vancouver workshop you mentioned that "rocks were just unemployed stones". Well, thank goodness for "temporary labour pools" so that even a motley collection of rocks like this can become stones for a while. Some was reclaimed granite from a wall being torn down, and some are just fieldstones from the property.


Hi John, I was in your workshop at Northwest Landscape in Burnaby about a year ago. I am still collecting stone to rebuild my falling down retaining wall in my front yard. I am trying to do it as cheaply as possible because I have very little disposable income after my teenage twins are through. So far I have collected about 4 or 5 tons of salt and pepper granite, all free. Some was from walls and is random block shapes and sizes, some is more of an ashlar/thick veneer, and then I have about 300’ of coping. It is all about 4” thick, 1’ wide and ranges in length from 2’ to 6’. I now have an opportunity to get some reclaimed Arizona Sandstone, not quite free, but at $50 a pallet it is too cheap to pass up.My question is, what will the grey granite and the brown sandstone look like together? Have you ever used stone in combination like that? I don’t want to spend the money and time and energy to haul it by hand if it won’t look good. I just can’t visualize it and can’t find any photos of the two together.

Here is the material I have.


Hi Brian Thanks for your email. Good question.My experience is that in most cases the mixing of stone material in a dry stone wall looks and works very well as long as you build structurally.If you send me pics of both materials I will attempt to do a photoshop mock up of what it might most likely look like for you to decide.

Hello Brian. How does this look?


Thanks a lot for doing that mock-up John. I think it will look great. I’ll try to reuse some of the existing wall stones as well and they have a bluish tone to them. I think they could all blend quite well. The next step is to see if the sandstone is still available because things sometimes go fast on Craig’s list. I’ll be including a large curved end (where the ivy is in the picture) that will go around the corner and up the driveway. I’ll be moving the stairway closer to the road and building the steps out of those 5 or 6’ granite slabs. The existing wall is 4’ high, but I’ll make the new one in two stages to create a terrace. The lower wall will be about 3’ with a couple feet set back for a garden and then the inner wall about a foot or foot and half high. It will still be a while before I actually put it up, but I’ll send more pictures then.

Last week Brian mailed me pictures of the finished project. They will be posted here tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Half Load Season

It could be a dangerous time of year in Ontario. Truck drivers are driving around half loaded.

The half load restriction is put into effect to save the wear and tear on the roads this time each year in Ontario as the thawing ground is less able to take the full weight of heavier traffic until it dries up and hardens later in the spring

Wallers may not be able to get enough stone delivered to the site during this time and the price that they quoted to the client for materials may not reflect the extra half loads that will need to be delivered.

Planning ahead is always difficult but to have all your stone delivered to the job before half load season begins is the best answer.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Handling Stars

A Star in a Stoneboat by Robert Frost
For Lincoln MacVeagh

Never tell me that not one star of all
That slip from heaven at night and softly fall
Has been picked up with stones to build a wall.

Some laborer found one faded and stone-cold,
And saving that its weight suggested gold
And tugged it from his first too certain hold,

He noticed nothing in it to remark.
He was not used to handling stars thrown dark
And lifeless from an interrupted arc.

He did not recognize in that smooth coal
The one thing palpable besides the soul
To penetrate the air in which we roll.

He did not see how like a flying thing
It brooded ant eggs, and bad one large wing,
One not so large for flying in a ring,

And a long Bird of Paradise's tail
(Though these when not in use to fly and trail
It drew back in its body like a snail);

Nor know that he might move it from the spot—
The harm was done: from having been star-shot
The very nature of the soil was hot

And burning to yield flowers instead of grain,
Flowers fanned and not put out by all the rain
Poured on them by his prayers prayed in vain.

He moved it roughly with an iron bar,
He loaded an old stoneboat with the star
And not, as you might think, a flying car,

Such as even poets would admit perforce
More practical than Pegasus the horse
If it could put a star back in its course.

He dragged it through the plowed ground at a pace
But faintly reminiscent of the race
Of jostling rock in interstellar space.

It went for building stone, and I, as though
Commanded in a dream, forever go
To right the wrong that this should have been so.

Yet ask where else it could have gone as well,
I do not know—I cannot stop to tell:
He might have left it lying where it fell.

From following walls I never lift my eye,
Except at night to places in the sky
Where showers of charted meteors let fly.

Some may know what they seek in school and church,
And why they seek it there; for what I search
I must go measuring stone walls, perch on perch;

Sure that though not a star of death and birth,
So not to be compared, perhaps, in worth
To such resorts of life as Mars and Earth—

Though not, I say, a star of death and sin,
It yet has poles, and only needs a spin
To show its worldly nature and begin

To chafe and shuffle in my calloused palm
And run off in strange tangents with my arm,
As fish do with the line in first alarm.

