I’ve been driving by this sign a lot recently, working on a small project in Weaverville. I finally stopped by to take a closer look. We built it five years ago. It’s holding up well. The moon gate itself is an excellent location for spiders to build their webs. Orb weavers had strung up elaborate structures on each side of the opening. We used sandstone from Tennessee for all the components of the sign, including the engraved slab. I drove up there to pick out that piece. Our friends Jeff and Ben at Martin Monument did the engraving work and helped us sling that piece into place.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Stonework Customer Testimonial
This past winter we completed a stone path and wall for a customer named Tom in North Asheville’s Beaverdam neighborhood. Here is what Tom had to say about our work:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Order is fleeting; chaos always wins. This was taken the day we hung pegboard in the shop. It’s been a mess ever since.
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
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.
This phoenix stone mosaic is in progress as part of a public art installation in public schools in Norfolk, VA. The Hammerhead crew leaves this week to install it there.
The Phoenix Head
The original concept for this artwork was a Great Blue Phoenix. Equally inspired by the rugged beauty of the great blue heron and the strength and persistent lives of the mythical Phoenix, the color theme was to be blue and gray. But I ran into a problem finding blue stone! Always expensive, there are very few types of truly blue stone that are made into tiles and sold in the United States. So I had to pivotâ€¦
Now the Phoenix is just a Phoenix. I think you can see the hint of the heron in this image of the Phoenixâ€™s head.
This table is my happy place. I have spent many hours here cutting templates and tracing patterns on to stone. Sometimes itâ€™s hard to find a place to work because thereâ€™s so many tile choices on the table. A large map of the whole mosaic hangs over the table and is a useful reference. Hanging over the map is the phoenix tail, awaiting stone choices and cutting.
After we finished cutting the piece, we started laying it out. In a manner common to mosaics, we are laying it face down. Once we have established that we like the fits between stones, we are going to glue it to the paper. Then, weâ€™re going to epoxy mesh to the back. Instead of 500 individual stones, we will have approximately 20 panels of stone to install.
By the nature of this process, we have never seen the completed mosaic all together in one place. I guess I can see how that would be a liability, but I prefer to think of it as a opportunity. It will be exciting to see it on the wall, for the first time, with the kids who it is for. It will be a surprise for all of us!
Phoenix Stone Mosaic: Feathers
We have been calling these shapes scallops. They are a main element of the wing design. I made no effort to arrange the colors, preferring to let randomness take its course.
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 donâ€™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 elementsâ€“ care, intention, and experience â€“ 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. Itâ€™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 theyâ€™re doing. And if you can subtract care from the process, you can subtract cost. Itâ€™s always cheaper if you donâ€™t give a shit. Until laterâ€¦
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.
Iâ€™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 â€“ 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 â€“ 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 constructionâ€“ often called running joints â€“ weaken the structure significantly. Crossing joints â€“ imagine the traditional running bond of the most common brick wall â€“ 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 whoâ€™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.
Maximum Contact â€“ 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.
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.
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.
Black Mountain Stone Wall and Steps
Written by Marc Archambault
We spent about a month this summer building steps around a recently completed modern house in Black Mountain, North Carolina. Designed by architect Scott Huebner of Brickstack Architects, the house has majestic views from its steep lot. Our primary job was to provide access for the homeowners so that they can tend their gardens and landscape. Really it was more like backcountry trail construction than our typical more finessed style of work. However, the real fun was when we got to replace a very sloppily built boulder wall at the driveway.
To hear it described, the wall in question was a last-minute add-on. It certainly looked very thrown together, with large gaps, no attention paid to bonding, and lots of gravel between the stones as if using ball bearings as a substitute for mortar. It was nothing to look at, for sure. Adding insult to injury, other tradespeople had mistreated it. Someone had smeared a lot of polyurethane on a few stones, presumably cleaning their brushes. There were similar concrete stains in other locations. All in all, it was a very ugly wall.
So we took it down and rebuilt it. I would say itâ€™s built in the style of our typical walls, but at an uncommon scale. Some of these pieces weigh over 1000 pounds and it required an excavator â€“ a small one â€“ to help move the material into place. The stones with the stains were either removed or turned around to hide the mess. We used hammer and chisel and- as appropriate- the big saw to sweeten the fits and to ensure good bonding. The previous wall had no attention paid to batter or a clean line to the face of the whole wall. We took care of that and the results are pleasing.
I should have done a before and after post, but the original wall so ugly I never thought to take a picture of it. If I find a picture, I will surely add it.
To me, true craft is about caring. The devil is in the details.
Special thanks to Fred Lashley for operating the excavator on this project.
Sacred Fire Circle in Alexander, NC
Hammerhead completed the fire circle in January of 2014 for clients hoping to use the space for ceremonial gatherings.
Rays of black granite shoot out from the central fire ring in the cardinal directions until they meet the four large site boulders. Each site boulder frames one side of the four semicircular stone benches that border the circle. Reclaimed granite of various colors and patterns give each planet orbiting around the fire ring its own distinct look.