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

 

Top Ten Stonework Photos

Top Ten Stonework Photos

Photographs are an important part of my stonework. They are essential tools in sharing my work with others. A strong portfolio drives business.

Photographs are part of my process as well. I take pictures throughout a project. Studying them later- that same day, or months on- helps me troubleshoot problems and see where potential lies. They show flaws and places to grow as well as the tiny little details that make all the difference.

Photographs act as my memory. I don’t have any stonework of my own. Much of my work is hidden in backyards and hard to get to. My archives- a disorganized mess of over 20,000 images- help me see what I’ve done. This helps me keep things in perspective; in the depths of winter it’s a nice reminder that the weather will someday break and we can get back to making things.

What follows are my favorite ten images from the first ten years of Hammerhead Stoneworks. These are not the best pictures or the ones that make up the strongest portfolio. These are the photographs that speak to me of the process and the materials and why I love what I do. Click on the titles to read the story behind each of the top ten stonework photos.

John’s Exploded Mosaic

Top Ten Stonework Photos

This might be my favorite image of the last ten years. It’s a memorial mosaic I made, resting in the back of my truck ready to be brought to Riverside Cemetery for installation. There’s something about the exploded, expanded view that I really enjoy. It doesn’t hurt that it’s in the back of my favorite old truck, which now rests dead in the driveway. Residual bright blue spray paint pokes through seams. The name plate at the bottom was carved by me. It’s not at all expertly done done but I was proud of the accomplishment. The family decided to add the dates of John’s birth and death, which wouldn’t fit on this piece. I cut a new stone and had it engraved. I may still have that nameplate somewhere at the shop.

Feathers & Floors

Top Ten Stonework Photos

Twenty years ago Kristin I took an off-season trip to Italy. I had just started stone work and was mesmerized by the craft on display throughout the country. The floors in Venice, especially at Basilica San Marco, were breathtaking and completely changed the way I thought about stone. Their color palettes were bold and clashing, their patterns chaotic and busy, and yet the end result was endlessly fascinating and beautiful. My pursuit of mosaic goes back to the moment I first saw those floors. This small section of the Phoenix Rising mosaic reminds me of those floors. It is a thread- however modest it might be–that connects my humble pursuits to the master craftsman of that bygone age.

Textures

Top Ten Stonework Photos

When I take pictures of my work for my portfolio, I always have to be reminded to show the contacts surrounding the finished piece. Future customers want to see how the wall interacts with the landscape. They want to see how the patio looks with tables and chairs. But I am always drawn to the close-ups, to the images that explore the stone and the stone alone.

This particular image is from my first public art commission”The Blue Spiral” in Gainesville Florida. This shot was taken in the shop during the fabrication process. I love the textures in the tight lines. In this image I saw the potential of the idea being realized.

Frogger

I made a mosaic for the North Carolina Arboretum. It lines the floor of a water feature and includes native species like this bullfrog. As is often the case, my favorite photograph is early in the process, when I recognize that the idea will work. I love the colors here. Most of the stone is regional and in its natural state. The tympanic membrane is a highly polished scrap of marble salvaged from a company that makes countertops.

GreenMan at Rest
Top Ten Stonework Photos

There are so many better pictures of the GreenMan mosaic, Hammerhead’s first large scale wall piece, but this is a favorite. I took this picture at the shop, while we were fabricating. The whole face is there except the eyes, which went through several iterations before I got them right. Even without the eyes, I could tell that this was going to work. This was a crazy time for Hammerhead; GreenMan was built on top of the labyrinth at our shop.

Little Men

Top Ten Stonework Photos

This is a sentimental choice. I don’t love this wall- one of my first- but I do love those little dudes, who are not so little anymore.

Marbles Inlaid

Another shop shot, another moment when a weird idea came together. I had tried prototypes of this idea before, with limited success. Prototypes aren’t supposed to work, I guess. They’re give you the info you need for when you convince a customer to let you build something crazy, like a bench that’s supposed to look like it’s balanced on a bed of marbles.

Alien Landing Pad

Top Ten Stonework Photos

There’s not even any stone in this picture, but I still love it and wanted to include it in the top ten stonework photos. It’s the layout of a hexagonal folly that we built for clients in Biltmore Forest. When we were done, they were married there. I like the vivid colors. I discovered the secret to laying out a hexagon on Wikipedia. It involved aligning the centers of three circles with identical radii. The points where the circles kiss each other become the corners of the hexagon- whose sides will be the same as the radius used. This very simple and practical approach to geometry spurred an ongoing fascination with old school Islamic tile mosaics which are incredibly complex and are designed with only a compass and a straight line.

