Cover image for The stonebuilder's primer : a step-by-step guide for owner-builders
The stonebuilder's primer : a step-by-step guide for owner-builders
Long, Charles.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Willowdale, Ont. : Firefly Books, 1998.
Physical Description:
126 pages : illustrations ; 28 cm
Format :


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TH1201 .L65 1998 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area-Oversize

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Writer Charles Long has a well-earned reputation as one of North America's self-sufficiency experts. More than 20 years ago, he and his wife, Elizabeth, fled city life and conventional employment for the country, and have flourished there ever since. Now back by popular demand Long's The Stonebuilder's Primer is a highly readable account of the couple's successful effort to build "a house that will outlast anything made of wood."

Developing a compromise method of stone construction that is both simpler and truer to the stonemason's art than the popular slipform method, the Longs built an aesthetically satisfying home of stone on a limited budget and no previous construction experience. In this classic how-to book, the author describes the complete building process in clear, easy-to-follow steps and, in so doing, dispels the myth of difficulty that surrounds stone construction.

Author Notes

Charles Long is also the author of How to Survive Without a Salary and Life After the City .

Reviews 1

Library Journal Review

This volume is a fine, if concise, introduction to the joys and problems of constructing living spaces with stone. In 11 chapters and an epilog, Long details the basics of building with field stone, taking each step in the rough chronology of the building process. His prose is open and friendly, and the illustrations, both line drawings and photographs, deepen the text. Long's "compromise method" of construction provides a simpler method of construction than has otherwise been traditionally embraced with stone. A delight and an important work for the aspiring nonprofessional stonemason. Highly recommended.ÄAlexander Hartmann, Bloomsburg Univ., PA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter I The Myth of Stone Architecture is inhabited sculpture Constantin Brancusi Fieldstone is an ideal medium for amateur builders. The massive strength in solid walls of stone comes more from the material than from skill. And if the lines are not exactly straight, no critic's eye can tell which wiggles are the builder's and which of them came with the stone. Little mistakes can disappear in the rough-hewn texture of the rock. Despite the forgiving nature of the material and its undeniable beauty, surprisingly few amateur builders are willing to tackle a homemade house of stone. Such reluctance is unfortunate because it is too often based on unfounded fears. As our own stone walls began to grow visible from the road, we attracted a steady stream of passing admirers and critics. The first was a real estate agent, teethed-no doubt-on stockbroker Tudor and relocatable anything. He watched for a while, then shook his head and muttered, "Gonna make a hell of a noise when it comes down." Others have been more polite but no more confident in the capacity of two green exurbanites to raise a stone house from scratch. The doubts are usually voiced in one of three ways: "What if it falls?" "It must be more complicated than that!" "That stuff must weigh a ton!" Only the last of those doubts has any basis in reality. A house-worth of stone weighs more than a ton -- it can weigh hundreds of tons. Taken one stone at a time, though, it is no more than any other middle-aged, out-of-shape weekend putterer could handle or, indeed, could benefit from. "What if it falls?" is a fear that makes much less sense. Gravity ensures that every stone presses directly down on the ones beneath. Of course it wants to fall, but it wants to fall straight down through the other stones. It can't go anywhere unless some force pushes it sideways out of the wall, and such a force would have to be extremely potent to push out a stone that is held in place by tons of rock above. In reality, there might be a danger that a whole wall section would begin to tip in unison. Good foundations and a few simple design rules make such a catastrophe very unlikely. "It must be more complicated than that!" is the usual comment of those who watch us work for a while or even try a hand themselves. The answer is, "It doesn't have to be." With the greatest respect for the professional masons and engineers who design and build the truly complex jobs, I must distinguish such work from the very plain and simple skills that suffice to build an ordinary wall in an ordinary house. Real stonemasons are a rare and talented breed. Their skills take years to learn and develop. They have the ability to build airy spires, flying buttresses and fanciful designs that reach the limits of the material. A simple wall in a simple house, however, is the sort of thing that untrained yeomen and illiterate peasants have built for themselves for millennia past. It is only in this recent era of the specialist that we have begun to doubt our ability to do such simple things for ourselves. Weekend builders don't hesitate to go after wood with hammer and saw, though few are master carpenters. Amateur painters abound, though professionals could do better. Why, then, should building with stone be any different? There is a myth about stone that makes newcomers disbelieve the ease with which they can create beauty and strength. "It must be more complicated than that." Of course it is, but even the most amateurish efforts are still capable of producing a house that will outlast anything made of wood. A few years ago, we found ourselves living in a too-small house surrounded by fencerows and and fields full of stone. Heartbreak and frustration for farmers but a bonanza for the builder. With the basic material so freely at