Doing Your Own Rock Construction

By Ken Davison

Doing rock work is not hard and almost anyone can learn to do a
professional-looking job of rock work. If you live where there are plenty
of rocks (hopefully free for the picking up), you can use these to build
strong, snug and inexpensive structures. One of the secrets to long
standing rock buildings is a good foundation. You can use rocks in the
foundation to stretch the cement, but don't overdo this, there should be
plenty of cement around the rocks. Many people recommend that from 1 to 2
feet deep on the foundation, depending on the amount of frost heave, and
about twice as wide as the wall that will sit on it. Dig out the area for
the foundation, throw in some clean rocks and any metal that you have for
reinforcement. Then pour in the cement, mixed wet enough that it will fill
in between all the rocks. Once your foundation has set up (about 2 days),
you can start laying your wall.

I guess I should say a little about cement. I mix my own mortar, using sand
and Portland cement, mixed 4 parts clean sand to 1 part Portland cement. A
wheel barrel makes a good place to mix the cement. If you don't have a
wheel barrel, you can build a mixing box out of plywood. This should be
about 2 1/2' long and at least 1 1/2' wide and strong enough to stand up to
having the cement mixed in it. You can buy the premixed cement, but be sure
that you do not get "Concrete Mix" , which will have gravel mixed in it.
You can use the concrete mix for the foundations, but not for laying the
walls. It is best to mix the cement and sand well, before you add the
water, because this way you will be sure that it actually got completely
mixed and that some parts are not lacking in Portland cement, while other
parts have too much. Yes, I know it is a real pain to do it this way, but
this is how all the old timers did it and their walls are still standing.
If you really want to bypass this chore and mix everything wet, then take a
little extra time to make sure that it was really well mixed.

The dust from the Portland cement is bad news if you breath it into your
lungs, so take care when mixing it. Once it is wet, there is no danger. If
you do much rock work, you will get cement on your hands. Unless you are
unusually sensitive, this should not cause any problems. Rubbing your hands
with hand lotion when you are done for the day really helps. Always clean
up your tools and mixing area when you are done. You may want to get a old
hoe and use it just for cement mixing. Your wife might be mad if you use
her grdening hoe for this, especially if you forget to clean it up when you
are done. If you are going to take a long break, try to use up all that you
have mixed up, otherwise it will start to set up on you. On really hot, dry
days, you may want to mix your mortar a little wetter, because it will dry
out while you are working. How much water you add will have to be worked
out by tiral and error. Generally I start with a little less water than I
think it will take and after mixing that can add more. It sure is easier to
add a little more water to a too-dry mixture, than to have to add more sand
and Portland cement to a too-wet mixture. For laying rock walls I like the
mortar to be thick enough that it will hold its shape, but not so thick
that it won't fill in the spaces between the rocks.

Try to have plenty of rocks handy before starting the work. That way you
can fit the right rock to the spot that you are working on. You can reshape
rocks a little with a hammer to make them fit better. I keep a bucket of
water handy to dip the rocks in, so that they soak up some of the water.
The cement will stick to the rocks much better if they are not dry. Clean
the rocks well before laying them up. Try to get all of the dirt off before
you use them. I like about to put 1/2 inch of cement between the rocks, but
some areas will require more, because of the shapes of the stones used.
Smooth and remove any cement that protrudes from between the rocks on the
wall face, because it will catch water and channel it into the wall. Rock
work is not hard and can even be fun. Don't try to go too high in one spot,
or your wall could fall down before it gets a chance to set.

Save any rocks with nice flat sides and any with natural corners. You will
find just the right spots for these as you go along. Rock that are flat and
have a smooth surface (field stone) can be used to lay beautiful rock
floors, so unless you are blessed with an abundance of these, you might
want to save them for that purpose. Generally the largest rocks are used on
the lowest sections of the wall so as not to make the wall too top-heavy.
And why lift them any higher than you have to anyway? I build my window and
door frames first and then set the rock around them. I drive large nails
through the frames to secure them to the rock work, before laying it up
around them. I have found this to work well and the frame is solidly
attached to the wall. This type of "laying up" work does have a few
drawbacks. The work does tend to go rather slowly and care must be taken to
have a flat wall surface. Stringing lines (pieces of string, pulled tight
to show where the wall should go) will help you to build the walls
straight. If you have round river rocks, this method can really be rough to