Labyrinth With Red Leaves

This one soothes me. It’s really the only portfolio-ish shot amongst the top ten stonework photos. It’s been my desktop wallpaper for months now.

Worshop Pegboard

Order is fleeting; chaos always wins. This was taken the day we hung pegboard in the shop. It’s been a mess ever since.

Bonus Image: Hovering Stone

Jonathan Frederick took this shot of me as we were installing 3000 pound chunks of granite at the entrance to the labyrinth. Bodie is running the crane as I escort the big guy to its new home.

Design at Evelyn Place Wins Award

Design at Evelyn Place Wins Award

The Association of Professional Landscape Designers recently awarded a gold award to a project we did in collaboration with Gardens by Mardi. The APLD International Landscape Design Awards Program honors excellence in landscape design. Projects in eight different categories are judged on the basis of difficulty, craftsmanship, attention to detail and execution.

Huge congratulations to Mardi for receiving this award! And big thanks for all the collaborative projects we’ve gotten to create and construct together.

Completed collaboration

Design Detail

Front Before and After

Sacred Circle Fire Pit: Google Maps View

Hammerhead completed the Sacred Circle Fire Pit in January of 2014 for clients hoping to use the space for ceremonial gatherings. The photo below is of the fire pit after completion from down here on solid ground.

And here is a photo of the completed fire pit from Google Maps from up above.

This is the Google Maps photo from before the project was completed. Note the 7 small squares below the site. Those are pallets of stone we brought down to build with.

And back on the ground.

Montreat Big Wall

 

Montreat Big Wall

Montreat Big Wall almost 20 years after completion

Montreat Big Wall

I helped build this wall when I worked with Fred Lashley at the Unturned Stone. We built it 18 years ago and it remains the tallest drystone wall I have ever worked on. At its tallest, it is 7 feet high. Made mostly fieldstone from Maggie Valley, we supplemented with Hoopers Creek, which shows up as the rusty colored faces in the pictures.
The wall is in Montreat and I like to visit when I make my way out to Black Mountain. It is an impressive structure. It looks largely the same now as it did then, except for the glorious patina of lichen. I don’t think I will ever build another wall so tall.

Codes? What Codes?!

These days there are building codes that limit the height of a retaining wall. In a residential setting, like this, the max is 48 inches tall. Anything taller, must be signed and sealed by a licensed engineer. In general, engineers don’t love stone walls. They like things that are consistent and predictable and more easily quantified than the crazy ecology of a stacked wall. The human elements– care, intention, and experience – that the builders put into the structure cannot be factored into mathematical formulae.
Drystone walls have fallen out of favor in preference for segmented block, prefabricated panels, and poured concrete structures. They are all the same and more easily analyzed. It’s an apt metaphor for the state of modern society, our blind devotion to conformity and standardization.
When building with prefabricated predictable materials, it matters much less if the people building care at all about what they’re doing. And if you can subtract care from the process, you can subtract cost. It’s always cheaper if you don’t give a shit. Until later…

Montreat Big Wall

Montreat Big Wall – a close-up

Whether or not the same codes were in effect 18 years ago, I don’t know; I just worked on the wall and was not much involved in the process that brought the project to be. I know it was subcontract work, for a landscape guy in Black Mountain with a stellar reputation and very organized and disciplined approach to his work. If anyone was likely to get the necessary approval, it would have been him. To my eye, the wall has not moved at all and I see no evidence of it having needed repairs for the last 18 years.

What Makes it Stay Up?

I get a version of this question quite frequently, especially when people discover that we usually work without mortar or concrete. The answer is amazingly complex, but I generally begin with a very simple answer: gravity and skill.
I’ve already mentioned how important care is in the creation of a structure like this. Care plus practice equals skill.
The rules that govern the construction of a drystone wall are simple and robust: two over one and one over two, end them in, maximum contact – minimum movement, batter back, the top must sit over the bottom, weather always wins. From the simple rules emerge an infinite number of possibilities. Bird flocking is often used as the epitome of the principles of emergence – simple rules lead to complex (and beautiful) results. A drystone wall is another stunning example.

