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by Michael Murphy

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.

In theory there is no difference between theory and practice.

But in practice there is.

—  Jan van de Snepscheut

The Dry Stone Walling Association of Great Britain (DSWA-GB) Level 2 Professional Waller timed test has been and remains a topic of lively conversation in recent years.  The increased level of difficulty may be best grasped with an overview of the exam’s theory put into practice. In 2016, a passing grade on the DSWA-GB Level 1 Initial Certification timed test became a prerequisite for the Level 2 test.  This change, sprang in part from the belief that some of the basic skills applied for passing the Level 1 test are foundational. With practice those basic skills become easier to apply and build on. While it is understood that those skills are fundamental and timeless, a new expanded skill set is required to pass the Level 2.

For many of us who have been close to the action in observing the seven-hour Level 2 test, there is a shared sense of what is needed. What is needed is best expressed as practice—the doing. Doing the practice of myriad actions required to make a great wallhead is a discipline only You can give yourself.  The old adage of 10% learning by listening, 20% learning by watching, and 70% learning by doing is a harbinger worth internalizing for the exam.

Naturally, building a proper wallhead—or 2 or 3 or ideally more—for a client, with a friend, or in a workshop will help your learning. The closest practice to actual test conditions may be less fun—and less social—but it is paramount to grasp this as a solo event that You have planned and prepared for.  To leverage success in the exam is, ultimately, to throw yourself at practicing this demanding feature completely alone.

dry stone wall cheek end built of sugar ledge goshen stone

What follows are basics—and some theoreticals—that many are already familiar with and have incorporated into their practice, the day in day out walling routine. As well there are particulars, and nuances that apply to the Level 2 test and beyond.


The batter frame may be made in various ways. Personal preference lets you lay it out either on plywood, on a wall, or on concrete with a chalk line or pencil. Economy grade spruce/pine/fir/ hemlock of rough dimension 1″X 3″ lath lumber is adequate. Select for straightness. Cut the leg feet level, place lower and upper cross members level, cut flush (or if you want to run “wild,” cut a few inches beyond to retain end-grain), and affix each overlap with 3 screws triangulated. Cut screw ends off if they go through both pieces of lath. NOTE: The top cross member is the height of the wall. This is to say the top of the two opposite faces of the wall. The bottom of the cope stones will rest there. Make hash marks on the legs and label them (Print BIG #’s w/Bold Marker) with the ascending number every 3-4″ on the lower section (both sides of both legs) and every 2″ past midway. Going upwards is fine.

Some wallers may choose to have a cross-member designed to hold a short torpedo or carpenter’s level on top. This can be designed to hold the level securely with a zip tie or wire through a hole drilled in wood. A level sitting on the cross frame reading “level” signifies one thing; the cross-frame member is level. We do indeed want this.

We also want the main batter frame legs to remain in perfect symmetrical opposition to each other. Adding a single (or double w/ spacer block at inside intersection) X brace will counter the racking forces the frame is exposed to in handling, twisting in erecting, being squished with heavy travel materials loaded on top.  If the lath is long enough, the legs can be screwed together way up high where they intersect.

Consider this as a highly personalized and custom element in your repertoire. The Stone Trust has seen some people bring beautifully customized batter frames to the venue. Some of these are adjustable for both wall height and different batter ratios. It is time well spent to build your batter frames solidly and accurately. You will need two batter frames to practice building a wallhead out in the open.

Practice putting up the batter frames—again and again. This is crucial. They should go up within ten minutes. Securing them to re-rod with zip ties, mason’s wire, factory “bar ties” (these are thin wire loops w/openings at each end to spin closed) w/ bar tie twister tool will also work. Once up, some wallers wrap many turns of mason’s line around the frame and re-rod to further reinforce. The goal is plumb legs and level cross members. If both are close, you can wedge stones and/or earth underneath where needed to attain plumb and level. Tamp securely into place with a hammer.

Most wallers will lay the wallhead foundation stones 4-8” away from the batter frame. This allows access for hands and material. In the end, the batter frames should be locked down like a Swiss bank vault. There is a likely chance they will be bumped, banged, stumbled into and the like.



The Level 2 timed test requires dismantling an existing wallhead and then building a new one with the same material. There is usually a surplus of additional stone staged nearby. One should observe that the laborious process of grading and sorting material has already in effect been done by the previous builder. Now the aspirant will maintain and refine the previous sorting & grading effort as the wallhead is taken apart.

The  cope stones are the first to go off the wall in the deconstruction  process. They should be placed the furthest distance away from the wall. This distance describes the outer limit of material warehousing. Some wallers choose to lay out the cope stones around 15′ away. My bias is towards further away, say 20′ ish—or more. Why? That way they are quite separate and easily distinguished.  It also will allow a path between copes and wall stones from which to pick other material from the back. Strongly resist the temptation to use copes as builders.

