Niche Wall Rock Collection

We built this drystone retaining wall recently for an Asheville couple who have two kids, both of whom have a things for rocks. I can identify. As part of the design development, I proposed that we add a handful of niches to the walls, as a place to store a small rock collection- or anything else. The niches are about 4″ by 4″. We’ve done this before and they have been used for hot wheel cars, candles, and antique glass insulators from power lines that were wired to glow at night!

The wall itself is made of sandstone from Tennessee. A set of slab steps cuts through it allowing access to the upper yard. There’s a small patio below the wall, that I call the antechamber, as it serves as a hangout spot just below their expansive deck. Building niches is a pleasing departure from straight walling. And it was fun to find treasures to place in the niches. I am confident that this collection will be dismantled, amended, lost and replaced over time. That’s the point; I like that the wall has an interactive component.

Niche in a drystone wall, with elephant carved in slate

This niche has a small slate elephant I carved a long time ago. This guy has been looking lonely at the shop, so I’m happy he has a new home. The dolphin totem came from an old necklace. I guess this is the stone mammal niche.

Niche in a drystone wall, with banded onyx sphere

There’s another wall, not pictured, that runs near the driveway and connects up to the antechamber. This orb of banded onyx is in that wall, as a teaser of the larger collection visible above. I found this- and several other treasures, at Enter the Earth, a local rock and gem store here in Asheville.

Niche in a drystone wall, with heart of stone

Four stone hearts for the four members of the family.

Niche in a drystone wall, with fossilized coral

Petoskey stone- a fossilized coral from Lake Michigan. Great for bug eyes in mosaics!

Niche in a drystone wall, with cool fossils

More fossils. That’s a tiny sand dollar out front. I’m a big fan of the orthoceras fossils, the long tubular seashells in a black matrix. I just discovered that orthoceras means straight horn.

The last couple of pictures show the wall itself, with the niches visible. We just finished, so the land needs a minute to recover. Some ground cover and mulch and the rock collection will be complete!

A section of drystone wall, with niches for a rock collection

A sandstone wall, laid dry, with niches for a collection of cool stones

BIG Drystone Wall

We called this wall Fort Faulkner because of how much it resembled a castle battlement in shape and scale. It is a very tall, at least from the outside, where I took this picture. On the other side, it’s only eighteen inches above grade and surrounds lawn and a patio, acting as a seating wall. The lower section supports the yard and patio. To ensure proper structural integrity, the whole thing is built as a free-standing, double-sided wall. To be honest though, the lower inside sections- below the yard and patio- are ugly as heck. We knew it would be hidden so we didn’t fuss with the look of the faces. Still a few tons of work, forever hidden. The cap is mortared on to eliminate any movement when people sit or walk on it.

This tall wall is part a retaining and part a free standing seating wall

Biltmore Forest Garden Terrace Wall

We recently completed this large drystone retaining wall in Biltmore Forest, a small community if high end homes just south of Asheville. We built this project with Emily Gregory of B.B. Barns Landscape Services, a frequent collaborator. The wall is made of Hooper’s Creek, a locally quarried stone. We mixed in Pennsylvania stone as well, which makes up all of the steps and walkways, which are not really visible in these photos. There are over twenty steps leading from the lower lawn through the garden up to the house.

A stone retaining wall by Hammerhead holds up a lovely garden in Biltmore Forest, NC

This retaining wall holds a lovely garden at this home in Biltmore Forest

Thanks be to Emily for taking and sharing these pictures!

North Asheville Stone Staircase

We built this project several years ago, in collaboration with Mardi Letson of Gardens By Mardi. This was a radical transformation of a sloping, grassy front yard into a main entryway and thriving garden. The big retaining wall to the back- barely visible now behind plants- was set with an excavator. The retaining wall at the street uses the same materials, Daggett Mountain stone, but in a smaller scale. The steps are slabs of gray sandstone from Tennessee, often called Crab Orchard. The staircase is four feet across. To create the a sweeping opening and a welcoming entrance, we widened the steps at the bottom. The bottom step is six feet across- two three footers butted end to end- and the next step up is five feet across.

This project won an award!

Slabs of gray sandstone make up this set of entry steps

A short wall of Daggett Mountain stone laid dry in North Asheville

A drystone wall turns a corner and frames a set of slab steps

Before and After

Beast Wall

Another view of the staircase emerging from Beast Wall


Last fall we completed this project at a home in Asheville. The house had recently been renovated, but the landscape was incomplete. There was a steep, messy gravel driveway and a weird 18″ drop off from where you parked to where you stepped out of the car. It was treacherous. The design mandate included a new entry and safe ways of accessing the backyard. The biggest issue for the homeowners was raising and enlarging their driveway parking area. So “Beast Wall” was born.

