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Grouting or pointing stonework.

Stone Masonry
Build an Enduring and Endearing Home of Stone

Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction

      There is a certain irresistible charm about a stone house, and I simply would not settle for anything less. There is an aura of timelessness about stone houses, as if they have always been there and always will be. Perhaps this feeling of timelessness is exuded from the rocks themselves. Building with materials as old as nature makes a home seem as if it were part of the story of the land. Besides, a stone house can outlast any other kind of construction by hundreds of years.

Stone Masonry Construction
A Brief Overview
by Thomas J. Elpel, Author of Living Homes

      Traditional Dry-Stack Stone Walls: Stone masonry originated with dry-stacked stonework where the walls are carefully layed up without mortar. Gravity serves as the glue that holds everything together. Free-standing dry-stack stone walls are usually made larger at the base and then taper in slowly as the height increases. For absolutely no expense but the labor, farmers built miles upon miles of stone fences this way in Ireland and in the northeastern states.

      Many old Irish houses were built in a similar way. Where "mortar" was used, it was often merely mud or limestone plasters with little strength. The mortar functioned as caulking to stop the flow of air, rather than as cement to bond the stones together. Short, dry-stacked stone walls are especially ideal for landscaping projects. Taller walls require more skill and time. For more details on dry-stack stone walls, be sure to check out Building Stone Walls and Stonework: Techniques and Projects.

      Traditional Mortared Stone Walls: Mortared stone walls evolved out of dry-stack stone work with the emergence of cement mortars. The first cements were made of burnt gypsum or lime mixed with water to make a paste with slight bonding capability. Stone walls still had to be built as carefully as they were without mortar. The cement paste just filled the gaps between the stones and cured to form a soft, rock-like substance.

      The basic formula for modern cement originated in England in 1824. It is called "Portland cement" because the color is similar to the rocks on the English island of Portland. It is still called Portland cement everywhere in the world it is manufactured. This cement is made with calcium from limestone or chalk, plus alumina and silica from clay and shale. The ingredients are ground, mixed in the right porportions and burnt in a kiln at a temperature of about 2500 degrees F (1350 C) to drive out water bound up in the raw materials. In the kiln it fuses into chunks called clinker. It is cooled and powdered, and gypsum is added to control how fast it sets up. Portland cement is mixed with sand and water, and often lime to make a smooth mortar for stone and brick work. Adding the lime makes the mortar softer and more flexible.

      With the aid of Portland cement it is possible to build a taller stone wall that does not taper inward like a dry-stacked wall. The cement has some ability to "glue" a stone wall together with less care, but proper stoneworking techiques are still important. Building a free-standing stone wall is a true art and requires a lot of time and skill to do it well. For more details on traditional mortared stone walls, be sure to check out Building with Stone.

      Veneered Stone Walls: Most stonework today consists of a non-structural veneer of stone against a structural wall of concrete or cinderblock. Concrete consists of Portland cement mixed with sand, gravel and water. The larger particles of gravel interlock like little fingers to make the concrete resistant to cracking. Steel reinforcing bar can be added to serve as much longer "fingers" to make a wall that is very resistant to cracking. Concrete is a fast and relatively inexpensive way to put up a structural wall, so few people take the time for labor intensive traditional mortared stone walls any more.

      Instead, the structural wall is put up first, and thin, flat stones are essentially glued onto the face of the wall with cement mortar. Metal tabs in the structural wall are mortared in between the stones to tie everything together, otherwise the stonework would just peel right off the wall. The structural wall serves as a form on one side of the wall to make it really easy to lay up the stonework, provided the rocks have good flat edges to work with.

Slipform stone masonry with forms removed to show rocks.       Slipform Stone Walls: A slipformed wall might be described as a cross between traditional mortared stone wall and a veneered stone wall. This is the method of stone masonry we have used the most. Short forms, up to two feet tall, are placed on both sides of the wall to serve as a guide for the stone work. You place stones inside the forms with the good faces against the form work and pour concrete in behind the rocks. Rebar is added for strength, to make a wall that is approximately half concrete and rebar and half stonework. The wall can be faced with stone on one side or both sides. With slipforms it is easy even for the novice to build free-standing stone walls.

Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction       Tom's article The Art of Slipforming was featured in the December 1997/January 1998 issue of The Mother Earth News magazine. We received more than 150 letters from people enthusiastic to learn slipform masonry first-hand. Those who are familiar with the slip-forming process wrote to tell us the article was a significant advancement over the available literature on the subject. That article and much more are included in my book Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction.

