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Life and Work

Rediscovering stone

New nonprofit teaches a new generation of craftspeople how to make dry stone walls that endure for centuries

DUMMERSTON—Torben Larsen pulls off his work gloves. A sharp line of copper-colored dirt marks where the glove ended like a sandy tan line. 

He’s covered in dirt and sweat like his four fellow wall builders, all working to beat the 7½-hour time limit for their dry stone wall certification test.

The dry stone walls that snake through New England’s woods and fields can stand strong for 150 years when built correctly.

But because many dry stone walls are failing, architects and planners are turning to concrete walls, thinking the problem is inherent to dry stone walls, not with building techniques.

The nonprofit Stone Trust, Inc. is working to reverse this trend by teaching the craft of dry stonewalling to both newbie wallers and professionals like Larsen, a landscaper from Westminster.

“Walling is less appreciated and respected than it should be. It’s good for Vermont if it is more respected as a craft,”  Larsen says.

Stone Trust aims to become the “go-to” resource for dry stone wall building and preservation. The organization helps educate stonewallers in the art and technical aspects of dry stonewalling through workshops and certification tests.

 When complete, the organization’s website will host resources for wallers, interested students, and potential clients.

Members are also working with legislators to develop state standards for dry stone walls, standards that Vermont does not have.

Stone Trust is developing its teaching practices and workshops based on standards set by the Dry Stone Walling Association of Great Britain (DSWA). The two organizations’ informal relationship is still evolving.

Jared Flynn, a waller and member of Stone Trust, says the DSWA’s methods are not the only methods wallers can use — and he says this carefully. Stone wall building is a personal art, and he doesn’t want to offend his fellow wallers.

Stone walls

According to members of the Stone Trust, European immigrants from England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Portugal, Italy and Switzerland brought the craft of dry stone walls to North America.

Dry stone walls survive the freeze-and-thaw cycle of New England seasons better than other constructions. Their mortar-free design gives the walls the flexibility to expand and contract.

In the style taught by Stone Trust and DSWA instructors, the walls are wider at the bottom, like an A-frame. The sides of the wall are actually two walls — “skins” — with smaller stones in the center. The structure is secured with a “through stone,” a component of larger stones that cover the skins like a tabletop.

Layers of skins and through stones are added until the desired height is achieved. The wall is topped with copingstones. With this method, the weight of the wall pushes inward so the stones stand  against each other.

Some stone-stacking methods weaken the structure and shorten the wall’s life.

One such building technique is pouring small pebbles, gravel or sand into the wall’s interior. Over time, as the stones expand and contract or are washed by rain, the small fill shifts, and the wall collapses.

Another example is stacking a long stone lengthwise so the long side faces out, creating gaps in the wall’s center.

Turning the stone into the wall so the skinny end is visible is a better choice because it interlaces the stones, strengthening the wall, instructors Andrew Louden and Dan Snow — DSWA-certified master craftsmen — tell the group.

Standards for professionals

Behind the Dummerston Center Fire House, Larsen and landscape architect Brian Post build their test sections of wall. Larsen is testing for his level-one certification and Post for level two. Snow and Loudon mark the men as they go.

Wallers say the personality of each waller shows in his or her stone-wall work.

“It [walling] keeps your mind engaged,” says Snow, who is also an author and Dummerston resident.

This misconception that stone walls are less durable than their concrete counterparts costs wallers jobs on state and municipal projects.

To reverse this trend, the Stone Trust offers certification tests to help create a pool of certified wallers. They believe this measure will keep wallers better employed and tax dollars better spent.

Post, a landscape architect in Springfield, studied in England and Wales as an undergraduate. His section of wall nearly complete, he places small boulders on the top to make a freestanding English wall vertical cope.

Post says he built his first wall when he was 10 years old. He’s been walling professionally for 15 years. He wanted to earn the level II certification for professional and personal reasons.

Post says being able to advertise a level II certification will be good for his business. There are fewer than a dozen Vermont wallers certified as level II or higher.

Personally, he says, the test “pushes you to excel.” Normally, he says, he wouldn’t build a wall the size of the test wall in 7½ hours.

Loudon explains the test is timed to a “commercial speed.” The DSWA wants wallers’ craft to be economically viable.

The next generation

“Every Vermonter is a waller,” Flynn says.

Late-afternoon sun heats the field along Dutton Farm Road. Everyone is covered in dirt and dust, but no one noticed as the students examined their work.

At this Stone Trust May workshop, the students’ classroom is a 74-foot of a tumbled-down stone wall at Scott Farm in Dummerston. The 19 students received 15 hours of instruction, including 10 hours of  hands-on building.

The neglected stone wall, which had been stripped, taken apart, and rebuilt over two days, stands strong, as if it had always been there.

“[A stone wall] is something you can build in a rural landscape that doesn’t shout at you,” Loudon says. “It’s a way of leaving your mark on the landscape without anyone knowing about it.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #53 (Wednesday, June 9, 2010).

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