June 02, 2012

Everybody Must Get Stoned - Adventures in Building a Wall

"And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
'Stay where you are until our backs are turned!'
We wear our fingers rough with handling them."

- From Robert Frost's Mending Walls

The New Wall

With apologies to Mr. Frost, something there is that doesn't love a wall, and right now that something is my aching arms and back. 

Several years ago, I installed a gate and a boxwood hedge to separate our front and side yards.  Over the years, the boxwoods (American, rather than the English ones I should have planted) grew spindly and unattractive, before finally relinquishing any lingering aesthetic attributes to major snow storms in 2009 and 2010.  With the front of our house now reshingled and looking pretty good, the hedge became even more of an eyesore. 

For the past six years, meanwhile, our side yard has been home not only to an unsightly dirt mound, but also to several large piles of stones and boulders, all the byproduct of excavation for our bathroom addition.  Between the decrepit hedge and the abundance of stones, I saw an opportunity to turn two visual liabilities into an attribute by replacing the hedge with a dry stacked stone wall.

As is the case with most old New England farms, our property is crisscrossed with a number of beautiful fieldstone walls.  I have old photos of our house showing even more walls, including a now-missing fieldstone wall in our front yard, so I had some good historical precedent for the the endeavor.  In addition, I had previously built a low stone wall at the entrance to our driveway, which turned out reasonably well, so I didn't think that the project would be too daunting.

That said, having now spent significant chunks of a few days building our new wall, which is less than 15 feet long and under three feet tall, I have a renewed respect for the farmers who built the hundreds of linear feet of walls that divided up the original Enos Kellogg property. 

Wanting to build a strong base for the wall, I was determined to start off with some of the boulders laying in our side yard.  Unfortunately, these rocks weighed in excess of 500 pounds each and were located 40 or 50 feet from the intended location of the wall.  My solution - build a rock sled.  I drilled 2" holes into an old sheet of 3/4" plywood and fed a tow chain through the holes and around a 1x4" cleat that I had screwed to the plywood.  I then attached the chain to the bumper of our Ford Explorer. 

Archimedes Hard at Work

Unfortunately, the next step was to get the boulders onto the sled.  This involved a lot of elbow grease and a little old fashioned physics, by way of Archimedes.  Using a 5 foot pry bar as a lever and a chunk of wood as a fulcrum, I would lever up one end of a boulder, inserting sections of 4x4 post underneath as cribbing to raise one end higher and higher off of the ground.  Eventually, I would be able to tip the rock onto the sled.  It sounds easier than it was.  Each rock took about an hour of physical exertion, cursing and fervent prayer that I would not crush an appendage (final injury tally - one finger pinched between stones, all legs and arms covered in bruises, no broken bones.  A phyrric victory).

After getting the boulder onto the sled came the fun part - towing it into place with our SUV.  Now, it is a well know fact that hauling anything on a chain behind a vehicle is inherently enjoyable, and this was no exception.  After the welcomed distraction of haulin' stuff, came another 20 minutes or so of levering the rock into place in the trench that I had dug.  This process was repeated with about six boulders, and happily my sled held up until just as I was hauling the last huge rock into place, when the chain broke through the plywood in a blaze of glory and splinters.

With the big stones finally in place, I moved on to building up the wall with medium sized stones, wedging everything into place as tightly as possible, and capping it with the flatter rocks in the pile.  The process is akin to a big three dimensional jigsaw puzzle, although it is fairly forgiving if you don't mind going back later to fill in a multitude of gaps with small stones.

Stone Wall and Freshly Painted Front of House

All in all, the wall turned out pretty well - my best efforts to make it precise and crisp resulted in a worn and ramshackle looking wall that fits in well with the 200+ year old walls on the property.  Even better, the total cost of the project was zero, I eliminated the ugly hedge, and got rid of the vast majority of the rocks that were littering our side yard.  In the immortal words of Michael Scott (for those of you who watch The Office), "Win, win, win."

As we stand, I still need to reset one gate post, rehang the gate, and build a little stub of the wall on the other side of the gate, but that will all have to wait until feeling returns in my hands and subsides in my back.

Back Side of the Wall

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