      Framed-One Side Stone Walls: If you build a slipform stone building with stone on the outside and framed walls on the inside, then you eventually have to come to the conclusion that it would be smarter to build the frame wall first. By building the interior frame first, you will have half the formwork done, plus a straight and plumb guide to work from for doing your stonework. This is exactly the method used by Charles Long , featured in The Stone Builder's Primer. Long doesn't use slipforms at all, but simply does traditional mortared stone masonry with the benefit of a frame wall to serve as a form on the back. This method works exceptionally well when the rocks are squared and brick-like, but for rounded stones the novice would need forms to aid in the process.

Slipform Stone Masonry DVD
      In my article in The Mother Earth News, I proposed a similar method of slipform stone masonry, where the entire house would be framed with polystyrene beadboard insulation panels before beginning any stone masonry. The beadboard panels would serve as forms inside the wall and the stone masonry would be slipformed up the outside. That way it would be easier to build straight, plumb walls with less labor and fewer slipforms. The beadboard panels would also eliminate expensive wood framing on the inside of the walls while maximizing energy efficiency by eliminating thermal gaps through the framing. At least that was the theory. I hadn't actually tried it myself.

      The first person to try this method was Dani Gruber of Colorado. She read the article in Mother and wanted to test out the new method of slipforming I had proposed. She didn't just build a house, but more of a castle, as featured in her story Slipforming--The Next Generation

      In June of 2001 we built our own project with this new method of slipfoming, although on a slightly smaller scale. We built a small workshop of stone beside our home, and produced a step-by-step video of the process.

Tllt-up stone walls.       Tilt-Up Stone Walls: I would like to see much greater use of stone, since it is such a long lasting and beautiful material. After building a couple of houses with the easy, but still labor-intensive slipform method, I started dreaming of ways to mass produce highly efficient stone houses using modern technology. Tilt-up stone masonry seemed like a logical choice--that is pouring stone walls flat on the ground and setting them in place with a crane.

      My brother grew interested in the idea and decided to figure it out himself. He liked the idea of building with stone, but didn't care for the slipform masonry technique we used. He chose tilt-up stone masonry as a faster way to build, that would also eliminate the cold joints that run throughout slipformed walls. Pouring the walls would simultaneously grout the stonework, insuring an integral bond that would prevent problems with the mortar cracking and falling out later. With tilt-up construction he would be able to bring the stonework up higher without having to lift each individual rock and bucket of concrete.

      He bought a building lot a block away from our place built his house with the tilt-up method. I wrote about the process in the January 2003 issue of Fine Homebuilding Magazine. The article is included in more depth here: Tilt-Up Stone Masonry. It is also included in my book Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction. Let me emphasize that tilt-up work is NOT for beginners. It requires an expereienced carpenter and mason, and it is really suited for mass-production, where the same forms are used again and again.

Thomas J. Elpel House-Building Projects
-Building a House on Limited Means
-We've Gone Solar!
-Building a Slipform Stone Workshop
-Building a Passive Solar Stone House - Part I
-Stone House: Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V
-Slipform Stone Masonry Class Information
-Slipform Stone Masonry Questions & Answers
More Stone Masonry Construction Articles and Resources
-A reader builds a Slipform Stone Mansion
-A reader builds a Stone and Log House in France
-A reader builds a Stone House at the Center of the Universe
-A reader builds a Slipform Stone House on the Prairie
-A reader builds a house of Stone and Straw
-A reader builds a Wilderness Cabin of Stone
-Tilt-up Stone Masonry

Stone Masonry Books & Videos

Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction

Living Homes
Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction
Building Your High-Efficiency Dream Home on a Shoestring Budget
by Thomas J. Elpel

      Living Homes includes in-depth coverage of slipform stone masonry, building an efficient masonry fireplace, measuring and mixing concrete, footings and foundations, plus tilt-up stone masonry construction. Stone masonry coverage is together throughout the book with all other aspects of building, from innovative foundation solutions to creative roofing ideas, solar design, heating, plumbing and wiring. For complete details on the book, please go to: Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction

Slipform Stone Masonry
DVD Companion to
Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction

      Want to build a stone house? It's easier than you might think! Our Slipform Stone Masonry DVD brings to life the nuts-and-bolts of the slipforming process featured in Tom's book Living Homes.

Slipform Stone Masonry DVD       Slipforming is the process of using forms on both sides of the wall as a guide for the stonework. The forms are filled with stone and concrete, then "slipped" up the walls to form the subsequent levels. Slipforming makes stone work easy even for the novice.