The sloping driveway and awkward entrance that Beast Wall was designed to resolve

Early process shot of Beast Wall going up.

A process shot of Beast Wall nearing completion

We used Tennessee sandstone for all the components of the project. I wanted it for the walls in particular because I can usually find a wide range of sizes, including some massive pieces. We needed some big chunks for Beast Wall. The largest piece we found was a rejected hearth that was seven feet long, 14″ tall and twenty inches front to back. We split it into multiple pieces and used it throughout the wall, including at least one massive corner you’ll might find in the photos. With so many massive stones, we used a small excavator to set the biggest of them. It also helped us to move around the backfill. There’s several tons of scrap stone and gravel behind that wall, supporting the parking area.

Our dump truck parked on Beast Wall


This is a new favorite image! We were bringing in some soil for the yard below the wall. The dump truck is parked right to the edge. The wall did not budge. The fully loaded dump truck probably weighs three times what the owners Prius weighs!

A set of steps emerge from the face of Beast Wall.


To provide access to the backyard, we built a set of steps into the face of Beast Wall. I like this emergent style of steps; it evokes something archaic to me, like you might find in a Mayan temple. The steps act as a buttress to the wall. There will be a hand rail someday!

A semi-circular staircase

A set of stone slab steps wrap a tight corner


Access on the other side of the house required less materials, but proved to be a fairly complex build in its own right. This set of steps wraps around an existing block wall. Walls above and below the steps support the staircase and the bank.

Tennessee sandstone creates a new front walkway at a home in Asheville


By raising the driveway, we were able to elevate the front walkway, removing the treacherous drop off. The path connects to another that leads to the street.

Looking down you can see the top landing of the steps.


The parking area is covered in decorative gravel. I like the wheel stops we installed. They are made from a slab step that we split down. There are two holes in each piece with a long bit of rebar driven down into the gravel below.

An oak leaf mosaic element at the top of a set of stone steps.


I made this oak leaf mosaic for the top landing of the staircase that emerges from the face of Beast Wall. It’s a scrap of salvaged granite.

Hand Railing Installed

A new hand rail by Lynda Metcalfe frames a short stack of steps leading up to a patio.


Last year we built this patio and set of steps for a home in West Asheville. The project was designed and overseen by our friend Mardi Letson of Gardens By Mardi. She’s also responsible for the lovely containers. This week our friend Lynda Metcalfe installed this ornate hand rail at the edge of the patio and along the steps. Lynda is the blacksmith responsbile for the beautiful metalwork on the Ironwoods sign.

A new hand rail by Lynda Metcalfe frames a short stack of steps leading up to a patio.

Recent Project: Pennsylvania Stone with Hooper’s Creek

A set of Pennsylvania stone step treads supported by Hooper’s Creek risers in an Asheville front yard.

Earlier this winter we completed this dramatic re-imagining of the front yard of an Asheville home. This project was another collaboration with local landscaping company B.B. Barns. I call this a ‘Public Craft’ project. Located at a busy corner in a prime dog walking neighborhood, everyday we spoke with several passers by about our work. Perhaps some of those contacts will become future projects, but more important to me is the chance to share the craft with people. Since I started Hammerhead, I’ve believed that the best marketing I can do is educating people- customers or not- about the craft. I try to share the values of drystone construction and help people understand what good work is. Even if they don’t hire us, I hope they have some new insights to help make informed decisions. Bad work damages the standing of the craft, good work enhances it.

These step treads are Pennsylvania stone, with risers of Hooper’s Creek, a local granitic gneiss. The lower landing contains an engraved stone that was already on site, hidden in a grassy corner of the yard. This home was once the parsonage for the First Baptist Church, where we built the labyrinth a few years ago.

Native North Carolina stone used as a drystone retaining wall in Asheville.

Dry laid retaining walls flank the steps. Made of Hooper’s Creek, these are my favorite kind of wall, even though they are the most intensive to build. Rare is the stone that arrives to the site ready to go into the wall. We spoend hours sculpting useful blocks out of the material. We mix some of the Pennsylvania into the wall; it adds color and offers some helpful thicknesses that are hard to get from the Hooper’s.

Pennsylvania stone used as a drystone paving surface.