There is another method that gives nice flat walls; it is much faster and
you can use any shape rocks you wish. This method was described by Helen
And Scott Nearing, but many of the present-day homesteaders have never read
their books. For this method you use two (or more) sheets of plywood for
the "forms" for your walls. Set the plywood in place on the foundation and
use some wire to hold them apart for the width of wall that you want. I
drill several matching holes in the two sheets of plywood, so that the
wires will line up. Pieces of wood, cut to the right size, can be used to
hold the plywood apart until you can drop some rocks between them. You will
need some 2"X4"s to support the forms from the outside as well. Once you
have enough rocks in your "form" to hold them in place, remove the pieces
of wood. Then fill the rest of the area between the plywood with stones and
once it is full, pour in a wet cement mix. You want it wet enough that it
will fill all of the spaces between the rocks. Once it has set up, cut the
wires holding the plywood in place and move it to the next section of wall
to be built. Using this method, you can be laying up one section of wall
while another is setting up. This method gives nice flat, straight walls
and you can use any shape rocks. This is just about the only way to use
rounded river stone for walls.

The question of how thick you want your walls to be must be your own
decision. I have seen walls as thin as 6 inches as well as up to 2 foot
thick. Most seem to be from 8 inches to 1 foot thick. When you get to the
top of the wall, you may want to attach a "header" there (the board that
your roof attaches to). Insert some large threaded bolts into the top of
the wall (while you are laying it up), so that they will come through you
header and secure it to the top of the wall. Let the wall set up. Once you
have all the holes drilled in your header (and are sure that they really
line-up) pour a little mortar on the top of the wall and set the header in
place. As you tighten the bolts, some of this mortar should be squeezed out
from under the header. This will make a tight seal. It is probably a good
idea to use only treated lumber for the header, window and door frames.

If you have never done any rock work before, it might be wise to start with
a small project, such as a barbeque or garden wall. I find the work to be
pleasant, although at time a bit tedious. You may find that building a
whole house is more of a rock work project than you wish to undertake. The
best time to find this out is before you have part of one wall up and are
pretty well committed to finishing the project. I like "ferro-cement" roofs
and feel that they lend themselves well to rock structures. A rock house
with a Ferro-cement roof should certainly give you many trouble-free and
maintenance-free years of service. Who knows, you might end-up liking to
working and build with stone (rocks) as much as I do! I am not a
professional stone mason though. What little I know came from reading books
and building my own rock house, plus helping to build a few other peoples'
rock houses. I built my house 20 years ago and it is still doing just fine.
All of the people that I helped build their houses have reported that
theirs' are fine as well. For more information, try your local library or
post to the "Letters to the Editors" page here, or simply e-mail me

Ken Davison

Basil (Darin) Arrick,
Xenia (Tiffany) Arrick,
Last Updated: July, 1998

MORE FROM OTHER WRITERS: The neat thing about building walls with the
slipform method is that you can build nice stonework without being a
stone mason. There are a couple of different methods for building this
way, and each of the basic methods has an infinite number of variations.

For the way I'm going to do it, the first step is to build a frame out
of posts that will surround the wall as it is being built. My frame will
be made from timbers I cut on-site and will probibly be mostly 4-by-6s.
(4-by-whatevers spaced every four feet seems to be typical.)

You use the frame posts to support wooden forms that are
about 18 to 24 inches tall and run the length of the wall segment
you are working on.

When the forms are in place, you lay a bed of cement on the bottom
and place a row of rocks on this cement bed with their nicest face
pressed agains the form. You then fill in behind the stones with
concrete. The next step is to place another layer of cement on
top of the stones you just laid and another layer of stone. You
continue this until you reach the top of the form.

The first thing you do the next day is remove the form. The cement
and concrete is set well enough to support the stones, but is
still green enough to remove any extra that seeped between the
stones and the forms. After you've cleaned all of the face stones
you replace the forms a row higher than they were and start the
next layer.

The wall will be as straight as you set the posts and if you clean
the face stones each day the wall will look neat when done. There
are a few variations that trade off the need to clean the face
stones with the need to point the cement between the stones by
stuffing fresh cement into any remaining voids after the wall
is finished.

The posts are only used while building the walls and can be removed
when the wall is done. I'm going to re-use my posts when I build
the frame for the roof.

The medieval castle builders used an outer core of rocks in cement
and inside piled rubble and sand.

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EDGING paths, doing walls isn't ALL YOU CAN DO WITH ROCKS. They do
rivers with rocks I saw them on home and garden cable channel. They run
downhill, into a pool, then pump carries water back up again.

The river lies on a big pc of BLACK PLASTIC like a a gully
goin downhill. Rocks and gravel fill it. Deeper in middle. I think a
PUMP is involved, with a bag around it of net cloth, which keeps stuff
out of the pump motor

But it's ok w. no pump....just using rainwater, just the look of a
river, and the plants there, and it may fill up in wet season ... seems
better than a pump. That's for rich people. Who can replace them anually
cuz there has to be beaucoup stuff catching in the motor. Bugs, leaves, no?