Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Warren Road Project Retaining Wall Finished Story12/11

The start date 10/17/11. I was asked to price out this local historical retaining wall rebuild/repair. Located in Cockeysville, Maryland.  This wall may have been over 54 feet long at one time. Believed to be over 100 years old. All stone local. Every house on this street has dry laid stone. This is the only one with the largest wall known. The majority of the wall was removed for an addition of the house along with a black top driveway. The section which was replaced for the black top driveway I was told had been mortared and badly falling apart. Damn mortar! Hey this dry laid stone is in need of repair lets put some mortar in it - should last a while. NOT LIKELY!!

Area cleaned out by client. Piles of the old wall had been siting for over 7 years waiting for the right opportunity to be placed back to its once desired position. 

Side view shows how narrow the old wall was - only 2 ft wide. You can see major pinning all over along with tracer stones used as the face stones. Tracer stones are stones running the length of wall instead of length into wall. A No No...may cause for a weaker wall.  

Work area. Extremely limited space to work. I call this my staging area. Staging is the place that you house all materials and equipment. This area was also the only place for the client to park their cars. With one small driveway up a hill to this area. IE no place to turn around. Only back down or try to do a 10 point turn without taking out any stones, wall, trailer etc. etc. Orange cones set up for safety and markers of both equipment and material for those late night navigations. The trailer houses all tools and port-a potty, flat screen and hot tub for a hard days work. Even comes with 24 hour catering service and a maid. Sure makes walling a joy! Or better yet a place to hide when it rains to sit and eat lunch. 

More staging pictures of all the wall now on pallets. The skid loader stayed on site for the full time. This helped with moving pallets of stone close to the wall and then put them away every night. Do to limited parking for the client.

Digging the earth out after removing the old wall. I cut into the back as much as needed with the skid loader. Keeping all material close for when I needed it.

The skid loader is my best employee! I like to work alone. Workman's comp, insurance, payroll etc...sure can be a major cost to the bottom line. I choose to work with equipment as much as possible. Saves all the headaches. Rarely does my equipment call in sick only on occasions if it breaks down. My New Holland 665 is truly a team player. 

After digging out with the skid loader I finished by hand digging. Notice the large stones in the earth? Those stones will stay. They will become part of the wall. Working with them not against them. Only removing the desired amount. The key is working smarter thereby working less. The hardest lesson to learn. Don't make more work for yourself. Work Smarter Not Harder (my wife always says). Hot pink paint marks the area to build.

When a contractor is pricing out a job you never know what you will find. I found alot of large stones. This can sometimes create a full new batch of parameters, challenges and solutions to a job. Sometimes even causing for more $$$. The unknown is never fun sometimes. But it can also be a blessing. Unless you didn't call Miss Utility before you dig. 

Batter frames now set up give the reference of the batter on the front of the wall - 1:8 front to match the old wall. The old section of wall has a vertical with a slight bulge. Requiring me to match this section and tie into it with the new section. Shown above is the foundation over 4 ft wide with all stones running length into the all. Frame to far left only placed to match top of wall . Notice just how different the wall is at the bottom of this frame - you can really see the vertical at this point. Stall mats placed on driveway to protect it. Foundation stones placed 6" below grade level to driveway.

This wall called for stile steps. I had tried to pick up stone from 2 local quarries, but had no luck. One told me they sold all the stone to be used as veneer then suggested I try there sister quarry where I could most likely pick some up for $350 ton! WHAT?! The other quarry after 4 phone calls still has yet to call me back to this day. I find this not to be a great business practice. Even if I can't help someone out, I will take the time to ring them with any possible solution I can think of or just good business practice. Managing customer expectations and giving good customer service is key in this day and age.  

Like the old saying goes sometimes things happen for a reason. The solution was right in front of me the whole time. I just didn't see it - till I was ready. PA Blue stone from my local stone yard - Badolato Stone. (thanks Chris!) Slabs which I could use wedge and feathers to make into the desired steps I needed to complete the job. 

I like to call it Voodoo Magic made easy. I'm always amazed how many masons have never given this a try. Low cost to get set up. Check out my related blog 

Staging area with piles of loose stone and the old wall stones on pallets.  Helping to move them closer to the wall as I was building each day. Then put away every night not to be in the way for parking. Buckets of stone are for packing the wall. Packing stones are the smaller stones in which you fill the holes in the middle of the wall. Read more: MC Hearting Autumn 2011

First set of ties stones shown placed every 3 feet on center and 2 feet up. The first step of PA Blue stone placed into wall. Lower bottom step - locally quarried stone cut and shaped to size on found on property 5' L x 8" H x 12" W. Now that's a step if I do say so. 

