Friday, June 29, 2012

Thursday, June 28, 2012

All's well if it's a dry stone window well.

There is something very pleasing about dry stone window wells.
They just look right, and they are a simple solution to a common design problem of having basement windows below grade.
I enjoy building window wells a lot. Here are two we built yesterday. They always turn out so much better looking than those metal things people put around their basement windows.


Wednesday, June 27, 2012

It's no good if it's all good.

When Donny arrives at a new dry stone wall project with a truckload of 22 to 24 tons of random stone from the quarry, its always an exciting part of the job.

In fact it's a bit of a celebration. As the tail gate opens, its like opening a large present. What will the load contain? What kind of shapes will the stones have? Will there be enough copes, or through stones? Will there be a lot small stuff for hearting?   

The stone selection in the load that arrived yesterday at the job site was all good stuff. Too good! I'm going to have to complain to Donny. After we'd picked through it and laid the foundation stones I found myself walking around and around the pile looking for bad rocks that I could put at the back of the retaining wall or break into smaller chunks for hearting . There was nothing but beautiful briefcase/suitcase shapes and sizes. 

I find it amazing to think that walling is one of the few occupations where you can have too much good material. No chef would ever complain about finding only good meat in the delivery from the from the butcher. No carpenter, getting too many straight two-by-fours in his load from the lumberyard, would find it a problem. 

No body wants bad stuff. A bus driver doesn't need bad kids on her bus. A writer doesn't need bad ideas. A singer doesn't need bad musicians for accompaniment.

No it's only the waller that needs bad stuff. It's actually no good if it's all good.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Thinking back.

Carter, who I wrote about in yesterday's post, attended the 2008 Canadian dry stone festival with his parents when he was just a kid.
I thought a few pics of that event might be fun to post today.

Children of all ages like stones

Building a house with only stones is like watching a fairy tale.

Plenty of people and excitement as the scaffolding is taken down.

This is one of the structures built at the children's event.

The roof was completed in three days.

I suspect there are more 'kids' like Carter who were there that weekend who one day will also find an opportunity to have 20 tons of stone delivered to their back yard to play with.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Wanting to build a wall in the best way.

A lady phoned me last week to say her son Carter had talked her into having nearly twenty-four tons of random quarried stone delivered to her home in Lindsay, Ontario. She said that he had convinced her he needed to build a dry stone wall in their back yard and more importantly that he would try to finish it before he left  in two weeks on the Tall Ships Adventures program he had been accepted into, which sails the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario throughout the rest of the summer. 

When Jan looked at the huge pile of stone which had arrived one week later, she panicked. She explained that I had to come to the rescue and help him out for at least a day since it was me who got Carter addicted to dry stone walling stone in the first place.

Carter age 11 had attended our Dry Stone Wall Festival with his parents in 2008 where he saw the dry stone hut completed and then got invited to participate at one of the children's events building small stone arches. Five years later he attended our "not for profit" dry stone wall workshop at the Lindsay Rugby Club and with fifteen others helped build a permanent memorial wall there for Rachel Spearing.

I took yesterday off and helped start Carter on one of his two adventures: one would last the summer, the other, hopefully, will last a lifetime.

Carter and I enjoyed finding this stone that 'wanted' to be in his wall in the best way!

 We put in 35 feet of foundation stones on Sunday.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The modern inukshuk

Its easy to call yourself an 'artist' these days.
Anyone can stack stones too apparently- if you only know how.
The possibilities are endless.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Before and Yesterday

We finished this job in Keene Ontario yesterday.
A hundred year old wall in need of much repair was given new life.
I thought it would be good to post a couple of the before shots next to new photos taken from nearly the same angle. 

