Dry Stone Walls: Standing the Test of Time

When it comes to building walls, there are many methods that are used. However, one method in particular has been around for centuries and has been able to stand the test of time. Dry stone is a method of wall construction that uses natural stones to create a retaining, property, privacy or other type of wall. Seen frequently throughout the New England states, dry stone walls have been known to last well over a hundred years, requiring very little maintenance.

How It Works
The dry stones are constructed together in such a way, that common wall-building materials, such as mortar, are not required to hold them in place. The stability of the dry stone wall comes in the method used to strategically place them together using a load-bearing technique that uses interlocking stones that are carefully selected by the hand of an experienced and knowledgeable tradesman.

While this dry stone method is used primarily for walls, it can also be used to create bridges, buildings and other load-bearing structures. However, for the purposes of this particular article, we will focus on its use with regard to the construction of dry stone walls. These walls can be of varying heights and are used as boundaries for properties, as retaining walls for terracing and even in building construction to reinforce the foundation. The use of natural stone makes them as beautiful to look at as they are strong and durable.

History and Applications
With a history that stretches back centuries, dry stone walls are also known by many other names. Sometimes also referred to as a “dry stack stone wall” here in America, there are many names used throughout the world based on the language and the culture of the region. For example, throughout Europe the dry stone wall is also known as a dry stone hedge or dyke. In other regions it is simply referred to as a rock fence, without any reference to the method used to build it.

In Scotland, dry stone walls are used most frequently as field boundaries and are known as dykes. Throughout the countries of Ireland and Britain, they are seen often in the upland territories, where large stones and rock are plentiful throughout the land. Some dry stone walls in the United Kingdom date back as far as 5000 B.C., and there are many examples still standing of this technique being used in the Medieval era.

These long-lasting structures are also found throughout the Mediterranean region, including Italy, Croatia and the Canary Islands, where literally thousands of miles of centuries old walls still exist. Dry stone walls have even been found throughout Africa, made by the Bantu tribes, in the south-eastern countries and in South America, made by the Inca, throughout Peru.

The New England states are by far the most common region within North America to have embraced the use of dry stone walls. Historians feel that it was the similar terrain and naturally rocky soil that attracted settlers from European and Mediterranean countries in the first place. However, dry stone walls are also found throughout other east coast states, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. The rolling grassy hills of Virginia and Kentucky are also home to several rock fences, as they are called there, and California’s Napa Valley has also embraced the practice in their expansive vineyard properties as well.

Due to the widespread use of dry stone wall construction throughout the continents, there are many different variations available to choose from depending on the function and location of the wall. In centuries past, most walls were made from the stones, rocks and boulders that were found in nearby fields. Some were brought in from quarries within the local region. However, today property owners have a lot more options to choose from with regard to the materials used, due primarily to advances made in technology and transportation.

  • The “Double Wall” is a type of dry stone wall is made from two rows of stones that are stacked side by side, composed of large, flat rock. In areas where the stone becomes rounded, smaller rocks are used to fill in empty spaces left by the natural crevices made by the stacked stone.
  • The “Cornish Hedge” is topped by landscaping materials, such as turf or trees, and has a slope that is curved slightly inward. The use of natural, growing materials makes this a unique version of the more traditional stone wall.
  • The “Boulder Wall”, as you might imagine, is constructed mainly of large boulders with a few smaller stones placed around them. They were built primarily in areas where large boulders occurred naturally, such as fields and hills.

Dry Stone Walls in New England Today
Whichever method, style and type of construction is used to create these dry stone walls, significant experience and skill in working with them is required to create a strong and long-lasting barrier. Skilled builders are few and far between today, so finding a waller in the New England area who can build a dry stone wall can be challenging.

Sandstone Construction, located in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, has been building dry stone walls, sidewalks, curbing and other hardscaping projects within the entire New England region for many years. With extensive experience and knowledge of dry stone wall construction, you can count on Sandstone to deliver a finished product that will stand the test of time, enhance the appearance of your property and provide a strong, fully-functional finished product.