Building stone steps with a retaining wall—part two

To see part one of this article, Click here

 I often tell people about the old man who taught me to lay steps with stone. This morning I got tickled when I realized that that old man wasn’t any older than I am now. He has gone on to his great rewards and I have become the old man teaching people. Time does pass, doesn’t it? Last week I showed how to lay out the project and to build a foundation with concrete blocks. This week we finished the project. This job was different from most because we were using rocks that were already on the site. These were some might fine rocks and I doubted if I could find more like them. We had to be very careful.

If you missed part one of this series, you will find it if you click here.

To begin with we played it safe by laying out the larger rocks so that all of the edges would be just right. I figured that if I ran out of rocks, I could find smaller ones to fill in the spaces. I wanted the edges of the steps to be as natural as possible with no cuts. We paid particular attention to the area where the ramp from the deck ran into a landing. It needed to be exactly right. This landing had been a focus from the very start.

finding the right rocks for the right places

finding the right rocks for the right places

The other part of the project that had to be just right was the top of the steps. The transition through the grass border to the top step had to be just right. I knew that if we got the top where it should be and the landing fitting perfectly into the ramp at the other end, we could adjust any differences in between.

Start at the top to be sure everything is at the correct level

Start at the top to be sure everything is at the correct level

One other consideration in laying out the rocks was color. The old man had told me that stonework is not a color in itself, but the “color that it casts.” I learned that one can change the “cast” of the color by moving pieces of stone to different places in the design. Curves can also be “insinuated” by using the larger stones in different places. It’s an art form. We started laying the stone in a rich mortar mix. The larger stones are laid first and the interstices are filled with smaller ones. We started at the top. Note the catch basin set in the driveway. It’s going to go away.

Getting started with the rock steps. We will remove the catch basin and use the steps to control water runoff.

Getting started with the rock steps. We will remove the catch basin and use the steps to control water runoff.

Leveling is critical on steps. We don’t want water to stand on any part of it, but we want it to be “safely walkable.” I had studied the catch basin at the top of the steps and I didn’t like it for two reasons: it was unsightly and I felt like it could turn into a safety issue. I decided to take it out and put in the walkway so that it worked as a waterfall, taking care of the water flow much better than the catch basin would. I remembered Tom Sellick in one of my favorite movies, “Quigley Down Under” when he looked at his lady and said, “Lady, I do believe you’re about a quarter bubble off of plumb.” That’s exactly where we wanted the steps to be. We wanted the water to roll down the center and fall slightly to the outside. A quarter bubble off’n level was just right.

A quarter bubble off level to the inside will do just fine

A quarter bubble off level to the inside will do just fine

After setting up the top step and getting it exactly right, we moved to the landing at the deck ramp and did the same there. If I had any problems, I wanted them to be in the middle.

We pay close attention to the elevation of the landing. No mistakes allowed

We pay close attention to the elevation of the landing. No mistakes allowed

When the rocks were all mortared in on the tops of the steps it looked like this:

The tops of the steps all mortared in

The tops of the steps all mortared in

The original plan had been to lay rocks as stepping stones from the bottom step to the pool deck but We couldn’t get away from the feeling that the overall job would be much better if we did a walkway instead. I had invested some time ago in reusable plastic forms that we can curve and shape. I love them. We put in a form from the bottom step to the pool deck and began laying rocks. I couldn’t get a good curve to the top side of the walkway so we decided to lay the larger rocks and cast a curve. You’ll see it in the finished picture. Here’s the beginning

Starting a stone walkway to the pool deck

Starting a stone walkway to the pool deck

Here is the rock laid in the walkway. The level is such that any water running downhill will fall over the walkway and head on down to the retaining wall and french drain.

The stones are laid for the walkway. Do you see how it "casts" a curve?

The stones are laid for the walkway. Do you see how it “casts” a curve?

While everything in the rock work project cured, we decided it was time to take care of the retaining wall. I knew that there would be steps going from the retaining wall to the lower garden area and I wanted to insert a stone that would direct traffic in the proper direction. We took out a couple of wall caps and put it in. It makes a good visual statement:

This rock step will signal the entrance to the back garden

We laid 4” black perforated pipe behind the wall and put a tee in at the lowest level, running a pipe out under the wall. The correct way to lay the black drain pipe is with the holes down. I had to explain it to my client. The way it works is that the holes go down and the water goes up through the holes. A hydrologist explained it to me one time long ago. He was an old guy, too.

The black drain pipe will direct water into the lower garden instead of causing erosion

The black drain pipe will direct water into the lower garden instead of causing erosion

I have experimented with all kinds of adhesives and I have found that one containing polyurethane is best for gluing the caps down. We put a bead of the adhesive all around the base and stick it down.

The retaining wall caps are glied down with polyurethane.

The retaining wall caps are glied down with polyurethane.

The next job is to “pour the joints,” using a thin mix of “type N” colored mortar. We mix this to a pourable consistency using two shovels of sand to one shovel of mortar. The mixture is poured into the joints so that it sticks up above the rocks. We will trowel it off smooth when it reaches just the right level of dryness. Too soft, it messes up and too hard, it won’t come off. It has to be just right. There is no hurrying on this job.

Pour the joints with a "type N" cement mixed thin

Pour the joints with a “type N” cement mixed thin

This is what the joints look like after they have been scraped and finished.

The joints look really good when properly finished

The joints look really good when properly finished

We put in a set of stepping stones from the walkway to the step at the retaining wall and filled in behind the wall with my wonderful compost.

Stepping stones lead from the rock walkway to the lower garden path

Stepping stones lead from the rock walkway to the lower garden path

We finished moving in compost and took care of the edges. The zoysia grass will grow in rapidly.

Filling in the edges. The zoysia grass will grow back rapidly

Filling in the edges. The zoysia grass will grow back rapidly

We finished the transition to the lower garden path

The finished stone walkway with a garden path

The finished stone walkway with a garden path

And then we cleaned up the job. One time I did a really nice job for a lady and she said, “John, it is lovely. It looks almost professional.” I have always laughed about that. Does this qualify as “almost professional?”

 BEFORE:

This is what it looked like before we started

This is what it looked like before we started

AFTER

Finished rock steps to downhill pool and garden entrance

Finished rock steps to downhill pool and garden entrance

******Related information:

If you missed part one of this series, you will find it if you click here.

To see how we built flagstone steps and a garden entrance, part one, click here

For “flagstone steps and a garden entrance, part two, click here

Would you like a consultation with johntheplantman in your yard? Contact John Schulz BY EMAIL

 These articles are brought to you by John P. Schulz, author of the novel, Requiem for a Redneck .  

As usual, I would just love for you click here to go to Amazon and purchase the ebook edition of my wonderful book, Requiem for a Redneck to go on your Kindle. I have also noticed that Amazon now has a free Kindle app for iphones and tablets. Is that cool or what?

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Rock garden steps with a retaining wall–part one « johntheplantman's stories, plants, and gardening
  2. Trackback: » building a stone retaining wall| EXCEPTION SEARCH
  3. Connie Burnes
    Nov 09, 2014 @ 13:48:06

    Beautiful finished product!!! Will be there for years to come, adding a beautiful contrast and safe walkway and stairs!!! Great job, as usual, I might add… :)cb

    Reply

  4. Multiblock Indonesia
    Jan 30, 2016 @ 18:34:26

    If some one desires to be updated with most recent technologies therefore
    he must be pay a visit this website and be up to date daily.

    Reply

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