Stone Walls Class at the NC Arboretum

Stone Walls Class at the NC Arboretum

Jonathan and I recently taught a stone walls class at the North Carolina Arboretum. The class was based on understanding the simple rules that bring about the beautiful complexity of a stone wall. I used a big stone wall we once built in Montreat as a principal example. We spent the first half of the day in the classroom and the afternoon in the Arboretum’s outdoor space that we call the sandbox.

One key topic discussed is how no two stone walls can be the same (illustrated in the graphic below). This is one of the many reasons stone I will always prefer stone to concrete blocks.

Stone Walls Class

We will be doing another drystone walls class at the Arboretum in this fall – watch this blog for updates!

Stone Workshop with Clemson Landscape Architecture Students

Stone Workshop

Photo by Mary Padua

Mary Padua, a professor in Clemson’s landscape architecture department, brought her students to our shop for a brief tour. We talked about stone and craftsmanship, including slightly odd aphorisms, like ‘construction is emotional’ and ‘get good at failure.’ After that they went to the First Baptist Church to see the Sacred Garden, where Hammerhead completed several projects. They also met with Vision Design Collaborative’s Ryan Blau, one of the Garden designers who involved us in the project.

(Check out some of our work in the Garden here and here.)

Stone Workshop

Photo by Mary Padua

Stone Inlay Process

Stone Inlay Process – Great Blue Heron

I’ve had this piece of stone at the shop for over a year. It was cut from a bench we installed in the Memorial Garden of First Baptist Church Asheville. I really liked the color and surface texture and was waiting for a project to suggest itself – and along came this blue heron stone inlay. I envisioned it becoming a Garden Guardian like Coyote, a piece we recently designed and installed in Atlanta.

Stone Inlay Process

The drawn pattern of the stone inlay

Soapstone is used to create the lines of the general shape, while a Sharpie is used for the exact contour. (Soapstone blows off when the grinder hits the rock, but the Sharpie stays in place.)

The Cutaway

The heron is a challenging shape. The point of the beak as well as the curve of the neck were both difficult to get just right, so I used pretty much every tool at my disposal. In order to use a small radius blade, I even got a little Dremel tile saw, which was a bit helpful, but overall lacked the needed power. I used a hammer and a very sharp lettering chisel to get the points as crisp as possible.

Stone inlay process

The stone cutaway

The Rubbing

Once the design is cut into the stone, I do a rubbing of sorts to get the contours on paper. I can remember doing this with my mom as a kid in the historic cemeteries of Rhode Island where I’m from. While never as exact as I want it to be, it’s usually pretty close. I drop my shapes onto this and then cut them out.

Stone Inlay Process

The shape rubbed on paper

Design Pattern

As you can see from the countless scribbles, I go through a lot of ideas. (And that’s after having drawn to design before I even started.) What looks good on paper and a small scale might not work in large scale. Due to the complex design of this project, after I cut it I had to reassemble it so I could figure out how the pieces fit together.

Stone Inlay Process

The drawn pattern. Note: nails only there to keep it from blowing away

Starting the Inlay

I knew I wanted the body and wings to be blue Bahia. This is a super expensive tile, but the color is astounding!

Stone Inlay Process

Starting the inlay with blue Bahia tile

The Heron’s Gray Neck

I think the scientist in me got a little too interested in biological accuracy. A great blue heron’s is more gray than blue, and I wanted to reflect that in the inlay. (And yes, I understand that even their wings aren’t that blue!) I switched from the blue Bahia tile to a gray stone for the neck. While I like the gray stone, I didn’t really like the effect.

Stone Inlay Process

The heron’s gray neck

The Finished Product

This is a little more like it. The body, neck, and head are all blue, while the beak is a particularly yellow type of travertine. The crest is black, and the legs are a marble from Tennessee.

Stone inlay process

The finished product

I had to cut the legs twice as the first ones were so snugly fit that a few grains of sand made a wedge between the legs and the stone, making it impossible to get them out without breaking them. I ended up cutting several of the stone of this finished stone inlay more than once.

Hammerhead Stoneworks Featured in the Slippery Rock Gazette

The Slippery Rock Gazette recently featured Hammerhead’s Green Man mosaic completed for Green Man Brewery. The article explains in great detail the process of creating the mosaic from the imagineering phase to the finished product. Additionally, readers can learn about why certain stones were selected as well as what a project of this scale entails.

Access the full feature here.

Special Thanks for the Slippery Rock Gazette Feature

We extend our gratitude to Peter J. Marcucci for authoring this feature as well as to Braxton-Bragg, who both publishes the Gazette and regularly supplies Hammerhead Stoneworks with cool tools and cutting supplies.

