Sacred Circle Fire Pit: Google Maps View

Hammerhead completed the Sacred Circle Fire Pit in January of 2014 for clients hoping to use the space for ceremonial gatherings. The photo below is of the fire pit after completion from down here on solid ground.

And here is a photo of the completed fire pit from Google Maps from up above.

This is the Google Maps photo from before the project was completed. Note the 7 small squares below the site. Those are pallets of stone we brought down to build with.

And back on the ground.

Montreat Big Wall

 

Montreat Big Wall

Montreat Big Wall almost 20 years after completion

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 don’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 elements– care, intention, and experience – 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. It’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 they’re doing. And if you can subtract care from the process, you can subtract cost. It’s always cheaper if you don’t give a shit. Until later…

Montreat Big Wall

Montreat Big Wall – a close-up

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.
I’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 – 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 – 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 construction– often called running joints – weaken the structure significantly. Crossing joints – imagine the traditional running bond of the most common brick wall – 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 who’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.

Montreat Big Wall

Montreat Big Wall under construction

Maximum Contact – 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.

Batter Back

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.

Montreat Big Wall

Montreat Big Wall almost 20 years after completion

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

Black Mountain Stone Wall and Steps

Black Mountain Stone Wall and Steps

Crew members from left to right: Jonathan Frederick, Tony Costa, & Michael Sellars


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 it’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 – a small one – 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.

Black Mountain Stone Wall and Steps

Photo by Jonathan Frederick

Black Mountain Stone Wall and Steps

Photo by Jonathan Frederick

Black Mountain Stone Wall and Steps

Crewmember Tony takes a rest on the newly completed wall.


Special thanks to Fred Lashley for operating the excavator on this project.

Big Stone Patio

big stone patio Hammerhead Stoneworks Asheville, NC
Big Stone Patio

The patio is what we call big stone paving, and it is one of Hammerhead’s signature styles. It is made of sandstone slabs (also used here) about two inches thick and also connects to a pair of boulders found on the property.

big stone patio Hammerhead Stoneworks Asheville, NC
As a preventive measure to protect the look of the patio from grease drippings, we ensured that the grill is set in a small gravel area next to the patio.

big stone patio Hammerhead Stoneworks Asheville, NC
The shape of the patio is very free-flowing and truly complements the both the modern design and color scheme of the house.

big stone patio Hammerhead Stoneworks Asheville, NC

Ironwoods: Sign underway

My current project has me journeying to Chapel Hill to build a entry sign for the Ironwoods neighborhood. Two years ago I built a memorial bench in this same neighborhood for Grandpa Tony. I am delighted that they invited me back to complete this project, a collaboration between myself and blacksmith & artist Lynda Metcalfe. I met Lynda during the Handmade House in the Ramble project and have been hoping to find a way to work with her ever since. I am excited about the collaboration and how the final piece will mesh our two crafts and styles into a seamless design.


The boulders are anchored in concrete and the wall sits on a slab. The wall is structural stone, about fourteen inches thick. The big boulder (roughly 1500 pounds) has a perfect notch for my cell phone.

I used a sheet of foam core to create a template of the boulder’s shape to give Lynda a rough guide as to where her ironwork will tie into the stonework.

Thanks be to Matthew Feldt for the photographs and all his help with this project.

Gainesville Public Art: Blue Spiral

Gainesville Public Art

Gainesville Public Art

Blue Spiral patio- an art project in Gainesville, Florida

In April I got a phone call from the Art in Public Places Trust (APPT) in Gainesville, Florida announcing that I had been selected to complete a public art project. I am going to build a mosaic stone floor in a courtyard adjacent to a new building on the campus of the Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU). In May I visited the site and met the APPT board and toured the campus/construction site. Back home, I set about drawing.

During my visit to Gainesville, I found myself drawn to the local stone. The area limestone is dense with the fossilized remains of ancient sea creatures. I took pictures of fossil-rich boulders and sketched from them, looking for forms and relationships that might translate into a patio surface. My source photographs and fossil books opened up interesting explorations, but always led me to the same place. By the very nature of seashells, their forms are instantly recognizable and iconic. I strived to sidestep that iconic nature, for fear of creating a floor that looked like wallpaper. The APPT encouraged me to explore natural shapes, but avoid graphic depiction. The seashells were too graphic, too decorative, too obvious.

The design I proposed for the Gainesville public art feature contains a central spiral element, drawn from my fossil sketches. I have shattered the form with other shapes, lines that intersect it and obscure it. It is a form emerging from a background. Like the process of discovering a seashell embedded in an ancient rock, so the nautilus shape emerges to the eye slowly. The intersecting lines suggest water steadily wearing away the matrix surrounding the fossil, stone slowly giving up its secrets. I hope to capture that same magic of discovery for people first venturing upon my mosaic.

New Panoramas & A Marketing Class


This is a photo montage/panorama of the steps I built this past winter in the Montford district of Asheville. The step treads are made of the full-color variant of Pennsylvania bluestone. The wall, columns and step risers are made of granitic gneiss, mostly from the Hooper’s Creek quarry in Fletcher. The steps and columns are mortared; the wall is completely dry.

Sandstone steps and wall buried in snow. Looks positively comfortable right now.


Last Friday I led an hour long workshop for craftspeople and artisans on how to market their work. It was part of Handmade in America’s Art, Craft and Design Expo at the North Carolina Arboretum. The main push of my talk was that marketing is education and that craft artists should focus their marketing efforts on the 3 P’s: product, process and person. I also talked a bit about setting goals, making a cohesive plan and punk rock.

Bench Class

A couple of weekends ago, I led a workshop at the NC Arboretum on building stone benches. First thing in the morning we studied images of various benches, stone-cutting techniques and ways to move heavy objects safely and with relative ease. Safety was a recurring theme throughout the day. After the classroom presentation, we went outside and built a free-standing bench, a style I call castle-block for the big chunks of stone that make up the supports. The bench we built is now a permanent fixture at the Arboretum, a rest station along one of the trails.


To facilitate ease of movement, we cut the big stone down in the back of my truck. In this image, Ronnie is using a star bit chisel to notch shallow guide holes in the top of the stone. This gives the drill bit a place to sit, reducing the likelihood of the bit bouncing around and scarring the stone.


Everyone got a chance to use the drill and work at cutting stone. Here Judy leans into the drill to get the proper placement.

Since our cut edges were going to be exposed, we took some time to clean up the drill holes. Here Carol is using a handset chisel to knock off the cut edge of the bench stone. We put the cut edge to the back of the bench, less visible to passers-by.

We spent some time doing bench math, designing everything so that it would be the proper height and balanced as a structure and as an aesthetic object. Here Carol measures the thickness of the slab, the starting point for figuring out the math. I handed out the following worksheet to guide the design and layout process.

By cutting it in the back of truck, we made the stone more manageable, but it was still a heavy chunk. Jason uses a rock bar to move the stone from the pallet onto the ramps we have set up. Using 2″ by 12″ pressured treated lumber as ramps, we slid the stone down to waiting blocks and from there into place.

We used mortar to set the bench. This design can be done dry, but the mortar reduces the risk of movement, particularly since the bench is in a public place.

We all felt good as we finished up. The bench looked great and we had built it efficiently and safely. It felt good to be leaving something cool and useful for everyone to enjoy. Tre and Ronnie test drive the bench and pronounce it good.