The vertical copes and the turf going right over the top really make this wall 'pop'.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Liver and Onions

I love liver and onions. Since it is something that is never served at home I will often end up ordering it at a restaurant. It seems to make sense to get my liver and onion fix when ever I can. Amazingly even though it is such an unappreciated food it still is on a lot of menus in the various places we go for lunch break. Who eats this stuff besides me, I wonder? 
I have decided that maybe there is this secret club of people I have never met who all go out and eat liver and onions. There is apparently enough of us to keep it ever being served in restaurants all over Canada. We liver eaters are in a kind of special club.
I am thankful to be part of this low profile organization. I feel a strange camaraderie with the others of my clan.
I'm wondering too if there is not a dry stone wall connection. In a industry dominated with fast food solutions to landscaping and the mass appeal of manufactured concrete products, super-sized boulders and cookie cutter applications to most designs requiring terrace retaining walls and fencing applications, I like to think that our humble band of dry stone wallers here in Canada help keep this tasty, tasteful, thrifty and sensible item on the menu.
It may not be to every one's taste, but maybe that's a good thing.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Outstanding Wall

This is a section of wall I made a little while back. Or did I? Maybe, I just drew it. Maybe I only imagined I did it. It likely doesn't exist anymore anyway, as it was only supposed to be temporary. 
By now it is just 'history'. 
People interpret history anyway they want.
I thought it was a pretty damn good wall. But was it? It's all about perspective.
Nothing's perfect. You can always find things that are wrong with a wall, especially if you are really looking for faults. But sometimes there are more 'faults' in the way someone chooses to perceive a wall than there are with the thing itself. 
It isn't difficult to imagine, because it was something very important for me to get right, it would have been a pretty 'outstanding' wall.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Another Bridge - to know where.

This is a photo of the bridge (taken on the day we completed it) at Landon Bay Centre in 2010. It was built by enthusiastic supporters of  Dry Stone Walling Accross Canada during our annual festival.
We were wondering where we might be building our next dry stone bridge.
Then the invitation came from Chris Overing to build a bridge in Quebec.
We came and looked at the site he proposed and were suitably impressed. We arranged with Chris to not only build the bridge but hold our annual Festival of Stone this time just outside Montreal.
We are excited to announce that this time we will be building a 'Double Arched' bridge over a small creek on the festival site. 
Please write to me at if you have not been contacted yet and would like to be involved in this exciting project. 

Also, check out for more details. We will be adding more information soon.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

I wish I was a real boy.

Ryan Stananought works with stones a lot.
He sometimes takes a break from dry stone walling ( during lunch breaks usually) and fits stones together in different ways.
He texted me yesterday and sent this photo of a very spontaneous sculpture he created with random stones. It's amazing how animated they look considering how inanimate they are.


This figure I'm guessing is a kind of self portrait in stone.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Nice professional looking wall.

Twelve students and two instructors with Dry Stone Walling Across Canada (DSWAC)  completed nearly 50 feet of wall on June 16 and 17 at the 2012 Brighton Ontario workshop. The students built with local rounded fieldstone and did a very professional job building in courses with this difficult to work with material. Several of them plan on taking more opportunities to build dry stone walls in Canada like this and also hope to gain more experience at our upcoming dry stone Festival of Stone event near Montreal Quebec this fall, which includes lectures, a demonstration double arched dry stone bridge building project and  two special beginner walling workshops . See details at

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Discussion over walls.

The interesting thing about walling is that within the physical universe as we know it, (even reduced to the simplest of disciplines, that of humbly laying only stones upon stones so as to maximize their connectivity) there are fundamental disagreements amongst walling experts as to how it is to be done. You would think by now people would have reached a universal consensus discussing such things as basic to walling as...

- coursing versus non-coursing (random) and also diagonal patterns

- slight outward versus inward leaning of individual stones in a wall

- graduation of sizes of stones from top to bottom

- imperative requirement of throughstones

- type and depth of foundation

- existence and degree of batter

- shaping stones versus not shaping

- most practical style (flat or vertical) , and lean (or not) of coping

- specifications concerning the thickness and proper construction of dry stone retaining walls
Even accounting for variations of rock types and geography there are still many differences of opinion about how the science of walling is to be understood. Apparently even after thousands of years of fitting stones together we can't agree. All over this stoney planet there are so many examples of differing styles, and differing explanations for the principles at work, that 'breaking down' why certain piles of stone stones 'stay up' better than others, still remains very much a mystery.

Friday, June 15, 2012

A different way to finish the top of a terrace wall

Danny Woodward (who is working with me this summer) is topping off a retaining wall we have built with a Cornish hedge type of coping. It is a bit unusual. The copes are laid on end and create a flat surface which then be covered in sod. The turf on the terrace side will come right over the top of the wall rather than have the usual border of flat stones that one sees in most dry stone retaining applications.

