One of the oldest construction techniques in existence, Dry stone walling (sometimes also called drystack) involves constructing walls by simply stacking stones on top of each other. Unlike brick walls, which require wet mortar to hold them together, dry stone walling involves no mortar at all. These walls simply rely on gravity, along with the skills of those who build them, for their stability.
Actually, stability is one of the most impressive features of these structures. Well-constructed dry stone walls can be expected to last for over 100 years and some even last for 200 years.
This impressive fact, along with several other benefits and their aesthetic appeal has seen a rise in the popularity of dry stone walling here in Australia. They are some old examples of this construction method in this country, though generally there are not as many examples here as elsewhere. Perhaps this current wave of popularity will change that.
Indeed, many people are starting to use drystack for things like stone cladding, a dry stone retaining wall, dry stone wall cladding, or a feature wall in urban settings.
The history of dry stone walling
A well-known and well-loved feature of the rural landscapes of Britain and Ireland, dry stone walling dates back to the Neolithic age. The earliest examples have been dated to around 5,000 BC. However, dry stone walls are not restricted to England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. They were also part of the Mayan civilization in South America and can be found throughout Europe, in Greece and also in alpine regions.
The pros and cons of dry stone walling - The positives
Appearance – rugged and almost impossibly rustic, dry stone walling has a timeless aesthetic appeal. On top of that, these walls hold tremendous cultural significance for the communities of Britain and Ireland, the nations in which they are most well known.
Environmentally friendly - dry stonewalling involves the use of readily available, natural materials. In cases where the walls are no longer of use, they can simply be deconstructed and the stones used elsewhere. On top of that, dry stone walls provide habitats for mosses, lichens and so forth. They become part of the ecosystem and encourage inside life and more.
Longevity - As already mentioned, evidence of the first ever dry stone walls have been found more than 5000 years beyond their construction and such walls built today can be expected to last for a century or more. Its impressive longevity is beyond question.
Materials - Whenever you are building a dry stone wall or fence you can be sure of one thing. You only require one material, stones.
The pros and cons of dry stone walling - The negatives
Labour time - Dry stone walls take a long time to build and for this reason are relatively expensive.
Reliance on skilled labour - On top of that, dry stone walling is heavily reliant on the skills of those doing the labor. Poorly built dry stone walls simply won't last. They will collapse.
Applications are limited – Traditionally, dry stone walling was mainly used to handle livestock. While it does this job well it is limited in terms of fence height. Anything more than about 1.5 meters is not possible. Larger structure built using this technique would not be stable or safe.
Reliant on good stone supply – As mentioned, dry stone walling usually involves locally sourced stones. The problem with that is that if that supply runs out or simply isn’t there, the work stops.
How to build a dry stone wall
Step 1 - choose the location of your wall and mark it out, using stakes, string, or a similar method. Here it is important to first check the width of your larger stones. This will determine the width of your wall.
Step 2 - Dig a 15cm trench that extends a further 15cm beyond where your wall will stand on all sides. Fill this trench with 10cm of crushed stone as a foundation.
Step 3 - Sort through your stones and place them into piles according to size: small, medium, and large. The purpose of this step is to ensure you use similar size stones side-by-side and also have a good supply of small stones to use as required to fill gaps.
Step 4 - Keeping in mind that the bottom levels of the wall should be slightly wider than the rest, select stones for your bottom layer. Choosing stones of similar size, lay them side by side as close to each other as possible and as neatly as possible. Fill any gaps between these stones with smaller stones. The idea is to have all these stones fitting as tightly as possible together, almost like a jigsaw puzzle.
Step 5 - Once you have finished your first horizontal layer, you are ready to move on to the next layer. Follow the instructions as per Step 4 as you slowly build your wall higher. As you start to lay stones on top of each other it is important to always ensure that one stone is covered by two, much like a normal brick wall. Using this technique helps maximize strength and ensure the integrity of your dry stone wall.
Step 6 - Once your wall reaches your desired height, you are ready to lie the top stones, which are known as capstones. This is the only time you need to use mortar. Do so, ensuring to keep the mortar about 15 centimeters from the edge of the wall.
How much does dry stone walling cost?
As mentioned, traditionally, the high cost of dry stone walling was mainly due to the high amount of labour it requires. In locations where a ready supply of stones is not available you have to add the cost of sourcing them to this.
Generally, in Australia, you can expect to pay somewhere in the vicinity of $300 a meter for a dry Stonewall. And that is quite a high price for a retaining wall, cladding, and so forth.