Some folks will place the removed hearting material—a.k.a. core fill, packing material, rubble— in buckets and yard the buckets nearby until needed. Other builders will toss the hearting into individual, concentrated heaps every 3-4 feet. Others may simply “windrow” the hearting all along the length. The hearting selection needs to be relatively visible and at hand throughout the process.

While deconstructing, one proven aid is to have a large “stop,” such as 2, 3, or 4 stones laid flat of top of each other. The stop can also be one large stone. Then the builders can be laid on edge resting against the stop. This technique is both organizational and space-saving. Each builder’s possible best face can be oriented towards the wall. The requisite tie stones may also be employed as a “stop.”

When the wall has been completely dismantled, both the material ordering and spatial management dies are cast. Take a look in your mind’s eye. What should your building zone look like before starting? Then work backwards.


The base of the Level 2 test wall is shy of 3′ wide, but for round numbers let’s call it 3 feet. Let’s add 2 feet of real estate on each side, and add 3 feet to that. That total is approximately 7 feet!

The 2 feet of real estate on each side is part of your own “Occupy Wallhead ” movement ~ You own that space! Keep material out of there!!! (unless it is a few  small crumpets of hearting) Those should not cause one to trip nor prevent easy access to the controlled order of  arranged material. The sole exceptions that could possibly be made for violating the “Occupy Wallhead” movement are two-fold: 1)Initially for ONLY a VERY FEW of the massive foundation stones which are safely leaned up away onto other material, and waiting placement, and 2)a bucket or two of hearting placed near without impeding your travel.

After the batter frame is up and mason line is attached, you will have a nice visual of some earth that may need removal. The soil may be deposited—bucketed away nearby out of the way.

Level 2 Pre-test: Setting through stones
Level 2 Pre-test: Setting through stones

One of the first things apparent in a feature such as a wallhead is long stones. The longest “runners” are in the foundation along the building line. Similarly, the single “return “or “crossing” pieces across the end width are long and wide. On top of these crossing pieces it is preferable to have two pieces, as opposed to three. If using three, securely wedge the middle piece so that it is completely immobilized. NOTE: An examiner is likely to tug on it and attempt to pull it out.

Having the foundation stones “keyed in” a few inches below grade is desirable. The very first stones set must be those next to the batter frame at the wallhead. This is the theme: You are to run and complete course by course, always with the new course starting right at the batter frame and working away from it.  I think of the wallhead as a high wave rolling away. It is moving towards crashing into an unsupported open space, that space being the run of open wall it will be sistered into.

Level 2 Pre-test: Setting foundations
Level 2 Pre-test: Setting foundations

Conversely, consider an opposite line, opposing, if you will imagine.  It will be a zig-zag line. Picture it starting 3-4 ‘ away from the wallhead. This point starts on the ground along the building line,where the second or third runner ends. From that point it zigs and zags up the runners set above. The zig and zag climbs against the wave, going back towards the batter frame. As we build up, the runner lengths will, with some exceptions, become shorter.

These are two imaginations in my practice. Your practice in imagination is as important. For example, in dismantling consider that much pairing in the previous build has already been done. Those adjacent stones of similar height should remain close to each other. This pays off on large material and the energetic burn is diminished. Similarly, watching a veteran waller place a cradled chest full of 5 or 6 stones on top of the wall and then swiftly shuffle and reshuffle them all around—this one there, no, that one there—to cover every joint: an eye-opener—fast leveraging of time—brilliant !

Big marks are allocated for the foundation score. This is the one chance to get a stone very level with at least one of its neighbors, when practical. Funky shapes can be dug down into the earth to leave a level top, planing out with a neighbor to build on.


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.


dry stone walling bookAnother helpful mantra is “underneath and in between.” When a stone has been placed next to a neighbor—leveled (visually), and the face situated as close as possible to the stringline without the two touching—it needs to be secured. One, two and sometimes more appropriate-sized pieces of hearting are slid up from behind into the space under the belly of the stone. Sometimes these shim pieces may even be visible right under the “builder “(the stone) that you are securing with the shim. That is okay as long as they are “trapped, ” preferably immobilized and unable to be pulled out. The filling of the underbelly of the stone includes supporting the “tail.” The is the opposite of the face and it extends deepest into the wall. That is the underneath part.

The “in between” part is this: placing a substantial and appropriate-sized piece of hearting to join the stone you have just set with the shared length of the neighbor.  Those three should all be in solid contact. This “underneath and in between ” activity is—rather must be a constant practice. You may further amplify this “underneath and in between ” practice with what a veteran waller with gray hair termed “hearting the hearting.”


Some say the oldest tool in the history of building anything is a string. By employing the string we can build very accurately. The building line from batter frame to mating wall is determined by our stringline. For the thick foundation stones, let’s say, we have the string attached to the 8-inch mark we inked on our new batter frame. We measure up on the wall we are building towards and into, then we crayon on an 8-inch mark and attach the string into that wall at that height by wedging in line pins, a short section of re-rod, or a long galvanized pole barn nail. Be vigilant and protective of the string lines – this is your baby!  Check it often by bouncing the stringline to ensure that it is always free and clear from contact with a stone. As it said, the string must “dance.”