hand, building in stone was an easy choice. The hard part was in deciding how. Full of all the doubts that our roadside critics later voiced, we set about looking for an easy way. Blessed with an abundance of old stone buildings in the area, we found no shortage of examples of different styles from which to choose. Sandstone, limestone and granite abound. Fine houses and official buildings, the heritage of craftsmen who emigrated from Scotland 150 years ago, set a benchmark for skill and polish that we knew was beyond us. Cruder buildings, barns and cellars, obviously built by the settlers themselves, were clearly within the limited range of amateur talents we could muster but didn't seem up to the building code or up to our expectations of what a house should be. Building with forms, the method first described by Edward Flagg, expanded by Helen and Scott Nearing and adopted by Karl and Sue Schwenke ( Build Your Own Stone House Using the Easy Slipform Method ) seemed, at first, to meet our needs. In the end it proved to be more complex and expensive than were simpler, more basic techniques. TRADITIONAL TECHNIQUES To the casual observer, a wall of traditional stone construction may appear more neat and orderly than it really is. The closely fitted stones in the visible face are just that -- a façade. Chances are, only a few of them extend through the full thickness of the wall. If you could walk inside and look at the back of the wall, you would not see the expected mirror image of the front but a whole different face. The two faces are tied together with a few large stones that reach from one side to the other, and the rest of the core is of rougher construction, rubble or even air space. The two-faced approach is one of the reasons that older stone buildings have such massively thick walls. Accommodating the rough back sides of two faces meant that a wall could rarely be less than 2 feet thick. Some masons deliberately left air spaces in the core as the only concession to insulation. It worked -- to a degree-but required an even thicker wall. Even with air spaces in the core, lath and plaster, paneling, paper or anything else the shivering inhabitants were wont to add, early stone houses were cold and often damp as well. Modern renovators add new stud walls on the inside with a full thickness of insulation or resign themselves to leaving an oil truck backed up to the furnace all winter. With an inner lining of fiberglass and studs, the walls get thicker. And the inevitable result of thicker walls is smaller rooms -- or having to start with a bigger house. The bigger-house alternative brings us to the other disadvantage of the traditional technique: its extravagant use of material. The massive walls require more stone, and building two faces requires more of the better stones, the flat-sided ones or the carefully cut ones. When masons worked with teams of horses and underpaid apprentices to haul and cut the stone, such extravagance might have been warranted. We, however, were set on going it alone. The two of us together weighed only 250 pounds, and we hardly had a callus between us. An 18-inch wall would weigh 80,000 pounds less than a 24-inch wall. A mere 6 inches would save us 40 tons of digging, hauling, dragging and lifting. And then, to keep us warm, the extra inside face would have to be covered anyway. It was hardly worth the effort. THE SLIPFORM METHOD Slipform building is virtually a poured concrete wall with stones set in the outer face. The builder begins with a large number of portable wooden forms that are bolted and wired together to contain the pour. After the forms are aligned and braced, stone is set in the front and concrete is worked between and behind them. When a section has set, the lower forms are unbolted, removed and replaced on top of the higher forms, leapfrogging up the wall. This was at first appealing because it required only a single face of decent stones, backed with concrete and rubble. Ergo: thinner walls and 40 tons less wear and tear on the builders. Moreover, putting stone and concrete inside solid lumber forms assuaged our neophyte fears that anything we would build might well come tumbling down. Any dunce -- or so we thought -- could pour concrete around the backs of stones and leave it alone to become a wall. Its basic appeal was that it seemed so foolproof, and we were hardly aglow with confidence. In truth, we never got to the concrete stage. The first stumbling block was the cost of the lumber needed to make all those forms. Then I reread the books and realized that the authors of slipform books invariably cut the lumber from their own forests. Enough said. Not only is the lumber expensive, but changing, aligning and bracing forms seemed to consume about half the working time on a slipform job. Finally, we were too late in noting the standard slipform advice to design straight walls in lengths that are convenient multiples of the length of the standard form. Our footings were already poured, committing us to fanciful nooks and turns -- none of which were in convenient multiples of anything. We didn't even have a level surface from which to start. The footings were poured right on bedrock, rising and dipping in staircase sections over the irregular planes of subsurface strata. Faced with the expensive and time-consuming job of custom-building special forms for all those odd lengths of lower footings just to get a single level surface from which to start, we resolved to try hand-laying stone on the lower footings. It would be underground and thus invisible to later critics. There were no corners or fiddly bits in the lower sections. There seemed to be no risk in trying, at any rate. So we stretched some string for guidelines, slapped on a layer of mortar, a course of stones, more mortar... Much to our amazement, the dips and valleys were brought up to grade in three short days -- just what we had budgeted for building and fitting the special forms. Moreover, the outer face was considerably more presentable than