Saturday, February 28, 2015

11/2013 Edgewood Drive Project, 3' Retaining Wall, Ellicott City Maryland,

11/2013 Edgewood Road, Ellicott City, MD  115' L x 3' H Retaining wall 383 SQ FF, 4 Stone bench's, 1 fire pit 7' W x 14" H, 4 shelves, 3 vertical stones, 5 PA Blue Stone Steps, 3 stone niche's. New build, flat caps, 1:6 batter. Ellicott City Granite stone found in customers backyard.

2014 I was contacted by Michelle and Gary in Ellicott City MD. They had purchased a new home which was built in a 1950's development. Gary being an IT guy found me on a Google Search. He spent several hours taking a look at my work then contacted me. The couple had spoke to several other folks about their project. Gary gave me a call to chat about the project. He felt I was the best match for what they had in mind. Michelle had the vision for the space as you can see above. The hole search for a stonemason started when they had the back yard cleaned up and graded. 

This was what they found. Rocks, boulders... and more rocks and boulders. 

They had hired a fellow Steve to take on the job for clean up and excavating. When he started digging he found all this stone buried in the backyard. Seems as if when they built the development they buried all the stone in the backyards of the homes. 

Now with all these Rocks they needed to come up with a solution to do something with them. 

So they called me to talk more. Gary started the first phase of communication over the phone. I like to start every job with a phone call, photos and measurements. Gary gave me the full run down. They wanted to use the stone the had to build a 115' L x 4'H. They had all their permits pulled, drawing and excavating finished. They just needed someone to build the wall. I gave them a quick ballpark over the phone. I informed them after seeing the photos of the stone. If they ran out how would the get more. I determined a project like this could easily take over 2 tri-axle dump trucks = 44 tons of stone. I remember to this day Gary telling me " We have a lot of stone" Ya right! was what I was thinking. How can anyone have that much stone from their back yard? Thats a lot of stone. I had told him that a project like this I would only work on Time & Material. I really had no idea how I could ever factor in the time to build with a new stone. This is no ordinary stone this is Ellicott City Granite. The color is a beautiful black - blue. 

Once we discussed a general pricing for their project we moved to the next step. I made the trip out to their home. When I arrived I realized YES he did have a lot of stone. He wasn't joking. I also knew that Gary being an IT guy for a contractor I can not mention - I asked how many boulders do you have? He answered very quickly 90! Now thats what I expected from an IT they are so good a numbers. My tape measure sitting on the boulders helps to get an idea of just how big these are. Most measure out to 18"- 24". This was great news - because I'll be able to use all of these boulders as the first course of for the wall. I'll be 1/3 finished with height and have the full length of wall. 

The last job I finished up before this one allowed me to just back up from the old site and move everything to the new site. Now I had planned to bring my skid loader to this job in order to move these large boulders. But my machine was down - so the dingo was packed up and brought over. The Mini excavator was also brought in. These would be the two machines to help me out on this build.

I started with my dingo TX420 with a set of forks to placing all the larger boulders on the first course.

You can really get a good sense of the size of the stone pile with the mini excavator.

With the mini excavator I was able to pick threw the stone pile and help to place a lot of large stones. This is at the house side back yard entrance the one end of wall. 

The next section I wanted to start was the steps in the middle. Now originally the excavator misunderstood Michelles request about wanting them further away from the house. When she had told me this when we first meet. I informed her that the mix up as great. It made more sense since the walk flow from the back door to up the hill would work out perfect. It had a great flow and a short path. As human the shortest path you can create from A to B the most successful your plan will me. Unless you have a need to direct people in a specific direction like a garden would be an example.

For the steps I brought in PA Colonial Blue from my good friends at Balducci Stone Yard. The stone that the mini excavator is strapped to I had to pull back from the side yard. This stone shows the true color of the stones since it has been exposed to the weather for years. In order to place this one I had to first dig a hole then do my best to try to stand it up. Of Course this was one heavy stone taking everything and then some to stand it up. The only reason for the straps was for safety. I can't tell you how many times it took to get it upright but I needed to avoid it falling the wrong direction. 

Once I had the only two longest stones in the piles up right. I began building my steps to the upper level.

I was shooting for a 7 inch rise with a nice wide tread making for comfortable steps.

