Stone Columns for an Automatic Driveway Gate

Stone driveway columns with automatic gate

Stone driveway columns with automatic gate

Hammerhead Stoneworks recently completed these stone columns to anchor an automatic driveway gate for an Asheville homeowner. The two columns are set on a single slab of concrete that extends across the driveway. Called a grade beam, this slab ensures that there’s no differential settling. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen driveway columns settling away from each other, veering off in strange directions.
Driveway gate stone column

Driveway gate stone column

Each column has a steel armature inside it that is bolted to the slab/grade beam. Affectionately called ‘aliens’ for their many appendages, the armature is an awkward looking thing, until it is hidden by the stonework. The armature to the left is more involved as it has arms that extend to the outside of the column to support the gate as well as the gate operator. The armature allows us to center the gate on the column; in many cases a gate is set at the back of or behind the column as a convenience to the builder. We just thought it looked better in the center of the column. The stonework is structural, with only the steel armature- and some conduit- inside it. I think it gives a stronger, more integral look than a standy-up veneer. Almost all the material is sandstone from Tennessee, which is colorful and easy enough to square off for a clean edge.
Stone column for an automatic driveway gate

Stone column for an automatic driveway gate


Conduit runs through the center of each column for future lamps. Since it wasn’t in the homeowners plans as we built, we set a secondary cap on top, to cover the conduit and protect the opening from the weather. Should lamps be desired, the topmost capstones will be removed and the wiring can be installed with minimal fuss.

Ironwoods Stone Entry Sign: Done and Dusted

Stone entry sign

Finished product

Earlier this week, blacksmith Lynda Metcalfe and I drove to Chapel Hill to put the finishing touches on our collaboration, the Ironwoods stone entry sign. It was satisfying to see this project through; discussions with the homeowner’s association had started a year ago November. The time invested was well spent. This sign is a work of art.

Stone entry sign

The sign sits on an island and is visible to traffic in both directions. Each side of the sign has its own flow of vines and is its own piece.

Stone entry sign

Lynda’s work has great depth. The letters are raised from the back panel and vines wind their way behind the letters, poking through here and there.

In this image from Lynda’s shop, you can see how she lined up the lettering on each side so that one set of fasteners reached through to catch the word Ironwoods running in both directions. Lynda’s primary focus in architectural metalwork; it was great to work with another artisan with such a strong construction ethos. We both aspired to create something strong and beautiful. Craftsmanship should be more than pretty.
(photo by Lynda Metcalfe)

All in all, the experience of working at Ironwoods was unlike any other I’ve ever had in my career. They know how to treat craftspeople. Concerned neighbors brought out orange cones to protect us from distracted drivers. Virginia made me soup. A kindly stranger delivered me hot chocolate (with whipped cream!) on a cold day. Ethan and Logan supplied me with marbles, since I forgot my own back home. I am sincerely grateful for the kindness and enthusiasm shown for the process and the finished product. It is a great joy to create work for people who appreciate it.

Special thanks are owed to Matthew Feldt who saw this project through from a seed of an idea to a fully grown vine. He navigated the design process with grace, championed the project from start to finish and lent his strong back, his photographic eye and even his garage to the effort. The sign doesn’t happen without Matthew. Thank you.

All of the photographs in this blog posting, unless otherwise noted, are by Matthew Feldt.

Ironwoods: Sign underway

My current project has me journeying to Chapel Hill to build a entry sign for the Ironwoods neighborhood. Two years ago I built a memorial bench in this same neighborhood for Grandpa Tony. I am delighted that they invited me back to complete this project, a collaboration between myself and blacksmith & artist Lynda Metcalfe. I met Lynda during the Handmade House in the Ramble project and have been hoping to find a way to work with her ever since. I am excited about the collaboration and how the final piece will mesh our two crafts and styles into a seamless design.


The boulders are anchored in concrete and the wall sits on a slab. The wall is structural stone, about fourteen inches thick. The big boulder (roughly 1500 pounds) has a perfect notch for my cell phone.

I used a sheet of foam core to create a template of the boulder’s shape to give Lynda a rough guide as to where her ironwork will tie into the stonework.

Thanks be to Matthew Feldt for the photographs and all his help with this project.

Column Theory: Done and done


After waiting all summer, the columns finally got their hats. Last Thursday, after a full summer of research, phone calls and waiting, I ventured back down to Rock Hill, South Carolina and put the big cap stones on the columns and walls. We eventually ended up ordering stone directly from the quarry in Hackett, Arkansas. The column caps are single pieces, approximately 33 inches square and four inches thick. We strapped them by the corners and lifted them onto their mortar beds with a skid steer loader. It all went very smoothly, though we did discover that the flatter the stone lay in the rigging, the easier it went into place. Seems obvious as I write it, but in application, it didn’t seem like a couple of degrees would make such an impact on how they skooshed the mortar underneath them. Based on volume, I guess that the stones weighed between 400 and 450 pounds each.

The columns are structural, meaning the stone supports itself; there’s no block, besides the footing. There is a steel armature inside each column. The armature pokes out of each column over the wall. It’s job is to support timbers that complete the design. You can see the ‘fins’ on the left side of this column, with bolt holes already drilled. The armature has no role in the stone structure, but it was incredibly helpful because it gave me a way to suspend strings to keep my corners on target.

