Introduction: How to Build a Natural Dry Stacked Stone Free Standing or Retaining Rock Wall

Picture of How to Build a Natural Dry Stacked Stone Free Standing or Retaining Rock Wall

I love rocks. Natural rocks. And I love rock walls. Big, small, retaining, free-standing... love 'em all. It sincerely breaks my heart every time I see a wall built with "stone" blocks courtesy of big box stores, inspired by DIY cable TV. They are everywhere, so my heart is frequently broken.

So I'm posting this instructable. If it keeps one hideous fake rock wall from being built, it's soooo worth the effort.

I use roughly the same technique when I build a free standing wall as I do a retaining wall. In fact, this wall was first a free standing wall (see last step for images). In my experience, if it's sturdy built, it will stand or hold back earth.

Note: I am not a professional anything, let alone a professional stonemason. I just do stuff. Sometimes unsuccessfully. I have built several walls and they still stand. But this, like most of my projects, is probably in violation of your local building code and may or may not be safe for the loads you intend to put on it. Works just fine for me, but it might not for you. Use your best judgement (on your own project, that is).

Also, I forgot to wear my gloves and safety glasses, but I am a very bad example of safe work habits (see DIY Sutures). Wear yours and work safely.

Step 1: Gather Your Tools & Materials

Picture of Gather Your Tools & Materials

For our rock wall, we'll need

  • Shovel
  • Stakes
  • String
  • Line Level
  • Tape Measure
  • Spray Paint
  • Rocks
  • Hand Sledge

Get more rocks than you'll think you need. If you don't have rock on site, purchase from your local rock and landscape supply. Stick with material that can be found in your region. The idea is to make it look like it belongs. I started with the pictured pile, left in the yard by the previous owners. When I was done with those, I went looking for more about the area.

Rocks should be various sizes and shapes. You'll need shaping rocks (less than width of wall), tie stones (same width as wall), filler (for gaps and cracks), and caps (optional, flat stones for the top of the wall... gives it more a polished/finished look, if you're into that sort of thing)

Step 2: Prep Work

Picture of Prep Work

Sort your rocks by size and purpose. Put in piles near your wall site.

Plan the where and the how big of your wall. A 3' high wall should be at least around 2' deep. Lay out the position of your wall with stakes and string. Use spray paint for ground marking. I never do this at the beginning and end up running guide string later after deep stone wall parallax sets in and I can't see straight.

Dig a trench about 6" deep and roughly the width of your wall. The first course will go into the trench. If you have soft soil or are retaining something, dig a little deeper, lay down a gravel bed and some drain relief.

Step 3: Stack Rocks

Picture of Stack Rocks

Lay stones in two rows in the trench. Each row should be flush with the faces of the trench. Some gap in the middle is fine. Using stones similar in height will make things easier in subsequent courses.

Lay the second course. Same as the first, but start using tie stones (every 3' or 4'ish) in addition to your face rock. Again, tie stones are stones laid perpendicular to the wall length. If you have a corner, start there and work to the end. If not, just go end to end. Lay your rocks again in two rows, staggered to cover joints of the previous course. Once your second course is laid, fill center gaps with smaller fill stones. Don't place the fill, just throw it in. It'll find its way.

Repeat for subsequent courses. On the final course, you'll need to more carefully select the stones for the cap (to cover your fill and make it pretty in addition to being strong). If you're using capstones, lay a thick mortar bead down the center of the wall (keep mortar 6" or so from the faces) and place your capstones. I didn't use capstones here, but you might find them helpful on your first wall attempt. It really can make a pretty rough looking try a little easier on the eyes. Just keep in mind that it doesn't matter how good it looks if it falls down, so make structure your primary focus.

Stacking notes and tips:

You could really spend forever stressing out about the placement of each stone. What I do is identify what I believe to be a good stone for the next position and then place it. It will go somewhere. I very rarely put a rock back in the pile once I've picked it up, even if it doesn't fit where or how I thought it would.

If you get stuck and are turning every stone a thousand times looking for the perfect fit, pick up a medium to large sized rock. Heave it at the project. I swear it will find its home. I am not kidding. Kind of serves as a reminder to let the rocks have some say. It'll make for a tighter, sturdier wall to boot.

Maybe stacking rock will come naturally to you, but I don't think it does for everyone. Rocks are heavy. It's hard work. Give yourself a break and some time to learn as you go. My worse half thinks I stack a good wall because I "have an eye for it". I haven't corrected him, but that's really a whole lot of bs. I don't have an eye so much as I just work hard at it and have practiced with (literally) tons of stone.

Oh! And music helps get a person in a stacking rhythm. My favorite stacking song is Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name"...

