Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Shim

Photo by SEan Adcock

In rock balancing, there seems to be an unspoken shunning of shims. Stones stacked in a clever balanced column look more impressive if there is no evidence of tiny stones wedged here and there to keep the thing from falling over. 

So too in a dry stone wall if one sees a lot of shims, there is a feeling that the wall is inferior. It's not just that the bigger stones look like they are not fitted properly - the whole wall generally looks too busy. The logical reason for our prejudice about visible shims is that they look like they could easily fall out in time or dislodge with the movement of the frost, and then the whole wall would begin to fall apart.

Inside the wall is a different matter. Shims placed strategically within the network of 'builder stones' are recognized to be invaluable. Here they can be wedged and pinned to increase the point of contact between stones without risk of falling out and more importantly they can align stones along the plane of the wall and keep them from slipping in too.

The hidden shim is a humble, modest, adaptable, yet worthy leveler and supporter of any particular area in the wall it is assigned to. Tapered, almost weightless in comparison to the rock it supports, the shim enables a magical adhesion between even unfriendly shapes. 

While a shim is both unassuming and unseen, it is interesting to note that, according to one dictionary, the antonym of the word shim, is 'emptiness'. 

I enjoy the idea of the shim being one of the most important  'jam packing' parts of my world and my work.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

On occasion.

I am soberly coming to the realization that doing the right thing and dealing with some of the misconceptions that prevail in the small world of dry stone walling here in Canada will not make a shred of difference to the outcome of a situation if the people who don't know the whole story have already been primed to think you are the bad guy. 

I say this with a degree of pessimism yes, but a kind of freeing insight as to how to go on and not be eaten up by injustices perpetrated by people who must have been on occasion presented with the choice to behave and think otherwise. 

I have posted things on this web site that are, to the best of my ability, the truth about walls and walling. On occasion a few of the posts have been about someone or other who has continuously invested their time saying untrue things about other wallers behind their backs. By contrast, when I write about this problem, I write in public not covertly, and try to make sense of it all in kind of dry stone parables. It should be noted that the person(s) in question were never named or referred to specifically in any posts. Happily their shady antics were usually the stepping stone to some better insight into the way things fit or don't fit together in a dry stone wall.

That others recognized the unsavoury characteristics of the unnamed individuals I wrote about and that the key people even saw themselves, confirms that I have to some extent described them accurately. I take no great delight in exposing them to others but rather hope that their recognition of themselves might be enough to encourage them to seek an amicable resolution with those they find fault with, rather than continue to take delight in conflict. 

Monday, November 28, 2011

Igloos without glue

Even if you have seen it before ( possibly back in grade school) this National Film Board documentary is worth watching on youtube again. It illustrates the indigenous people, working in artic Canada with natural local material, building a useful shelter by shaping and fitting blocks of snow together without relying on a lot of rules or regulations, nor using fancy implements beyond an ivory knife. 

It is fascinating to see how they do it. The domed dry snow house requires a working knowledge of simple structural principles and a determination to build something that will do the job with very little fuss. These houses may not pass any buiding codes nor last beyond one winter's harshness; yet the builders are skilled people who have mastered a way of building perfectly good shelters, engineered with an understanding of the land on which they build and the materials that they availed themselves of.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Poor walls without borders

 © Copyright Jim Champion and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

This photo of a wall in Britain shows what happens to a dry stone wall anywhere when it's not built very well..

Saturday, November 26, 2011

What would Andy do?

I proposed an idea on a stone forum a while back which involved an activity/discussion called, 'What would Andy do?'
The rules were really simple.
We each in turn posted a scene of stockpiled material, plant forms, tool groupings, or repeated landscape elements or whatever, and then people were invited to comment and propose creative ideas (inspired by each picture) as to what you could make with the things in the photo. Solutions, artistic applications, whimsical constructions, even improvements were all encouraged. The person with the best idea got to post the next picture.

I kicked off the game with this photo I took in the Lake District two years ago.

It seems to me we have the three basic building groups here. One is a man made material which though very structural is going to be hard to use in a creative way. 

The second is a naturally grown material ( I think the English call them swedes and the Swedish call them k√•lrots, although in all fairness they should have named them Brits) Though these vegetables are more of body building material and are supposed to be eaten, they might inspire some other use. Certainly anyone who hated them as a kid might have found a way to get rid of them off their plate 

And then third, in the background there is a neatly piled assortment of random stones which apart from making walls can be used in an infinite number of creative ways.