The full size mosaic in the space as featured in the Slippery Rock Gazette

The full size mosaic in the space Photograph ©2016 David Dietrich

Homemade Patio

It’s rare that I feature other’s work on my web site; I am uncomfortable taking credit (or blame!) for work that’s not my own. I am making an exception to this guideline to feature a patio built by a homeowner in southern California. Drew contacted me in the summer with questions about dry laying a patio and some concerns about drainage. I answered as best I could, though it’s hard to offer too many specifics without having firsthand experience of the stones, soil and slope of the area. I linked him to the handout I made for my flagstone classes. Drew ran with the info I provided. His words: “So many people told me that the flagstone must be set in concrete. I knew that wasn’t the case, but I was still apprehensive about building it that way until I found your website and saw that other people were building dry-set patios the way I wanted to. Once I saw your work, I said “Ok, I can do this…” It definitely gave me the courage to ignore the “nay-sayers.” Now everyone who sees it says, “Wow!” We’ve had some rain recently, and the drainage works exactly how I hoped it would.”
Drew reports that the stone is quartzite. He used a Skilsaw to cut the shapes, and then roughed up the edges with a hammer to give them a more naturalistic look.
Nicely done Drew! And thanks for sharing the images.

Dry stone patio by homeowner Drew in southern California.

Dry stone patio by homeowner Drew in southern California.

Patio by homeowner Drew in southern California. Well done!

Patio by homeowner Drew in southern California. Well done!

Stone Book Feature

Stone Book Feature

Stone book feature
In April 2010, I spent a day with photographer Steven Paul Whitsitt, touring projects I had done. Just last month the book he was working on was released by Schiffer Publishing. I am very excited by the book which is called Built with Stone: Eight Contemporary Artisans. It includes several projects, including the secretive Cabin on Mitchell’s Peak, a structural stone house I built with Fred Lashley and the Unturned Stone. The book is available from local booksellers and online merchants. There’s some amazing work in there by masons from all across the country.

Read more about my time spent with Steven Paul Whitsitt here.

Landscape Architecture Class


During the installation process in Gainesville, my friend Mary Padua brought a group of students from the University of Florida to the site. She is a professor in the Landscape Architecture program at UF and a gifted designer and photographer. The students are studying implementation and construction drawings. I talked briefly about the project, about the work in general and designing with stone. At the end of the conversation, I ran through my five suggestions for young designers:

Learn the local geology

Just as a designer moving to Colorado would set out quickly to learn the local plants, learning about the local geology can be an invaluable asset. The make up of the Earth varies more dramatically from place to place than many realize. Knowing what types of rock are present, their formation and structure can help a designer choose the best application for each. The finished product is stronger and more durable and it looks like it belongs to the place it built. Also, the more you knows about the local geology, the more you can understand about the forces that will actively try to destroy your work such as erosion and earth movement.

Connect with local craftspeople

Large architecture firms hire large builders. This is cost-effective and helps to ensure compliance with the myriad laws that control construction. But large builders don’t have the vision or the gift of invention that independent craftspeople do. Local craftspeople understand their materials intimately and create distinctive works that celebrate creativity and are meant to last. Employing local craftspeople is the sustainable choice for the economy as well; they spend their wages in their communities and often support other small businesses. Local craftspeople are a fantastic asset to the design process as well, adding a strong practical understanding to the conceptual development of an idea.

Build dry

Dry stonework is the sustainable choice for landscape applications such as retaining walls, paths, patios, and steps. A well-crafted drystone retaining wall will have a smaller carbon footprint and will outlast a similarly sited mortared wall. I offer a more detailed take on this here.

Water always wins

There’s a misconception that modern materials and techniques are so advanced and technologically sophisticated that they can withstand any assault, resist any force. This is patently false. Water always wins. The forces of weather over time should be a central consideration in the design and implementation of every project.

Learn about business and marketing

I expect that most young Landscape Architects will start working in larger firms and over the early years of their design careers get practice at the whole range of design tasks. Many will, at some point, strike out on their own. It’s an amazing journey and incredibly rewarding, but it can be very challenging to start your own business. I encourage everyone to start learning their way around the business side of the design and construction trades now. Project bidding, tax issues and insurance requirements sneak up fast when you set up your own shop. Marketing is often very difficult for the self-employed. Taking classes now and reading books can be helpful. Learning by doing is best, if you can find opportunities to handle the business side earlier

The Blue Spiral

Last week I traveled down to Florida and installed the “Blue Spiral” which I’ve been working on for the past few weeks.

