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Master Class: Fat Tony and the Art of Coursing, Part 2

Master Class: Fat Tony and the Art of Coursing, Part 2, Figure 1

The content below was copied with the generous permission of the author Sean Adcock

This Master Class article originally appeared in issue 32 of Stonechat, produced by the North Wales Branch of the Dry Stone Walling Association of Great BritainThis entire issue of Stonechat, and many more, are available at  

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Master Class: Fat Tony and the Art of Coursing, Part 2

Part 1 ended with the promise that “Fat Tony” would finally make an appearance here-in. Before he does we need to first look at some of the issues that can occur with jointing within a coursed wall.
One of the guiding principles for good walling is to set 1 on 2 and 2 on 1. For better walling (or the ideal) we develop this to say half on half. Of course this works for bricks but not necessarily for random stone.
If we have a stone with a longer face we can only sit half on it with two more ‘longish’ stones, in order to maintain the ideal crossing the joints of larger stones needs similarly large stones, and that stones of similar dimensions tend to want to flock together, ‘mushrooming’ within the wall (these principles were introduced in planning part 2 and developed in part 3) and can be seen in Figure 1.
Master Class: Fat Tony and the Art of Coursing, Part 2, Figure 1
Figure 1
The problem is easier to solve in a random wall where you can often work around jointing issues by ‘jumping’ up a layer or dropping down with either a blockier or thinner stone respectively, or even by using shapes to vary the layer’s thickness. In a coursed wall you are constrained by the imperative of closely matching the course height. Consequently in achieving the sufficient crossing of joints is how you vary actual face widths of relatively similarly sized (in terms of heigh/course depth) stone.
The ideal of 1 on 2, 1/2 on 1/2, would only really be practical if we have many stones of very similar dimensions. So in practice we have to have variations amending the ‘rule’ to aiming to sit half on half, settling for sat on 1/3 and avoiding anything less than 1/4.
However where the contact is nearer 1/3 than 1/2 we often end up with short gaps, but in order to maintain the coursing this often means the gap is taller than it is wide. As with many things this is a problem which can be avoided by planning.

The Canadians I was working with called these stones (such as a and b in Figure 2) “fat Tonys”. No one seems to know exactly why. Could it be derived from an Italian masonry habit or perhaps after a singular waller who did it? Many years ago in North Welsh walling competitions there was one local (now emigrated) who was a good waller but much to his own annoyance he invariably ruined his stint with at least one bad running joint which he had just not noticed in the heat of competition. His surname was ‘Stringer’ and for awhile running joints hereabouts were referred to as ‘stringers’, it worked on many levels but (sadly in my opinion) never gained wider acceptance. A Canadian friend Andre Lemieux suggests ‘Fat Tony’ could come from an Italian penchant for pinstripe suits…pinstripes on a fat Italian guy gets you the fat Tony. As he suggests: ‘So simple it’s got to be in the running’. Nick Aitken, inveterate collector of walling terms suggests the term might have been coined by Canadian Stonemason Bobby as a somewhat derogatory term following a disagreement with someone.. you’d have to ask him exactly why!

Master Class: Fat Tony and the Art of Coursing, Part 2, Figure 2
Figure 2

Fat Tony’s (herein after referred to as FTs) are essentially a variation on “soldiers” or bookended/pitched stone- stones stood on end to fill a gap. Thinner soldiers are weakness as in themselves they lack stability, and are usually reliant on the stones either side to stay upright. In a flat-layed wall it should be obvious that an over-riding principle is laying stone flat! Many of the principles and intrinsic strengths of the specific method are predicated on that. Would you consider standing a stone on edge and trying to build around it? Unless you are building to an overall method designed for this practice (for example cloddiau and wedge walling), then hopefully not, it should be obvious that it doesn’t really want to stay where it is and won’t if anything below it moves. In a flat-layed wall each individual stone should be intrinsically self-stable (with the usual proviso…with ‘a minimum of wedging’). The fact that a soldier would fall over without its neighbours should tell you that it isn’t as stable as it should be. However as I noted in “Stonework” “provided the stone is tight with its long axis into the wall it is not entirely unacceptable”, and that “this is a practice which is probably acceptable every few weeks rather than a few times every day/square metre. It is easily avoided just by ordering the stone better, and points to bad technique”. I also noted there that they can create jointing issues and often lead to the problem of 1 on 3. We shall, see that similar problems are encountered with FTs.

Whilst FTs are essentially soldiers their name does suggester there is (literally) a little more to them. Whilst they are taller than they are wide, they are also “fat” and so generally still have good footprint. Not necessarily as stable as flat-layed stone they are however less likely to topple than soldiers. Essentially if a FT is to be employed then is should not be reliant on its neighbours for stability, and not topple if these were removed, then any problems are likely to be less about structure and more about a perceived aesthetic.

