Build it with stone…build it for free! by Bill Cundiff from the May/June, 2009 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal

Build it with stone…
build it for free!

By Bill Cundiff


My wife and I have always loved stonework. We have often admired the tenacious stone craftsmen of earlier times who had no choice but to build with materials that they took off the land. The result of their work still stands testament to the durability and beauty of stone. You can visit Europe today and find 600-year-old homes and buildings still in use. So, it was in that vein and spirit that we sought after and found a stony, woodland property in northeastern Ohio; a property with plenty of free building materials. We would buy the property and learn how to work with the indigenous materials on the land. Perhaps we could even use our skills to build our own home, one day.

So, in the spring of 2000, anxious to try our hand at stone masonry, we bought a few masonry books and immediately began collecting rocks. We hitched a logging chain to a ball hitch on our pick-up truck and pulled an old car hood around our property. Up and down our country road, too, we gleaned rocks from ditches and hillsides, piling them high on the hood. Our neighbors probably thought we were nuts. In no time at all a huge pile of rock had been amassed; a “fortune’s worth,” really, of wonderful, free building material. But, the question that still remained was, could we build something ourselves, with the free stone off our property?

It was decided that before we would build anything “architecturally significant,” we would do a small project just to get our feet wet. We resolved to construct two stone columns at a small back driveway entry.

Modern stone columns using ancient Roman techniques.
Modern stone columns using ancient Roman techniques.

A Roman-style footer

In reading up on Roman architecture we learned that the Romans created their footers, (underground foundations for the above-ground structures they built), by digging down below the frost line and by throwing “rubble” (chunks of stone) into the hole. Since Roman buildings and walls still stand today, we decided that if it was good enough for the Romans it would be good enough for us, too! And, as an added bonus, we would save a bunch of money in the process by using a “Roman footer” rather than an expensive concrete one. I hand-dug two 3′ deep by 4′ square “fox holes” and we filled them with broken tile chips from a local tile plant. We filled the holes in to just below the ground level and then we poured a 4″ thick concrete pad on top of the tile chips, level with the ground. For extra support, we placed ½” steel re-bar into the wet concrete. Now, we were finally ready to start building our columns.

At the onset, a few things were learned very quickly. For example, flat rocks stack nicely while irregular ones don’t, so it’s important to be selective. You will unnecessarily use up a lot of rock if you stack it flat on its side; better to stack it vertically against a back wall of some sort. (See photo on page 41). Your precious rocks will go 10 times farther that way. Most rocks are quite dirty with either mud or moss on them. They have to be cleaned with a wire brush and rinsed off on the areas where your mortar will grip the rock.

So far, our project had been free. However, since the decision was made to “extend” our rock by using it vertically instead of horizontally, we would have to come up with a back wall or form on which to veneer the stone. We purchased some hollow 17” x 20” chimney blocks and stacked them on top of each other about seven feet high, with a little mortar in between them. This stacked column of chimney block would be the form upon which we would apply our stone veneer. (Note: We could have purchased fake, man-made veneer stone, but at $16 per square foot, why would we want to? We already had the real stuff for free, and it would last for centuries). As we stacked the chimney blocks we also leveled them. In the mortar joints we inserted corrugated metal “ties” which were allowed to hang out into the area where our stone would go. Later, as we veneered our stone onto the face of the chimney block, we would imbed the ties into our stone mortar so that they would help secure the stone to the block. Now, at long last, we were ready to become stone masons!

The gated entry to Bill and Linda's home.
The gated entry to Bill and Linda’s home.

Laying-up the stone

Originally, we tried “pasting” our stones to the chimney block column that we had built, but it didn’t work and the stones kept falling out. After some experimentation, we learned that thick rocks with parallel fronts and backs could be stood on their sides in a bed of mortar, quite nicely. As our mortar dried it would grip our rocks tightly and hold them there. Working our way up a stone column, we carefully selected stones that were flat from front to back and that would perch on the previous rock under it. Each rock that we selected had to be reasonably flat on top in order to create a floor for the next stone to sit on. All this took some doing but over a short period of time we progressively got better at picking just the right stone for a particular location through trial and error. Occasionally, we would have to wedge a little stone under a larger one to keep it from falling out. It was decided that our work would not be “perfect,” but instead would be “rustic.” We tried to be neat but if the wall surface was irregular it would be more interesting and look more European-style, and we liked that.

Periodically, we would let our mortar cure for a day or so, before continuing up our column, so that our work didn’t collapse under its own weight. We also learned to wear latex or vinyl surgical gloves, because mortar is highly caustic and will burn your skin in just a few hours. We had to learn to wash the mortar off our hands before touching the next stone lest we smear the face of the stone. We kept buckets of water nearby and frequently rinsed.

Once the stone column was finished and the mortar began to harden, we wire brushed places where we had smeared mortar on the face of the stone. Also, we kept our columns damp and wrapped in plastic for seven days, since premature drying of the mortar will prevent it from coming up to full strength. Finally, our rustic column might look more complete if it had some kind of top “finial” or ornament on it. We decided that a basketball-size masonry ball might work just fine. So, we pressed a basketball half-way into a pile of sand which made a half-sphere impression. Then, we carefully spooned concrete into the depression. When the concrete dried, we pulled it out of the sand and poured another half-sphere, but this time we stuck the first sphere on top of the freshly poured concrete, binding the two halves together. Voilà! We had a masonry ball. Once the ball had set up (a few days), we dyed some mortar black and smeared it with our hands all over the ball. As you can see in the photo above, it worked perfectly.

All in all, our first “test” project turned out really well, and wasn’t nearly as difficult as we had imagined. We quickly learned to cut stone (the few times we needed to), with a chipping hammer or hammer and chisel and safety glasses. It was also quite easy, really…and very satisfying, too!

Now, with a little experience under our belts, we decided to take on a much more ambitious project—the entry gate to a rustic Gothic stone house (that we would build one day). We needed the gated entry because of all the theft we were experiencing on our remote property.

Students practice placing flat rocks up a chimney column.
Students practice placing flat rocks up a chimney column.

We built the Gothic stone entry gate in 2000. It took my wife and I most of the summer to gather and lay up the stone with one and sometimes two helpers. I cannot tell you what a satisfying experience it has been working with stone. It’s a quiet, peaceful, creative kind of thing. When you are working, the birds are singing and you are creating something that will literally stand for centuries.

Generally speaking, it takes about a day to get fairly functional at rustic stone masonry (despite what a highly skilled stone mason would tell you). It takes about three days to develop a knack for it and to be fairly good at it. Certainly, a skilled mason would be faster and smoother—but then, that would cost money. And, you’d be paying him to have all the fun and get all the credit, wouldn’t you?

Since the stone entry gate was built, there was nothing to hold us back from building our rustic Gothic stone home, so we did! I can tell you that it’s heavenly rustic, but best of all, it was free—and we did it ourselves! The stone facing on it is not only maintenance-free, but it will last for many centuries!

Bill and Linda Cundiff teach classes on Rustic English Stone Masonry at their Stone Gate Manor School of Construction Arts for Do-it Yourselfers. They can be contacted at 10117 Mantle Rd. NE, East Rochester, OH 44625, for class information or for a $6 detailed instruction booklet on rustic stone masonry.

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