Drystone Retaining Wall: Before & After

In addition to providing a more rustic and artistic aesthetic, a drystone retaining wall is actually a more sustainable choice as well. In the fall of 2013 Hammerhead replaced a failing mortared retaining wall that was in an advanced state of decay. Hydrostatic pressure- a build up of water in the earth behind the wall- eventually tore the wall apart and was pushing it over when we stepped in to finish the job. Neighborhood reports vary, but the existing wall was no more than twenty years old- a baby in stone years.

A Drystone Retaining Wall Prevents Hydrostatic Pressure

We replaced it with a drystone retaining wall which will allow water to pass through the face- avoiding the damaging build up of hydrostatic pressure. We used Hooper’s Creek stone, a granitic gneiss from these mountains. It’s a favorite material for wall building because it belongs to these mountains and fits with the crazy geology of this terrain. That said, I did select sandstone from Tennessee for the steps, seen below. It’s so much flatter than the Hooper’s making it a better choice for steps, particularly for clients concerned about access as they age. We can build a very predictable and comfortable set of steps from these big slabs.

drystone retaining wall

A drystone retaining wall in Asheville’s historic Albemarle neighborhood by Hammerhead Stoneworks.

Drystone retaining wall for prevention of blowouts

A blow out in a mortared retaining wall caused by hydrostatic pressure. Build dry, by Golly!

drystone retaining wall

Stone steps and drystone wall by Hammerhead Stoneworks.


Read more about retaining walls.

Recent Works: Walls & web

This short stack of sandstone slab steps finished off the J & J wall, which features the time capsule of the previous post.

I like the details of a project, like this time capsule, demonstrated by amateur hand model, me. Removing the ‘plug’ begins with knowing where to find it. I am lucky I know where it is, as it blends into the wall seamlessly. I don’t have a strong memory for particular stones in a project, so I bet in a few months I would have to wiggle a bunch of stones until I found this one.

We used a doggy pill bottle for the time capsule. Once it’s full, a bead of wax will be applied to the seam at the cap, to make sure no moisture can penetrate. As both the homeowners are artists, I expect the time capsule will be filled with tiny works of art.

My contribution to the time capsule? A marble, of course.

I built this wall last week. The original wall was made of something akin to slate or perhaps a phyllite. Whatever it was, it was kinda ugly and none too friendly to work with. I re-used what I could, but much of the new wall is made of locally available granitic gneiss.

I tend to get more web work done in the colder months. I have recently made some changes:
I posted an earlier version of the sustainability essay that appeared in the most recent issue of Stonexus.
I also posted a new Green Target case study, also from this article.
I gave the Artist, Craftsman or Designer essay its own page.
Coming soon: BENCHLAB!

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.

Stone Theory: Art, craft & design

Stone Theory

For the last year or so I have been involved with a local crafts organization called Handmade in America. As I’ve attended meetings, I have had to get accustomed to being called an artist, a label that I previously avoided. The tag has always seemed too precious to me. My preferred title, craftsman, has a gritty, earthy quality that fits me and my work better. Designer is also appropriate because on many projects I take that role or share it with another professional. Designer fits my work well. But I have struggled with the idea of being an artist for years. Recently I’ve thought more and more on the topic, as I seek new ways to work with stone, ideas, and tools. As I’ve pondered this, I’ve developed a stone theory of sorts that compares and contrasts these three titles.

I use the triad illustrations (shown below) to show the fuzzy boundaries between artist, craftsman, and designer. Each discipline is comprised of three circles: concept/idea, technique/technical and customer/critic. The size of the circles shows the relative importance of each element to the others. The largest circle shows the primary focus of that discipline. These are very dynamic elements; they vary from person to person, from project to project and even from moment to moment. But with the triads, I have built a foundation for the conversation, and an easy way to reflect on my role or even to plan how to move ahead with an individual piece of work and my whole stone career.

Stone Theory


Expression of ideas or emotions is the primary force that drives an artist’s work. Sometimes it can be clearly stated, as in some modern conceptual work. Sometimes it’s only hinted at, in the way certain images or forms evoke a feeling or memory. The technique is also important, but generally takes on a lesser role, as it is subordinate to the vision. The critic or the customer is largely- hopefully- not much of the equation at all. Art that worries too much about what people think is dilute and lifeless.