Below is a wall Danny built last year in Furry Creek B.C. built with local basalt.
This time the garden soil stops flush with the vertical copes. Sometimes its nice to have the copes sit higher than the level of the terrace too.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Mallorcan Holes

Sometimes holes in stones are man made. This one would have been chiseled through to form part of a hinge for a wooden gate post.

This 'natural hole' goes right through a large gnarly chunk of limestone. Can anyone explain how holes like these are formed?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Balance isn't precarious.

Every stone fits and stays where it should in a well built dry stone wall. There is a maximizing of equilibrium. Unlike precarious 'stone balancing' where the stones barely touch and fall down within hours, the points of contact in a dry laid wall are many. The stones are all held in a stable balance. They lean on each other and give the wall permanent strength . Gravity is the glue, not cement, and yet long term 'balance' is attained.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Where are we going?

You guys all okay?

Yup, but I wish I knew where we were going.

Me too.
I'm scared. 

It's going to be alright, really!  

But it's so bumpy and noisy. 
And everything is flying by so fast.

I'm feeling sick. I think I'm gonna heave if we don't slow down soon.

Just hold on tight to one of us, little stone.

Where do you think they're gonna dump us?

I don't know.
But Im guessing, there's no way we are gonna be able to find our way back to the others.

We should have tried harder to get away from that horrible rock catching machine.

It would have been no use. 
Playing dead is the only defence we have.
If they ever found out we were alive, that we had feelings, that we were not just a bunch of stupid inanimate objects, they'd hunt us down like wild animals for sure. 
We'd be extinct. No, it's best to stay low and take the line of least resistance.

Our weight and hardness is our only defence.
This way we get left alone most of the time.

Look at the stars.
They know.
They've learned to stay quiet.
To keep their distance.

Let's huddle closer guys.
Let's stick together no matter what happens.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

An article by Willa Wicks

Willa was one of the ten people who travelled with us to Mallorca and Menorca on our 2012 Tour of Walls. This is an article about that trip that she wrote recently for Rural Route Magazine.


Spain is noted for matadors, mountains, and the Mediterranean.
But it’s also famous for stone walls - literally thousands of miles of dry stone walls criss-cross the countryside. 
As you fly towards the larger island of Mallorca (Meyjorka) you glance down upon ‘ringed’ mountains.  The bus trip to the hotel winds through these mountains and the ‘rings’ turn out to be a terracing of dry laid stone walls, often 8, 9 or more levels high.

Coming from a rural area where as kids we were all subjected to picking stones from the fields, our efforts pale in comparison to what landowners of this island endure.  This is all rock!

To have any sort of agricultural land, the slopes of the mountainsides had to be cleared and the land leveled.  Marges (retaining walls) create a horizontal surface for cultivation purposes. There is written evidence that these elements were in place before the 13th century.  The stone terracing makes it possible for the inhabitants of the rugged areas of the island to farm the land.   
Incorporated into some walls are small stone buildings used as a temporary shelter in bad weather and also to store tools, food and the working animals (usually donkeys).

One of the original crops was olive oil production.  The olive branch is a symbol of peace and hope, and these trees live to an age of several hundred, often thousands, of years.

The Olive tree is one of the few trees that can still flourish and produce fruit even from rocky and unproductive land.  Most of the ancient terraces are filled with olive trees.  These old growth trees add beauty and grace to the landscape.  The olive tree was popular because of its rich produce of expensive oil.  More than 50% of each olive is filled with oil.  Olive oil is an ingredient of a healthy diet.  As a monosaturated fatty acid it does not have the same cholesterol raising effect of saturated fats. 
The trees, which begin to bear between 5 and 8 years, have their best production around 40 and 50 years.  Green olives have a slightly bitter tang and are harvested in September and October while the black ones are simply black by virtue of having been left on the tree till the November harvesting. For hundreds of years this was the main source of income for numerous estates (now its oranges, lemons and almonds). Nature has sculptured the trunks of olive trees transforming them into genuine works of art. 
But I digress, it was stonework we journeyed to experience.
Mallorca is noted for its remarkable stone work spanning 4000 years.  Some of the island’s finest dry stone walls are found in the Village of Deia (where we stayed) and neighboring town of Soller.  Both are nested in the Traumantana Mountains which are honeycombed with stone paths, hiking trails and mule cart roads. 
The walls have many roles - property lines, defining field crops, enclosing estates, sheep/cattle pens etc.  Every boundary line is a high stone wall. The entire system demonstrates the ingenuity of the ancient Mallorcans.  Everywhere are examples of traditional dry stone engineering which is now listed as cultural heritage and protected by the Heritage Act of 1994.