Step 4: Fill, Fit, and Finish

Picture of Fill, Fit, and Finish

Unless you have very uniform rocks (how boring, right?), you're going to end up with gaps in the wall. Don't stress. Go back through and fill with smaller stones when you're done. Pound them in the cracks. Even if you break down and use some mortar, I won't judge. It can be our little secret.

Now admire your handy work. Great job! You are AMAZING.

Note: Like I mentioned earlier, I got done with my free standing wall and couldn't understand why I had even built it. Total mystery. It wasn't keeping anything out or in or serving as a garden border. Nothing. So I turned it into a retaining wall and evened out the treacherous grade behind it. I added more fill rock and a bit of gravel to the "retained" side. Finally I filled flush to the top of the wall with fill dirt and laid down some sod. Now I can mow or even walk on that part of the yard without falling or rolling an ankle. Yay! Anyway, point is that sometimes the finish isn't where you thought it'd be. So keep a little flexibility and try not to get too frustrated. Cool?

Oh, and keep doing stuff awesome (like you always do)!


Lm23 (author)2016-11-10

I thought the (see DIY sutures) was really funny (i can totally relate safety doesnt seem to be my priority) til I clicked on the link and saw it.... im having sympathy pains!

offseid (author)2016-09-30

Nice Instructable, very well written and explained. Thanks!

east fork spring (author)offseid2016-10-03

Thanks so much!

DavidB1021 (author)2016-09-27

I have figured to vote for the natural walls you create Nicely done ;) and making something into a stream of my own , rubber lined but am hoping to see from others how they've come out , already sloped !, and some stone.Well so far I'ts all Ive got ,Im kinda blank

GrahamH27 (author)2016-09-20

hi I am a trained drystone waller and am also was first trained as a bricklayer mason, so looking at this man's work I can tell you he knows what he is doing and very good at it. The only thing I would like to see is can you watch your straight joints you do seem to have a few, could very wellbe the stone you have to work with. Please note that when you build your own wall please get the right stone for the job.

Thank you! Please note the builder (me) is a she, not he, but I appreciate the compliment and the advice from a pro!

Yeah, thanks for emasculate us "manly men" even more, haha. I wish I could build a stonewall as strong or as beautiful. Outstanding work.

hi didn't realize that. Can't believe you are 65 xxx

deluges (author)GrahamH272016-09-21

I don't think she is...

Quadrifoglio (author)2016-09-21

I really like how a stacked stone wall looks in the landscape. I voted for it.

I still have my 3-lb, wedge end sledge, brick hammer, and cold chisels, even though I haven't lived anywhere with a slope in 20+ years.

brmarcum (author)2016-09-21

"Heave it at the project. I swear it will find its home."

You're my new hero! I get so stuck on the perfection of a project I forget to let the project speak for itself sometimes.

sabing1 made it! (author)2016-09-20

We call it Murus Dacicus.

I used a little concrete, but my wall is over 2.5 meters tall, and have to hold my pickup truck on top. It is still a work in progress, I have to fill it with earth.

Glad to see that other people are stone-headed like me.

Severin Guga (author)sabing12016-09-21


violetsmuse (author)sabing12016-09-20

Your wall is beautiful too, I'm in rock!

east fork spring (author)sabing12016-09-20

Very nice work! Murus Dacicus... I like it!

heygeno (author)sabing12016-09-20

Ha ! Right ?

blkhawk (author)2016-09-21

I read once that building walls with stones, like you just did, invites wildlife to find shelter under these rocks. Your work made your yard look awesome and also contributes to the local ecology.

windoz (author)2016-09-20

For not being a 'professional', you sure exhibit a knack for combining artistic flair and structure. Nice work to be rightly proud of.

east fork spring (author)windoz2016-09-21

Thank you! Too kind!

deluges made it! (author)2016-09-21

Ah, I love dry stone walls.Great work! Making or mending them is a peaceful and soothing action for the mind. Here's a picture of a stone wall we mended while WWOOFing in scotland a couple years back. It had been pushed out by the roots of a rose bush and fell over. I might instructable it at some point because I feel like mending isn't exactly the same process.

east fork spring (author)deluges2016-09-21

Thank you! Mending would be a good topic. Not only is it not exactly the same process, but it is always a lot harder than it seems it should be (for me, at least).

GrahamH27 (author)2016-09-21

oops that is somebody else how embarrassing. Please accept my apologies.

No worries! The comments aren't easy to keep straight sometimes. I need someone to write a reading the comments'ible. Besides, I do feel much older some mornings, with my bones creaking and such :)

heygeno (author)2016-09-20

I started building serious stone walls in the early 80's.... now @ 65 I am still doing it !... workin on one for myself right now....

I started with "found stone" in the beginning then bought 11 tons ...and never looked back...... My first serious wall (dry-stack) is still standing after 30 yrs !

