Topography Steps and Path

Topography Steps and Path


Photo by Jonathan Frederick

We recently completed a pair of small projects for a customer on Beaucatcher Mountain. They were both short walkways with steps in them. The client was familiar with our work and a fan of our cut flagstone mosaic patios and paths.  He asked us to incorporate a design into the first project, a set of six steps that led from his driveway into a grassy yard. His design mandate was very generous- “Make me something cool.” We can do that! (See also “Stone River Step,” another of Hammerhead’s cut flagstone mosaic patios and paths.)

The inspiration for the pattern comes from topographic maps. If you’re familiar with such maps, you know how endless lines loop and circle back to show the contours of the land. When the lines are close together, the land is steep. Lines that are far apart indicate flatter ground. They are beautiful to look at and each bit of land has its own profile; the maps look something like fingerprints.
Topography is important to us here in the mountains, and good bit of our work at Hammerhead is contending with steep ground. Sometimes we have to retain them with walls, other times, like this project, we install steps to help people navigate them. And even when we build a mostly flat patio, we have to deal with issues of rain water and erosion. Our job is topography.

Individual stones have topography too, though we perceive that more as texture. Sometimes you’ll find a stone in the pile that you can imagine could be a complete cliff face, hundreds of feet tall.
I called this set of steps “Pisgah-ish” because the design was loosely inspired by the topographic map of the celebrated Mount Pisgah. (It may even be visible in the distance from this grassy yard – I’m not sure, I have a terrible sense of direction.)

For as simple as the design is,it was very complex to execute. Probably the biggest issue was the fact that the stone we used was almost 3 inches thick. That made cutting it to such tight tolerances time consuming and delicate. A couple of the stones were cut to resemble donuts, with an opening inside them for other stones to nestle in. That was just straight up twitchy. Fred and Jonathan joined me at the shop to cut all of these pieces.
After all the stones were cut, I stacked them up, taking the flat map and making it back into a typography. It would be a hard walkway to navigate if we left it that way, but it is probably my favorite image from this project.




New Front Entrance for Alexander Home

New Front Entrance for Alexander Home

Hammerhead was commissioned to design and install a new front entrance for a beautiful home in Alexander, NC. The existing steps were an awkward height and did not suit the main entrance of such a large, attractive home. Haphazardly placed slabs for a walkway are more suitable in a garden area than as a main entrance, so we added a more complementary entrance.

Below are before and after shots of the front walkway and steps.

New Front Entrance

Walkway Before & After

New Steps and a Walkway

Walkway with Steps Before & After

Pennsylvania Stone Steps & Patio

Pennsylvania Stone Steps & Patio Hammerhead Stoneworks Asheville, NC

Pennsylvania Stone Steps & Patio

We completed this set of steps as well as a patio for a home in North Asheville. Made of Pennsylvania stone, a short stack of steps leads up from the driveway to a stepping stone path. The patio is built over an old concrete slab, which isn’t always possible, but we had the clearances necessary to get our stone and setting bed in place. Leaving the slab in place instead of removing it saved the customer a considerable amount of money.

While the steps and patio were laid dry, the flagstone on the stoop was mortared in place for supplemental support.


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

Formal Stone Steps

Formal Stone Steps

Mortared sandstone steps create s stunning entryway to this home in Arden, North Carolina.

Earlier this summer, Hammerhead Stoneworks built a set of formal stone steps leading into a home in Arden, North Carolina. The steps are mortared and utilize a couple of varieties of sandstone to achieve the desired aesthetic. Hidden from sight are several changes we also made to the drainage in the area.

The existing steps were of pressure treated lumber and were rotten through and through. The old steps sat in so much puddled runoff that there were supporting uprights that had wicked water up vertically over two feet. We could squeeze pieces of lumber and water would seep out like a soggy sponge. Stone, subjected to the same abuse would also eventually suffer, so we put in a trench drain immediately next to the steps and reshaped the planting bed to discourage water from accumulating there.