Related Blogs:
How To - PA Blue Stone Steps - Beechdale Rd, Roland Park MD
How To - Set Large Step / Cap Stones W/Magic Wedges

I've chalked out my steps in order to make a nice subtle curve as seen here.

I also like to use my the ZipLevel to help excavate to the next step. In this case I didn't need to have to figure out too much ahead of time on the length and height. I did do a basic check on the height but as for the length it didn't matter so much since I was coming back into the bank. 

After building up with the local stone to the height I needed I then set the next step on top. 

Related Blog: How To - PA Blue Stone Steps - Beechdale Rd, Roland Park MD

Once I got the steps finished up I moved on to the far side so that I would work my way around back to the stone pile. I learned early on in life its best to take on the hardest job first that way everything else is easy. So my working the furthest way from the stone pile as I come around the project will be come easier. The other thing I needed to think about was the end of the season was coming quick.

I like to use my small stone rollers to help save my back from moving some of the larger stones into place. I'm using the steel stakes for build concrete forms. PVC pipes also work well. 

Originally the client wanted a 4' high wall but I suggested in order to save time and money that I just grade down from the top. By doing so this would allow the wall to be 3' high. As you can see in this photo (far side away from the stone pile). When I began building I would bring stone over making piles to pick from. All frames set with a batter of 1:6. Placing all the largest stones on the first courses to use them up quickly and gain height.

The curved section I just eyeball to get the angle I want as I build around to the steps.

Great up close pic. This was the section I started with since I had never worked with the stone.  This would gave me a chance to get warmed up. Also avoiding working closer to the house the section is around the corner from the majority of views. By the time I get closer to the back door on the home I'll have become comfortable with how to place each rock.

Back at the stone pile I'm making great progress using up all the boulders. The piles are made up of boulders in the first group. Second group is made up of the largest mass of mixed sizes. The third pile in the far back is all the smallest stones. You can click on any photo on my blog to see more details.

Using my hydraulic Geith thumb on the mini excavator helped with placements of boulders as needed. 

I spoke with the clients on this project about some special features in the wall. This was the first example so they could see what I had in mind. They loved the idea. The stone I have to work with are limited in lengths. So just like any project you do the best you can. This little nook will allow the client to place plants on the ledge or a candles inside. Giving a beautiful evening ambiance.

I spent a lot of time hand picking threw each of the piles to gather up the stone I wanted for each section. My little Dingo TX420 got a great workout so did I. I can't fit into my Medium size shirts any more after getting all cut up lifting Granite Boulders. Who needs a Gym when you have a ROCK PILE to play in!?

As I completed my sections I had the client bring in some topsoil to be place on the backside of my completed wall sections. I prefer to finish up the areas I've completed as I'm building. This helps breaking up my job tasks and gives a great feeling of accomplishment as I continued to build my other sections remaining. Think of it as a Mind Game.

Only 67 more loads to go in order to move 20 tons of dirt. Now thats a little over 3rd of a day of moving.

It sure feels good to get it put into place. Great shot of the curve as I continue to build to the steps.

As I get closer to the steps I wanted to break from the wall to build the fire pit. I have put a lot of thought, measurements and time regarding the placement. I wanted the fire pit close to the wall but not to close. I also wanted to make sure as you walk out of the back door that the flow to the steps was a direct path without having the flow disturbed. The 2 largest boulders are benches you can see where the bubba mug is sitting. With the fire pit not too close to the wall one can sit with out having needing to move back. I also wanted to be sure a chair could site between the wall and the fire pit.  Keeping in mind that someone can walk around the chair or if they are sitting in the chair they can move up or back depending on the heat of the fire. I learned this from my own fire pit.

The size I choose to build would be 4 ft opening with 18" wide and 14" tall. I wanted to place 4 large stones as you can see then build around them. This was a bit of a challenge since there wasn't a great deal of smaller size stones. So once again you work with that you have and make the best. If its not what you like sometimes you have to realize - its OK you need to just live with it. Just like cards you're not always going to have the perfect hand. SO just deal and keep on rockin'

As I continued to wrap up the fire pit I finished up the caps on the section to the right of the steps. Now the section from the right of the steps is completed. Little by little I just keep moving my unused stones around the the sections I'm still working.

You can really see in this image all the largest boulders on the bottom of the wall.

I love to feather and wedge stones . But I'll tell you after 2 hours on this one stone I called it a NO - GO. I needed to have this stone to this size so I didn't give up on this one. Never again did I try to change any of the others.