      In this unique video, Thomas J. Elpel and Robert Taylor build an insulated workshop out of stone, demonstrating the building process from site excavation right through to putting the roof on and finishing the inside. Working through the month of June in Montana, they brave the rain and snow, gusting winds, searing heat and stunning rainbows to bring this project to fruition.

      The video is designed as a companion to Tom's book Living Homes. The principles of design and construction are out-lined in the book, enabling the reader to create dwellings customized to their own unique situations. In this video you will see just one application of those principles, but in vivid detail from start to finish. With both the book and the video you too will be able to design and build in a way that is completely unique to your own Vision.

      November 2001. 1 hr. 50 min. DVD. For additional details on the workshop we built, please click here.

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Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction.
Living Homes

Slipform Stone Masonry DVD.
Slipform Stone Masonry DVD

Build Your Own Masonry Fireplace DVD.
Build Your Own Masonry Fireplace DVD

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Stone House: A Guide to Self-Building with Slipforms.
Stone House

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Roadmap to Reality

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Hi Jeanne & Tom,
      Package arrived safely. Thanks for the swift processing. Tom's DVD played perfectly on a UK DVD player and on my computer. Besides enjoying the DVD immensely may I compliment Tom on how well he presented and particularly how clearly he enunciates the English language. I understood every syllable. Superb value both book and DVD.

Geneva, Switzerland

Building Stone Walls
by John Vivian

      Building Stone Walls shows you everything you need to know to build sturdy mortarless (dry-stacked) stone walls for landscaping. Learn how to make either free-standing stone walls or stone retaining walls, plus how to build a proper foundation. Coverage also includes: how to find good rock, how to build seats, steps and gates into a wall, and how to make a morterless stone birdbath, plus diversions or dams in a stream. Carefully detailed, clear drawings show the techniques to follow--and how to avoid problems. First published in 1976, the material covered in this book is just as timeless as stone itself. 108 pages.

Techniques and Projects
by Charles McRaven

      No building material rivals stone for beauty, permanence, and enduring popularity. Discover the lasting statisfaction of working with stone and learn the tricks of the trade from a master craftsman. Builder Charles McRaven offers the benefit of his fifty years of stonework experience in Stonework, a book that will inform, entertain and inspire anyone using or working with stone.

McRaven helps even first -time buiilders comprehend the intricacies of working with different stone types, including sandstone and quartzite, limestone, granite and greenstone, shale, slate and other stones. He covers how to choose the most suitable stone and where to locate natural or commercial sources of stone, including recycled stone, plus cutting and shaping stone and handling and safety issues

Featured projects include how to build a stone wall with and without mortar, plus curved walls, arches (with and without mortar), and using stone for gardens, paths, pools, waterfalls, landscape accents, pillars, gateways, doorways, stone steps, even bridges and entryways. 1997. 183 Pages.

Building with Stone
by Charles McRaven

      Concrete and steel may weight as much, but nothing can rival stone for its beauty and durability. Building With Stone is an introduction to the art and craft of creating stone structures and projects by a man who has made stonework his vocation. In this book the author covers some similar techniques and projects as in his book Stonework: Techniques and Projects (see above), but he goes into greater depth with mortared wall systems and buttresses, detailing the traditional techniques of hand-layed stone for building anything from a barbecue pit to bridges, houses, or barns.

      Throughout the book is Charles McRaven's stonebuilding philosophy--that careful craftsmanship and time well spent during construction will repay itself many times over. The physical challneges will be offset by tremendous satisfaction and the knowledge that long after the builder is gone, the structure will continue to serve.

      Based on years of experience, this book will educate the novice and inspire the seasoned artisan. A stone builder at any level will learn how to evaluate each stone and undertake each step in the procedure with and eye toward aesthetics and useful permanence. The final chapter covers proper restoration techniques for stone structures. 1980, 1989. 192 Pages.

Stone House
A Guide to Self-Building with Slipforms
by Tomm Stanley


      Born and raised in the USA, author Tomm Stanley hopped around the world working in Antarctica, Australia, southeast Asia and New Zealand, where he found a partner and settled down. Tomm and Sabrina had lots of rocks available on their land, and so slipforming was the obvious choice for building their dream home. Thomas J. Elpel had the good fortune to meet Tomm Stanley while vacationing in New Zealand and was privileged to receive a personal tour of the house.

      The slipforming method they used is similar to early slipforming methods used in North America, with one significant improvement: Instead of wire ties to hold the forms together, Stanley ran threaded rod through plastic sleeves, and used wingnuts on the outside of the forms to tighten the forms. The plastic sleeves stayed in the wall, but the threaded rod could be used again and again.

