Monday, February 27, 2017

An ice form.

A sheet of ice that formed in our water barrel was the inspiration for a small arch we built yesterday 

We had left the barrel half full of water and the ice that formed over night on the surface was more of an eclipse because the barrel was sitting on a bit of a tilt. The sheet of ice supported the arch temporarily and then fell away and melted leaving the arch still standing there.

I find creating things with natural materials at least once a day, no matter how small or seemingly unrelated to what ever else I'm building, is still the best way I know to stay in touch with my surroundings and the potential that lies within. 

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Fireside Chat

I am impressed with the direction several very talented masons have taken fireplace designs to over the past 25 years. I think of the work of Lew French particularly. His rustic funky off-the-wall creations seem refreshing and spontaneous.The fits are stunningly tight. The joints usually have little or no mortar showing. The mix of driftwood, huge rocks, old boards and beams is convincing and often unpredictably pleasing. 

And there are others who have introduced intriguing swirls  and a sense of motion into their fireplaces, literally spiralling away from the drab, sterile, static, stone and concrete fireplaces that have permeated living rooms from even before the post modern era .

I myself have taken a bit of a side step from all this, though it is very positive exploration. While I like to see stone fitting exquisitely tight in other's work and appreciate the introduction of motion and mixed media into the mix, the patterns I seem to gravitate to in my own work result from a fascination with the structural look of old dry laid walls. 

I like to imagine my fireplaces could have actually been built without grinders and saws (and sometimes they are ) and that they appear to have been made without mortar - which of course they haven't. (The joints have just all been raked back so you can't see the 'devils cream'.)

This dry stone look gives it a kind of appealing primitive feel, as the familiar bonds and predictable random coursing augments the semi traditional 'log cabin' fireplace look. 

That being said, the traditional feel is subtly tweaked with occasional triangles, carefully spotted feature stones and other stylized design features to create a subtle symmetry (or asymmetry ) which all hopefully works together to prove, at least to me, that while 'form' and 'function' may not agree on who is following who, stonework is best appreciated when all the elements combine to give a convincing sense of structure. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

My heart is not in my throat.

After the damper has been set in place at the top of the throat and most of the channel has been formed with firebricks, stones are laid over the opening. 

They are mortared to form a structural  'jack arch', even though there is also an angle iron supporting this span of stones. ( The angle iron leaning against the stones in this photo isn't it . That's just there temporarily to hold the key stone in place until the other stones across the opening are set )  

Once all the arch stones are mortared together, the top of the throat is bricked up. I braced a stiff slab of styrofoam at the correct angle to temporarily support this corbeled brickwork until everything set.

Then comes the messy job of getting up into the firebox and  filling all the joints and parging the entire throat up to the smoke chamber. 

Actually Mark said he enjoyed this part. My heart just isn't in it. In fact, I hate it. Chunks of mortar always fall in your face. 

I'd much rather be hearting dry stone walls. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Off Balanced Damper.

We modified the metal plate taken from the damper of the old metal heatilater that we had previously removed. It took some grinding and reshaping to get it to fit the new channel which will basically create the throat of the fireplace and is now made with firebrick instead of steel. 

In this case the damper plate is modified by having a rod welded the length of it (slightly off centre), so that it is heavier on one side and so tends to want to tip. This off balance aspect is important . 

Both ends of the rod will be imbedded into the side walls enabling it to pivot and flop down either way. The most difficult thing now is to position it (in a properly formed brick channel ) so that it is able to swivel to a position where it can stay open (allowing smoke to pass both above and below the damper plate ) while also being able to pivot back the other way to stay closed, simply because the plate's axis is off centre  The damper has to rest snugly in both positions without getting caught on the side walls as it is rotated.

The photo above show the damper at about 45 degrees in the full open position.