I'd like to see if someone could come up with an idea describing how Andy might use any or all three in an artistic installation

Friday, November 25, 2011

More photos of dry stone kayak storage structure.

I posted photos of the beginning of this project back on November 17th. I noticed someone commented immediately afterwards requesting to see more pictures of the structure. Here are pics of the progress on the dry stone chamber up to Tuesday this week. The wrought iron arch door is a nice touch, don't you think? The pintels which act as pivots for the door to hinge on  are buried deep into the sides of the arch opening. The form is in place and held up with eight two by fours. The stone voussoirs around the door will sit slightly above the frame of the door so that they are supporting themselves and not likely to be pushed up by the frame if it is moved independently of the arch.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Movable Fence Post

The dry stone walls in the area of Glenn Lyon Scotland that Norman has done a lot of work have metal fencing along the top of them.  Earlier this month we were happing near Bridge of Balgie. The wire fencing has been added to increase the height of the wall so that the sheep wont be able to get over. The two strands of wire are held by metal posts imbedded into large cope stones at intervals of about 16 feet. The wires run through the posts but are not fastened at the post.  When a section of wall has slumped and needs repairing the individual cope stones with posts can be easily lifted and slid along the wire and repositioned temporarily on another section of wall until the repair is done. Then the cope stone is lifted back into position.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Looking back at Rocktoberfest. Part 1

Photo by SEan Adcock

I keep thinking about the 'Venusgate' we built during Rocktoberfest 2011. It was a terrific accomplishment to complete not just the arch opening part of this unusual dry stone structure, but the freestanding plinth shape too. There was a point where I wondered if we were going to get it all done. The timing was close on the Monday. By mid afternoon some of the volunteers and wallers had to be thinking about packing up to begin their long drive home. 
Things came together as if by magic. The curve shape above the arch was something that probably needed to be decided upon earlier and yet we couldn't really until we had laid the diamond shape keystone. The keystone looked like it called for another above it. This meant that the overall height had to be added to. Amazingly what we ended up with was a perfect height and proportion. 
The form had to be taken out, the boards taken down, the rocks removed and the area cleared in time to bring in the musicians. The sod had to brought in and laid with barely any time before people began gathering for the concert. The plinth which was only still half built continued to be built while the harpist tuba guitar trio performed. By the time the concert was finished, so too were everyone of the dry stone structures we had come together to build.  

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Stay stones, stay.

If we know what we are doing and we work hard enough at it we can get almost anything to stay. We have to be patient. We have to love it. We have to have an affinity with our subject. Gravity helps, but it helps to have a sense of humour some times too. It's good to be able to put things in perspective. And treats, when we've done a good job, help too.

Monday, November 21, 2011

On top of things

The summer 'cairn project' that Eric Landman headed and his assistants Ryan Josh and several wallers from Dry Stone Walling Across Canada helped with, was completed just before Rocktoberfest 2011.
The client asked us if he could use up the tons and tons of leftover material that wasn't used on the long decorative wall that she had someone build for her several year before on her property in Creemore Ontario. It felt good not to waste the stone or have to bury it. 
The pattern of laying stone in a random herring bone design was very challenging. The style stones acted as supports for us to continue building higher and higher. Eventually we stood in a front-end-loader bucket to complete the top 5 feet of the cairn. We also built a small secret niche into the structure for storing important artifacts. The chamber was sealed with an inconspicuous stone. 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A ranch of the DSWAC

When I was overseas recently I had a good long talk with a skilled waller who had recently stepped down from a very successful leadership role in an organization that involved people who built with stone. His wife described his day to day job of trying to get everyone on the same page and deal with awkward people and not offend anyone, as being a bit like herding cats.

Fitting stones together in a dry stone wall (herding stones?) though difficult and challenging is so much easier than trying to get people working together amicably. I'm reminded of something Thea Alvin said jokingly at this year's dry stone wall festival. 'C'mon fight nice guys." We all did.

For the most part wallers are a great bunch of people. Like cats, they do like to go their own way and do their own thing. That doesn't need to be a problem. When we do manage to all come together and work as well as we did at that recent DSWAC walling festival at the U of T property near Caledon, then I think it's an indicatation of how healthy an organization we actually have in Canada. While it may be more like a ten thousand acre ranch, it's at least a place where all us cats are free to graze and be safe from cat rustlers.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Coffee Table Book

Went to a book launch in Port Hope Ontario last night at Furby Books.