The mailbox is my favorite part of the project, mostly because of the challenges it embodies. When we agreed to terms on the project there was an aside about a mailbox. I imagined something small, mounted on the face in some easy way. I certainly didn’t imagine this affront to the internet age. I built a vault around it using quoins or cornerstones, an old school structural approach. I love the immensity, the real stone, real structure feeling it has. There’s no steel or block hiding in there- just stone on stone.

The image below shows the back of the columns on the opposite side of the driveway. Note the other vault, a massive control panel for the automatic gate mechanism. The stone door is held in place by friction. In the spirit of full disclosure, there is a piece of plate steel behind the lintel, supporting the column above.

New Panoramas & A Marketing Class


This is a photo montage/panorama of the steps I built this past winter in the Montford district of Asheville. The step treads are made of the full-color variant of Pennsylvania bluestone. The wall, columns and step risers are made of granitic gneiss, mostly from the Hooper’s Creek quarry in Fletcher. The steps and columns are mortared; the wall is completely dry.

Sandstone steps and wall buried in snow. Looks positively comfortable right now.


Last Friday I led an hour long workshop for craftspeople and artisans on how to market their work. It was part of Handmade in America’s Art, Craft and Design Expo at the North Carolina Arboretum. The main push of my talk was that marketing is education and that craft artists should focus their marketing efforts on the 3 P’s: product, process and person. I also talked a bit about setting goals, making a cohesive plan and punk rock.

Mailbox Vault Done: Stone Theory

Mailbox Vault Done

Here’s the scene at the entrance to the Rock Hill horse farm. The connecting wall will top out at about 28 inches, so there’s a bit more to go. The far column has some sample caps resting in place. Columns of this volume might require a massive cap to help visually anchor them. That decision hasn’t been made yet…

Mailbox Vault Done
Here’s a front-on view of the mailbox vault shortly after completion. I’m very partial to this style: structural quoins, solid stone lintels, serious gravity. It’s a mix of old school and new style. My conservative estimate puts each column weighing over two tons.

This is a plan from my tiny notebook that I eventually scrapped, in favor of thinner stones for the quoins, adding an extra pair of stones in order to make full height. I worried that at almost 7″ thick, the quoins as drawn would be out of scale to the rest of the work.

Detail looking down the quoins.

This Northern Fence Lizard spent the night resting in a nook in one the block I used for my low scaffolding. It was a very safe place until I started work in the morning. I had to move him because he was too cold to move himself. His tail is obviously shortened, perhaps by a predator, perhaps by not being careful enough around the stone pile.

Column Theory: Stone Mailbox Vault

Stone Mailbox Vault

Last week I spent a good bit of time creating this structure within the column to house the biggest mailbox I think I’ve ever seen. I cut these quoins from step slabs, using petty much every technique I know how to tim them down. The cut-off saw was too loud and dusty and the line would wander over the full 36″ of the stone. Using the hand tracer chisel worked, but was really only efficient when I was cutting the shortest lines. Eventually I settled on cutting a clean line at each edge with the small grinder and then using feathers and wedges to cut the rest. This allowed me to keep my quoins fairly symmetric, but let me go more quickly than I would with chisels alone or even using the saw. Perhaps someday I will do a time trial to see which is faster, though I suspect the old school wedges (and an electric hammer drill of course) are faster than my Stihl saw with a diamond blade on it. Feathers are more fun too.

Stone Mailbox Vault

This is a detail of the armature that I am building the columns around. This is intended to provide a place for the wooden cross pieces to be hung and held away from the stone work. By doing this, the wood is more easily maintained and switched out as needed. It also protects the stonework, by reducing the chance that the wood will soak up a bunch of water and hold it against the mortar. Whenever wood juts into stone work, it inevitably creates a weak spot in the stone structure. This armature design also provides a place where I can mount my corners template, a piece of plywood with string stretched plumb to the footer. I got this idea from Fred Lashley; I don’t know if she invented it or adapted it from some other source.


A banker is a mason’s work table. You can’t see from this angle, but this table is minutes away from falling over; it has a significant, persistent lean. That’s a chunk of Arkansas Hackett sitting on the corner.

Stone Column Theory

Stone Column Theory

Stone column for an automatic driveway gate

Stone column for an automatic driveway gate

My latest project is the entrance to a horse farm just outside of Rock Hill, South Carolina. Mortared columns and connecting walls frame the main gate. I’m using a Tennessee sandstone as well as Arkansas Hackett, a type of sandstone akin to Tennessee Crab Orchard but darker in color. The client already had a supply of this stuff, snapped strips about 5-6 inches tall and about the same thickness. It makes a lovely cornerstone. The metal fins sticking out the side will hold wood fence rails.

I’m working on a theory that columns- which I find to be one of the most challenging and intriguing expressions of stone- are like short stories, compared to the long form of walls or novels. There’s a different rhythm and a greater attention to detail is needed to achieve the desired result. You need all the same elements in a short story as novel- strong characters, a compelling plot, beautiful language, but you have less space to develop it and if you miss it, well it’s painfully obvious. And multiple that by four, since each side of a column is its own piece, but visually and strucutrally connected to the other sides. Stone columns are a common item in around here, and yet few capture the imagination. I’m hoping that this set will really pop.