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Dry-Stack Stone Walls: Stone masonry
originated with dry-stacked stonework where the
walls are carefully layed up without mortar.
Gravity serves as the glue that holds everything
together. Free-standing dry-stack stone walls
are usually made larger at the base and then
taper in slowly as the height increases. For
absolutely no expense but the labor, farmers
built miles upon miles of stone fences this way
in Ireland and in the northeastern states.
Many old Irish
houses were built in a similar way. Where
"mortar" was used, it was often merely mud or
limestone plasters with little strength. The
mortar functioned as caulking to stop the flow
of air, rather than as cement to bond the stones
together. Short, dry-stacked stone walls are
especially ideal for landscaping projects.
Taller walls require more skill and time. For
more details on dry-stack stone walls, be sure
to check out Building Stone Walls and Stonework:
Techniques and Projects.
Mortared Stone Walls: Mortared stone
walls evolved out of dry-stack stone work with
the emergence of cement mortars. The first
cements were made of burnt gypsum or lime mixed
with water to make a paste with slight bonding
capability. Stone walls still had to be built as
carefully as they were without mortar. The
cement paste just filled the gaps between the
stones and cured to form a soft, rock-like
The basic formula
for modern cement originated in England in 1824.
It is called "Portland cement" because the color
is similar to the rocks on the English island of
Portland. It is still called Portland cement
everywhere in the world it is manufactured. This
cement is made with calcium from limestone or
chalk, plus alumina and silica from clay and
shale. The ingredients are ground, mixed in the
right proportions and burnt in a kiln at a
temperature of about 2500 degrees F (1350ȘC) to
drive out water bound up in the raw materials.
In the kiln it fuses into chunks called clinker.
It is cooled and powdered, and gypsum is added
to control how fast it sets up. Portland cement
is mixed with sand and water, and often lime to
make a smooth mortar for stone and brick work.
Adding the lime makes the mortar softer and more
With the aid of
Portland cement it is possible to build
a taller stone wall that does not taper inward
like a dry-stacked wall. The cement has some
ability to "glue" a stone wall together with
less care, but proper stoneworking techiques are
still important. Building a free-standing stone
wall is a true art and requires a lot of time
and skill to do it well. For more details on
traditional mortared stone walls, be sure to
check out Building with Stone.
Walls: Most stonework today consists of
a non-structural veneer of stone against a
structural wall of concrete or cinderblock.
Concrete consists of Portland cement mixed with
sand, gravel and water. The larger particles of
gravel interlock like little fingers to make the
concrete resistant to cracking. Steel
reinforcing bar can be added to serve as much
longer "fingers" to make a wall that is very
resistant to cracking. Concrete is a fast and
relatively inexpensive way to put up a
structural wall, so few people take the time for
labor intensive traditional mortared stone walls
structural wall is put up first, and thin, flat
stones are essentially glued onto the face of
the wall with cement mortar. Metal tabs in the
structural wall are mortared in between the
stones to tie everything together, otherwise the
stonework would just peel right off the wall.
The structural wall serves as a form on one side
of the wall to make it really easy to lay up the
stonework, provided the rocks have good flat
edges to work with.
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