Dry Stone Construction: Materials, Techniques & Benefits

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Can you build a wall with nothing but stones? How long would it last? In this lesson, explore a method of building called dry stone construction and learn about some techniques and benefits.

What is Dry Stone Construction?

Through time, people have figured out many ways to build structures. One of the world's oldest construction methods date back thousands of years and it's called dry stone construction.

Dry stone construction is a type of construction using in building walls and other structures by carefully layering stones. It was traditionally done in geographic areas with lots of stone as a natural resource. Examples of buildings created in this method include impressive ancient structures like the pyramids in Egypt and parts of Machu Picchu, built by Incas in Peru. Dry stone construction was also often used for agricultural walling (to keep livestock contained) in places like the British Isles.

Example of excellent dry stone construction at Machu Picchu, built by the Incas in Peru
wall at Machu Picchu

But how does dry stone construction differ from other brick or masonry construction? Dry stone construction is done without mortar, a mix of sand, cement and water that serves as a glue or binder to hold brick walls and some stone walls together. Instead, in dry stone construction, the position and weight of the stones themselves keep the structure in place. The craftsmen who build using the dry stone method have to be very skilled, and it's a very time-consuming process. But the results last for a very long time.

Now let's look at how such structures are built, using a stone wall as an example.

Materials and Techniques of Dry Stone Construction

Dry stone construction begins with a simple list of materials, namely a good selection of stones. Ideally, the stones should be flat or angled instead of round. The best stones will have lots of surface contact with stones above and below them, which makes them more stable and limits slippage. Stones should be in a variety of sizes, with some very large ones. You can build in dry stone with only your hands, but tools like hammers and chisels, used to shape and cut stone, can be helpful. Another good tool is a string line, made of two large flat metal pins connected to a long string. The string line, mounted into the ground with the pins with the string stretched out tight between them, serves as a line guide to help the builders keep the wall straight.

The builders start by clearing an area to serve as the foundation. Debris, small stones, and remains of trees must be removed and the ground smoothed. Then, the footing, the bottom layer of stones, is put into place. These are the largest stones in the wall, and they're sometimes called foundation stones. They are placed flat side down to help support the weight of the wall.

Then the builders lay the courses, horizontal layers that make up the body of the wall. They make sure that all stones in the course are as level as possible. During this phase, stones are positioned carefully to ensure a tight fit. Some stones should be as wide as the wall, with ends visible on either side, perpendicular to the direction the wall is running. These stones are called through stones, and they're crucial to a sturdy wall because they give it stability. As each course is laid, smaller stones called hearting are used to fill in any gaps. The tighter the hearting, the stronger the wall. The process is then repeated for each course.

Example of dry stone construction underway. Notice the through stone on the right side of this photo. It covers the wall width
Stone wall in progress

The builders also have to be careful to cross all the joints of the course below. In other words, you don't want a wall made up of vertical line of stones, which would be weak and unstable. Each stone should go across the meeting edges of the stones below it. They also try and make the face, or sides of the wall that are visible, as even as possible and not ragged.

When all the courses have been laid, the top layer, called the coping, is put into place.

Vertical rocks form the coping on this wall
Coping on a stone wall

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