Building a wall of hand-placed stone

  • The windows in the outdoor shower (around this bend) are angled so you can see out but people can’t see in.
  • Somewhere in there Bernhardt and his kids placed a time capsule. His wife brought out champagne when he finished.
  • The wall runs out from the kitchen and along the patio. Bernhardt’s family eats nearly every meal beside the wall in the spring and summer.
Date:7 November 2017 Tags:, , , ,

It took two and a half years and fifty tons of hand-placed stone. But in the end, I built something that will last forever.

By Craig Bernhardt
Photographs by Reed Young

One day, I hope that my kid’s kid’s kids will sit beside my wall. That they’ll cast shadows against it in the long light of late summer evenings, just like we do now. That they’ll boast to friends about the outdoor shower tucked into a nook at the far end, just like we do now. And that, every once in a while, they’ll appreciate the thing that swallowed entire vacations and summers and more than a few frozen weekends of my time.

The beginning of a hand-placed stone wall

It started with a sales brochure I saw at a landscaping place in the late 1990s. The company was called Rockwater Ltd, and they built beautiful stone walls and benches. We didn’t need a stone wall or a bench, but for some reason I held on to that brochure.

In 2002, after I’d patched and replaced most of the boards in the deck behind our home in East Hampton, New York – and when the wall of the original outdoor shower rotted and fell over – we decided it was time for a replacement. We hired a contractor to handle the deck. For the landscaping, we took the opportunity to add a stone bench on the slope behind the pool. It was finally time to call Rockwater.

First lessons

My first lesson in working with hand-placed stone came during that first phone call: you have to let the stone guide the project. Rockwater couldn’t provide an exact blueprint of what they would build for us. At least not at first. The craftsmen wouldn’t know what they could build until they saw the stones they had ordered from a quarry. With the bench in the works and as the contractor completed the deck, we hired our neighbour, an architect, to design a new patio, trellis and outdoor shower. The idea for the hand-placed stone wall came from him.

While walking his dog, he’d seen the couple of small stone perimeter walls I’d built for my wife’s garden. He planned huge stones as the floor of the patio and designed a wall that ran out from the house, along the patio towards the pool house before curling up to form an outdoor shower.

There was only one problem: cost. We’d already spent a lot on the rock bench and the patio, so that number was out of reach. We had the contractor dig the footing for the wall when the patio stones were in-stalled, saving me from what would easily have added another couple of years – and a lifetime of back pain – to the project. From there, I would do things myself. I hired the Rockwater guys for a day to show me the basic approach. They taught me the ratio of sand to cement and water to form the mortar that would hold the stones in place and the texture to look for to know I’d got it right. They taught me the basic idea of how to keep corners straight. There was a lot to learn. I hired them for another day.

Starting off on the wall

Finally confident, I bought myself a rock hammer and a two-metre level. The wall was ultimately going to be two to two and a half metres feet tall. To keep it stable, I worked in segments of one and a half linear metres. I dry-stacked the stones, working on the front and back sides of the wall simultaneously, to about 25 to 30 centimetres high. Any higher and it got too teetery. The wall is about 60 centimetres thick, with a gap in the middle, between the stones that make up either side.

At the end of the day, after completing each section, I mixed up the mortar and worked it between the stones from the inside of the wall, pushing it as far as I could towards the outside to hold the stones in place. Once each section was stable, I threw broken pieces of stone, old concrete blocks, big rocks from the woods – anything I could find to take up some of the volume – between the walls to avoid mixing a lot of extra mortar. We even put a time capsule in there. It was a year after 9/11.

Taking the time

We found a couple of Martha Stewart plastic storage containers with a vacuum seal and filled them with a copy of The New York Times, a Time magazine, pictures of the house, a CD of our studio’s website, a Bic razor. I put a tuft of my own hair in there, too, in case whoever found it could clone me. We taped the containers shut and put them in bags, then taped the bags shut. Those bags went in a plastic file container, which we taped shut. And then it went in the wall, next to the concrete blocks and broken stone. I filled the gaps around those things with mortar and levelled off the top, which gave me a nice flat surface to start the next segment.

