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Published: Saturday, 8/13/2011

Area man refused to be stonewalled

If it takes five years to build a stone wall, it must be a labor of love. Just ask Gerry and Nita Randolph. Their backyard retaining wall at their West Bancroft Street home was starting to fail, and Gerry needed to come up with solution. So he used his creativity and ingenuity to begin his five-year quest.

"It was going to collapse," he said. "We would have lost all the plant material we've collected over the past 25 years. So I had to come up with a way to reinforce this wall." He and Nita have dreamed of a stacked stone wall around their landscaped patio, "but all the options seemed expensive." So Gerry created his own stacked stone wall out of concrete.

Their back yard has a cozy living area with a huge oak tree in the center to give them shade. The brick patio was laid by hand many years ago, and so was the treated wood retaining wall that outlines the seating area. And this is the part of their design that needed work.

Gerry's idea was to build a stacked stone wall out of concrete. "I figured I could save money by doing it this way." His first step was to encase the entire 2-foot-by-140-foot wall sections with a three-inch thick layer of concrete with imbedded fiberglass. "I built an outside form three inches away from our existing wall with plywood and poured this wall to keep everything strong."

Next, he built two sections of a stacked stone wall on a piece of plywood. "These became the master forms for the molds," he said. "I built the two forms so they would come together like fingers and you wouldn't be able to see the seams once I put them together in a line."

Now, he had to make the molds. "I used a liquid latex product specifically for molds that I found at the hardware store. It took 30 or 40 coats, but it was less expensive than using silicone for the mold." Once that rubber layer dried, he knew it would not hold its shape if he turned it over and started pouring concrete into it. So it had to be backed with concrete. Now, his muffin-tin molds for his stacked stone wall were ready to go.

His recipe consisted of white Portland cement, white sand, and gravel. "I used white because I thought it would be easier to stain once I was done. I used a one-to-three ratio," he said. "I did all of the casting in my garage and I could do two sections a day. Over those five summers, I made 44 castings."

With each section weighing more than 150 pounds, he came up with a lever to get the castings out of the molds and on to a dolly. "I probably should have thought of it a bit sooner, because I ended up with a double hernia through this process."

Once all of the 2-foot-by-3-foot sections were in place, they were stuck to the wall with a mortar made for joining concrete to concrete. "I had to use stakes to hold the sections in place for about a day as they dried," Gerry says.

When they were all done, he bought a load of real limestone to use as the capstones all around the garden wall. "I copied the look of the real pieces of limestone on the rest of the wall and crawled around on my hands and knees with a kneeling pad and stained each piece with a brush until I got the look I wanted. Then I gave it a final coat of stain to sort of tie everything together."

He says overall he spent about $3,000 on materials by pouring his own concrete molds and making castings. "I think the stacked stone materials would have cost about $5,000 and I just didn't have that in my budget."

I don't know about you, but I'm tired just thinking about all of that work. Walking into his backyard, I never would have known that this amazing retaining wall took Gerry five years to build. But his quest was well worth it.

"The results are even better than I imagined. I learned a lot through this whole process," he said. "Mostly, that I have a patient wife."

Contact Kelly Heidbreder at getgrowing@gmail.com



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