what we had come to expect from the slipform method. With a solid, level perimeter on which to build, we once more contemplated building forms. The expense was giving us pause. At that point, we were struck by what seemed to us an obvious saving: After the wall was complete and the last of the forms removed, we would still have to erect a separate interior wall to hold the wires and insulation. Why not build the interior wall first (or the frame, at least), use that as the basis of the inside forms and save half the cost of forming lumber? Why not, indeed? So, on the inner lip of the foundation, we built an ordinary wall frame of 2-by-4 studs -- the whole interior wall of the house. Half a sheet of particleboard set against the studs made an ideal inner form, and when removed, it left a 1/2-inch air space to later vent away any errant condensation. We were still prepared to use forms on the outer face of the stone wall and proceed with a modified slipform approach. But the weather happened to be fine that week, and we knew we ought to save form building as a rainy-day-in-the-barn project. Ever so cautiously, we troweled on a bed of mortar, applied a mosaic of stone and another layer of mortar and just kept going. We've put up more than 200 tons of fieldstone since that day and still haven't gotten around to building those forms. To be fair, I suppose we really should try using slipforms, but frankly, it would seem a little retrograde -- like going back to paint-by-number after finding you can make pictures more easily all by yourself. Step by step, we evolved an approach to stonebuilding that combines features of both traditional and slipform methods. From the traditionalists, we kept the basic stone-on-stones approach that avoids all the fuss and bother with forms and wires and braces and bolts. From the slipform adherents, we borrowed the notion of building against a movable backboard, a shortcut that allows lazy builders (like us) to use all the best and biggest stones up front and shave heavy inches off the back. Briefly, the method works like this:The permanent wall framing of the house is built on the top of the foundation or footing.The framing is kept to the inside edge of the foundation's top, leaving a wide outer base (12 to 24 inches) on which to build the outer wall of stone.A temporary backboard spacer is placed against the studs at the back of the space where the day's stones will be laid.A line is strung a given distance from the studs to define the outer edge of the projected stonework.A bed of mortar is spread on top of the wall.A layer of stone is seated on the mortar, aligning the front edges of the stone with the string and working in rubble and rougher pieces to fill the spaces against the backboard.The layer of stone is brought up to a level top by filling any spaces with smaller stones and mortar.Another bed of mortar is spread on top of the stones, and the next layer of stone (or "course") is begun at the face.Later on, the outer face is pointed and finished.The next morning, the backboard is pushed out of the space between the studs and the stone and is reset behind the new day's projected work, the string is raised to the higher level, and you're back to spreading mortar with a bare 10 minutes of preparation. Subsequent chapters will expand on all these steps and deal with special problems and more complex jobs as well, but the basis of any house is the wall, and a wall of stone can be as simple as these 10 steps. It's tempting to compare this method with veneer techniques. They do both begin with a basic stud-wall frame and add stone to the outside as a later step. Veneer, however, is merely decorative. The strength of the house is entirely dependent upon the wooden frame, which bears the weight of the roof and upper stories. Consequently, stone veneers are thin -- as little as 3 or 4 inches in some cases. Our own stone walls are a solid 16 to 18 inches. They hold up the top of the house and stand sturdily independent of the wooden inner walls. Howling gales may rattle the windows, but the solid stone wall never shudders in any storm. Because inner and outer walls are independent, they can admit an air space between to prevent warm, moist inside air from condensing on the cooler stone and rotting the wood. Apart from the obvious matter of immovable strength, the greatest difference between veneer and a real stone wall is in the final appearance. It is more than simply gauging the thickness of a wall by the depth of windows and other openings. It is the appearance of the stones themselves. Stone that has been cut and quarried by natural forces may be left with a flat side or two, but the rest of its shape is likely to be quite irregular. In traditional building techniques, most of the stones would be laid on their flat sides, with irregular edges left to project from the face or be buried on the inside of the wall. The purpose was to simplify the task of matching rough stone to irregular spaces by trying to keep the courses level. Unusually good blocks might be set on edge, but most stones were placed with the flattest faces in the horizontal plane. In a thin veneer wall, the flattest faces are placed in the vertical plane -- either set flush to the frame of the building or exposed on the outer wall. The stones, in effect, are all set "on edge." The result is an appearance distinctly different from older, traditional solid-wall construction. The photograph on the following page shows veneer and solid construction on the same building. The builder, the stone and everything else are identical, but it is not hard to tell which is veneer and which is solid. Unfortunately, the slipform wall -- solid though it may be -- usually gives the appearance of veneer. Because the form does not admit the knobs and projections of irregular faces, the temptation is to place the flattest side of the stone against the face form, leaving irregular rather than level courses. As a result, the stones appear to be set on edge, as they would be in a