Frank Lloyd Wright was a great artist, with a singular vision. He regarded the technical aspects of architecture as a low priority and as a result, much of his artistic legacy is in an advanced state of disrepair. Depending on who you read, you might discover he placed no emphasis on the customer at all or too much on what people thought.

Every stone project I do has an artistic element, whimsical details that share my love for the craft and attempt to engage people in careful consideration of the work. Most of my portfolio so far though is very practical- retaining walls, patios and steps. I incorporate details yes, but the emphasis is always on stonework that does its job well and will last a long, long time. Craft and design come first.

I experience in my own stone work mostly in photographs; this is the place where I take on more of a artist role. I use the images for my marketing, but I take the photographs as a means of experiencing the work the way I see it and want to remember the feeling it has for me.


Stone TheoryCraftsman

The technique is the primary concern of the craftsman. It must be done this way because this is the right way to do it. There’s a purity in this that is hard to articulate to others, unless they are in the crafts as well. Simple rules create complex products that have a simple beauty. It is the science of emergence manifested in my hands. The design is important as well, as the work must fit the location, the aesthetic, the overall scheme. Likewise, it must solve the client’s problem: access to the home, contain fire, retain a steep hillside, etc.

A well-crafted product is invested with the maker’s heart and energy. It feels different to touch and to experience. In the shoddy world of Wal-Mart and Target disposable plastics and wood pulp furniture, true craft is like an oasis. It connects people: craftsman to owner, generation to generation as family treasures are passed down. True craft is all the better if it’s used. It’s nice to have your work admired, but it’s even better to see your work being used, engaged and appreciated.

This is where I am most comfortable. I am a student of the stonework, always seeking ways to use old school tools and techniques in service of modern problems. I certainly use modern tools as well, but only to obey the basic rules that have been handed down for millennia.

As most craftspeople will attest, this is a hard sell in the modern world. True craft takes more time and attention. With stone, it usually takes significantly more material as well. You can always find something cheaper than what I have on offer. You would be hard-pressed to find anything better.

Stone Theory


For designers, the customer is the main focus. Great design isn’t worth much unless it solves the client’s problem, which can be as diverse as creating shelter, a marketing campaign or a handheld digital music player. The conceptual piece, sometimes called the parti, is also very important. I have looked at more than a few landscapes where there was never a concept, such that multiple styles, materials and qualities of craft rub shoulders together awkwardly. Designers can offer big picture views that find the fine threads that run through the whole work. I often encourage my clients to involve designers and I wish more designers would engage craftspeople earlier in their process; a seamless process creates a beautiful product.

In my practice of design, the technical aspect is an equal partner, as I am primarily a craftsman. I can’t readily separate thinking about it from doing it. One of the challenges craftspeople and builders frequently face is designers that have a limited awareness of how materials and techniques work in real space. This is particularly true of stone, as modern architects have little experience with or education on stone and its application. I hope this changes in the future, as architects realize that pure stone is a more sustainable choice than overly processed materials like concrete and steel.



Stone TheoryThese are not hard and fast rules, as the size of the circles are ever changing. I can imagine a tool, like a floating holograph hovering around my head, that showed the shifting dynamic of the three circles over the course of a project, or even a day. The artist in me would have almost disappeared as I wrestled with the practical concerns of turning a tight circle in big rectangles of stone. The craftsman and designer were hard at work though, debating the structural merits and finished appearance.

The artist came out later, as I choose the stones for their color, pattern and texture, though the craftsman was there too, worrying for hidden cracks and checking the dimensions of each slab. It was all craftsman as I figured out how move the big chunks from my truck, down the driveway and into position. As far as I can tell the artist and designer were on lunch and no help at all. The artist came back in time to tuck a small tower of marbles along the seam between a step and the block wall, inviting people to study how the thing is really made. The craftsman helped execute it and the designer approved. And the artist has been taking pictures, trying to capture the pride of craft and good design and share how it felt to make this beautiful and strong thing.

While subjective, the triads have given me some insight into who I am and what kind of work I do. I invite you to join the conversation by using the comments section below. Comments will remain open for a few days, until the spam starts filling up my inbox.