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Jumping the Level 2 Hurdle: Reprise #4–Building Up: Visual Sizing, Cutting and Shaping, Tracing

In theory there is no difference between theory and practice.

But in practice there is.

—  Jan van de Snepscheut


Going up often requires a 3-on-1 scenario. This is due to both length and material availability.  The 3-on-1 is fine. For purposes of this topic, one stone on top of three stones is an element that DSWA-GB examiners will take a dim view of.

Practice a constant visual sizing up and elimination of the panorama of choices. This may be easiest to apply in choosing widths needed to bridge over joints.  Practice visualizing “halfsies.” This is simply imagining—in your visual scan of choices at your feet nearby—the one that will go from the mid-point to mid-point of adjacent stones. A tape measure at hand is helpful. The measure is lighter to pick up and measure a heavy candidate for consideration with little effort and time involved.

The more one is able to acquire visually the needed material “as-is” the less time will be needed for hammering and chiseling. A small time spent on small removal of material is optimum. Apply your finesse with material removal; less is more here. Occasionally it happens that the more time is spent turning one single stone into a sculpture project, the greater the likelihood is of breakage.

Invariably, some cutting and shaping is necessitated in building the wallhead. This scenario may create challenges for people who have had limited prior experience doing such removal with a hammer, chisel, tracer, point, and set. Without some ease of operation in this arena, the options are fewer and the action more cumbersome.  This specialized skill set develops over a suitable period of time.

All the tools in the professional walling set
All the tools in the professional walling set

Of all those tool categories mentioned there are many variations. My one humble opinion here offered, based on observation of people of different nationalities, is this: the “tracer” varieties tend to be way overly employed. Worse, the “set” varieties are often misunderstood and greatly underemployed.  In certain stone types, for swift material removal, accurate shaping of wallhead pieces, and others purposes, the hand set has a world to offer.

Some of the basics and terminology bear mentioning again with elaboration. What should one look for when sizing up one single stone? Apply this question to the largest boulder, the smallest bit of hearting and everything else in between. However, for now completely forget about size, which we accept will determine the location of a stone in a wall. With greater speed than Mercury himself—every single time—LOOK for face, flat, and length. The face is what will be visible to someone looking at the finished wall. When building, the flat will most often be placed down. The length of the stone placed into the body of the wall makes the wall strong.

The placement of a stone with the length of the stone running along parallel with the building line is called “tracing.” The Stone Trust published great information on this topic in 2018 for those folks desiring more. To apply it as a rule of thumb, convention uses a 3:1 ratio factor. Take an overall width for any height wall. Say the width of any such wall at any given height is 21 inches. Then if the builder were to “trace” a stone there, it should have a minimum width of 7inches. In walling, the practice of “tracing” is alive and well. For the purposes of passing the Level 2 test, tracing should be relegated to a bare minimum—or less.

Many readers write that they want to read the full article. Apologies for including links that have not taken you to The DSWA-GB Level 2 Timed Test: Make a Wallhead Great…Again!. This one should work.

Michael Murphy is a Stone Trust board member currently residing in Elberta, Michigan . He is a Certified Waller & Instructor with the Dry Stone Walling Association of Great Britain and the Dry Stone Conservancy of the United States. He was immeasurably blessed by fortune to spend much of the last five years teaching and working in southern Vermont. In addition to some of the greatest people he has ever met, he observes that Vermont is also home to many of the best dry stone workers in the world.

Michael is a Professional Member of The Stone Trust. Certified as a DSWA-GB Level 3 Advanced Waller, he offers insights to those seeking to jump the Level 2 hurdle, identified as a Stone Trust strategic objective as we work to build the pipeline of walling professionals and support the creation of dignified, meaningful livelihoods in local and regional settings.