All this fitting and damper work has to be completed before setting the stones in front over the arch opening. There will still be a lot of reaching up inside to finish the brickwork connecting the visible stonework of the arch up into the throat reaching up to the smoke shelf.  Which I haven't talked about yet.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

You can always count on Rumford's proportions

It's worth looking up Count Rumford on Google if you've not heard of him. It was over 200 years ago that he experimented with designs for heating with wood in an open fireplace and figured out the best proportions for creating efficient radiant heat. His design has never been significantly improved upon.

In this stone retrofit, the more efficient proportions of a Rumford fireplace will require laying firebrick to create a shallow firebox with canted sides and a fireback that slopes forward. 

My firebricks are inter-fingered into the dovetailed cornerstones which are all shaped at about 105 degrees instead of 90. Stones form the outer corners where there is very little heat buildup. This creates a much better look than firebrick quoining.

We are using black 2 inch firebrick and black tinted mortar (which makes for a less 'new looking' firebox). The black mortar joints are recessed in the stonework to look like they're dry laid while the brickwork in the firebox is pointed flush.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

It's starting to look less rough.

The process of changing over to a traditional stone Rumford from a drab looking metal insert clad with concrete bricks can be a dusty and messy, but it's worth it. The exiting rough-in is still exposed and the new stone construction is still looking a bit untidy.

But here comes the new hearth.  It's made of heavy 3 inch thick granite. 

The raised hearth is not actually part of the Rumford design. It is more of a concession to expedience, as we pretty much have to rebuild everything starting at concrete floor level. 

Slowly but surely the stately look of well proportioned stonework emerges, imposing a more pleasing order and structure to the rough looking chaos of masonry behind.

Friday, February 17, 2017

I got my flu shot today.

I went up on the roof and measured the existing chimney flu. The inside dimensions are a generous 18" by 10" which will allow our fireplace opening to be quite large, somewhere around 38" by 44".

We managed to remove the old metal heatilator in the afternoon too. The three amigos helped me - Jose', Hose B and Hose C.

See you later, heatilator !

I'm thinking, for mixing cement tomorrow, maybe we can use some other hoes, eh?

Thursday, February 16, 2017

A long awaited fireplace project

Back in November my client sent me the photo of their original concrete brick fireplace after he'd ripped out all the ugly bricks.

He wrote to say they were looking forward to us coming and rebuilding them a nice Rumford fireplace out of stone when we come.

It looked pretty much the same when we arrived last Monday to begin the work.

After staring at the exposed 'rough-in' with the ugly 'heatilator' in the corner for the last three months, I'm thinking my clients will be relieved to have their stone fireplace soon. It will certainly improve the look of the living room.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Napa Valley Dry Stone Walls

There are some great dry stone walls in California around Napa Valley 

These particular walls are found along highway 128.

A lot of stone walls in this area border the perimeters of the vineyards. 

There is a kind of symbiotic relationship between walls and vines - stones and grapes. 

Vines actually like to grow in stony soil and grow best warmed and protected by the walls. 

At the same time, stone walls like looking their best nestled into the tidy aesthetic landscape created by rows and rows of grape vines.

The walls in Napa all seem to be saying,  "Hey, we're very much part of the whole wine experience."

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Monday, February 13, 2017

An Opened and Closed Workshop

My students and I were very pleased to finish the mica schist/ basalt/ bronze dry stack double arch yesterday at Lyngso . 

The ten of us were down to the wire to get it done but magically at 4 pm at 'closing' time, we were able to pull out the forms and enjoy that wonderful feeling of 'closure' as we peered out through the two 'openings' for the final photo shoot.

Many thanks to Vic and Kan and the whole crew at Lyngso for having us there and providing such great material and a place to build out of the rain, and in this case, out of the glaring sunshine. 

Friday, February 10, 2017

Step right up for the Mystery Walls

Now and then modern dry stone wallers have mysterious projects that for some reason the details of which are not disclosed for a time . 

The ancient dry stone walls found around certain remote areas of San Francisco's East Bay, by contrast, remain more of a real mystery.

Mark and I stepped up to the top of Ed R. Levin County Park near San Jose in near blizzard conditions yesterday to try to find some of these amazing structures. After climbing to an altitude of over 2400 feet, through the fog we got several glimpses of very old lichen covered walls that nobody really knows who, why or even when they were built.