Autographed copies of the new coffee table book Private Gardens of the Northumberland Hills were being sold.

I was pleased to see dry stone structures built by Canadian wallers featured in several of the photos of properties that the authors Susan Carmichael,Jacquie Currelly and Peggy Della Rosa chose to showcase
There were several pages showing the work we did north of Colbourg including Cornish Hollow Bridge. Thought for the day - Pictures of dry stone walls make for good coffee table books.

Friday, November 18, 2011

A Memorial Cairn

John Scott built this granite structure as a kind of dry stone tribute to his best friend Wade who died tragically last April. The memorial cairn which is situated in a very remote area in White Lake (near Arnprior Ontario) is at a place where Wade camped and frequented often. The structure was completed just yesterday  

Ten tons of gnarly chunky stone were gathered locally and rolled out of the bush and painstakingly shaped by John with hammer and chisel.The sandstone plaque was brought in his truck from Southern Ontario and the letters were tooled in the evenings at the cabin where John stayed until he finished this lonely and rather noble gesture of remembrance to his well beloved friend.

John told me that just as he was starting a fire at the end of the last day of building a large doe jumped out of the bush and stared at him briefly and then disappeared back into the underbrush.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Our chamber's nearly made

I have a good friend who asked me to help him this fall with some walling. He needs to extend his driveway along the side of his house. The land drops off to the back so we are terracing it to create a larger flat area at the end of his driveway extending it 12 feet so that he can park his trailer there. In addition to this he is short of storage space and needs to keep his two kayaks out of the weather somewhere. 

We decided on the idea of creating a long dry stone chamber under his new extended driveway structure in order to accommodate his two boats. Here are some shots of the progress so far. The wooden form will be put in place sometime soon and the dry stone vault will probably be completed next week. After the area above the vaulted chamber is leveled a thick flat concrete driveway pad will be poured. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Revisiting the gap that we repaired

Last week we returned to do some work in Glenn Lyon and drove by to look at the wall repair we did at the bridge of Balgie back last December. It was still looking good. The Highland cows were hanging out there that day.
All the snow that December made progress slow when we were working on the repair. If you put down your hammer for too long you couldn't find it in the fresh fallen snow. And our gloves got all soggy. And our feet got cold. Wow. Just like Canada.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The tradition of sportsmanship.

A super bowl. A favourable impression. A 'post ceremony' in stone. This feature was a collaboration of Norman's and mine created in Scotland just a few weeks after many of us came together and celebrated Rocktoberfest in Canada. 

Successful festivals of stone depend on a continuity of friendships among the community of wallers here in Canada and abroad. It's never a competition or a showdown. 

Those who put aside egos and grievances and work together year after year to help build this legacy in stone, make it possible for those who look on to appreciate the craft as a whole.

Sunday, November 13, 2011


This dry stone tree was built with the kind of small stones that are often left over after a wall is finished. I just added the bigger longer stones to become the branches. Using stones that one has avoided thinking about having to use for the bulk of a larger project requires thinking with your hands.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The hump and the hollow. ( Using leftovers)

There is often a question as to what to do with leftover stone from a large dry stone walling projects.

Last year Norman and I came up with a solution which involved burying most of the stones in a hump and then covering half of it with turf and exposing the half the pile in a clever dome configuration.

We were going to call it the 'dry stone semi-sphere'

While the client liked this Sketchup design I came up with the idea morphed into a separate hump and an inverse hollow dry stone bowl design.

We dug the hole and buried a lot of the stone and were ready to do the pitching of the bowl shape but then the weather closed in last December in Scotland and it snowed and snowed. I flew back to Canada. And came back out this November .

I was asked to come and finish the project on my visit here this November. 

Here is a photo of it the day Norman and I completed it.

Tomorrow I'll there is another 'how-to-use-leftover-stone story' to tell

Friday, November 11, 2011

Frugal or Beautiful?

Norman Haddow tells the story of a time he had to do an evaluation for the DSWA of two walls built either side of an entrance way by two different wallers, both named Charlie. 

The farmer who owned the property came down the lane to talk and when Norman explained what he was doing the farmer asked him which he liked better.
"I like Charlie M's wall." Norman replied. 
"Well I prefer Charlie R's wall" said the old farmer, " because he came afterwards and built a perfectly good wall with all the leftover stones that Charlie M. couldn't use."

See if you can decide whose wall this is in the picture?