The fire pit was all wrapped up it was time to clean up the area and get back to the last section of wall closest to the stone pile.

Remember the blue that you see will the color of the wall in the years to come. Kind of cool to think its like a mood ring changing colors. FUN can't wait to see it.

It felt so great to get the first fire going. I wanted to be sure the stone could handle the heat. So I started off with a few and a few more.

.... and some more fires too make sure everything was A OK for safety. You never know if natural stone will pop, crack - explode. I also enjoyed the great smell and the warmth in the last few days of cold temps of fall.

On this section I built another niche in the wall by the fire pit between the two seats. I made this one a bit larger for holding beverages. I didn't include a ledge to avoid anyone walking around the fire pit from bumping their leg into it.

All wrapped up! The client love the two niches that I suggested one in the wall section at the far end. They agreed - I worked my way over to the other side to strip out and got crackin'. In less then half day I had finished up the 3rd niche with a ledge. Balancing out the other two.

11/2013 Edgewood Road, Ellicott City, MD  115' L x 3' H Retaining wall 383 SQ FF, 4 Stone bench's, 1 fire pit 7' W x 14" H, 4 shelves, 3 vertical stones, 5 PA Blue Stone Steps, 3 stone niche's. New build, flat caps, 1:6 batter. 

Hard to believe this project had enough stone from what was unearthed from the backyard.  What a transformation from before and after.

You'll notice in this pic the 2 ledges coming out of the wall on either side of the steps for candles or lanterns.

In this photo I want you to look at the wall above the letter S in further down in the photos you'll see this is the section were I did the 3rd niche.

On the steps I place one more lower stone below the steps as a welcome mat. The benefit is that as grass grows nothing will grow in this space. This also helps to connect the wall and steps to the earth grounding it. You can really see the ledges in this photo on either side of the steps. Also once again remember this is large blue stone that is to the right will be the color of the wall in the years to come. Extremely exciting to come back in a several years to see a complete transformation

2 adult benches with arm rest.

2 lower benches with arm rest. Notice I still have stone left over - Free rocks to good home... ha ha... Yes I can't believe they still had stone left over after this complete build. What a suprise.

I got everything graded out after they brought in some more fill dirt. As you can now see the frost on the earth. Yes that time of year came just at the end of the build.

This is the section were you will see the new 3rd niche under the "M" on

It felt great working with found stone not from a pallet. I had met with one potential client and she said I didn't work with organic stone. Well yes and no. When you have new builds and need to match the stone you should make sure you have a source for more when you need. This means a quarried stone is the best choice. Unless you live in a location that has old walls which you can pull from. Yes this is what I build with 98% of the time. But as you can see here it doesn't get any more organic than this! No shaping just working with the stones that are sitting in one large pile finding a proper place in the wall for them to live.

From the upper level I feel this open space gives the feeling of an infinity pools. A totally transformed space. Now giving them a great place to entertain and hang out as a family should in the great outdoors.  UNPLUGGED!!

A total build time 30 days (2-months) 1 Mini Excavator, 1 Mini Skid Steer and 1 skid steer for a day. Not bad when you can re-use free material from the backyard to help transform the space into something that will outlast the house. The other kick was the clients had informed be after reaching out to other masons that one landscape company had given them a quote for $109,000 to do the same work with pavers. GEE REALLY wow now I was able to do this project for a little over 11% of the paver quote. If this was a new build (time and materials) this would have cost around $40,000 including fill, excavating, grading and planning.

One Solid Retaining Wall with stone from the earth or should I say BACKYARD. I guess that was like winning the lottery.

Thank you & Enjoy Michelle and Gary F.


  1. Sweet Sweet project Mark. So many different things to like about it- I was even drooling over the equipment!

    1. Thank you Dan P, Yes I agree. I believe I liked this project because there were so many different things I had to wrap my head around to think about. The biggest was how the heck I'm I going to use this stone. Not once did I think what did I get my self into. I love a challenge. I feel having a stone that keeps you from shaping it makes you relize very quickly you just have to go with it. Hard lesson for some of us that love to hit stuff with a hammer and chisel. But nice to have that chance to step back from those types of building methods. As they say a waller is a person who works with the stone one has at hand. A mason is one that shapes the stone to make it fit. I was forced to be one understanding and forgiving waller. Kind of humbling in some ways.

      Thank you for follow the blog and commenting.