Spent about 1 day doing 2 stiles. Working to build level. Step tread 15" with 24" coming out of wall. Rise of steps 8 inches. The steps ranged in size from 3'.5" to 5" long. The thickness ranged from 4"- 6". ( note: ' feet / " inches)

Hey get that cowboy off the set. 

Just a normal day on the job. Does the weather get any nicer? 60 degrees and sunny. Makes working up a sweat a breeze.

Once I would get so far with the steps it would be time to hand dig. Fun stuff. I placed a stall mat along with a tarp to make my clean up easy. Keeping the wall from getting all dirty. No one likes a dirty wall. 

Pink marker line on bank indicates top of wall. Dirt hand dug placed at top of wall. Making it easy to put back into wall as needed.  My skid loaders reach was maxed out limited the ability to help. Every thing was by hand at this point. I did use the skid loader with the forks to help place each step into the wall. 

Chalk was used to help mark placement of each stone keeping the guessing to a minimum as the stones were placed. The stones under each steps helped to get to the desired height. So if my step stone was 4 inches.  I needed to find a spacer stone to help make it become a 8 inch step. There for a spacer stone of 3" or 4"  was used underneath. Then build up level as a bed for the step to now sit on. This spacer stone also became the line or angle of the curved wall. 

Little by little stiles went up. Notice the small stones placed into the top stiles on the outside? This helped to keep them from flipping as I was building them until more weight could be applied above to keep them locked in. 

All steps in place. Picture taken from top of skid loader. Blue stone under silver tarp, random local quarry stone from Blue Mount Quarry used for packing stone. 

Back to building the wall. String lines (Blog: How - To Tie String Lineshelp to keep the wall level. The biggest visual mind game I had was building level. What is meant by this? I had two visual lines playing tricks with my mind. 1) was the driveway grade ran down hill. 2) the upper back grade running up hill. With the two of these running in two different directions is like a compass having 2 North poles. Visual distractions can really play mind games. Once I had my first set of tie stones in. I had a great reference to guide me on building level. Along with my string lines and my handy line (spirit) level. Top string line indicates top of wall. Milk crates start to show up to help step up. Random stones protruding out of wall for esthetics (ie. plants, candles, etc...holders not tie stones). Tie/Through stones are the blue stones. (Read more: MC Through Stones Summer 07)

Looking down on the steps and curve. Notice the small stones in the middle of the wall? Packing stones. Large stones on the outsides. Back wood frames placed on batter frames to help guide my build. The first part of the wall was built up to the 2 ft ties was 4 ft wide. That's alot of stone. The back wall batter was 1:12. You can also notice a slight curve in the middle of the wall between second and third wall frames. 

The finished wall with stile measuring back into bank 34 ft in total length. 11 steps protruded 2' out of the wall. 

Wall specs for job to scale side view with old wall specs.

Second level of tie stones place 2 ft above first and staggered. Ties stones run the width of wall. They help to tie the front of the wall with the back. They also act as a foundation. As the wall starts to settle over time they give it additional support. You might think of it as a back brace. The tie stones can be protruding or flush with the wall. Just a style feature having them protruding. They are normally half way up a wall. Taller walls should have additional ties as suggested by some organizations. I believe the old wall like many others can tell us alot of information. This one had no ties and used many incorrect building theories but clearly was still standing. So for me ties make sense just as much as seat belts do. To each his own. By following proper building practices you limit the possibility for wall failure. 

Now, on to a not so safe a practice - doubled up milk crates and aluminum plank. Singe milk crates with wood blank. I learned very quickly how to step backwards. Not once did I have a mishap. Scaffolding could work too. But I felt for me it limited my ability to run around looking for stone as needed on this job. If you have not noticed already this wall is made up of stone ranging in size from 1" to 2" thick. I had to bring in some larger stones 3"-6". I don't normally build walls of this size with such small stones. But this was the original stone from the site. The client wanted it back into the wall and it only made sense to do so. Small stone of course takes twice as long to build with. Since you spend double time doing extra work to get any height. Large walls go up much quicker with bigger stones makes sense right? Unless of course you had a Redbull for breakfast.

To the far left of this picture I had to raise and repair the corner of the wall. Working over the clients fish pond. Which I was told still had gold fish. I never saw any. I did see a few garden snakes climbing the wall along with a chipmunk and a mole. One more interesting obstacle to work around. As I built this corner section I loaded my skid loader bucket with stones to work from once lifted up to building level. 

