Current Stone Project: North Asheville Stone Steps

We are working in a North Asheville neighborhood collaborating with Emily Gregory of BB Barns. This is a significant transformation. We removed a set of chunky and awkward timber/river rock steps and are replacing them with our style of steps and a walking path. The big retaining wall in the images supports a stone path and eventually a swing. We set a pair of concrete form tubes behind that wall to hold up the swing.

Stone steps that lead onto a platform that will have a path and swing

Tennessee fieldstone wall to support a pathway

Bass Face

‘The Treehouse Orchestra’ mosaic features nine kids playing musical instruments. This guy is playing the upright bass. The first image shows the ‘map’ which has the pattern pieces labeled on it and shows the various shapes laid out for cutting. The second image shows the mosaic loosely assembled, awaiting detailing.

‘The Treehouse Orchestra’ mosaic bass player’s face traced on Emperador Marble

‘The Treehouse Orchestra’ mosaic bass player’s face

Stone Communal Urn/Ash Vault

We just completed construction of a communal urn. This large ash vault was commissioned by Trinity United Methodist Church in West Asheville.


I have to admit I was not familiar with the concept of a communal urn before the pastor of the church approached me. She had come across a brick structure at another church and wanted to commission something similar. I did not care for the brick urn, which was square and had a flat top. To me, it looked like a bear proof garbage can in a state park. Plus, we don’t work with brick!
My design is cylindrical. This reduces the interior volume, but a circle feels more appropriate to an artifact such as this, meant to celebrate the cycle of life. An early iteration of the design resembled an acorn, which was metaphoric, but too expensive.
The final shape resembles a cairn, a stack of stones usually found somewhere in the woods. They are sometimes used as way-finders, markers the show the path to follow. That seemed an apt metaphor as well. Artist Andy Goldsworthy has built many similar structures that he calls seeds. They are arresting structures that make one pause and reflect. Cairns are typically laid stone on stone, with no mortar. They aren’t usually hollow though. The urn is built of Tennessee sandstone with 9” thick mortared walls and a void within. The whole thing is 42” in diameter.

It got bigger when we built it!


The key design piece is a single piece of limestone located about halfway up the urn. We referred to it as “the donut” because of the opening in the center to allow the ashes to fall through. The stone features an inscription selected by the congregation. The inscription repeats twice. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” I had imagined some type of circular phrase that looped back onto itself, but couldn’t think of one!

Lettering carved into limestone ‘donut’ for the communal urn

I had a piece of Indiana limestone cut for me by Tennessee Marble Company. I chose limestone because it is relatively easy to carve. As it turns out, there are architectural details made from Indiana limestone in the church building itself. I decided to do the letter carving myself. I have dabbled with this in the past, but this was my largest project by far. It came out pretty well I think. Incised letters like this have more character than the sandblasted lettering most commonly seen today. I had a special table made to support the stone at chest height. I had a powerful lamp and a space heater nearby, so I was able to work on it throughout the winter. It took a long time!

The shop set up where I carved the lettering for the stone urn.

A Jerusalem Cross engraved into the limestone ‘donut’


Ashes have to get into the vault somehow. I had a couple of random blocks of the same kind of limestone that I used to create a portal. There’s a ramp cut into the big piece at the bottom. The ramp rests right on top of the engraved donut stone.
I ended up making THREE doors for this thing. I broke the first one drilling holes to fasten the locking mechanism in place. I made an exact copy of that (in a fraction of the time, since I had already figured it out first go round.) Then I decided to make the drawer handle out of stone rather than an added piece of steel hardware. The third and final iteration is all one stone with a small indentation underneath for grip. The door is heavy but will rarely be removed. I made a small mosaic on the backside of the door. A cross faces into the vault where ashes shall be interred. This watches over everyone’s remains. It also hides the hardware used to mount the locking mechanism.

The door/ramp/vault mechanism for the communal urn rests of the lettered limestone ‘donut.’

Small cross mosaic on the inside of the door for the communal urn.


The dome is not self-supporting, though we toyed with that idea. Just above the ramp, we put a single piece of stone to seal off the vault area. More than anything else, that prevented extra mortar from falling into the hole and reducing the volume of the vault. At one point I climbed into the cylinder to clean it out. Tight fit! So the dome stones all sit on that interior cap and the space is filled with mortar and chips. I admit that I got so focused on the donut and door that I didn’t think through the cap in enough detail. I like it but it took forever and I can imagine a better process and product for the next time.