Mallorcan dry stone walls are not laid in courses trying to maintain the same height level each layer, but rather use a random pattern of five or six sided stones of varying sizes.  As a result when you stop and study a wall you can often see a daisy flower or arches in the pattern.  It would be much more difficult to do this type of shaping and placing than normal flat coursed work.  The bonding would be much stronger however, as each stone has more surfaces on which to lock.

Our first hike on, beside, and through this amazing network was a mere 8 km trek to the nearest town.  Signs (sarcastic) on the trails are listed in time rather than distance, and we usually far superceded the suggested hours. Afterall, we were not a young athletic training team, but rather most over 60 with the eldest being 81.  Last year during our British Isles mountaineering I regarded the hiking poles for wimps, but this year after purchasing a walking stick for myself I found it saved my neck on several occasions.

When we came to the town of Soller the streets were scary narrow, but often opened up into a market square with many outdoor restaurants.  Our early morning 2 hour (according to the sign) trek had lasted till noon!  Our guides (but only some of our gang) wanted to go forward to the next town.  This proved to be even more amazing scenery.  Parts of the trail bisected the fields and we were able to walk through the terracing, the narrow strips of cultivated turf, and row upon row of the old olive trees.  There were stone bridges, catwalks, and even an original laundromat where water flowed from the hills into a large open stone trough with rubbing rocks around the edges to act as the washboard. 
On our return to town (almost sundown) our guides treated us to the island beverage – “Mallorcan Herbal”, a very pleasant anise liqueur.

The following day we hiked through a scenic mountain canyon to where some native margers (wallers) were laying down a new path through the treacherous terrain.  The original plan was to work with, and learn from, them.  However, the hill was steep and there was no room for 12 extra workers, so we were content to watch without leaving our mark on the island. 

A three day stint, with our living quarters at a Monastery, branched out into more unique flavors of this beautiful island – cuisine, botanical gardens, more stone walls, and of course more hiking.  The trickiest was a 20 km challenge up through and over the mountains.  High up among sheer rock and cliffs were still miles and miles of ancient but well constructed stone walls, seemingly without reason for being there. 

At one juncture, on a relatively smooth section of trail, was pressure treated lumber forming a raised edging along the base of the wall.  It was along this stretch that there were abundant ‘discovery signs’ showing the flora of the area – beautiful pictures with embossed and raised plant parts.  In the bottom corner was the explanation in Braille.  The pressure treated edging was for white cane users.
Narrow paved vehicle roads circle the mountains while the hiking trails go more or less vertical and therefore often cross the roads.   That allows entry to the trails from several starting points.  It was good to see that some parts of the footpath route had been made accessible to the handicapped.

One of the more interesting features was the ancient Lime Stone Kiln – a round dry stone structure where hot fires converted the calcareous rock into quicklime which was then used as a white wash for walls or a disinfectant.

A ferry ride took us to the smaller island of Menorca.  This historic island has much archeological significance as the ways of the ancient people have been unearthed.
A tour stop had been planned for the Lithica Stone Quarry.  Here the old adage of “being in the right place at the right time” awarded us a surprising acknowledgement, and a terrific personalized tour.  One of our leaders was wearing his association t-shirt with Dry Stone Walling Across Canada emblazoned on his chest.  A female worker, who was just leaving, read John’s shirt and came to an abrupt halt.  Dry Stone?  Canada?  English?  She was of Belgian descent but had been working as a waller in Menorca for 30 years.  Fedrika had been on her way to the bank but it didn’t take much talking to persuade her to show us around and give an explanation of how the stone had been quarried by hand in the early years, and then by machinery until it ceased in 1994.   Fedrika is now responsible for constructing safety walls around the perimeter, making steps etc.  The quarry has been turned into wonderful botanical sunken gardens.
With a nominal donation from each one of us we were able to secure Fedrika’s services for the following day and she took us to stone wonder spots which would not normally be visited by the public because they are on private lands.