The easiest way to secure and free the string to the batter frame, in this case, is not a knot. It is a “friction wrap” or “friction bind” of several passes around after having first pulled the string tight. The tail is trapped by simply taking the running portion, pulling back a little, and re-setting this running portion on to (across) the tail (and wraps), thereby overlapping onto to it and holding it effectively with friction. With practice, the stringline can be secured as well as  undone in a matter of a few seconds. While using one string will work fine, many wallers use two for building—each string set 2to 4 inches away from the other—as it reduces some head waggling and guess work.

Putting up a string line


Locating and building around tie stones can be a fussy thing. You must plan for the correct height on both wall faces. You may plan for the tie stone to land squarely in the middle section of two very wide builders on opposing sides. Or–and more likely—plan on placing the tie stone perpendicular to the building line AND landing it so as to cover joints on both sides. Examiners will look for any sign of light entering the wall. If one can see through any section, then a lack of hearting is evident.  The “underneath and in-between” mantra practiced will also block light entry. Pack well throughout, particularly underneath and around the tie stones. If you can come up to the top level of  the tie stone with the adjoining neighbor stones on each side, that is money. Later, following on top of the tie with two builders meeting at the middle point area of top is also money.


The examiners are looking at a mark sheet that one may consider having in hand when doing the practice building of wallheads. To aid Level 2 aspirants, the explicit encouragement here again repeated with emphasis is to build many many wallheads—again and again.  Make a great wallhead in the same 7 hours of time allocated for the test. Then do it again, perhaps with different material added. If possible rebuild a completely different wallhead. Avoid the “kit of parts” syndrome where pieces have become too familiar.

The examiners are looking at a mark sheet that one may consider having in hand when doing the practice building of wallheads. To aid Level 2 aspirants, the explicit encouragement here again repeated with emphasis is to build many many wallheads—again and again.  Make a great wallhead in the same 7 hours of time allocated for the test. Then do it again, perhaps with different material added. If possible rebuild a completely different wallhead. Avoid the “kit of parts” syndrome where pieces have become too familiar.

When working once years ago on a project for the Dry Stone Conservancy, I overheard a very funny seven second exchange. It began as a soliloquy, ostensibly.  A waller stepped back from the wall and gasped to himself, “I’m stuck. I don’t know what to do next!”

Short pause …

Another waller remarks, “Dude, just pack. You’ll figure it out”.

End of story .

The point here is twofold. One, this stepping back away and looking is actually a practice. Yup, Roger that. It is a “practice.” Some will step back after setting five stones and look. Maybe others place more stones before they look. Looking enables one to see if any changes are necessary. Moreover, if one does get stuck—and it happens momentarily to us all—listen to the birds… briefly pack the wall… Put hearting into the wall and take heart yourself. Relax and contemplate the solution while scanning around for material options. Be in just a brief holding pattern long enough to gather the force needed to regain momentum by finding a solution and then applying it.

As for the hearting it should come up to top level of the builder stones—flush with the tail tops, essentially. Try to place the topmost height of the hearting such that it creates a stable, flattish table—not always possible, but always worth striving for. As one of my Vermont friends (an all-time Hall of Fame waller hero) best expressed, “… the hearting should come right up to the tail height using one or two pieces of suitable thickness.” This is a proven theory that merits practice. During the crush of time during the exam, however, the practical necessities required for completion win over. Nonetheless, make the deliberate placement of “hearting up” after running a course a practice, in order to see that everything is hearted up to the proper height.

The chock stone or stopper placed on the top end of the wallhead is an important piece, the more massive the better. Place it to match up with the vertical plane of the wallhead end. Pin it VERY securely in place, as it serves to keeps the cope stones immobile. The copes can be wedged tight together after all are placed. A single wedge, only where needed, tapped in from the top to bind copes together will suffice.

Clean up and consolidate all unused material when you are finished building.  Remove the batter frame, stringlines, and anything else foreign. After the examination marks are passed out, the examiners and others will gather for constructive discussion at your wallhead site.

My hope is that some of this reflection smooths the way for those embarking on the Level 2 mission. This is written by one who has failed both DSWAGB & DSC tests. I was simply unprepared for the events. In my case, the failures became catalysts, propelling me to practice, progress, and achieve.

It also helps to find a mentor in your neighborhood, someone who has built wallheads and is willing to help. Walling together is so much the sweeter for both individuals. Check out our Professional Members. Maybe one of them lives not far from you.

Level 2 dry stone wall test in progress
Level 2 dry stone wall test in progress

On the day of the exam, you, the aspirant, should walk calmly on to the site with zero worries. Be secure in the confidence you have hard-earned, gained from all the previous wallheads you have built in self-imposed, seven-hour practice trials. The day will take on a comfortable familiarity as you settle in with much anticipated joy—to make a wallhead great…. again!