How to Lay a Mortared Stone Wall

This simple stone wall does more than divide a garden or mark boundaries—it lends romance to a backyard. Learn how to build one for instant appeal.

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A stone wall makes a statement that is at once both casual and stately. It has an aura of permanence, giving a timeless quality to even the newest landscaping.

An old stoneworker's adage describes how you should lay any stone wall: "One stone over two, two stones over one." Let the old saying guide your selection of stones for a mortared wall. And if you're using fieldstone, take another bit of old advice: "Pick stones that nest." That means choosing stones with contours that mate as closely as possible on their meeting faces.

Mortared stone walls need a concrete footing to keep them from cracking due to frost heave. Because a mortared wall is generally heavier than a dry-set wall of the the same size, local building codes often dictate specifications that affect the footings for mortared walls. Many codes require the use of reinforcing rod. Check before you build.

You'll need roughly 2 to 3 days to lay a 3x10-foot wall. Before you begin, prepare the site and order stones. 

Bonus: Learn How to Build a Retaining Wall

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Before You Begin: Choose Stones

Choose stones that blend well together in color and texture. You should get a good variety of sizes. You can use uncut rubble, semidressed stone (roughly cut into rectangular shapes), or ashlar (stone that is carefully squared and trimmed). A mortar wall must be built on a firm foundation, or its joints will crack. Dig a trench about 6 inches wider than your wall. It must be deeper than the frost line, or at least 12 inches deep for a 3-foot-high wall. Tamp the gravel in the bottom of the trench, and pour at least 8 inches of concrete. Top off the concrete 2 inches below grade. Have the stone delivered as close to your building site as possible. Allow plenty of time for the project. Stone work is a matter of continual trial and error, testing to see which combination of stones works best.

What You Need:

  • Stone
  • Tape measure
  • Chalk line
  • Level
  • Mason's trowel 
  • Mason's line
  • Line level
  • Concave jointer
  • Stakes
  • Lumber for stakes
  • 1 1/2-inch screws
  • Mortar

Step 1: Lay Out and Pour Footing

Lay out the site and pour the footing. While the footing cures, divide your stones into size groups. Dry-set the first course, starting with bondstones on the ends and every 4 to 6 feet in between. Choose subsequent stones that fit neatly between them.

Step 2: Set First Layer

Take up 3 or 4 feet of the stones and set them to the side in order. Then spread a generous layer of mortar—at least 1 inch—on the footing. Set the stones and tap them into place with a rubber mallet.

Step 3: Continue Setting First Course

Continue removing stones, spreading mortar on the footing, and resetting the stones in the first course. Fill the gap between the front and rear wythes with smaller stones and mortar. Set a 4-foot level on the stones to make sure they're approximately level. Since the surface of the stones is rough, you won't get a precise reading from the level, just an average indication.

Step 4: Pack Mortar

As you work, or after you've completed the first course on a short wall, pack mortar into the joints. For any space in the core that's more than 1/2 to 3/4 inch wide, set in a small piece of stone to fill the gap.

Step 5: Create Guide

When you've completed the first course, drive stakes at each end of the wall beyond the footing and tie mason's line tightly between them. Set the line at the height of the next course and use a line level to level it.

Step 6: Lay Second Course

Selecting stones from the various piles you set out, dry-lay the second course of both wythes. Choose stones that will sit approximately 1/2 inch below the staked mason's line. Remove these stones and set them aside in the same order. From this point, you can build your wall with leads—build up the corners and fill in between them as you would a brick or block wall.

Step 7: Continue Setting Courses

Continue setting courses, moving the mason's line to help keep them at the same level. Always choose flat, smooth stones for the visible faces of the wall. Fill in the space between the wythes and mortar the stones. Then dry-fit the next row and reset it, checking the batter as you go. Be sure to lay bondstones every third course, at roughly 4-foot intervals. When the mortar begins to set up, stop laying stone and finish the joints. Cap the wall with a course of flat stones large enough to cover both wythes. When you mortar the capstones, do not finish the joints. Brush them flush with the surface of the capstones to keep water from collecting and freezing there—it could split the mortar or the stone. If you've mixed your mortar slightly wet to make it more workable, don't set any more than three courses a day—the weight of the stones will cause the courses to sag before the mortar sets.

Step 8: Strike Joints Smooth

When the mortar begins to set up, brush off the excess with a whisk broom or stiff brush. When the mortar is firm enough to hold a thumbprint, run a concave jointer over the joints to compact and smooth the mortar. Let the mortar set up a little more and rebrush it if necessary.

More Stone Wall Tips and Tricks

How to Hold Up the Stones

Irregular stones are bound to leave gaps that cause the stone to tip before you can get it mortared. Cut a few small wood wedges before you start laying the wall and keep them close. Insert them in the gaps to keep the stone level. Mortar around the wedges and remove them when the mortar is set. Then fill the holes left by the wedges.

Make it Easier with a Mortar Bag

As you strike the joints, you'll usually find some places between stones that need extra mortar to make them even with the rest of the joint. Use a mortar bag to fill them. Mix mortar slightly wetter than you would if you were troweling it, fill the bag, then squeeze the mortar into the gaps. The bag is easier to control than a trowel and reduces the amount of mortar spilled on the wall or ground.

Check the Batter

Except for those built as retaining walls, mortared stone walls don't have to be battered, but you can taper their sides if you like the appearance of a battered wall. Make a batter gauge and use it to check both wythes.

Build a Mortared Fieldstone Wall

Setting uncut fieldstone takes substantially more time than any other stone wall. That's because the stones in the courses must fit together. You'll find yourself engaged in a lot of trial-and-error fitting. Like other mortared walls, a fieldstone wall requires a footing. Check your local codes to make sure your plans meet the requirements.

Plan the layout so square stones are set at the corners and flat-faced ones line the edges. Use the largest ones you can find but keep the size relatively consistent. Then remove the stones, mortar the footing, and set the stones in the same order.

Fill the core with rubble. Depending on the size of the rubble, fill the core in layers, throwing mortar between layers to bind them together. Smaller rubble is best. Then test-fit the stones for the second course.

Cover the core with mortar and pack mortar into the joints of the first course. For the next courses, spread mortar one stone at a time. Use enough mortar to form a bed for each stone.

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