At one point we had to take cover on the leeward side of one of the walls during the worst part of the storm.

Perhaps some of these curvy mountain walls were originally built just for protection from the elements.

Perhaps they all originally linked up to create some kind of communication circuit enabling a thus far undocumented people to know where they were and be able to keep their bearings

Maybe the walls were for channeling energy.

Then again, what if the walls were part of an ancient civilization that required those coming of age, or those seeking enlightenment, to go off and spend month after month in these desolate hills working together (or alone?) to create this amazing network of stones, and so get 'fitter' (both physically and metaphysically), and return home more in touch with the real world and the things that really matter?    

Below are just some of the writings associated with people exploring and trying to uncover more about the walls. 


The ancient east bay mystery walls remain an ancient unsolved enigma. Often referred to as the “Great Wall Of California”, it still remains unknown who constructed the stone walls and for what reason. Could they be evidence that an ancient unknown advanced civilization once settled in the East Bay?
Ancient walls leading to a mysterious stone circle
Stretching for over 50 miles, the East Bay “Mystery Walls” are found up and down the hills of the East Bay from Berkeley to San Jose, USA. A 50 mile long wall is odd enough, but what if the wall was not alone?  What if there were other walls?  A chain of walls all along Northern California because as it turns out, there are other mysterious walls in North California but not just in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Instead these series of walls may stretch as far as the Oregon border. After meandering throughout the Oakland hills, the walls head inland towards Mt. Diablo where we encounter mysterious stone circles, up to 30 feet in diameter. In one place the walls form a spiral 200 feet wide that circles a large boulder.
Who were the mysterious builders of the Great Wall of California?
Some scholars who examined the ancient ruins proposed the stone walls are the work of settlers from Mongolia, as the Chinese tended to wall in their cities. Perhaps the mystery walls were reminiscent of the Great Wall of China. Did the Zheng Hue fleet which set out to circumnavigate the world reach California? Anchors found in Baja California, mysterious writings from a Buddhist monk in Meso America, even a sunken 17th century Junk found near Chico, all suggest the Chinese explorer was present in this part of the world.

Read more:

R. Swanson provided photographs of the East Bay Walls described in SF#38. The photo on the left shows a rather complete section, 5-feet high, on Mission Peak, Fremont, California. N. Fink is shown measuring this wall. On the right, one of the walls leads to a "hill fort" at an elevation of 1,400 feet. Two other walls terminate at this rock pile. This wall has obviously experienced the ravages of time. It is said that these walls were in place when the Spanish arrived.

Mystery Walls – Bison Weirs?

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Delayed Gravitation

It's been raining here in Northern California for weeks. This is presumably a good thing after such a long drought. The ground is soaked now and it's not only the rocks that are thinking about sliding. 

Of course when people choose to 'slide' they do it to have fun. Why would it be any different with stones?

Rocks seem to naturally want to 'gravitate'. When we try to hold them back, or build them up, say in a dry stone wall, are we merely delaying their gratification?  

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Welcome to the Castello California

We visited Castello di Amorosa, Dario Sattui's authentically-built 13th century Tuscan castle and winery yesterday near Calistoga California. The stonework is excellent. 

This is not a plastic/concrete Disney castle. This is the real thing, or as close as you can get half way around the world from Tuscany. The castle took 13 years to design and construction started in 1997 and the castle was completed in 2006. 

You can get nicely lost in this place - starting from the fortified winery entrance gate, working your way around and up the red brick and white granite towers, back down through the spacious courtyard and into to the barrel vaulted wine barrel basements. 

While we were there we had the good fortune to be able to talk to three of the masons who worked on this huge project originally and happened to be there this week squaring stone for a new gate house. 

Raymond and Fernando were from Mexico, and Johnny, on the right, was from Italy. They told us all the bricks came from Italy but the thousands of tons of stone were all sourced locally. 

This is the place to come if you are a connoisseur of good stonework, oh and yes maybe if you like wine too.  