      This book is most appropriate for builders in mild climates since Stanley used only the thermal mass of the walls to moderate hot and cold temperature extremes, much like adobe houses in the southwest. There is no insulation in the walls to moderate more extreme climates, such as here in frigid Montana.

      The author uses both Imperial and metric measurements in the book, which makes it useful to readers anywhere. More importantly, Stanley emphasizes a planning method where rooms are designed to utilize standard-size building materials without much cutting and fitting.

      Stanley has an informal dialogue style of writing, which includes his thoughts, philosophy and stories along the way. He includes coverage of passive solar principles for mild climates, plus how to make a house fit the landscape. Also included are sections on moulding and casting techniques, with some coverage of working with recycled windows and doors, plus paint stripping and wood finishing. Revised and expanded edition, 2009. ISBN: 978-0-473-14821-8. 200 pages.

The Stonebuilder's Primer
A Step-by-Step Guide for Owner-Builders
by Charles Long

      "It must be more complicated than that." Is the frequently heard comment of visitors to the author's farmstead in rural Ontario. Setting out to create an aesthetically satisfying home of stone on a limited budget--and with no previous construction experience--Charles and Elizabeth Long not only succeeded in their efforts but developed a "compromise method" of stone construction that is both simpler and truer to the stonemason's art than the popular slipform method. Drawing upon his years of personal experienece, 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. Fully illustrated with hundreds of diagrams and photographs. 1998. 126 Pages.

Art of the Stone Mason - book cover.

Art of The Stonemason
by Ian Cramb

      Drawing on five generations of family tradition as stonemasons in his native Scotland, Ian Cramb created this masterful work to pass on his knowledge and experience to craftsmen who wish to learn the ancient, but still necessary, principles of the stonemason's art. Since original publication by Betterway Books in 1992, this book has established itself as an essential learning tool for masons doing new construction and also those engaged in restoration of historic stone structures.

      Beginning with a detailed discussion of building with "random rubble", which is the name for the early Celtic art of building with irregular stones bedded on mortar, the author proceeds to more complex projects such as fireplaces, stairs, arches, bridges and more. There is extensive treatment of various restoration techniques involved with historic structures both in the US and Britain, some as old as 1000 years. In additon the author covers various types of stone, stone-cutting, etc. as well as using tradional mortar mixes, which have demonstrated their utility in stone walls and buildings which have lasted for many centuries. The Art of the Stonemason is profusely illustrated with the author's meticulous line drawings and photographs.

      Ian Cramb began his apprenticeship at the age of 14 in Dunblane, Scotland. Surrounded by large estates, farm buildings, a ruined 13th century bishop's palace, two large fifteenth century castles, a Gothic cathedral, and numerous other stone buildings, Dunblane was an apprentice stonemason's paradise. In 1957 Mr. Cramb took over as master stonemason on the restoration of the monastic buildings around the abbey on Iona. He rebuilt the cloisters, restored St. Michael's Chapel, and also restored St. Oran's Chapel in the Cemetary of Kings, built in 1075. In 1959 Mr. Cramb moved to the US where he set stone and marble on the Capitol building, and then he acted as stone and marble mason for the Raeburn Building and World Bank Building in Washington, DC. He now lives in Bangor, Pennsylvania. 174 pages. Alan C. Hood & Company, Inc. 1992, 2006. ISBN: 978-0-911469-27-1.


      I got your book and video (Living Homes and The Art of Slipform Stone Masonry) with lightening speed. I ordered from Amazon at the same time. I am still waiting for Amazon. All that I can say is WOW! I watched the video and read the book, cover to cover, when I got home from work this morning. I see things from a whole different perspective now. You are right. I am doing it all wrong. I am on the working treadmill to nowhere.

      When I do my project, I will video tape it like you and send a copy for your enjoyment. I thoroughly enjoyed your tape and I love you book.

Thank you and Wow!

Frank D.
Pennington Gap, Virginia

Go to: Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction.

      Looking for life-changing resources? Check out these books by Thomas J. Elpel:

Green Prosperity: Quit Your Job, Live Your Dreams.
Roadmap to Reality: Consciousness, Worldviews, and the Blossoming of Human Spirit
to Reality
Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction
Participating in Nature: Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills.
in Nature
Foraging the Mountain West: Gourmet Edible Plants, Mushrooms, and Meat.
Foraging the
Mountain West
Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification
in a Day
Shanleya's Quest: A Botany Adventure for Kids

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