Creepy, but it does show the depth of the thing.

It was a fun and challenging project and I like the results. It’s unlike anything I’d ever built before. Those are the most fun! And crazy-making!

North Asheville Stone Project

We are collaborating with Emily Gregory of B.B. Barns on this major landscape transformation. We are building a set of steps and trail that will lead from the house up to the road. Towards the top of the trail, we will be creating a landing with room for a swing, so the homeowners can enjoy their amazing views. We’re using Tennessee fieldstone for the walls and step risers. Pennsylvania stone, blue and full-color, will be used for the step treads. We don’t build many trails, so this will be fun.

These steps are turning towards the left, to meet up with a trail.

A drystone retaining wall that will someday support a set of steps and a landing

The Vault / Communal Urn

We are prepping to finish the communal urn project for the Methodist Church in West Asheville. I have been working on a locking system for urn, so that only ashes are ever placed inside. This is my second door. I was drilling holes into the first, to anchor the lock hardware and a large chunk of the front corner popped off. I had a big dust mask on at the time, so the profanities were suitably muffled. This is the second door, though I am now considered a third door, with a built in handle, carved out of the stone. I think that would be sturdier and more durable than adding something made of steel. Still mulling that one over…

The door and locking system for the communal urn

I made this inverted bowl out of a piece of scrap as a cap to the urn. I found it surprisingly difficult to cut this simple shape. The urn door, cap, and engraved central stone are all Indiana limestone.

I made a hat for an urn

Black Mountain Stone Patio

We finished this patio last week. Over 500 square feet, mostly natural stone. There is a section of concrete pavers that we put in as a base for the forthcoming hot tub. Apparently hot tubs are a big ticket COVID item, as they ordered it in July of last year and are still awaiting delivery. This patio is made of Tennessee sandstone and laid dry over a bed of crushed stone. It drains subtly away from the house. A subterranean drain under the patio capture water that percolates through and conveys it around towards the front of the house.

Tennessee sandstone patio laid dry over crushed stone

Tennessee sandstone patio laid dry over crushed stone

The fieldstone wall that surrounds the patio was already there and is not our work.

The Stacks

This is a shot of my shelves, where I keep stone tiles for mosaic work. It reminds me of my time in college radio when we had to go into the stacks to find the records to play.

Stone tile for mosaics

“The Treehouse Orchestra” Mosaic Update

Larchmont Elementary School has a steelpan ensemble, the inspiration for this figure, and the whole mosaic.

We’re almost there. Another figure is completed. The steelpan player is now completed. I still have to detail her steelpan though. The heads of her mallets are cut from bricks that were part of the old school building, that was torn down to make way for the new building.

The whole thing is over nine feet tall and seventeen feet wide.

This panorama shows the whole piece. This was taken when the steelpan girl was still on a different table, being detailed. The only two kids that still need some cutting are the violinist and the bass player.

Behind the scenes, so to speak

Front view

This fellow is playing the tambourine. Flipped over, you can see the numbering scheme I sued to keep track of the pieces. On smaller things like this, it’s relatively easy to figure out where pieces go. When you have three hundred random hexagons making up the background, it’s really important to have things identified.

Black Mountain Stone Patio

Drystone patio in Black Mountain, North Carolina

Our current masonry project is a drystone patio in Black Mountain, North Carolina. There’s a square of concrete pavers at one end, where the clients’ new hot tub will soon be located. You can see the tail of the electric line that will power the tub. I prefer to use concrete pavers for hot tub pads because they are more perfectly flat. As meticulous as we try to be, we’ll never get natural stone as flat as that!

Drystone patio in Black Mountain, North Carolina

The wall was already there and not our work. We did locate a trench drain under this patio, to help convey rainwater out from this contained backyard. We also installed a water bar on the slope above, to divert water away from the patio.

If the idea of a water bar really, really intrigues you, this NC Forest Service PDF is more than you ever wanted to know.

Fourfold Mosaics Grouted

Grouted the mosaics

I grouted these two mosaics this weekend. These are my first experiments with geometric patterns, these based on Islamic tile designs. The colors really pop in this image because I’ve just rinsed them with water. Another example of how stone mosaic so closely resembles quilt patterns.