There were Navetas (prehistoric funeral mausoleums), and natural caves used as multi-family housing units during the second millennium B.C.  We explored Talayots (round houses from the 4th century B.C.)  These watchtowers were part of the defence system for the villages.  And then there were the Megaliths!  One wonders how much is buried below the ground that storms and earthquakes have never moved them.  More puzzling – how did the ancient civilizations erect these monuments?

But the Barracas caused the most discussion in trying to unravel the perplexing construction. These dot the farming landscape and there’s one in nearly every field – and every field is bordered by a stone wall.  The ancient barraca is a beehive shaped structure with 5 foot-thick stone walls tiered like a wedding cake.  Even our two master craftsmen were in awe as they took measurements of the inside and tried to determine the formula and schematics of laying the stone to meet at the high domed top.
And to think these were only sheep pens!  There was but one door and no windows.  It was like touring an old barnyard – the barraca would be the barn, there were other rectangular stone out buildings with sod tops, walls with mangers for feeding the animals, a cistern water system with huge stone troughs, and stone wall lined lanes to drive the sheep from one field to another. 
There was the opportunity to climb, and from the top of the structure one could see walls and farms for miles – and there literally were barracas in their back yards.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Shovelling stone

Much as I love working with stones I don't really enjoy shovelling piles of the small stuff called 'gravel'.  Its very unsatisfying. Each crunch of the shovel barely makes a dent. And the stuff you do get spills off as you lift the shovel to throw it into the wheel barrow.

Here's what what we were digging in yesterday
It's almost as bad as shovelling gravel.
It's stoney soil.

It's amazing how small a stone, just one stone, can stop the strong thrusts of the shovel from gliding in to the dirt and getting decent shovel-fulls.

By the way, is it 'shovel-fulls' or 'shovels full'?

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The transit of Venus (Looking with my hands)

Many people around the world viewed a rare occurrence in the heavens two days ago June 5th 2012.

Little did we know when we built our dry stone 'Venus Gate' ( a 'tri-structure' of plinth, oval-gate-arch opening and stone telescope) at our most recent Dry Stone Wall Festival in Canada that such a special occasion involving Venus would take place less than a year later.

Transit of Venus 2012: Spectacular show seen for the last time until ...

While there are a lot of facts and figures related to this special event there are a couple of things specifically that interested me.

First off how did it get its name?

Venus is one of the 5 planets visible with the unaided eye. This means that ancient people knew of Venus, and tracked its movements in the sky. Venus is the second planet away from the Sun and is the brightest object in the sky aside from the Moon and the Sun and it appears 10x brighter than the brightest star in the sky, Sirius. The clouds of Venus reflect the light of the sun like a giant mirror.

The Romans knew of seven bright objects in the sky, the sun, the moon and the five brightest planets. They named them after their most important gods. Venus, the brightest planet in the night sky, was named after the Roman goddess of love and beauty.

In ancient times, Venus was known to the Babylonians as Ishtar, the goddess of womanhood and love, so the planet has a long standing tradition of being associated with amore. 
The ancient Egyptians and Greeks thought Venus was two separate bodies and named them The Morning Star and the Evening Star until in Hellenistic times, people figured out that it was only one object. Hence perhaps the connection to the oval shape. Surprisingly the actual orbit of Venus is the most circular in the entire Solar System. In mathematical terms, the eccentricity of Venus is less than 0.01. 

And as we look at the many images of Venus in transit on the Internet as seen through various telescopes and using other observation methods ( including the one we set up at the Hart House Farm site where our Venus Gate stands) some interesting Venus-like associations come to mind. 

A pair of thumbnail pics of Venus Transit found on Google image search

Here is a remarkable photo of Venus transit as it makes what scientists call the 'second contact' – the point where its entire silhouette is first seen yet still touching the inside edge of the suns circumference. 

                                                         This photo when scaled and narrowed in perspective actually makes the familiar oval  Venus shape and looks even more like our Venus gate.