Story and Photos by Joe David Rice
“Good fences make good neighbors.” So wrote American poet Robert Frost a little over a century ago in his much revered “Mending Wall.” Friends who are serious about their photography tell me that good fences also make good pictures.
I’m certainly in no position to argue with either of those claims, but I will make a contribution to the conversation: Good fences make good projects.
During the spring of 2020, those strange days when many of us were trying to come to grips with this social distancing thing, I decided to complete a stone fence I’d begun on our little piece of land way up in the Ozarks. My fence — or what some might call a stone wall — would stretch across the yard in front of our cabin. I worked on it almost daily, slowly gaining skills and experience and extending its length along the way. Despite my initial worries, it turned out looking pretty good, eventually stretching some 210 feet from end to end.
Suspecting that some AY readers might be looking for worthy social distancing projects this fall and winter, let me suggest that you consider building an Ozark-style, dry-stack stone fence much like mine. The basic requirements are fairly simple: a good supply of stackable rocks, a few basic tools, heavy-duty work gloves, steel-toe boots, plenty of time and a willingness to do a lot of lifting.
My Ozark stone wall didn’t require a single bag of concrete or mortar. Mother Nature, via a quite dependable force called gravity, holds the rocks in place. And my handiwork should still be around decades after I’m gone. Here’s how to do it.
First, make sure you have the tools you’ll need: builder’s level, tape measure, stonemason’s hammer, mason’s chisel, safety glasses, shovel, wooden stakes, string and hand tamper. And maybe a lumbar back brace if you have any concerns at all about your back. This is probably as good a time as any for an important reminder: Always lift with your legs, not your back.
Next, determine the location and length of your fence. You might want to start small, taking on a short project in a remote corner of the backyard. I’d recommend that you begin on a level piece of land; slopes demand a bit more work. Let’s say you want to build a wall that’s 20 feet long, 2 ½ feet high, and 1 ½ feet thick. Multiplying those numbers will yield a need for 75 cubic feet of rock. A rule of thumb is to acquire an additional 20 percent, given that rocks don’t always fit together perfectly. So, that brings us to 90 cubic feet. With rocks averaging about 15 cubic feet per ton, that means you’ll need roughly six tons of rocks.
Obtaining those rocks is your next task — and they can’t be just any old pile of generic rocks. Our Newton County property is chock-full of beautiful rocks, but they’re rough and irregular (i.e., resistant to stacking). My suggestion is a visit to your local landscape center or stone yard. Or for more competitive prices and perhaps a better selection, check out the commercial stone yards on U.S. Highway 65 between Clinton and Harrison. The colors and varieties of available rock might surprise you. I purchased most of my Ozark native stone from Sutterfield Stone in Leslie. Make sure to ask about delivery charges in your negotiations.
Ideally, your rocks should be relatively flat with square break lines; in other words, rocks that are easy to work with. Jagged and misshapen rocks are difficult to stack, and rounded stones are almost impossible to use. Also, buy only those rocks that you can easily lift and move without endangering your health. If you wind up with some that are too big to safely lift and move, use a sledgehammer to bust them into two or three more manageable pieces.
Once the rocks are on site, you’re ready to begin. You’ll probably want to use wooden stakes and string to mark the outline of your wall. Given that my wall had to meander around trees, I didn’t use a rigid outline, instead choosing to let mine display a little character.
Prepare the ground for your first layer of stone by removing all vegetation and loose dirt, and then using a hand tamper (in my case, the end of a short 4-inch x 4-inch post) to compact the soil. Place the larger, heavier stones as the bottom course or layer, serving as the foundation. Using your builder’s level, spend whatever time is required to make sure the rocks are pretty close to level. This will really speed up your work in the long run.
Now, for a word or two about wheelbarrows. I don’t much care for them. They’re unsteady, unwieldy, difficult to load and hard on one’s back. I did not use a wheelbarrow to haul a single one of the thousands of rocks in my Newton County wall. Instead, I used an improvised tool — an old welding cart (see photo) — to move the heavier rocks. I simply rolled or shoved these bigger rocks onto the platform of the cart. With its long handle and large wheels, I easily transported them to the wall, never having to struggle with lifting them and placing them in a wheelbarrow.
When you’ve got a good stretch of your foundation course in place, you can then begin on the second course of stone. One of the secrets to building a successful stone wall is to span or cover the joints of the layer immediately below the one you’re working on. Staggering joints with interlocking rocks is what gives a stone wall its strength. Make a point of running your longer rocks through the wall, in effect connecting one side with the other, again strengthening your work.
As you add rocks, use the level to monitor your progress. And as you begin the next course, have it “step back” slightly so that the wall leans in as you work up. A 1- to 2-inch inward lean (or batter) per vertical foot should be ideal. Also, use smaller rocks to fill in the voids between the larger stones. Invariably, a rock will tend to wiggle, a big no-no. Solve that problem by placing a small shimming stone under the guilty party on the inside of the wall (so it won’t be visible and won’t tend to slip out in the years to come). In fact, it’s a good idea to keep a bucket of shims handy.
My wall averages 28-30 inches in height and typically has 10-12 courses of stone. I usually added 3 to 5 linear feet of wall each day I worked, although that progress could vary greatly depending upon the supply of available rocks.
Occasionally, I’d have to “shape” a rock (e.g., knocking off a corner, smoothing an edge, or breaking it in two) to make it fit. This is where your stonemason’s hammer, chisel, protective eyewear and gloves are critical. To split a larger stone (as long as it isn’t too thick), place it on a solid surface and then, using chalk, mark the line to cut. Hammer sharply (but not too heartily) on the chisel as you move it along the mark, scoring the surface of the rock. Continue to score along the line with even pressure, back and forth, tapping the chisel with the hammer until the stone breaks along the scored line. This process is not guaranteed, but it worked for me more often than not.
Now, for some miscellaneous thoughts/observations:
• Good work gloves are absolutely essential. About every two to three days, I wore out my gloves and had to switch to a new pair.
• Good boots are also vital. I dropped a heavy rock on a foot one day when I failed to wear steel-toe boots — and eventually lost a toe nail.
• Keep a jug of drinking water handy.
• Don’t be ashamed to take a break now and then. I placed a folding chair near my work site every day and occupied it more times than I’d care to admit.
• Take pictures of your progress.
• Finally, take your time and enjoy your revival of an ancient skill.