Formal Stone Steps

The formal stone steps from above


stone bench, wall, patio

A stone bench, retaining wall and patio built in Arden North Carolina.

Behind the house we built a small patio with this bench and a short retaining wall to address the general slope of the yard. While the bench uses some concrete and mortar for anchoring, the wall and patio are laid drystone.

Cobblestone Patio

The defining feature of my current project is a circular cobblestone patio in Asheville’s historic Montford neighborhood made of materials gathered by the homeowner over the last 30 years.

circular cobblestone patio

The homeowner spent fifteen years salvaging old cobblestones from around Asheville so we could make this circular patio space,

Colorful Cobblestones

The cobblestones are very diverse; I’ve found at least three distinct types of granite. They have all weathered differently and some are quite smooth from years of use as roads. Since there was a limited supply, I split most of them in half lengthwise. This effectively doubled my stone supply and added colors to the palette. While the top might be a granite grey, or green with algae, the bottom may be brown or orange, depending on the type of soil it has been sitting in for the last few decades. Once split, the inside of the stone also became a usable surface, always much brighter and sparkly than the weathered outside. A couple of the stones actually have old paint on them, from their days as roadways. As a result the cobblestone patio is quite colorful.

Cutting Cobblestones

I have tried every different way I know to cut stone and have found the most efficient and neatest way to split the cobbles is using a type of chisel called a hand tracer. I scribe a line all the way around and around the cobble until it splits in two. The grain of granite is ideal for this type of technique; it’s very hard, dense stone, but it responds predictably to the chisel’s persuasion. The local metamorphic stones are less cooperative. I start out lightly, making sure the line is fairly straight and well established before I really lay into the stone. Once I get going, I can hear the stone starting to split, and I ease up, paying more attention to the places where it still sounds solid. A sharp chisel is a huge asset and I have been bringing the hand tracer home every night for a run over the bench grinder.

Cutting A Stone Circle

I used the hand tracer to remove large chunks of the center stone, a circle cut from a another salvaged piece of granite. I didn’t have a compass large enough to draw a circle on the stone, so I made one with roofing felt, a nail and some soapstone. I traced the circle on a piece of roofing felt and then laid that template over the stone.

Once I had the basic shape of the circle cut, I switched to my smaller, sharper chisels, which give me more control, to hone a more accurate shape. Though the patio needs one more ring to be completed, I dropped the circle stone in the center on Friday afternoon, to check the fit. The whole cobblestone patio makes me think of a flower.


Water Feature, Stone Paths, Steps & Bench

Asheville stone masons Hammerhead Stoneworks recently completed this water feature with a natural stone bench, paths, drystone walls and steps.

Dry Stone Paths & Steps

This dry stone pathway connects the homeowner’s driveway with their favorite hangout spot, on their back deck. A single slab of sandstone provides an easy step up to the deck. The regular shape of the slab lends an air of formality to the entrance, sometimes used by guests. This serves as a counterpoint to the more natural looking stones that make up the adjacent steps, walls, water feature and bench.

The bench is found at the bottom of the water feature. It is very organic, a natural slab with a patina of lichen. The area is fairly shady and so I am hopeful that the lichen will survive. Two rugged boulders were topped and anchored in concrete to provide the bench supports.

Water Feature Before and After


This pair of images shows how we transformed this unused space. The drystone retaining wall at the bottom raised the overall grade. This allowed us to hide drainage pipes running from the house’s many downspouts. We used heavy duty solid white PVC pipe to extend the drain pipes. Though more expensive, these pipes have never failed me. Everytime I have dug up a black corrugated drain pipe it is either collapsed, perforated or clogged. Or all three. Next spring, once the plants have been chosen and given time to establish themselves, this will be a lovely view.
Click on the image above for a larger view of the water view and overall design.

Coming soon: more pictures of the water feature itself.

Drystone Pathways Over Bad Concrete

Drystone Pathways Over Bad Concrete

A broken down piece of concrete magically disappears under a stone pathway laid without mortar or cement.