My "hobby" turned into a business from time-to-time.

I could talk about stone.....sit on stone......sleep on stone..... eat stone....... (if I could)

After I bought the 11 tons, I never bought any more (for myself) . I just collect it from dumps, or people getting rid of theirs....

Around 20 years ago I started incorporating landscape timber, old water fountains, bowling balls RRT's ,cast iron, bathtubs...... anything that will be able to last at least 20 years before getting too old or too boring.....

OLD CONCRETE CHUNKS....... broken up sidewalks.... went through a serious phase w/ that and saved what could easy be more than a hundred tons from landfills.

Dont kid yourself, young lady , you DO have an eye for it. ( and a know what I'm talkin about.... ) I never use plumb lines....never use levels.....unless I dont have room to back up OR I am in an enclosed TIGHT place which is a little disorienting.....I had a young friend pull out his iphone one day and lay it on one wall...... absolute 0 ! (( it was a 6' parking stop as a top course.... it IS a feel for it being level too .

heygeno made it! (author)heygeno2016-09-20

Here is my neighbor showing off my stone/concrete/tree stump chair... maybe some other junk added...armrest? table?... I made this because I was finished with a wall project in this space and had leftovers that I didnt want to take back to a pile....

east fork spring (author)heygeno2016-09-20

did somebody say stone/stump furniture? Here is my patio set :-)

heygeno (author)east fork spring2016-09-20

I may be your real father Luc(ke)ille....

violetsmuse (author)heygeno2016-09-20

Love this chair!

east fork spring (author)heygeno2016-09-20

I usually go sans levels, but it can be disorienting if you've been at it for awhile, hence the parallax I referred to. Thank you for sharing your story. I would love to see your work!

ManueldeBrito (author)2016-09-20

Bulit one of these many years ago, but used plenty of cement. 40 years later it is standing strong.

Cueball21 (author)2016-09-20

Great job on the stonework!!!

Thanks for sharing!

redram35 (author)2016-09-20

Your stone work is simply beautiful and well done. I would definitely pay for this service. Funny you have no training in this just mega passion for rocks and behold. Me thinks you were a stonemason in past life or something. I love your work and humor...thanks for sharing.

rawise (author)2016-09-20

OMG! We just bought a property in Florida that someone filled up with rocks & I HATE it! Suddenly i don't hate it so much anymore!! It's too much for me - we're talking tons...but if anyone has any energy left & feels like stacking rock, let me know.

BobbyZ1 (author)2016-09-20

I *love* the tone of your writing and the spirit of fearless doing you've shared here. This is wonderful. (And the wall's great too.)

east fork spring (author)BobbyZ12016-09-20

I seriously just cried. So sweet! Thank you...

FileBravo (author)2016-09-19

I come from a region where building this kind of wall is an ancient skill that is going to be lost. This job is worth a vote. Good luck!

Thank you!

DaveP68 (author)2016-09-20

I'm getting inspired to try this. If it's going to be strictly a retaining wall, does it still need the two faces with filler rock in the middle?

east fork spring (author)DaveP682016-09-20

No sir. One "finished" face with back fill rock ought to do the trick.

sitearm (author)2016-09-20

Rock whisperer : )

yogadad (author)2016-09-20

This is a very nice piece of work. You are a very talented person, a
very descriptive writer, and as is evident by your prose, very humorous
to boot. I predict that with your attitude, you will go very far in this
life. Best of luck to you.

kas227 (author)2016-09-20

As a UK resident, I find this strange to be such a big deal - dry stone walls are just a normal feature, as part of our history and heritage, but good on you to promote the dying craft of a wonderful 'local resources make good' art. :)

ehsansia (author)2016-09-20

Looks like you're one of the Inca tribe descendants! Great job.

runciblefish (author)2016-09-19

That is astounding. I have done a bit of rock work in my younger days,
and this makes my stuff look sick. I particularly like your
philosophical approach to this kind of work. Looks like a nice place to
sit and drink a beer.

You might get a kick out of
watching the movie, "The Music of Chance" with Mandy Patinkin. They
built a completely pointless stone wall in the movie.

Also, treat yourself to a really nice pair of gloves, you earned it.

So nice of you! I'll definitely check out the movie!

east fork spring (author)2016-09-19

Thank you!

Random Hacks (author)2016-09-19

So cool! Voting for this.

La Huerta de Ivan (author)2016-09-19

Good Job!!

seamster (author)2016-09-19

This is so inspiring. Thank you! I need to find some rocks and build a wall!! :)

About This Instructable




Bio: I'm a life-hacking reuse junkie who loves to create, even if all I'm making is a mess. I love hammers and rocks and ... More »
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