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Old-House Online » Old-House Tips, Restoration Stories, & More » Gardens & Exteriors » The Art of Building Stone Walls

The Art of Building Stone Walls

Dry-stacked stone walls offer beauty and borders in the new old garden. By Stephen T. Spewock | Photos by Neil Landino

    Sandoval is a perfectionist when he works, creating walls of stone that appear as if they’ve always been part of the landscape.

    Sandoval is a perfectionist when he works, creating walls of stone that appear as if they’ve always been part of the landscape.

    “Work starts at 7:30 a.m. and goes until dark everyday,” says stonemason and landscaper Oscar Sandoval. “That way the job gets done right—not fast.” These words are revealed slowly and firmly by a man who has spent more than 20 years perfecting the craft of stacking stones, oftentimes shoulder to shoulder with his employees.

    Originally from Guatemala, Sandoval feels fortunate to have discovered his passion for stonemasonry early on. “I became so enthralled in the process that time would fly by while working,” he recalls. “Every day I have an opportunity to learn something new, to create something new.” And create he does: single-sided stone walls, double-sided stone walls, stone retaining walls, stone paths and walkways, stacked slab steps, floating slab steps, stone and brick terraces, and stone foundations.

    “Typically there is a lull in the winter,” he says, “but we’ll work year-round.” And that’s about as close as Sandoval will come to a boast, especially when you consider the volume of material his team processes during New England’s darkest days of bitter cold and knee-deep snow. This unwavering commitment to a project has helped Sandoval secure a steady stream of clients and collaborators who not only appreciate the quality of his work, but also his resilience.

    Retaining walls create structure and form in the landscape at Harmony Farms.

    Retaining walls create structure and form in the landscape at Harmony Farms.

    One such collaborator is award-winning landscape designer James Doyle, principal of James Doyle Design Associates (JDDA) in Greenwich, Connecticut. Doyle first worked with Sandoval on an 8-acre property in Connecticut. “We were brought into the Harmony Farms renovation at a later time,” remembers Doyle, “and were impressed by the work Sandoval previously completed for the client.” (Since this time, the two have completed over 25 projects together.)

    The landscape at Harmony Farms was a narrow, steep slope that runs from the road to the wetlands. The plan was to develop a series of gardens and an orchard that would be easy to access from any point. In order to achieve this goal, Doyle needed to introduce structure in the landscape. The best solution was to build massive retaining walls to create plateaus in the landscape, with the different levels accessible by stone steps.

    Stone steps act as connectors between the various plateaus in the landscape.

    Stone steps act as connectors between the various plateaus in the landscape.

    At this point, Sandoval shows his skills. “Initially, he learns what the client wants, listens to everyone’s ideas, and then provides input to the design,” explains Doyle. “And during the actual installation, he is always on-site, managing all aspects of the project—adjusting to any changes in design or material.”

    It is this hands-on approach that garners Sandoval the most accolades. “Ultimately, I’m creating something that is custom,” he says. “ The most important step starts with the selection of the material—stonework itself is always the same, but different stones create different looks.” That’s why he spends a lot of time picking through available stones, selecting exact shapes and sizes. Not only does this cut down on waste (sometimes up to 50 percent of the product), but it also helps the finished project look unique. “I pick each stone from the quarry by hand,” he explains. For Harmony Farms, the walls were built from reclaimed Connecticut fieldstone. The weathered, dry-stacked stones look as though they have been on the property for centuries.

    This may sound simple enough, but not when building a wall 8′ high and 100′ long, where the total volume of rock could wind up weighing untold tons. To ensure that all his effort pays off, Sandoval has devised a method of building a “mock-up” of the desired wall. “One week before the project starts, I will pick out five types of stone that seem to fit the project, then have the client pick out which one he/she prefers most—based on size, shape, and color,” says Sandoval.

    Sandoval also built this massive stone fireplace for an outdoor terrace.

    Sandoval also built this massive stone fireplace for an outdoor terrace.

    Once determined, he’ll go pick up about a ton of the same stone, and begin building two mock-ups: one more finished, and the other more natural. This way the client can better see which type of stone and finish they prefer, leaving nothing to the imagination.

    Doyle is a believer in Sandoval’s determination. “It’s been said,” he recalls, “that stronger architecture relates more closely to house and site. And if architectural opinion is a team decision, then ultimately, we are only as good as our contractors. Having someone like Oscar, with a good eye and flexibility in the field, is beneficial to all parties.”

    And no doubt with people like Sandoval on the team, James Doyle Design Associates will continue to win awards for its thoughtful landscape for years to come.

    Published in: New Old House Fall/Winter 2011

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