Thursday, November 10, 2011


Two old walls at Huntingtower Castle in Perth, Scotland.

One is dry laid.

One isn't.

The one without mortar is more pleasing to look at since the contours are clearly visible and each 'stone' is far more pronounced

By the way here in Scotland, stone is pronounced 'stoow-in'.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Balloons and Bridges

Balloons and bridges. 
Are they so far apart?
Both are solutions. 
Both are an implementation of man's ingenuity allowing souls to be carried loftily over the terrain below.

The circuit of stones suspended in air, compacted in a mass of rocks wedged together in a buoyant rising arc pattern above the earth doesn't seem very different from the colourful bubble we see following its arched course gracefully across the sky. 
Both celebrate a state of weightlessness.
They both stretch majestically across a span of the firmament – 
One in space, over a brief span of time. One, over space, for a longer span of time.

They both begin in a frenzy of activity.
Hammers and chisels and the bustling sounds 
of rocks being brought into shape by through various skills.
Ropes and propane tanks and the shouting tugging sounds on the ground
while the balloon slowly fills. 
Both sooner or later rise above the clamour of activity that launches them. 

And then hang there in the sky
... peaceful and serene.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Wall or Glyphics?

Traveling up to Glenn Lyon this week we took a route that passed this rather unusual wall near Kenmore Scotland. It is a wall Norman and I both knew about previously. It's infused with many strange designs and clever patterns which tempt one to think there is some sort of a story here. No one seems to know who built the wall but it is obviously a fairly new one. 

Many years from now when fragments of buried Cd's, DVDs and other relics of modern technology are being discovered in isolated parts of the world, a world very different from the one we know today, what will future experts conclude their significance to be? Will any technology still existing at that time able to read the mysterious remnants of our present day civilization?  Might archaeologists of the future better understand humanity by decoding simple stacks of stones such as these?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Bridge Sign

I noticed this bridge sign as Norman Haddow and I were driving up to Glenn Lyon in Scotland. It seemed so simple, so unassuming yet I knew it marked yet another lovely old stone bridge that would have been very interesting to stop and inspect. We passed several such bridges along the way to Bridge of Balgie where we would be staying last week and working nearby repairing an old dry stane dyke.

The best bridge, of course, is this one which is the one that Norman visited with his family on vacation when he was just a little boy and eventually inspired him to build a similar bridge year's later .

While Norman has driven past the Glenn Lyon bridge, (viewing it from the other side of the river many times over the years) during his times working in the glen he had not actually crossed it for 40 years. 
Last week after a night of heavy rain and when the burn was high he and I visited it closer. We parked the car down river and actually crossed the river and hiked all the way around to take pictures and walk across it. It was significant moment in time for both of us . Normans bridges in Scotland and my bridges in Canada owe a lot to the Glenn Lyon Bridge. 

Friday, November 4, 2011


People are like stone chisels. 
There are 'pitchers' who pitch in whenever they can to help.
There are 'pointers' who help show the way and often forge ahead along challenging new paths.
And then there are 'tracers' who copy everything you do. 
Sometimes these chisels are referred to as 'splitters'.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Big Game?

Bridge-hunter Dan Pearl is laying in wait to get a shot of this arch. 
Most of the stones in this bridge were hunted down locally and then 'captured in space' to be suspended continually over a vaulted six foot opening. Dan and six other dry stone wallers from the States and Canada were responsible for 'bagging' this beauty out there in the woods north of Kingston Ontario and then we took our cameras and shot it. No it didn't fall down. We all agreed that the whole experience was far better than going out in the fall and shooting animals.
Think of how different it would be if the North American tradition was that groups of Canadian and American men went out every autumn to stay in walling camps and bond and build stone bridges out in the bush instead of shoot off rifles ? 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Thanks Anyway

If committees told the truth

"Hi, we're here to take your project to places you didn't imagine.
With us on board, your project will now take three times as long.
It will cost five times as much.
And we will compromise the art and the vision out of it, we will make it reasonable and safe and boring."
Great work is never reasonable, safe or boring. Thanks anyway.

Thanks to Seth again.If committees told the truth

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

International Waller Dave Goulder

Walling instructor and DSWA Mastercraftsman Dave Goulder, from Rosehall, Scotland, went on from teaching a two day workshop at our Canadian DSWAC 'Roctoberfest' event to join Dan Snow in Vermont and teach another walling workshop and test students there.

The results can be seen on Dan's Blog