Sunday, February 5, 2017

No Competition

Here’s my lovely wife once more, up against my latest dry stone wall. 

I think she wins.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Through Mary's Eyes

While we were on holiday this week, I finally had the opportunity to show my wife some of the stone installations I and a number of other talented wallers created over a period of the last 9 years on this lovely coastal property near Gualala California. 

As she wandered around taking photos of some of the garden features and dry stone 'follies', I was able to sense again the excitement that comes at the moment all the stones have been fitted together and you stand back and know intuitively that the piece you've worked so hard to bring to completion has now 'taken flight'. Case in point is the 'Wing Wall' - a dry laid boulder and schist structure I designed for the front of the property.

While good stonework will always maintain its timeless feeling of 'rightness', it's an added treat to be there when  another person, having interacted with a particular dry stone installation for the first time, magically seems to 'get' it  - especially if that someone is someone you love.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Gualala Flyby Part 2

Mark Ricard the 'Stone Droner' is very busy this week trying not to crash as soars around vicariously in the sky taking videos of inspiring stonework and dry stone installations in the Gualala area with his new drone. 
While the propellers on the drone obviously didn't, please take a moment to enjoy a couple of the 'clips'.
Thanks Mark for the aerial acrobatics. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Mysterious Stacks

Photo courtesy of Paul Hopkins
Photo courtesy of Paul Hopkins

The mountains of Appalachia are filled with mystery and intrigue.

Having been occupied by a countless number of differing cultures for thousands of years, the land often yields questions but seldom offers any hint as to the vast underworld hidden beneath her leaves and ancient soil.

One question that is asked with surprising frequency has to do with the origins of mysterious rock piles located in overgrown forests — occasionally these rock piles are perfectly squared, whereas at other times, they seem as though they are merely a mound of stones gathered from across the hillside and collected into one location.

Paul Hopkins of Pike County, Kentucky, has one such rock structure in his area (pictured above), measuring approximately 20′ long, 8′ wide and 6′ high in the front. Perfectly square and plumb.

Hopkins says his great-grandfather died in 1981 at age 101 and had told him that the rocks had been there since at least he was a boy.

But where did they come from?

Were these stones laid by America’s first human inhabitants, ancient aliens or something less exotic? Like so many others, the answer to this question all depends on whom you ask!

For most rock piles found throughout the mountains of Appalachia, there seems to be a general consensus that as early settlers would begin clearing a hillside in order to farm, they would stack all rocks gathered along the mountainside into one giant pile – this would allow opportunities to plant corn on what had previously been ground too rocky to farm.

One Internet commenter said that there “were numerous stacks in the hollow I grew up in. I have even helped remove a few in my great-grandmothers gardens.”

Regarding this particular photo, another person stated, “It’s a rock fence. When they plowed their fields they would stack the rocks that way. The woods in this picture is a growed up farm.”

If this is true, it’s both heartbreaking and reassuring to realize just how temporary man’s mark upon a hillside can be: only a few tons of displaced rocks stand as a silent witness to the lives of the individuals who once worked the land.

However, not all rock walls or rock mounds found in the Appalachian Mountains were laid by the hands of early settlers.

Hopkins says that the location in which this particular rock formation was found has no evidence of any roads or previous farming having taken place — which is on a “very steep mountain,” this begs the question, what else could have done this?

Numerous large rock mounds throughout Kentucky-West Virginia have been discovered as being grave sites of an ancient native nation known simply as “the Mound Builders.”

Other rock formations, though most often much smaller than the one in this photo, are known as cairns – a human-made pile (or stack) of stones that have been used by a variety of cultures for a countless number of purposes, including being erected as landmarks, burial monuments, defense and hunting structures, ceremonial purposes, and sometimes relating to astronomy.

Massive rock piles have also been used to help individuals locate buried items, such as caches of food or objects; and to mark trails, among other purposes.

Unfortunately, the rocks on this eastern Kentucky mountainside are keeping their silence, unwilling to share a secret which only they know.

Appalachian Magazine