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Retaining Wall Learning Curve

July 30, 2012

In my ongoing DIY self-challenge, I decided to tackle retaining walls around my home. I read up on how to build them, bought the concrete stones, cement, and drainage pipe.  It took me several weeks just to work up the courage to begin as I knew this would not be easy. I had a healthy respect for how important it is for the first course (layer) to be on a perfect flat, level, solid foundation. This took a lot of work and fussing as my clay was harder than a rock and I was paranoid about whether I’d gotten it right. Finally, I decided to get er done regardless.

Saturday, I began by bribing myself with every luxury I could think of- pitching my party tent so I could work in the heat of the day, throwing some beers in the freezer and blaring rock music for outdoor ambiance. Then I went swimming to cool off. I ran out of things to procrastinate with so  I set to work building  a dry run just to see what these Lowes Hardware concrete “stones” would look like once they were in place. Not bad!   I pulled them all down, mixed up a batch of mortar, took a deep breath and began running courses. I packed mortar under, between and behind each layer as I went. Was feeling pretty good about the project until all hell broke loose.

Five layers high, the left side of the wall became wobbly. I figured it would firm up once the concrete got hard. Then I sort of forgot about it and made the HUGE mistake of plopping a plastic bin half-full of water and soaking stones on the wall. To my horror, the left half of the wall caved in toward the bank!!!  I stood there like an idiot with my mouth hanging open. MY WALL JUST FELL OVER!!!  I had been wearing my Masons on a Mission t-shirt for  courage and was so ashamed, I almost went in the house and changed. I was in total disgrace as a stone mason wannabe.

I was worn out, dejected, hot,  my back was hurting, and my fingers were worn to painful red nubs because I didn’t wear gloves.  Grimly, I  started scraping the wet concrete off of each stone. I washed every single one and littered my lawn with them. I used the excess mortar to gingerly pack more material behind the remaining portion of the wall. Then I washed up my tools, sickened by all that hard work going for nothing. I threw on some clean clothes and did the only thing I could think of- mental distancing by going to see “Batman.” That helped. I liked the ending.

Yesterday, despite being sore and more than a little fearful,  I tackled that wall again, this time with rubber gloves on. I  recalled how Pat Manley (the foremost brick mason in the US) showed me how to tap each brick to seat it better. I started doing this with my stones.  I did NOT sit on, lean on, put anything on the wall during this process. I’ve purposely got the wall at about a 4-5 degree angle toward the bank. It’s not perfect, but hey,  it didn’t fall over!  With every little success, no matter how painfully won, I get a bit braver and more confident. That is good because I’ve got about 200 more ft to do of these walls.

It’s time for me to head out there and work on it again for a few hours. Wish me luck.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Susan Munroe permalink
    August 5, 2012 3:10 pm

    I don’t know about using wood. It just feels wrong. How well does concrete stay attached to wood when it isn’t buried in it (like fenceposts)? And what about stress from the side? The few bits on buttressing I’ve read all seemed to have used concrete to concrete, concrete-covered bale to same, wood to wood.

    Another issue might be weight, but that is an instinctive thought, no facts. Wood is lighter than concrete, and might shift. If the concrete shifts or falls over, would the wood just follow it?

    What purpose does the styrofoam have? If you’re going to plant there, the styrofoam wouldn’t be any kind of asset, would it? And I can see it being a mess to clean up if you change your mind (or have it changed for you).



    • August 11, 2012 5:23 pm

      Hi Susan, I don’t think wood and concrete go very well together; besides, wood is not really a material of choice when it comes to retaining walls, as it can rot out. Stone and bricks are usually more preferable materials. However, adequate provision for drainage must be made, to ensure that water that is being held back behind the walls passes out easily.


  2. July 30, 2012 1:02 pm

    Great thought, Sue. I have to run a drain pipe along the base and have been toying with using the new-fangled styrofoam peanut method as backfill. (recycled peanuts, natch.) This would be opposed to pea gravel. I was planning to buttress with cement anchored 2×4 pressure treated lumber above that level. Think that’ll hold it?


  3. July 30, 2012 12:51 pm

    I don’t know much about masonry, but with a long straight length like that, maybe you should include some butressing. It would be horrible if you had some heavy rain this winter and the weight from the soil side pushed the whole thing over.

    On the inside of the wall, add more bricks perpendicular to the long wall: ____|_____|_____|_____|____

    I don’t think you would have to go all the way up, but it seems that 3 or 4 bricks high would strengthen it, and wouldn’t show after you back-filled it.

    I didn’t know what buttresses were until I was reading about building with straw bales, where the same problems can occur.

    It looks great in the photo!



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