I worked through that first summer and every available weekend into the fall and winter. Somehow it never became a chore. Finding the right stones and placing them perfectly, forming a smooth surface without chipping or shaping a stone to make it fit – that was my meditation. The quality of my work improved as I progressed. The closer I got to perfection, the more I was driven to meet it.

Learning on the go

I became very good friends with the guy at the stoneyard. We couldn’t possibly fit all of the materials for the project on our property, so he would deliver ten to twelve pallets at a time. Pallets of stone were stacked in the backyard, a pallet of sand stood in the driveway, and a stack of ten bags of cement leaned up against the house. Always. And I was always ordering more. The stoneyard stored pallets stacked four metres high, four on top of one another, for a hundred metres. I could spot the good ones right away. It got to the point where I would just mark my name on a ribbon, leave it on a pallet, and it would be delivered the following week.

I quickly learnt that they make pallets look good by the way they stack them. The quality stuff is on the outside, with a whole lot of garbage in the middle. But that didn’t slow me down. Instead of looking for the exact stone to fit the section I was on, I went through the stones, picking pieces that would be useful in the future and dropping them near where they’d be placed in the wall. I opened three to four pallets at once so I could pick and choose among them. There were so many curves and angles in the wall that most of the stones could serve a purpose. Angled stones or ones with a rounded surface were piled where that particular angle of curve would be in the wall. When I got to the curve, my materials were waiting.

The good, the bad and the challenges

There were challenges, of course. It was tough to be outside in a rainstorm, working on the wall, while everyone else was watching TV. In the winter I used a product called accelerator in the mortar. Sold in masonry supply stores, it helps the mortar harden quickly in cold weather. I made it through all kinds of conditions. Usually it was on my own, but occasionally my two daughters, then 18 and 22, or my wife would come out and offer a hand. But only rarely: of the 50 tons of hand-placed stone in that wall, they might have put in 50 kilograms’ worth. They helped me in other ways, though. They talked to me while I worked, and my wife indulged me when I called her over to look at two different stones – from completely different pallets! – that were perfect mirrors of each other.

Sometimes, after a particularly long day, I gave in to the doubts and allowed myself to think that I’d never be done. But the fact that the job was taking forever was also what drove me to continue. After making it this far, there was no way I could leave the wall undone. What kind of example was that to set for my family? More important, where would we shower?

Progess

By the time I got to the part of the wall that would form the outdoor shower, my abilities were well honed. This was a good thing, because people would be standing there showering for a couple of minutes, looking at the wall, and I wanted it to look nice. The windows were the biggest challenge. I added them so the shower wouldn’t feel like the bottom of a well. I actually angled them in the wall so that, when you’re walking into the shower, you can look out into the woods beyond, but when you’re in there you’re blocked from view.

Then there was the ledge I built to provide a place to store soap and shampoo. This meant the wall could only be 15 to 20 centimetres thick at the top, instead of the 60 centimetres it was in other places. I had to pick stones that looked like they were the same size as the rest of the wall, but that didn’t have the same depth.

We had a professional come in to do the plumbing. He set up the drain and ran PVC pipes up from the ground so that if anything burst we could easily yank out a pipe and replace it. All that extra time and money was worth it, because that shower quickly became my favourite part of our house. I turn the water on in the spring, as soon as it’s warm enough that I’m sure it’s not going to freeze again. From then until I blow out the lines for the winter, I don’t take a shower inside.

Finishing touches

When I finally finished, the moment was kind of anticlimactic. It was in the fall. Late afternoon. After I set the last stone and jammed in the last bit of mortar, my wife brought out a bottle of champagne. We didn’t break it against the wall. She just poured me a glass, and I drank it. I leaned against our wall, and I drank it.