Posted on

Upper Level Testing Part 1: Level III Part A.

Level 3 Part A Wall built by Brian Post
Written by Brian Post

The Initial and Intermediate (Level 1 and  Level 2) testing requirements procedures are both well documented on this website and at other sources, and are fairly easy to understand (if not always to perform).  I have noticed there is much less documentation of the upper level tests (Advanced/Level 3 and Master Craftsman/Level 4).  The basic descriptions of these two part tests in the DSWA-GB Certification Scheme Booklet leave many people with more questions than answers.   This is the first of a series of posts is aimed at providing at least some of the missing information needed to successfully test at Level 3 or 4.

It seems that in the UK, where the vast majority of the tests are done, there are enough certified wallers around who already hold an upper level certification that it is not that hard to find someone to talk to.   There was also an assumption that people going for these tests will have worked with other certified wallers, and understand the process and requirements from the walling experiences they have had.  Here in North America, where the access to certification is comparatively new, there are only about 10 wallers with Advanced Certification, and 7 with Master Craftsman Certification.  Spread over such a large area, it is often hard to get a chance to talk to or work with upper level certified wallers.

As the most recent waller in North America to achieve Master Craftsmen certification I am taking this opportunity to share what I have learned about the tests.  Please note, I am not yet an examiner, and the information written here is based on the experiences I had, with the stones I used, and the examiners who examined me.  Not everything I write may apply to you or your situation.  However, I am writing this series of blog posts with good intentions and the belief that more knowledge will help additional wallers to take and pass level 3 and 4 certifications.

Understanding the Format

Level 3 and 4 tests each have two parts, knows as part A & B.  Each part aims to test different things.  Part A tests are un-timed builds of features.  Remember in DSWA-GB  terms, anything that is not a freestanding wall on level ground is a feature.  Some features are compulsory, and others have options to select from.  Part A tests are examined after the they are completed.  This is a completely different test format from what you have experienced at Level 1 and 2.  The aim of these part A tests is for you to demonstrate your ability to do very high quality stone walling.

Part B tests are timed and much more like what you are used to at Level 1 and 2.  However the amount you have to build and the quality to which it is built are much greater.  These part be tests require a lot of physical endurance as well as the ability to do high quality work at a fast rate and under pressure.

At each Level, parts A and B are registered and paid for separately.   You need to pass your part A before registering for part B.  As the mandated registration deadline for a test is a mandated 6 weeks prior to the test day, thus you need to schedule your tests with part A and B at least 6 weeks apart.

The Level III/Advanced Test:  Part A

When thinking about going for your Level 3 Part A Test (hereafter called “3A”)  you need to determine 4 questions:

  • Where you will build them
  • Who will examine them
  • When they will be examined
  • What features you will build


The test is difficult enough that you should answer these questions with what will be easiest for you.  The exception to that would be if there are financial or schedule factors to consider.  However try to set yourself up for success by making the test walls as easy for you as possible.  A test is not a good time to try building a feature you have never done before because it looks like fun, or to use a new type of stone to see what it is like.  Do features you have built before with a stone type that you are experienced with and like to work with.

Remember that the features need to be entirely your own work.  You can’t have people helping you with the wall.  If your used to working with others on projects this can add an additional challenge to building the features as part of your normal work.

Where will you build the features:

For 3A you can build the features at The Stone Trust facility, which would be considered an ‘on site’ test, or somewhere else which would be considered an ‘off site test’.  Building your features on site means that they will be examined at the next regular test day, so you don’t have to coordinate with examiners.  Also if you don’t have another place available to build them, The Stone Trust has the space and the stone.  If you have winter time available, there is room in the barn for the lunky and curve features to be built there under cover.

However, The Stone Trust may not have the stone types you want to use, and has limited time slots when the features can be built.  Most wallers figure on it taking 2 to 3 weeks to complete both features so it can be inconvenient if you are not local, and paying for accommodations can be pricey.   The stone trust charges also $300 per feature built at The Stone Trust.

The off site option is intended to allow wallers to build the features as part of their normal work on a job site.  Often, however, it is hard to find a job where you can build to the requirements of the test as well as the project.  Thus a popular choice has been for wallers to build the features on their own property (or friends or relatives properites), at a quarry, or to negotiate with a favored client that will help cover the costs of the materials in exchange for them getting a few specific features.  All of these are good options, here are some things to consider:

  • Find a spot where you wont be disturbed by people.  You want to be able to zone in on your work.
  • Don’t skimp on the stone. Buy extra, and buy the good stuff.
  • Make sure your on level ground and have lots of room to spread out.

Who will examine the features:

When doing the on site option, the examiners will be whoever The Stone Trust next has examining at a test day.

With the off site option,  you will have to coordinate the examining on your own.  This entails paying filling out the DSWA-GB application and paying them the overseas registration fee.  Then you have to find two DSWA-GB examiners to come examine, and to pay them directly.   Often examiners charge about $500 each for this, but it depends on many factors.  Contact examiners ahead of time if you want to know their schedule and how much it would be.  The examiners do not have to be there at the same time, though that is preferred.  If you are located not more than a few hour drive from The Stone Trust, it is often possible to coordinate with the examination with a The Stone Trust test day when examiners will be in the area.