veneer. The slipform wall may be solid and attractive in its own right, but its modern veneerlike appearance is unmistakable. Apart from its old-fashioned appearance, our compromise method has other attractions for the novice builder. Much of the worry in building your first house involves "the big mistake"-fear of committing some irreversible blunder, like sinking foundations, leaning walls or drains with no place to go. Pick your fear from the common litany of "things that go wrong when you don't know what you're doing." With all that time and money invested, blunders aren't funny, they're tragic. In this method of building, most of the decisions from which the big boners spring are over before the first stone is laid. If your private terror is not getting drains and foundations right, there's nothing wrong with having them poured professionally before you start. The proper placement and alignment of walls and openings are done at the framing stage. If there is a mistake, it can be found and corrected easily, long before the cement is mixed. With the frame in place, all measures and levels are taken from it. There are no transits, marker stakes or temporary guideposts to worry about or knock out of place. If the frame is square and plumb, the stone walls that follow will stand straight too. The novice is also well served by having only one face to build. The most skilled and time-consuming part of the job -- selecting stones to fit -- takes place mostly at the face. If that first big chunk doesn't fill the hole at the back, then a couple of smaller ones might, or at worst, a pail of concrete will fill just about any space. You wouldn't do that on a face, but back against a form, it works just fine. Finally, the outer face, which is more carefully built (for looks as well as for strength), is open, visible and easily accessible. In a slipform job, the mason works blindly -- from behind. He can't see the face he's building until the form is taken off two or three days later, when the concrete is set and it's too late to correct mistakes. Leaving the face open lets the builder rely on his eye rather than memory for important tasks, like keeping a roughly level course, avoiding continuous vertical joints and aesthetically balancing the size, shape and color of stones that show on the face. Working on an open face is easier, too, in one final respect. Pointing (the outside finishing of the mortar joints) is quickly and easily done when hand-laying stone. It can be as simple as running a wet finger around the joints at the end of the day. When the work is done in a form, however, pointing has to be finished later, when fresh mortar must be tediously worked into cracks that have already set. I've never seen another house built just like ours, but all the same, I'd be surprised if these shortcut ways to traditional style were in any way unique. For a long, long time, ordinary farmers and untrained folks have been laying up fieldstone houses and barns. The techniques and the styles have been as individual as the people with the trowels. The surprise is that so many modern builders seem reluctant to try the job. It is, I suppose, modern man's trust in the competence of technology and degrees that leaves us doubtful about our own innate abilities. For some, the simplest task cannot be attempted without an evening course or a how-to book to provide the technological crutch. With all due respect to Flagg, the Nearings, the Schwenkes and others, the literature has done little to dispel the unwarranted mystique that has attached itself to the simple art of building in stone. That alone is the reason for this little volume. The method expounded is a hybrid of others' inventions and would hardly be worth the paper to explain it -- except for the fact that it is simple and it works. The purpose here is to take some of the mystery and engineering mumbo jumbo out of what, it should be remembered, is one of the oldest, most basic and natural forms of building, one that predates any building code. One well-educated man I know felt ignorant enough of the technical complexities of stonebuilding that he decided to get a professional contractor for a fairly small masonry job. He approached the most competent and highly regarded contractor around -- a father-and-son team with many fine stone projects to their credit. My friend described what he wanted and asked for an estimate. Father and son proceeded to calculate the job requirements right on the spot, which led to a terrific family spat over the product of 8 times 7. Father and son were each so sure of their answers that it nearly came to blows. Wisely, my friend decided not to intervene with his suggestion of 56 as a third possible answer. The job was done -- beautifully -- and my friend had no more illusions about the technical skills required to achieve a fine result with stone. Building in stone is, in some respects, a little like a garden. Just about anybody can grow a garden, and few would hesitate to try. Undoubtedly, a biochemist or agronomist, armed with computer models, testing labs and research results, could grow a superbly efficient garden. But that doesn't mean that the rest of us have to get a degree or hire an agronomist in order to have a garden. With straw hat and hoe, we're not much improved on our ancestors, scraping the earth with pointed sticks. Agribiz chemists can outproduce us every time. But I'm not about to put astro turf on the garden and go back to supermarket tomatoes just because someone else is more expert than I. By the same token, I can tip my hat to the skill of the professional artisans and the undeniable advantage of engineering tables -- and go right on laying stones in my own crude way, not because it is better but because it is simple and basic and I like it. Excerpted from The Stonebuilder's Primer by Charles Long All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

The Myth of Stone
Footings and Foundations
Tools and Supplies
Laying Stone
Special Touches
Fireplaces and Chimneys