Such as it is, it promises the prize
Of the one world complete in any size
That I am like to compass, fool or wise.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Handling a Spiral Shape

The London Flower and Garden Show was a big success. We just completed the orbital Moongate thing Saturday afternoon in front of a crowd and someone took this picture. Sort of looks like it could be an album cover. I think we will use it on our next CD. Please look at the video of the centering being removed at the bottom of this page.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Free Walling

My friend Seth Godin has a daily blog where he often manages to say things pertinent to the moment.

April has got me all excited about walling here in Canada.

Yesterday Seth's posting entitled Ten years of changing the world starts out with three very good points.

Lesson 1: In fact, you can make a difference, you can start something from scratch, you can build something without authority or permission. Passionate people on a mission can make change happen.

Lesson 2: In fact, philanthropy works. Building systems and enhancing entrepreneurial outcomes generates results far bigger than the resources invested.

Lesson 3: You better be prepared to stick it out, to exert yourself, to last longer than you ever expected and to care so much it hurts.

These points seem right in line with the direction we will be continuing to take this year with Dry Stone Walling Across Canada.

This week I joined Patrick Callon and his crew Mike and Brian all members of the DSWAC as we set about creating an Orbital Moon Gate using only dry laid stone - a special design that Patrick came up for this show and I had the honour of helping tweak.

Come see us continue building it all Saturday and Sunday at the London Fairgrounds

Friday, April 8, 2011

Hand Held Camera

I don't know the folks who did this little video. Evan Oxland found it and sent it to me yesterday.
He wondered if it was one of my arches. I wrote back and said yes it was. It was one we built out west in Burnaby BC for N W Landscaping and Stone Supply. It was a beginners workshop.
It's three years old and I was happy to see it is still looking well and that someone liked it enough to do a video.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Securing the Shoreline

These rocks are waiting at the shoreline to be drafted again - called up, enrolled back up the slope and rearranged. They require a commander-in-chief to get them organized not just into the crack regiment they were before, but into an even tighter army of Boulders in Arms. This is too precise, too delicate an operation for clumsy Armour stone. It's not expedient to call in foreign mercenaries either. The recruits must come from here and nearby. The native stone can defend their own coastline best.

They have been pushed around for years by the ice bullies that come in off the lake every winter.
It's time they got their act together and presented a strong unified front to these invasions by sea.
No longer the time to be on maneuvers, these rocks need to stabilize the area and create a new strong hold to defend the land and protect the cottage population

But then again it's a bit too cold to step into the lake yet. So let's go back inside the bunky and make more plans.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Crossing that bridge when you come to it.

This familiar expression implies that any decision to cross a bridge (or not) will best be made at the time we arrive at the bridge and (unless we are being difficult and impractical by trying to risk wading or swimming across the river) the 'crossing over' part of the equation is not negotiable.

That this commonly held truism holds up for most events we are thinking about in our journey through life, seems not to be in question.

While all this is obvious, the obvious is not always the only answer.

What about those who are traveling along the river? They are coming to a bridge too. But they will not be thinking or speaking sanely if they refer to the bridge as something they will have to 'cross' when they come to it.

They will have to go under it when they come to it, or the boat will crash. Thus the expression is not universally applicable.

Those who are traveling along the "road more travelled" need to be careful not to think of a bridge as something we have to all 'cross over'.

Those of us traveling by another means (perhaps by water) will have to think about crossing under the bridge when we come to it.

I wonder if the Mallecan's got that memo?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

An opening in a living wall

Someone wonderful passed through to the other side yesterday.
This post is in memory of her

Monday, April 4, 2011

Wall Covering

A good photographer knows all about framing a picture and composing a composition so that it is free of anything that will distract from what it is they want you to see. In the same way when we look at a house or a piece of property we shouldn't be distracted by such things as propane tanks, flimsy tin storage sheds or ugly above ground swimming pools.

There are several ways these things can be disguised. Many people would agree that natural stone, or at least the natural stone 'look' is a good way to go. We've looked at a few of these solutions - phony stone partitions as well as plastic and fiberglass covers of various sizes. But what about real stone used to build real stone walls to hide the unattractive objects and structures on the property?

The photo above was taken of a wall in Scotland that was specially built to hide the two ugly plastic water tanks which you can see from behind in the photo below.

The two pictures below show how an unsightly Canadian Tire tin shed (which always wrecked any pictures we took of our garden looking to the north) was transformed into something which now blends in and creates one of the most pleasing views on our whole property.