I drove down on Monday and the stone arrived the next morning. It was a soggy day, but mild compared to the weather Gainesville had endured all summer. It never topped 90 on my whole trip, but the week before it had been pushing 100.


It took me a day and a half to pack up all the stones for travel. I used cardboard between each layer on a pallet and shimmed under stones to keep everything level and tight. Lots of strips of cardboard went between the stones on each layer, so that there wouldn’t be any movement and vulnerable points wouldn’t be broken. Then I shrink-wrapped the heck out of it. It all traveled beautifully; there was no damage to any of the 105 pieces. Thanks to Dennis at Dayrunner Systems for taking such care with my delivery.


It took three very full days to install, plus some final tweaks in Friday morning before I started my drive home. My favorite part of the installation process was seeing the stone in natural light. I had built it in the shop, but it was always deeply shaded in there, with a few florescent lights overhead. Thursday evening, when it was substantially complete and the sun was setting, I really got to see the richness of the color in the composition. It was a very gratifying moment.


Here’s the piece in its new home. I placed some sod around the edges, but I think the landscape crew will make some adjustments to that, maybe even add a gravel path. It’s sited at the Gainesville Regional Utilities Eastside Operations Center. It’s a huge new campus, with seven new buildings, all of which will be certified LEED Silver. It’s an impressive place.

On Thursday, my friend Mary Padua brought a group of students from the University of Florida to the site site. She is a professor in the Landscape Architecture program at UF and a gifted designer and photographer. The students are studying implementation and construction drawings. I talked briefly about the project, about the work in general and designing with stone. I’m hoping that someone took a picture or two that I can post here in the near future, with notes on the conversation.

I owe a debt of deep gratitude to John Hayes, the Public Art Coordinator of the City of Gainesville’s Art in Public Places Trust and his board for giving me this opportunity. I am also very grateful to Reid Rivers, GRU’s Project Manager, who was incredibly helpful and supportive in shepherding the project along.


It’s not exactly a maker’s mark, but I did sign the bottom of stone 8.1 with a Sharpie.

The Blue Spiral is an original Artwork commissioned by and in the public art collection of the City of Gainesville.

Boulder Bench Installation

Stone bench on boulders

Stone bench on boulders

This bench was installed in Biltmore Forest. The supports are ‘finger’ boulders that I cut down to a suitable length. The seat itself is a step slab, precut by the quarry. It’s exactly four feet long and eighteen inches from front to back. What follows is a brief view of installing such a bench. Unfortunately, I didn’t take pictures showing how I cut the boulders down which was mostly chisel work with some grinding to take off the ugly lumps.

I start by placing the supports. The googly eyes represent the center of the holes, where we start digging. If the orientation of the bench isn’t obvious, it’s a good idea to have a piece of cardboard or paper the same size as the bench slab. A life sized template lets you twist it this way and that, until you find the place the bench wants to be.

Once the holes are dug, I drop the supports in, onto a tamped base of pea gravel. Getting the supports leveled to each other and the tops flat is absolutely crucial. I use a cup wheel on my grinder to level off the tops. This is the most time consuming part of the installation. I had tested the design and assembly in BENCHLAB, but the way the stones relate in the actual installation means this step has to be refined in situ. Happily, I like making dust.

With the supports in place, I pour concrete around their bases. The top surfaces are flat, but I have used the grinder with a diamond blade to score the tops, giving the mortar a place to adhere. There’s about 7-8 inches of stone underground.

The seat slab weighs over 500 pounds. I use a pair of pressure treated 2″ by 12″ boards as a ramp to get the stone from the truck bed to the ground. I make sure it comes down the ramp facing in the right direction, with the top up. Then we just walk it up the ramp.
The first step up is a couple chunks of 4″ by 4″ scrap. Next, we lift it up onto standard 8″ blocks. From there we step up to the 12″ blocks. At each level, we remove the previous step, so there’s one less thing to trip over. It’s a heavy stone, but we’re never lifting it more than four inches and just one end at a time. The 12″ block is close to the full height. I bring a couple of extra bits of board to place under the stone to make sure it’s above the height of the supports. You want to set the slab down on the mortar bed, not slide it across it which risks pushing the mortar off.

Full disclosure, my helper Gary was there to make this install happen. I have done it by myself, but an extra pair of hands really helps.
I put a bed of mortar across the top of the supports and we set the slab on top. To finish it out, I adjust as needed to make sure everything is level, clean up the mortar joints and re-grade the area.

Then, I test the bench.

Yup, works.