Behind our big, heavy duty, no nonsense wood stove, there is a wall of stories. A stone wall. And each stone brings with it a story.
Truth is, I don’t really remember all the stories. But I know that’s how each of those stones got there, because I helped haul them. One at a time. Some would come back in my hand from a walk. Others in a big pocket or backpack from a long hike. Others yet would come back in otherwise empty panniers on the back of a horse after dropping off a load in the high country. No sense coming back empty.
Have you ever read Helen and Scott Nearing’s “Living the Good Life?” One of my favorite books on simple living. They built their stone foundation and greenhouse that way – bringing back one stone at a time. Figured if they could do all that, I could at least start by doing a little stone work inside my cabin.
And so, the pile of hand picked flat rocks began to grow…
Collecting the rocks took us on and off about a year. We were picky. Not just any rock would do. Even our neighbors and guests contributed a few rocks to the collection, which really adds something special.
Then the real work began.
Starting with the base for the wood stove, a concrete slab about 2 foot square and few inches thick was poured by hand into a frame we built on top of a plywood and 2×4 platform.
Behind the slab and against the wall, we mounted cement backer board, screwed securely into the 2×8 framing of the wall. (The reason this is a 2×8 framing is an interesting side note: we had used the 2x8s for the footer of the cabin foundation, and when the foundation was poured and we pulled the forms, we had all these 2x8s left over. So, rather than waste these and go buy a bunch of 2x6s, which is your standard dimension, we went thicker, sort of a recycling process. And anyway, in this elevation, a little extra insulation is a good thing!)
Directly onto the backer board, we glued on each rock using a modified cement that is used to lay tile called “versabond thinset mortar.” When supplies ran short, we used a mixture of sand and cement mortar mix. Both adhered the rocks well to the backer board, but I do feel the versabond was a little stickier, and therefore, easier to get the rocks up there with. There might be a better way, but we went very slowly, putting up just a few rocks at a time. We wanted to make sure each stuck well before building up. We’d stir together a coffee can full of mortar, then with a stick, smear this stuff onto the back side of the rock we intended to place next. We found the rocks would slide down – gravity was just a little stronger than the mortar – so we’d wedge little sticks of kindling wood in between the layers of rock, and sometime long broom handles propped up from the floor against the stone, to help hold them in place until they set up well. It wasn’t a pretty process, nor speedy. But it did give us a good chance to study the wall and pick and choose each rock that we thought would go well in each layer. We have since learned a good trick: if you put wood screws through the backer board, you can use wire wrapped around the screw to hold the stones in place while setting. When you’re done, you can remove the screws, or tap them in further and grout around them.
When we completed the wall from the bottom to the top, we then completed the stone work on the platform around the concrete slab that the wood stove was sitting on. Oh, and on a side note – we had poured that slab a while back and had our stove already installed and up and running. So there were some times we couldn’t work on the project because the stove was too hot. If you look at the picture, you can see how close our work would be to the stove!
When all the stones were in place and felt pretty solid, it was time to grout, or fill in the space in between the stones. For grout, we used a hand made mixture of cement and sand. We chose to go more on the sandy side for a more stone-like texture. The more cement you’d use, the smoother it would be. Again, we worked from the bottom to the top. It takes a lot of grout to fill all the spaces in between rocks. Sometimes we’d have to squish the grout in behind the rocks, and other times on top of on the sides, to get a reasonably even width of dimension to this wall. Not easy considering all the variation of the rocks. Tile, with its uniformity, is much easier.
We’d let the grout dry just a little bit, then perhaps an hour later, sponge off the excess that would be on the rock face, and then about an hour after that, return with the sponge and coffee can filled with water to clean the rocks and smooth out the grout even more. You can return to this part of the job frequently, as keeping the grout damp also helps prevent cracking. And during the drying process, you can see more and more of the grout still on the rocks.
Once the mortar was well set (we waited several days), we then washed off the entire wall and platform with muriatic acid. I imagine this stuff isn’t very good for you, and it stinks, so we were really careful to wear old rubber gloves and eye protection, and wash up well afterwards. We’d leave the doors open for ventilation during this stage, too. Anyway, we’d work one section at a time, this time working from the top down, doing about a 2 foot section each time. We’d start by painting on the muriatic acid, then scrubbing the section with a wire brush, and then wiping it down well with a big sponge and lots of fresh water. I remember making quite a mess with this stage because of all the water, and used lots of old towels to try to contain the water from warping the wood floor we had put in the summer before. I guess if I ever do this again, I’d do the stone work first, then put in the wood floor. Either that or learn to be neater.
When it was all nice and clean and dry, we sealed it with a cement sealer advertized to seal your cement driveway. It gave the natural stone a shiny, wet look – and really brought out the color of the rocks. Being as attached to each of the rocks as we were, it was great to see them “come to life” as we’d paint on the sealer. Added bonus is that it sealed the rocks and mortar with a smoother finish so it doesn’t collect dirt and dust quite so bad.
Tell you what, here it is I guess four or five years after finishing the wall, and it still looks great. The only maintenance required is the occasional dusting off of the beautiful stones!
And if you were wondering…with all the extra stones that we had amassed (each of which we became pretty attached to), they ended up being used in a similar manner to finish around the bathroom sinks, and of course, my bathtub!