Mary Padua, a professor in Clemson’s landscape architecture department, brought her students to our shop for a brief tour.Â 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.
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.
Natural Stone MosaicÂ Yellow Wakerobin
Natural Stone MosaicÂ Yellow WakerobinÂ was commissioned as a Motherâ€™s Day gift for a family in Maryville, Tennessee. Named after the species of trillium featured on the piece, it now resides in a niche on a brick fireplace. A conversation with the Mom to be celebrated inspired the design. A heart survivor, she loves the mountains and is devoted to her three kids. The heart shaped leaves of the trillium, which grows wild in these mountains, seemed like a perfect match. And the white dove very much fits the familyâ€™s values and aspirations.
I tried a new technique when I was creating the Trillium Mosaic. Once all the pieces were cut, I flipped them over and placed them on a reversed template. Since I take all of my pencil sketches into a digital space to create my patterns, itâ€™s very easy to reverse the design and have it printed as a mirror image. Working backwards or upside down like this is a very common technique for mosaic artists, but it was the first time that I’d ever tried it.
One immediate advantage is that you can see how well the pieces are actually cut and make quick adjustments. Once I had the fits as I liked them, I applied fiberglass mesh. I used a special epoxy that I trust with stone to adhere the mesh. In the picture you can see tons of little scraps resting on the fiberglass as it sets up. Many mosaic artists will take the piece in that form and bring it for installation. I felt like my pieces of stone were too heavy for that, so I applied it to the backer board right there on the table. The fiberglass mesh was to prevent the stones from moving while I set it.
The images below show the two color options for the petals of the trillium. I sent these photos to the customer and they made the call between purple or yellow.
Whoops! I mixed my thinset too wet and then got impatient. As a result some of it used through the joints (pictured below). When I flipped it over, it was well adhered but still green, so I was able to scrape the excess mortar out. It was my penance for impatience.
Check out some other natural stone mosaics completed by Hammerhead Stoneworks:
Natural Stone Mosaic Birds of Every Feather: Fabrication Process
This collection of images is from the fabrication process of natural stone mosaicÂ Birds of Every Feather,Â which was designed for Ocean View Elementary School in Norfolk, VA. It is the first in a series of six mosaics I will make for schools in this area as part of a public art commission.
As with all of my mosaic work, I fabricated this at my shop before bringing it to the installation site. Making the birds was so much fun! The background, not so much. The eyes of the birds are either glass marbles or small pebbles. In order to save epoxy, I would do several eyes all at once, leading to this weird-looking photograph.
The little brown bird is the Carolina wren. While building this at the shop, a Carolina wren built a nest on one of the shop’s storage shelves.
In mid July, Jonathan and I traveled to Norfolk, Virginia to install the first of the mosaics I’m designing for public schools there. This one was installed on Ocean View Elementary School and features a diverse array of local birds. The area newspaper, the Virginian-Pilot, just ran a story about it.
This spring we did a large drystone wall project on a steep mountainside. The clients were unable to drown anything because the bank was live rock- basically mountain ledges under a couple inches of sliding mulch. In most locations we had to carve away live rock to create a shelf to set the walls. We moved in a lot of soil for the gardeners too. We used Hooper’s Creek, a favorite building stone for walls of this type. The walls are laid dry, with gravel and chips behind and geo-textile fabric wrapping the whole thing.
One of the primary challenges of the project was the fact that the work site was behind the house, several feet above the driveway and inaccessible. We ended up using over 50 tons of material. That’s a lot to carry up a narrow set of steps. So we had Jerry and Bodie Rogers help us with their crane. They flew the pallets directly from the delivery truck to the staging area. It was fun to see the huge pallets swinging gracefully through the air.
These spheres are made of banded onyx and are slightly larger than the regular glass marbles that made up the majority of the bench inlay. I used them in the corners to help secure all of the other marbles- so they wouldn’t roll away as the epoxy was setting.
I went to the toy store and bought so many marbles. It was awesome. I decided to avoid grouping them or trying to control the color pattern. During the inlay process, my rule of thumb was generally to not put the same color/style of marble next to each other.
My boys came to the shop with me one day and helped me put marbles in. The marbles are set in a groove that was cut into the base stone- a large chunk of bluestone. I used a very heavy duty epoxy as the setting agent. Each marble has a couple of small cut on their backsides to ensure that the epoxy has something to bond to. The boys also helped me figure out how many marbles I needed to buy. It was a practical math problem we solved over dinner one night.
My friend Wally loaned me his cherrypicker engine hoist. We used it to get the big pieces off the truck. From here we dropped them onto our cart and brought them to the installation site. We used the cherrypicker again to set them onto the mortar bed. Because the bluestone bases were precision cut and had fine corners- and because they were full of marbles- we didn’t want to risk our typical approach of flipping things around and muscling them into place. Sometimes we are capable of finesse! We used Lewis pins to lift the stones. Holes are drilled into the top of the stone and the pins slide in. When you lift it up, the pins ‘grab’ the stone and lock in place. The holes are under the slab and out of sight in the finished installation. The three small pieces on the top are spacers that give the seating slab a lift and help imply a floating feeling. They are epoxied and pinned in place. The holes you can see on the top of those pieces were for pins that slotted into the bottom of the seating slab. These will not be easily undone.
A look down one side of one bench during fabrication. I could only do one side at a time and I ended up redoing a lot of parts because my starting point with the epoxy was nervous hopefulness. It was a messy process and it took me a while to figure out how to make it work and look good. And since I was practicing on the finished pieces- not the smartest thing to do I admit- I had to undo a bunch of things. I expect that for the next few years I’ll be finding marbles at the shop that have been flattened top and bottom as I cut them out of these benches. But now I got epoxy swagger!
A thick slab of Tennessee sandstone is supported by two fieldstone boulders- also from TN. Both boulders are anchored into a single slab of concrete that is about the same size as the slab. This prevents differential settling- having one leg start moving away from the rest of the bench.
Our client in Mills River sent this photo recently of her new patio and stone stoop. Completed late last year, the area is finally getting landscaped. Decorative grasses surround the Great Blue Heron mosaic inlay I made for her. I call these pieces Garden Guardians. They are fun to build but very complex. I detail the process at this link.
All of the horizontal surfaces- patio, stoop, and step treads- are Pennsylvania stone, with a blend of the full-color and some nice blues. The patio is laid dry while the steps and stoop are mortared. The vertical surfaces are Hooper’s Creek. What’s shown is all mortared, though there is a drystone wall of the same material that holds up the patio. I like this combination of colors and materials quite a lot.
We recently installed two natural stone benches at King Daddy’s, an excellent little chicken and waffles restaurant in West Asheville. The two benches rest on the edge of their covered patio/outdoor seating area. Two large bluestone bases support slabs of Tennessee sandstone. The bases have glass marbles (mostly glass anyway- the ones on the corners are banded onyx!) laid into them. It’s partly inspired by my fascination with benches that are super sturdy but look like they might fall right over (see the Harmony Benches we’ve built or the Floating Bench to see the start of this obsession. It’s also inspired by a tale I’ve heard, but never confirmed, that old school masons would put glass marbles or lead balls between large stones when constructing a building. The marbles acted as spacers and prevented the heavy stones from squeezing out all the mortar between them. And I’ve always had a fascination with marbles in general; we find them all the time digging in people’s yards to install a patio or wall. I had a great deal of fun buying all these marbles. It’s a good time when you can go buy toys with the company credit card! Shout out to Dancing Bear Toys!