For over 30 years, I have laid tons of common stones and rocks to make eye catching fireplaces, walls, foundations, and driveway pillars. I believe the art to laying a good wall, fireplace, or any other stone feature is knowing your stones and what is available to you in your area.
Most flat stones in my neck of the woods are called “field stone” because a lot of flat stones varying in size often popped up when farmers plowed their fields. As they plowed the stones would get caught in the plow causing it to come up out of the ground… this was a common problem and by gathering them up as they plowed there would be large piles of flat stones laying around many open fields!
These stones would average in thickness from an 1″ up to several inches and from a few inches across to 2-3 feet! They make very good stone for laying a “dry stack” look in a wall or fireplace. I have used these types of stone alone and even better (I think) is to mix them in on a project with heavier hand hewn stone.
In western Pennsylvania, many barns and older homes were built with stone foundations, hence “Barn Stone” was the name given to a lot of hand cut stone. These stone take on another look all on their own because they have very distinct marks on them left behind from the stone cutter. These stones (ROCKS) were often curried out of a rock curry, or found by a large creek bed. The sheer size of the rock in nature made it very hard to use so stone cutters would apply their craft making these large stone into smaller more manageable size!
Today, this art is almost gone… yet the remaining stone are VERY desirable because the rarity of them and their very distinct beauty! Almost anything built from this type of stone is highly sought after, and the beauty and longevity of them are un-matched!
So if you’re going to build a stone wall the first step is to find out what you have available around you and “if” you’re building code will allow you to use them for a building material. Most stone work today is a “man-made” cultured stone made from concrete to look like a real stone. These stone are laid in a totally different manor and can be a lot faster and easier.
Now that you have an idea as to the stone you may want to use, the next step is to put a footer under it! Your first row of stone will be the most important row in the wall, fireplace, pillar, or what have you… the first type of footer is to dig down to find the soil that has never been disturbed (virgin) and dig below any frost line you may have in your area. I have to go below 36″ to be below frost line in my state and that is where we will begin!
I have dug up dozens of old houses, barns, and buildings that have stood for hundreds of years only to find NO concrete footings… to my surprise the walls (for the most case) were still nice and straight with no issues! Now, I know the mortar was mostly just lime and sand (and most of it was gone) but the foundation wall was still standing! All they did was to dig down below frost and place the biggest stones they could bar into the hole and begin the wall. Intrigued by this test of time I built 2 foundations the same exact way and laid tons of stone (2 stories worth) with no issues or cracks years later!
Again, you will have to check with your local building code to see what they recommend for your area… but I do know most retaining walls only require compacted limestone footer below frost line on undisturbed soil and at least eight inches to a foot thick. As far as starting off level you might as well forget it! All natural stone is anything but square and level… so this art of leveling is to keep the rows “flat” and level as you go up and reach you desired height.
Laying a good stone wall is something you may want to practice on somewhere will it may not matter how it looks till you get the hang of it! To get the right look you have to know how to set each stone to “match” the next one (or cut it) so they look natural together. Another good tip is the “joint” between the stones MUST be done right “if” you’re going to have a good “look” in the end. A good dry stack look has mortar between the stone, but you can’t see it… and a good mortar joint between the stone will be clean and somewhat reset.