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Designing a Stone Retaining Wall for Your Landscape

Installing a stone retaining walls Canberra on your property can improve the functionality of your yard, enhance your property’s value and curb appeal, and distinguish your landscape from the others in your neighborhood. There is a wide range of stone materials and construction techniques to choose from when designing one for your property, so be sure to consider the location, purpose, and style that best fits your landscape’s needs. Each retaining wall is unique, but here are the two basic methods that are used:

Dry-laid walls use either natural stone or segmented block that is built upon a compacted base. The key here is to make sure that the base is properly compacted and there are several courses of material installed below grade. It is also important to make sure that these retaining walls have a batter, which means that it is stepped back into the slope and will not fail and fall forward from soil and water back-pressure. When constructing a dry-laid wall of a height greater than 4 feet, you may also need to install a geo-grid fabric, which uses the weight of the back-fill material as an anchor to hold the retaining wall in place.

There are many options of natural stone used in dry laid retaining walls such as Bluestone, Pennsylvania Fieldstone and Carney Boulders. For segmented retaining walls there are many brands, colors and textures available and a full range of sizes to choose from. The strength and overall look of your retaining wall will likely vary depending on the wall’s height.

Concrete block or poured concrete retaining walls are a good choice for homeowners with limited space where it would be difficult to install a geo-grid support system or batter. It’s important that these walls are also built on top of a compacted sub grade and that it is below the local frost line. In the northeast of the United States this is usually forty inches or so below grade.

After the concrete wall is installed, a veneer stone is applied to the surface of the wall that complements the style or your home and property. With so many veneer stone choices in the market today, this type of wall is often selected when incorporating the wall into other structures like outdoor fireplaces, garden architecture, water features, and outdoor kitchens.

Be sure to consult an experienced landscape designer when navigating the many choices of material and techniques for installing landscape stone walls. Whether you live in the United States, it is important to first know the needs of your landscape site and the materials that will best match those needs.

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What are the common problems – An old stone retaining wall that was well constructed can last hundreds of years… no kidding. Even the best built walls though will eventually succumb to the powers of Mother Nature and will at some point need some type of repair. Generally that repair is the re-setting of a few loose stones and the replacement of missing or deteriorated mortar joints.

Pressure wash to remove dirt and loose material – The first step in the tuckpointing process is to thoroughly pressure wash the wall. This not only removes dirt, mold and soot but the pressurized water will etch the surface of the joints which will aid in the bonding of the replacement pointing mortar.

Care should be taken not to get to close to the wall. It may take a few minutes to figure out the distance needed to get the best cleaning action without destroying the wall itself!

Fill in all mortar joints if you can – Whenever I have a stone tuckpointing job I always try to convince the customer to completely point in all the mortar joints. There are three reasons for this.

The first reason is that most walls have a rake joint so it is easy to point in over the existing mortar.

The second reason is that the color of all the new pointing mortar will be the same since all the joints will be tuckpointed. This prevents problems when the customer is expecting the new joints to match the old joints perfectly; something everyone wants but most are not willing to pay for.

The third reason is that you can use a grout back to fill in the joints which allows for quicker installation time and more value for the dollar spent, so the customer gets more bang for his dollars.

Mixing of the tuckpointing mortars – Since I typically use a grout bag I mix my mortar fairly loose or wet. I also use a bonding agent which will help initially with water dispersion throughout the mix but will become problematic on hot days due to the drying of the mortar in the grout bag.

So good advice is to keep the mortar loose and periodically clean and dampen your grout bag to remove any hardened material. This will allow you to apply even pressure as you grout the joints to a consistent thickness and make the application simpler and easier.

Squeezing the mortar into place – How to place the tuckpointing mortar can be done in numerous ways but the grout bag is the most productive. I start at one end of the wall and begin filling all of the deep holes in the wall with new mortar making sure it is about the same height as the existing mortar joints.

When I have finished with the deep holes I go back to the beginning and start grouting every joint. I let the new mortar stand ‘proud’ and ‘ride high’ above the face of the existing stone. This allows ample material when I push the mortar back into the joint.

Finishing the tuckpointing – After I have grouted a sufficient area I take a fat tuckpointer of ¾” or larger, depending on the joint size and start to push the mortar into the joint between the stones. This tightens the joint and closes off any voids that may have been missed during the grouting process.

Immediately after I take my tooling iron and ‘finish the joint out’ with the desired joint type such as flat, beaded or grapevine finish. Then when a light crust has formed over the new joints I take a soft brush and brush away any loose tags and smooth the joints out.

As with all masonry repairs the process isn’t too difficult however if you want your work to be presentable and to look nice, you must pay attention to the details!

Michael Olding is tradesman and consultant in the field of restorations and repairs and currently operates a restoration and repair business in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is also a Master in the field of masonry construction, restorations and repairs.