Q&A – walling as a profession

Another question that came my way recently.
Q: “…I have admired your stonework for long time. In 2002 immediately after graduating from college, I worked with my brother on a Tuscan agrotourismo where I did a few weekends of work on some old retaining walls with an old, one-legged Italian dry stone mason. During this time my brother bought your book In the Company of Stone and I fell in love with the craft. A few years after this I worked for a season building stone walls up near Burlington, VT and discovered I had a bit of a knack for it. A few years later when I attended The School for International Training graduate school in Brattleboro, I took a drive out in the back roads of Dummerston (I think) and came across a property which featured some of your work, including the rock sphere which I believe is the same from your book. It was at this time that my strong interest in dry stonework was rekindled…but ended up not being able to do any wall work for about five years after that until a 100 year old retaining wall on my parents property started to fall apart. I took the challenge (and two vacation days from work) to rebuild the wall over a long weekend. I was incredibly inspired again and loved the work that I did. More recently, I have just finished another retaining wall on the property and now I have the bug. I plan to finish the rest of the stonework in my parents yard this fall and maybe next spring. I am writing to you asking a bit of advice…what I really want to be doing is building stone walls. In fact, it’s been on my mind a lot recently. I am toying around with the idea of slowly phasing into full time work with the hopes of starting my own company someday…what kind of advice would you have for me to see this happen? Can a beginning mason make the kind of salary I need to make? Would you think I need to pay my dues, so to speak, by working under someone for years before I am able to make some money? Do you recommend that I quickly get on the path to being certified as a mason? Should I take some workshops and continue to do it in my spare time? What kind of capital would it take to start my own business? Thanks so much for any advice you could give me.



A: Thanks for your message.  I enjoyed hearing of your history with Vermont, both north and south, and of your growing involvement with dry stone. From the photos it looks like you are paying close attention to using the length of each stone into the wall, starting out with a solid base of large stones and tying the corner stones into the length of the abutting wall faces.  One potential weakness I noticed was a vertical joint that runs five stones high in the tall retaining wall.  It’s about 3-4′ to the left of the corner.  Otherwise, it’s clear to me you are being careful to cover the joints.  It’s not always easy to do, especially with the variety of shapes and sizes you had to work with on that project.  Well done!
I would encourage anyone with the passion for the craft that you obviously have to keep practicing.  Whether it’s in a workshop, doing weekend projects for family, or taking a sabbatical from regular employment and working for an established walling/landscaping firm for a summer.  Self employment is gratifying and has the potential for being a way to make a living.  It’s not a sure thing or else everyone would be doing it.
One can start a walling business with just a shovel, pry bar and a hammer.  Andrew Loudon, mastercraftman from the UK, was visiting me recently and he says his only equipment is a bucket with a hammer and bit of string in it.  There’s a lot more field wall repair there than
here.  We often have to start from scratch with our projects.
The DSWA and DSC craftsman certification programs are a great way to get involved with the walling community, both here and abroad. Working to attain the 4 levels of certification is a good discipline and a great goal to work toward. All best wishes.


Pictured above – making a living at walling:
Me repairing a retaining wall for my Kindergarten teacher in
Westminster West, Vermont. 1977
Road crew building a retaining wall alongside a brook in Williamsville, VT. 1920

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