In Figure 2 the use of ‘a’ and ‘c’ facilitate the generally smaller building stone of that course in breaking the joints of the larger/longer faced stones used below an avoid tracing, although is more of a soldier than a FT. ‘a’ has a good footprint and is relatively stable in its own right.

Master Class: Fat Tony and the Art of Coursing, Part 2, Figure 3
Figure 3

Figure 3 shows a mixture of FTs and out and out soldiers in a short section of wall. Whilst a FT might conceivably be a reasonable solution to a problem in a coursed wall, it has been a little overdone here, probably party due to poor planning and the knock on effect/mushrooming that often occurs from the initial use of an undersized/oversized stone. It is a good illustration of the problems that lead to the use of FTs.

In Figure 4, a, b, f, h are arguably soldiers rather than FTs and c, d, e are essentially square and so only marginally FTs, g is perhaps the only true FT. Between them they illustrate a range of jointing issues, and each tends to be a situation where FTs are used to ‘solve’ the problem.

The stone below a and c are relatively long compared to their height. Consequently overlapping joints to their centres on the next course has proved problematic given the shallower course height and they have been used to enable the stones either side of them to sufficiently cross the joints below, without minimising the overlapping. The same seems to be the case with f.

Meanwhile b is solving a jointing issue caused by the relatively narrow faces of d and e. Crossing this joint necessitates another small stone ( and potentially mushrooming the problem- avoided here) or a ‘1 on 3’ (such as j above f) and all the problem that entails (more on this next time). Whilst the use of j above f has lead to a similar problem as that encountered below a and c.

Master Class: Fat Tony and the Art of Coursing, Part 2, Figure 4
Figure 4

g illustrates a problem similar to b in that there is a small stone in (c) in the course below. Here it would have been better if g,h had been one stone, however this is not always possible in terms of achieving good contact with the stones below. This contact is often more easily achieved with a smaller stone, especially where there is a small difference in height between the lower stones as seems likely with the joint at c,j.

Hence if you use FT to solve a problem it will almost inevitably cause another in terms of being able to get two stones to site on it in the subsequent course, whilst the narrower it is the great that problem will be.

Master Class: Fat Tony and the Art of Coursing, Part 2, Figure 5
Figure 5

Even if you solve the problem you might not be able to cross onto the adjacent stones as much as would be ideal and that in turn is likely to have repercussions.

One final variation where the jointing problem on top of FTs has been solved can be seen in Figure 5.

Here the multiplication of a problem/stone shape can be seen with a series of FTs on the 3rd course. This is the knock on effect of the smaller stone on the course below and the problem of fitting larger stones on smaller stones.

This will always be a problem in a coursed wall where the stones in a lower course have a face width which does not really exceed the face height/depth of the subsequent course. As noted in part 1 here this is specifically a consequence of the need to level off on top of some larger footings. Whilst the subsequent course(s) are stones that are, by and large, not really FTs we do have an agglomeration of smaller face lengthed stones within the wall. Essentially the face length has remained the same for most of the stones. It is only their bed depth/course height that has changed.

In Figure 5 could the problems created by the second course have been mitigated by using thinner stone, some of which might have needed to be traced? Does any of this matter if the FTs are tight, have good length in and internal contact, and maintain the coursing? Walling is full of compromises, is this worse than any other? Maybe here we have an excessive amount of FTs but in general as far as I am concerned the jury is still out.

Walling is full of contradictions and compromises and most things are acceptable in moderation. Should the wall which Figure 5 is an extract from be instantly condemned? Assuming the FTs have good length in, is it that bad a crime, and should the wall shown in Figure 6 be criticised solely on the basis of having 2 or 3 well fitted FTs?

Master Class: Fat Tony and the Art of Coursing, Part 2, Figure 6
Figure 6

My gut reaction is that I don’t like them and with planning they ought to be avoidable. In Canada I by and large avoided them but this was possibly at the cost of other compromises and I might be forced to concede they have more of a role to play in coursed walling than random walling, with the qualification that an excess probably does still point towards poor technique and faulty planning. Defining an excess might of course prove more problematic.

Do you know Fat Tony’s by another name…if you do please let me know! As FT is a bit of an arbitrary name. I did experiment with a Fat Tony alliteration game in the interest of political incorrectness- ‘pregnant Priscialls’, ‘rotund Rolands’, ‘obese Olivers’, and ‘wide Wendys’ maybe, one thing is certain though we should draw the line somewhere and not tolerate ‘long tall Sallys’.

Next time we will look a little more at building on Fts. revisit the problem of one on three, and look to close the gap….