Dry Stone Construction: Walls, Arches & Houses

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 curved arch out of nothing but stone? How would you do it? In this lesson, explore dry stone construction methods for structures like walls, arches, and houses.

What is Dry Stone Construction?

People use all kinds of materials to make structures. Today, we have buildings of reinforced concrete, plate glass, and steel, but those are relatively new materials often made by modern industrial processes. One of the oldest building methods uses only stone, a plentiful natural material. It's called dry stone construction, and it's been done for thousands of years.

In dry stone construction, skilled builders use different sizes of stone to create walls, arches, and other structures. But what makes dry stone construction different from other kinds of stone or brick construction? It doesn't use a substance called mortar, a gluey mix of sand, cement, and water used as a binder to hold brick or stones together. Dry stone construction is done without any mortar. It takes a lot of time and skill, but if done properly, dry stone structures are very long lasting and durable.

Notice the lack of mortar between the stones in this example of dry stone construction.
dry stone construction

Now let's explore three types of structures to understand how to make them only of stones.

Building Dry Stone Walls

All dry stone structures begin with creating walls from stone. To build a wall, you assemble a good amount of large stones, preferably flat or angled rather than round. The best stones have a lot of surface space to come into contact with other stones.

Starting at the bottom, you clear the ground area where the wall will be built. Then, to create a sound base, use the largest and heaviest stones, flat side down, to serve as the footing, or foundation, of the wall. Once the footing is in place, you lay stones in horizontal layers called courses. The stones in each layer should be relatively even so the course will be uniform. To make the wall strong, some stones run the entire width of the wall, so their ends are visible on each side. Smaller stones are then used to fill in around them. The goal is layers of stones with very few gaps between them. When the wall has reached the desired height, a top layer is added, which is called the coping.

A dry stone wall with vertical coping in England
dry stone wall with coping

If you've followed these steps correctly, you have a dry stone wall. This is the basic method of dry stone construction. To build other structures, you add elements and make variations to this basic process.

Building Dry Stone Arches

Arches are curved entrances or support structures. The Romans first developed stone arches thousands of years ago and they've been used in architecture ever since. You've probably seen stone arches used on railroad bridges and as decorative elements in gardens and yards.

A bridge with two dry stone arches
bridge with two stone arches

To build an arch, you start with two low wall sections of equal height on either side of a gap that's the planned width of the arch. Then, use a wooden form, a half-circle cut in the desired curve of the final arch, as a support. Beginning at the wall edges, build up along the sides with wedge-shaped stones. If you don't have wedged-shaped stones, use flat stones and place smaller flat stones at their outer ends to serve as wedges. Work on each side, bringing them closer together. The wooden form keeps everything in place while you work. When you get to the top, you place the most important stone, which is called the keystone. It's the center stone of the arch that holds the structure together. The keystone, when placed correctly, locks the other stones in position. Then, you remove the wood support and the arch remains standing.

Building Dry Stone Houses

Places around the world, from India to Norway, have long traditions of building small structures of dry stone. A very early example of stone homes is a place called Skara Brae in Orkney, Scotland. It's thousands of years old, and the series of small dry stone-walled houses even have furniture of stone. Such structures often had roofs of earth and sod. But some cultures even made roofs of stone.

Simple dry stone huts in France
dry stone huts in France

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