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Build a Stone Wall - a project that will last forever

Reprinted with permission from Brainerd Daily Dispatch 
By Vince Meyer, Outdoors Editor          October 8, 2005
See a Slide Show of a Stone Wall project at the bottom of this page

Stone, the most durable building material is superabundant in north central Minnesota yet seldom used. 

Each year the earth produces rock as faithfully as grass, but most rock is piled in out-of-the-way corners of the countryside. Why isn't this storehouse being used?

Dan Dix, a landscaper who lives near Backus, wonders that all the time. On Oct. 1 Dix taught a workshop on how to build with stone. When class is dismissed the Northland Arboretum will have two new stone walls.
Stone construction is unique in every instance. The same builder cannot build the same wall twice, for every stone is different and is fitted among other stones just as unique. The builder brings a different frame of mind to each job, and to become absorbed in building with stone is to leave the world behind.

"If I'm having problems on the job or with my kid or the dog runs away, those are all reasons to be depressed," Dix says. "But I work on this wall every night for a couple hours and those problems are gone. It's like Prozac without a prescription.

"Dix says anybody can build with stone as long as they're capable of single-minded devotion to a project and don't need instant results.
 "Like a woman making a quilt, that's how I am about this stone wall," Dix says. "I'm always thinking, 'How does this piece fit?' I'm always looking at the space and deciding which piece of rock fits there best.

"Dry stone construction is the oldest form of construction. Stone fences originated in Ireland and Scotland, two stony nations where sheep herding is a primary occupation. By collecting rocks, herders created more open land for grass to grow. Somebody eventually realized he could keep his sheep in place by fencing them with a stone wall.  
"How much maintenance will that building take?" Dix asks, pointing to the arboretum's new headquarters. "Will it be here a thousand years from now? Maybe not. But this stone wall will be."

To build a stone wall, Dix begins with a form made of two-by-fours. Each stone must be aligned within the borders of the form. The stones cannot move once they're laid. Shims -- small, thin pieces of broken rock -- are used to balance each stone. Mortar isn't used because water freezes and melts, ruining the wall.

"You don't have to get fancy," Dix says. "As long as the rock fits between the lines and doesn't shimmy, it works."

A solid wall is two times higher than it is wide. A wall 4 feet high should be 2 feet wide, a wall 8 feet high should be 4 feet wide, and so on. Tapering the walls leaves more room for error with little decline in strength.

A wall can have a bench, arch, or anything else the builder wants to include. Herders in Ireland and Scotland segregate their pastures by building gaps into the walls that are big enough for sheep to pass through but too small for cows.
For $40 a person can get all the tools needed to build a stone wall. Rock is everywhere. Northland Brick and Fireplace in Brainerd delivers rock on site. Owner Al Steiff said he buys it in Montana, Wisconsin, Idaho, Missouri, Colorado and northeastern Minnesota. The stone being used for the new arboretum walls came from Montana.

"Stones from different parts of the country all have a different look," Steiff said.

Those diffferences are what Dix enjoys most about stone.

"Instead of the same old keystone wall, crushed rock and a few geraniums like you see at Burger King, why not use stone?" Dix asks. "You can even use broken cement. It's beautiful and it's all over the place."

A small stone wall won't keep deer out of your yard, but it won't look like any fence in the neighborhood and it will tell people that this is your property.


162 State Highway 371 NW   |   Backus, Minnesota 56435   |   218-947-3663   -   888-947-2414