Drystone Pathways

I am frequently asked to remedy concrete walkways. Sometimes these concrete paths are old and broken down, in other cases, they just aren’t the look the homeowner desires. In most situations, the existing walkway, broken down or not, needs to be removed. This can be expensive and bad for the environment, if a good use can’t be found for the broken concrete. Whenever possible, I try to leave the concrete where it lays and place my stone over it. Dry laid flagstone is stronger and more durable than mortared paving, and it doesn’t matter how messed up the concrete is underneath it. (Mortared flagstone should only be applied to solid slab in good condition.) Laying drystone flagstone over ugly concrete saves money, and avoids filling the landfill with concrete waste. There are two main issues that can come up when taking this approach that we’ll explore below: clearance and drainage.

Drystone Pathways

BEFORE: This little used path wrapped around the back of a lovely Asheville home. The homeowners wanted to pretty it up and maintain access to their backyard.

Drystone Pathways

AFTER: A loose stone pathway winds its way through a field of pea gravel. Instead of removing all the concrete, I placed my flagstone over the top. Stucco became a quick fix for this ugly wall. You might see that it’s being pushed over by the bank behind it. Someday we’ll replace it with drystone!

Dealing With Drainage & Your Stone Pathway

Drystone pathways and patios allow water to run over them and percolate through. This prevents pooling and reduces slick spots on the walking surface. It’s important that the top surface of the stone pathway be able to slope gently away from houses, foundations or other areas sensitive to moisture build-up or erosion. It’s equally important that the substrate below the flagstone is also pitched in the proper direction, as some moisture will pass through. This means, when I go over a concrete walkway with stone, I have to be sure the slab is draining in the right direction. This is easily assessed with a level and tape measure. A host of solutions can be considered if the drainage situation isn’t ideal.

Clearance Issues For Flagstone & Steps

Clearance issues are usually the deal breaker for whether a dry stone surface can be laid over concrete. The height of existing thresholds, curbs or steps must be taken into account at all points along the flagstone surface. The risks being that one could create weird little steps, make a trip hazard, or block a door so that it no longer opens! As it happens, so much settling occurs in Asheville homes, old and new, that I can often find the clearance I need, sometimes by replacing awkward and uneven steps with stone stairs that are uniform and solid.

Drystone Pathways

In the image above, the large stone slab that acts as a step was the key to getting the clearance needed to build the path that circled the house. Previously there had been an awkward three inch rise- too tall for a threshold, but not tall enough to be a step. This stone step, at six inches tall, is a real step, consistent with those at the street and that lead into the house.

BEFORE: A broken down set of uneven concrete steps lead to the street. There’s a fourth step hidden in the shadow of the telephone pole. The top step is coming apart and is off center with the steps below it.

Drystone Pathways

AFTER: I had to tear out the bottom three steps, but that was the only concrete removed for the whole project. (Reclaimed by a friend who needs clean fill for another project.) I set the steps further back from the road and gave them a consistent rise over run. I rebuilt the wall, opening the main entryway and making it more welcoming. The steps are now aligned with the path. The steps and wall repairs are mortared; everything else is laid dry.

The homeowners are both craftspeople- he’s a woodworker and she’s a potter. As we stuccoed this old block wall, we embedded ceramic tiles made by the potter. This is a picture of my favorite, a relief print made from a gravestone carving she found at Riverside Cemetery.

Stone Steps

Stone Steps in Sloping Yard

I’m nearing completion on a stone steps, wall and patio project in downtown Asheville. Living in the mountains, there’s generally a slope in every yard. This patio required a small drystone retaining wall to create a flat enough area for this patio. Two big slabs of Tennessee sandstone are integrated into the wall, allowing easy access for the homeowner and guests coming from the backyard.

I built another short stack of stone steps at the back of the house, allowing access from the driveway to the deck and into the house. With big chunks of stone like this, I am able to get the proper rise and run, so that these steps walk comfortably, just like the steps in your house. Prior to installing these, there was a muddy slope to the deck stairs, and a ten inch step up. More pics coming soon of the flagstone area above the steps finished.