How to Rebuild a Stone Wall

Learn how to return your old stone walls to functional, beautiful structures that will last for years to come.

| Jan/Feb 2019

  • The Stone Trust ( holds workshops throughout the year, spearheading a revival in the craft of building dry-laid stone walls.
    Photo by Russell Mullin
  • A typical wall in severe disrepair.
    Photo by Russell Mullin
  • Excavated stones from a collapsed wall sit ready to stack.
    Photo By Russell Mullin
  • A diagram for building your stone wall
    Illustration by Len Churchill
  • Before tamping the soil, strive to make the foundation trench as level as possible.
    Photo by Russell Mullin
  • Sorting your stone by size and use will make the rebuild process easier.
    Photo by Russell Mullin
  • A properly set up batter frame will help you keep the wall straight and uniform as you build.
    Photo by Russell Mullin
  • A modified level for measuring the batter of a wall will ensure that you set your batter frames at the correct angle.
    Photo by Russell Mullin
  • This variant of a clamping crosspiece holds the rebar at the correct batter and marks the top of the wall under the coping.
    Photo by Russell Mullin
  • A square helps ensure that the batter frame is straight.
    Photo by Russell Mullin
  • After you finish the foundation course, raise your guidelines and begin laying the next course.
    Photo by Russell Mullin
  • Build to your batter lines to produce a straight wall with a smooth wall plane and even courses.
    Photo by Russell Mullin
  • If working alone, work on both sides of the wall equally. If you have a partner, you can work in tandem on opposite sides.
    Photo by Russell Mullin
  • Throughstones tie the two sides of the wall together.
    Photo by Russell Mullin
  • Run a guideline over your end copestones to help create a smooth line and finished look.
    Photo by Russell Mullin
  • A simple ramp can help when setting copestones.
    Photo by Russell Mullin

In 1871, a national census of agricultural fences recorded more than 250,000 miles of stone walls in the northeastern United States alone enough to wrap around the Earth 10 times. Two generations of farm laborers built most of these walls between 1775 and 1825 to keep in livestock and protect property lines, and also as a resourceful way to use a seemingly endless supply of stone that worked its way to the surface year after year.

Many of these walls have long since collapsed due to time and neglect. Perhaps you have some on your own property. With a little knowledge and a decent amount of work, you can return them to their former glory.

The following instructions are based on an intensive multi-day workshop I took at The Stone Trust in Vermont. The Trust offers a range of hands-on classes, from introductory to advanced, working with stone. You can find the full schedule at

Preparing the Old Stone Wall

The condition of the wall you’ll be repairing will determine how you start the rebuild. Standing Wall: If you’ll be working on a wall that’s mostly standing, your first step will be to carefully dismantle it in layers from the top down. As you work, sort the stones into lines by size and use, roughly replicating how you’ll restack them in the wall. By sorting the stones as you dismantle the wall, you’ll be better able to see and identify the stones you’ll have to work with, making it easier to find stones when you need them later. You’ll also be able to estimate more accurately whether or not you have enough copestones (large stones placed on top of the wall) and throughstones (long stones that tie the two sides of the wall together). Be sure to maintain 2 feet of clear walkway down the length of the wall to minimize your chances of tripping, and so you can quickly move out of the way if the old wall collapses while you’re dismantling it.

Carefully remove the copestones and place them in a line about 9 feet away, arranging them on edge, roughly how they’ll be placed back on the wall. Next, place the smallest build stones in a line in front of the copestones. Put the next larger course of stone in a line in front of that, and so on. Dismantle both sides of the wall equally, placing the stones on their respective sides of the wall to ensure you have an equal amount of stone on both sides. When you reach the throughstones, set them on the far side of the line of copestones so you don’t accidentally mix them in with the other large building stones. Place the foundation stones closest to the wall, and the hearting material (small filling stones) in piles next to your walkway about every 6 feet. You’ll use hearting throughout the rebuild process, so you’ll want to have it within reach no matter where you are along the wall.

Linear Rock Pile: If you’ll be rebuilding a wall that’s mostly collapsed into what can be described as a linear rock pile, you’ll have a bit more work ahead of you. You’ll need to dig out any buried stones and remove any trees, stumps, and brush. To save time and your back, consider using or hiring an excavator or a tractor equipped with a rock bucket. Once the path of the wall has been excavated and leveled, you’ll sort the stone as described previously.

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