A long walkway extends from the street to the front entrance. This semi-circular landing opens up to the front steps. This is Pennsylvania stone, what they call ‘full-color’- a blend of blues and greens, with some browns and rusty bits in there for good measure.

Pink Granite and Impulse Buys

Close up of a drystone wall made from salvaged pink granite.

I have a small problem with purchasing things that I don’t truly need. I have been fortunate that this impulse control problem has been localized to two things: I buy books and I buy stone. (It is worth noting that often the books I buy are about stone.)
I have managed to curb my book buying urge. Three years ago we moved. It was intended that we would be moving again in about two months, so we put a bunch of stuff, including all my books, in storage. Three years later my book collection still resides in storage. I have a rule that I can’t add to the library until I have a library.
My impulse is to buy stones have been harder to manage. It will happen in the gem and mineral stores that are scattered around Asheville. I find colors and textures and fossils that just absolutely belong in a mosaic somewhere someday somehow. I got to get them. Happily these purchases are usually small and often do find their way into mosaics as eyes or small colorful details in a larger piece.
My stone impulsivity also arises as I walk the margins of the many stone yards where I shop for my project materials. I just find cool, weird pieces that have latent potential. I have trouble walking by…
One time for reasons that remain unclear to me I was compelled to buy several tons of pink granite. No, it wasn’t especially cheap. No, I had no immediate or projected need for it. I just thought it was uncommon and cool and so I bought it. It ended up hanging around taking up space at the for a really long time.
A recent customer owns a house built in the 1920s that was made of the same pink granite. At long last, a use for this stone. We built them a retaining wall that connects part of the original house to an addition. The house is mortared of course, but the wall is dry stone. Many of the pieces of granite I had were enormous four feet by five feet and 10 inches thick. You will see drill holes in the face of the wall from the feathers and wedges. There are similar drill holes throughout the granite on the house as well.

A drystone pink granite wall in front of a mortared pink granite house.

My brothers and sisters of stone craft will notice more long vertical joints that are customary in a Hammerhead wall. This is a byproduct of having only three thicknesses of stone to work with. All of our source material was either 4 3/8” thick or 8 1/4” thick or 10” thick. It was a real puzzle to align these dimensions in a pleasing and structurally sounds way. Luckily we had some pink Tennessee marble that we could mix in. It was about 3/4” thick but it helped. We rarely work with granite. It’s a hard material but it has such a lovely and predictable grain that it was easy to chisel compared to our local stone.
And I cleared some space in the yard for my next random purchase!


Bluestone Walkway Rehabbed

We were called to address this walkway which was starting to fall apart. Several stones were loose, including some at the edges that were becoming dangerous. In the image below you’ll see a flower pot blocking an area where a stone had completely flipped free. In my experience, it’s hard to fix mortared flagstone when it starts breaking down. Patching usually looks terrible and is only ever a short term fix. Mortared flagstone fails because water has gotten into the system; once in, the water is impossible to get out.

Old bluestone walkway

This was the walkway and steps before we started repairs. Several pieces were loose and becoming dangerous.

I was able to persuade the homeowners to switch to a drystone installation. We removed all the stone- after pressure washing it all first. We were able to brighten the colors and salvage enough stone to redo the walkway without purchase any new materials. Instead of rebuilding the mortared steps, we switched to sandstone slabs from Tennessee. The gray slabs blend wonderfully with the Pennsylvania flagstones. The steps are all single slabs, six feet across. It was a stroke of luck to find so many good stones at such a consistent thickness. The steps walk great.

Slab steps and bluestone walkway

The walkway after we rebuilt it with sandstone slabs and dimensional bluestone

We reset the flagstone in a bed of gravel. The steps and the surrounding soil hold the gravel so it will not squish out the sides. The gravel bed drains moisture away which will prolong the life of the stones. When we set dimensional flagstone like this, we abut the stones as closely as we can; there’s no need for a grout joint (because there’s no mortar or grout!) and I think it looks better.

Backyard Transformation

Backyard Transformation

We are just finishing up this large backyard transformation. We’ve been collaborating with BB Barns on this project. All of the work is laid dry, except there is mortar utilized in the fire pit, to stabilize the refractory brick and to ensure the cap does not move.
There’s at least 30 tons of Tennessee sandstone used in the walls flagstone patio’s in paths and steps. More pictures to come when BB Barns has completed planting and mulching around all of the new stonework.

Backyard Transformation

Stonework Backyard Transformation

Stonework Backyard Transformation