Two Over One: One Over Two.

This is a very simple principle that you must cross your joints. Tall vertical lines in masonry construction– often called running joints – weaken the structure significantly. Crossing joints – imagine the traditional running bond of the most common brick wall – creates a network. That web of dynamic forces is fundamental to what holds a wall together.

End Them In

Another simple rule, stones should run deep into the wall. Sometimes, in an effort to conserve their rock pile, people will use the long side of a stone as the face. This is called tracing and it makes for a shallow structure and therefore a weak wall. If you have a stone that shaped like a french fry, run it long into the wall.
In the picture below of the wall being constructed, there’s a guy who’s not me or Fred. I think his name was Brian and he wanted to be a stonemason. After a little while he decided he wanted to be a building inspector or maybe a social worker. It was probably a wise choice.

Montreat Big Wall

Montreat Big Wall under construction

Maximum Contact – Minimum Movement

The next stone you put in should make as much contact as possible with the stones that are already in the wall. And so on and so on.
One of the great attributes of a dry stone wall is its flexibility. It has the capacity to move and therefore respond to environmental factors. The day-to-day expansion and contraction that comes with being heated by sunlight and cooled by frost may cause minuscule movements in a wall but not crack it apart. It is not supposed to be a rigid structure. Inflexibility fails in walls, as in life.
Minimal movement is a great attribute. On the other hand, stones that pivot from side to side on a single point cause trouble. Maximum contact, minimum movement is where practice becomes most important to a wall builder.

Batter Back

A good dry stone wall has a slight backwards slope to its face, called the batter. Imagine the wall leaning into the hillside which it is intended to retain. This strengthens the wall and gives it leverage against the slope behind it.

The Top Must Sit Over The Bottom

Lean back, but not too far. The top of the wall, where your caps rest, must be sitting squarely over the bottom of the wall. It is a common beginners mistake to lean the wall back too steeply. A very steep batter on the face will have the top of the wall sitting over soft soil backfill instead of the hearty structure of the wall. The weight of the cap will compress the soil. The path of least resistance for that soil will be forward; it will blow out the bottom of the wall, collapsing the whole structure. This is where the concept of gravity really comes into play with the construction of the wall. With practice and care, gravity is a great ally.

Montreat Big Wall

Montreat Big Wall almost 20 years after completion

Weather Always Wins

Fundamentally, all construction is an attempt to resist the forces of weather. And while weather is not a singular force, in my experience, water is the prime mover.
Almost all of the structures we build live their lives in the weather. We have to constantly be conscious of what happens when it rains. Where does the water go? Where does it collect? What happens when it freezes? What happens when it builds up or when it moves the earth?

With this particular wall, so tall and at the bottom of such a steep bank, managing water was a primary concern. We lined the cut bank behind the wall with a filter fabric that allows water to pass through, but holds back the soil. In addition to keeping the backfill of the wall from getting silted up, it prevents red clay from washing through the wall and staining the face.
This wall is also very deep or thick, depending on how you want to look at it. Behind the face there is an enormous amount of ugly stone, chips, and gravel. Rain water runs through it and does not linger long enough to build up hydrostatic pressure, the force that pushes over so many rigid, impermeable walls. There are no drain pipes behind the wall, because the whole wall functions as a drain.

Eighteen years and counting.

Drystone Wall Terraces

drystone walls make garden terraces

Terraced drystone walls create planting beds on a steep mountainside.

This spring we did a large drystone wall project on a steep mountainside. The clients were unable to drown anything because the bank was live rock- basically mountain ledges under a couple inches of sliding mulch. In most locations we had to carve away live rock to create a shelf to set the walls. We moved in a lot of soil for the gardeners too. We used Hooper’s Creek, a favorite building stone for walls of this type. The walls are laid dry, with gravel and chips behind and geo-textile fabric wrapping the whole thing.

Using the crane to move pallets of stone up to the work site

Using the crane to move pallets of stone up to the work site


One of the primary challenges of the project was the fact that the work site was behind the house, several feet above the driveway and inaccessible. We ended up using over 50 tons of material. That’s a lot to carry up a narrow set of steps. So we had Jerry and Bodie Rogers help us with their crane. They flew the pallets directly from the delivery truck to the staging area. It was fun to see the huge pallets swinging gracefully through the air.