In a struggle to be happy and free

Drystone Wall


This past week was the most intense I’ve had at any school. We spent the week assembling a drystone wall. It is about 30 feet long and 40 inches high. That might not seem like a lot, but limestone is heavy, and we had no idea what we were doing.

20190923-102854 5D3 4M6C6776.CR2: 5D Mk.III, EF 17-40mm 1:4L @ 28mm, 1/160, f/5.6, 400 ISO
The excavation is nearly complete.

Our instructors for the week, Dean McLellan and Andre Lemieux, certainly remedied that situation! We started with a pile of stoned and the spray painted outline of where the wall was to go. Our first instruction was about the batter frame and how we use it to level the courses and have them narrow toward the top to strengthen the wall.

Once the batter frames were placed, we started with the foundation, digging to packed soil, and laid the first course. We quickly learned how to position the stones and how to fill the area between with smaller stones, a procedure called ‘hearting.’

I cannot stress how much of a physical labour shifting all this stone is. I was flabbergasted when Dean told me that he and Andre could have put up the wall in one day … a job that took the six of us nearly four days. But they’re the professionals! Even beyond their obvious skill, they have the physical conditioning that we do not. I have never been so wracked with muscle and back pain by any activity as this. Yes, I’m older, but my classmates (half of whom are in their twenties) echoed my complaints about stiff muscles, especially upon waking.

20190924-140434 5D3 4M6C6810.CR2: 5D Mk.III, EF 17-40mm 1:4L @ 34mm, 1/1600, f/8, 400 ISO
Work progresses. Note the wood batter frame on the left with the string to indicate the level of the top course.

Slowly but surely, our efforts at sizing the stones with a hammer became more and more accurate, our placement of those stones more creative and tight, and the courses more regular and level. Of course we made mistakes, some of which came back to complicate things later, but we learned and improved. We’re no where near pro calibre, but we learned the basics, and that was the whole point.

Over the first two days, the wall slowly took form. Slowly being the key word. Working with heavy stones so near the ground is hard work. As its height increased, our work seemed to speed up. By the end of the third day, we were pleased with what we saw. We had a wall!

The forth day, we laid the last course and the cope stones. Those are the heavy stones placed vertically to anchor the top course with their mass. With the wall being so short, we needed no through-stones to tie both sides together.

20190926-143602 5D3 4M6C6873.CR2: 5D Mk.III, EF 17-40mm 1:4L @ 32mm, 1/80, f/8, 100 ISO
The completed wall. Our instructors stand in front of the wall, my classmates behind.

What surprised me is that such a simple structure can be so strong and so ridiculously resilient. If the ground heaves and settles through freeze and thaw, the stones will move against each other as necessary, maintaining their relative positions. No cracks form because drystone construction not locked into place. It is far more plastic than masonry. Well-constructed drystone walls, if left alone, will stand for centuries. More often than not, maintenance is required because of poor construction or damage.

I am absolutely in love with how these walls look. I’d love to get the first level of drystone building certification and work on them for pay. But I know myself … I just learned how and am still excited by the experience. I’ll give it some time and see if I’m still so enthusiastic.

If I am, I know a couple of guys in the field I can contact for information. 


The quinquagenarian goes back to school!




  1. Jason

    Looks great!

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