If you are farther away you will likely need to make additional arrangements.  There is a general policy that examiners for your tests (especially at level 3 & 4) cannot be people that you work with, have worked with, or trained under.   There is also a general policy that the same two examiners should not examine you through all your levels (especially at level 3 & 4).  There also seems to be a lot of exceptions made to these policies.  The exact nature of the policies is somewhat opaque, and is an area of frustration for me.  When in doubt, email the DSWA-GB craft skills chair (Currently Andy Loudon) and ask for guidance.  It seems they are often willing to work with you to find something that will work.

The current pool of examiners in North America is:  Chris Tanguay, Dan Snow, and Dean McLellanMichael Weitzner is expecting to be an examiner again starting in Spring 2017.  There are also examiners traveling from the UK to North America fairly frequently, but it can be a trick to know exactly when and where.

When will the features be examined:

When doing the on site option, the features will be examined at the next regular test day.

With the off site option,  you will have to coordinate the examining date(s) on your own.  This entails working with the examiners to find a suitable date(s).

Things to keep in mind:  Remember each part of each test, needs to be registered for separately.  And each test date has a registration deadline of 6 weeks prior.  So for example if you wanted to have the potential to test for Part B at our Sept 11 2017 test day, you would have to have your part A examined (and pass) by August 31, 2017.  Which means that you would have to register for part A by June 19 2017.

Should I register first or build first?   If your going to build your features at The Stone Trust you need to register first.   If your are doing it off site, there is nothing wrong with partially or fully building your features before you register.  Just remember to take many photos of the building progress, as you will have to send some to the DSWA-GB.  Remember you have to be done building your features before they are examined.  There is nothing worse than rushing and failing because you rushed.

Also remember that once you pass part A, you have to pass part B within one year.  You may try as many times as you like to pass with in that year.  If you are unable to pass part B within the year you will have to redo part A.  The Stone Trust typically only offers testing twice per year, so keep this in mind.

What Features to Choose:

Much of the writing on Level 3 is focused on the features themselves.  Read our website and Andew Loudon’s blog post for more details.For 3A you need to build two features, with 54 sq ft of wall associated with each.  The features do not need to be connected, part of the same wall, made of similar stone, or even on the same property.  The should however be within a reasonable drive of one another.  The features need have nothing more than the required square footage.  You don’t need to build cheek ends, you can just taper the wall out.  The features can be part of a bigger wall too.  Just mark with chalk or stakes the portion that is getting tested.

Regardless of the features you choose I have the following personal recommendations:


  • Keep stones and courses level
  • Use level bedded stone (even though I typically prefer to build with round/irregular stone) because it will usually eliminate most of the discussion as to whether or not the wall is built tightly enough
  • Use stone that is easy to shape and work with
  • Choose a location with plenty of space to spread out and level ground (except for 20˚ wall)
  • Make your wall just higher than the minimum height requirement of 52 inches.  This is because copes are generally the fastest portion of the wall to build.  By building a longer, lower wall more of your square footage will be in the copes and your wall will be faster to build.
  • Build a slightly thicker wall than you normally might.  This gives more room for hearting and less chance for light to shine through your wall, which is a very bad thing.  So instead of a 14 or 15 inch thick top width, maybe 16 to 18 inches thick at the top.

Remember you are trying to build the very best wall of your life.  You don’t get any extra credit for doing it out of difficult stone or in an awkward location, that is just opening yourself up to points off, and you don’t get many points off before you fail.


1st Feature: Curved Wall

The 1st feature is a curved wall.  This is a required feature and must be built.  The wall must be free standing, and show a very smooth and even line and batter.  This is arguably the harder of the two features you will build because of how fussy the requirement for an even face is.  Building a segment of a circular curve is easiest.  Make sure you have enough clear space to lay out the curve using a string pulled from the center point.

2nd Feature – 3 choices:

Option 1: A wall going up a 20˚ slope is a good option if you have to do this anyway for another project.  Otherwise, personally I think it is a harder option, and I don’t recommend it.  20˚ is nearly the slope of a stair case.  Your stones and you will always be wanting to slide down the hill.  Hard on the ankles and knees it is quite difficult to keep everything going level.  That said, there is less math and more labor involved with this feature so it may be good for you.

Option 2:  The highwall is a free standing wall that must be at least 1.8 meters high (6′ high).  This is pretty straight forward, but typically requires some staging to be safe.  Remember to calculate the base with correctly, and set your courses of through stones at the correct intervals with the locations staggered.  This feature is pretty easy to lay out, but requires more volume and weight in stone do to the increased thickness.  Building while on staging always makes things more complicated too.

Option 3:  A Lunky.  This is just a pass through in the wall that is covered with a lintel stone(s).  While perhaps the most complicated to build, it requires the least amount of physical effort in my opinion.  The minimum size of the opening is 2 ft square. Remember to place a flat flag stone under the opening to ‘prevent erosion’.   This is the feature I personally would recommend, unless there is a particular reason to do a different one.

Curved Wall
High Wall
20 degree sloped wall
Lunky built by Jared Flynn