Starting from Left to Right: Large cap stones, local stones with buildable faces ie. a flat face, small PA Blue stones for plates on caps, packing stones for middle of wall, local stone random rubble for back side ie. stone with bad faces not good for the front of the wall. 

Bucket raised and locked out. Building top of wall in corner over fish pond. Safety tip - never ever crawl out of a skid loader with the arms raised and go under them with out them locked. If my bucket could not be locked such as when I was placing steps. I would crawl out and over the top of them.

Cap stones going up. Notice how the wall runs down hill at house (behind the ladder). You can see the new color of stone which was built level above the later. Small ladder helps me reach the top of wall. No just kidding!! The ladder just helped me take a shortcut to get on top with out having to go back down and around to the steps.

This pictures also really gives you a real great shot of the style used to build old wall. If you look all and all whoever built this had a good eye. They did a real nice job building level. They did like to use alot of chinks and pins. I also made sure to try to copy the pinning to keep the walling style similar. They built a bit tighter but I also wonder how much of this might have been from settling over time. I spent a lot of lunch hours looking at this wall section which was the only thing to help tell me a story of the builder. At first glance I hated it. But over time I really liked finding and seeing what they had been thinking placing one stone next to another. The section by the house had only gone down hill because when the new home addition was build they pulled the wall out and then stuffed stone back in. Not the fault to the waller.

Top of wall by stiles. Caps all set. Hand graded frozen ground - joy! I also used the skid loader to come in and dump earth on top. The only issue I had was that I was maxed on my lift. Giving very little ablity to dump. All the soil dumped by skid loader was then hand raked to create a nice visual grade and backfill. Top of wall built to level not to grade. Straw placed over soil to protect the earth from run off. 

New wall section and stile steps. The stiles have been placed into wall. But these stiles have been built up on the back side to help retain the back along with placement of stiles. The wall truly holds 100% weight of the stiles. 

Me and the wall help to give a real good idea of the size. So next time someone tells you that you have to use mortar. Ask them why? Then ask them why the pyramids are still standing.

9 stiles steps on curved wall section. Cap stones 3" height with minimum of a 16" width. Caps all man handling sizes. All cap stones from job site.

Local white stones from historical barn foundation brought in to bring out the color of the local stone. Butler stone also placed in wall in random spots to help with the shortage of 3" - 6" stones. 

Great angle to see all the PA Blue stone ties protruding and placed on 3 ft center 2 ft up. At two levels in new wall section. 

You can really see the difference in the colors of the old wall with the new - both pictures top and bottom. The wall will age with time causing the colors to blend with historical section. Large stone at bottom left of steps will be the start of the clients spring project. Building a 2 ft high seating wall. John, now every one knows what you'll be building this spring. In case they ask if you would like help. Don't worry I didn't tell anyone.  Thats Ok I'm only 5 mins away when you run into a road block to help give you any helping hands. As long as I can sit on the steps and direct-no problem......

A great deal of time, materials, planning and money..... goes into building a project of this size with several different obstacles to work around. Mother nature only being one. The depth of this blog is to help others understand what truly goes into the craft of dry laid stone walling. Just like golf or pool - it takes years of practice, a few mistakes along the way, but the key is the strategy of getting to the win. You can't get to that point without thinking about your next move. Otherwise you just lost the game.

The Warren Road Project  retaining wall measures in at 34' Length x 7' Height. With a total time of 26 days to build or 207 working hours on site. Hours off site not included. 3 days of rain, 2 days of frozen ground. Fun factor being out of my Motor Scooter Dealership ...Priceless.

Who's next?

Other links on this project:


  1. Mark,
    Outstanding job. The photos and narrative tell quite a story. You should be quite proud of this project.

  2. Great job Mark! Your blog is great and I always look forward to your posts. Happy Holidays, T.J.

  3. Thank you Neil for the comments. I really enjoy helping to show the big picture. I hate seeing pictures of just a finished wall. I like to know how they made it to the end result. Gives me a little in sight. I also enjoy showing what really goes into my work. 100% pure fun!

  4. Thank you T.J. glad you enjoy my posts. Is this the same T.J. In VT?
    Happy Holidays to you too. May 2012 be on great year for every one!

  5. This was so fun to look at all these "work in progress" pictures. What a cool process. You are a real artist, Mark. And I really LOVE those steps. A great design! -- Tree's friend Betsy

  6. Thanks Betsy, The client chose the concept of floating steps. We went back and forth over stone issues from suppliers. But I found the material to fit the bill. Then made the steps as you can see. I don't think it could have worked out any better then it did. Blessing in disguise.