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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Rock garden steps with a retaining wall–part one

How to build stone garden steps with a small  retaining wall for erosion control–part one

step by step instructions with photographs.

  Ann is a gifted gardener and she is proud of her beautiful pool. Ann knows a lot about building and landscaping, but she decided to call in some help on this project. The problem was a set of “wobbly” steps going downhill, past a flower bed, to the ramp from the deck and the pool entrance. There was also an erosion problem above her perennial bed at the bottom of the hill. I decided that it would be a good time to provide step by step instructions for building rock steps and a simple retaining wall. Here’s the “before” picture:

scope: build wider, stable rock steps, take care of lower erosion

scope: build wider, stable rock steps, take care of lower erosion

You can see that the stones were laid into the ground with no real provision for stability. They were too narrow, also, and by not being level, they became slippery in wet weather.

stones not stable, and slick when wet

stones not stable, and slick when wet

In the following picture, you can see part of the erosion problem at the bottom of the steps. This needed to be fixed, also, and the entire project needed to be tied in as a single entity.

an erosion problem at the bottom of the steps

an erosion problem at the bottom of the steps

The grass at the back side of the pool fence was probably a good idea at the time, but a lot of water runs down over it and the side of the hill is eroding. Ann loves her perennial flowers and wants to protect the lower bed. We decided to fix it with a French drain backed up with concrete “wall blocks.” I’ll show you more about wall blocks later in the article.

erosion problem below pool. How to solve the problem?

erosion problem below pool. How to solve the problem?

We began by removing all of the existing steps. We stretched a line from the top of the hill to the deck ramp. A line level was used to get an indication of the entire fall of the step project.

Using nylon string and a line level to determine number of rock steps

Using nylon string and a line level to determine number of rock steps

We measured from the level line to the ground to ascertain the number of 8 inch steps that would be required to line up perfectly with the landing at the bottom of the ramp. I used a calculator to multiply the number of feet by 12 to get the number of inches and then do divide by 8 (inches down per step) to get the number of steps. It came out to 5.25. I would need to divide up that quarter of a step somewhere in the layout.

Measuring down from level line to determine number of steps

Measuring down from level line to determine number of steps

We would be using 12 inch concrete blocks to form the foundation for the steps. These blocks measure 16 inches long by 8 inches high by 12 inches deep. They are perfect for steps because the finished dimensions of a comfortable step should be 12 inches out by 8 inches down. These steps will be 32 inches wide for further comfort. We laid the first two steps perfectly level in all directions with the top of the block far enough down from the grass to allow for rock veneer on the top. A slow and careful beginning is essential because verything has to work out just right.

The first step must be laid in to perfection

The first step must be laid in to perfection

We continued laying the blocks, moving out and down so that the number of actual steps would end up at the proper level at the bottom. The quarter step difference is worked out in fractions as we go down. The catch basin which was originally put in for drainage will be removed and replaced with cement. The steps will take care of the water, acting as a “waterfall” in rainy weather. The project is starting to take shape:

concrete block framework for stone steps

concrete block framework for stone steps

When the step foundation reached the bottom of the steps, it was time to form in a landing. In order to make everything work out properly, the retaining wall had to be started at this point.

stop here to determine level of retaining wall

stop here to determine level of retaining wall

We used a string and a line level to determine the bottom level for the wall and dug out for the basic wall foundation. The wall will consist of wall blocks backed up by a 4 inch perforated drain pipe with gravel over it. This is digging as an art form.

foundation dug for base of block retaining wall

foundation dug for base of block retaining wall

The initial wall block is set in place leaving room for the drain pipe and gravel. The level on top of the block indicates that we have the right amount of room for the 4 inch cap stone to bring the level up to exactly where we want it.

initial block in place for retaining wall. Note room for four inch cap.

initial block in place for retaining wall. Note room for four inch cap.

The steps and the wall come together. It is now time to begin framing in the landing.

foundations for rock steps and retaining wall come together

foundations for rock steps and retaining wall come together

We use wood forming to tie the base of the ramp into the back side of the landing. This will be filled in with concrete.

Wooden forms installed to pour concrete from the ramp to the rock step landing

Wooden forms installed to pour concrete from the ramp to the rock step landing

We finish laying the blocks which will provide the final step to the walkway which will lead to the pool entrance. Note that wherever the blocks don’t fit tight, the spaces are filled in with mortar mix.

Final step/landing formed and filled

Final step/landing formed and filled

Now it is time to apply the rock to the step “risers.” We have found that we get much better results if we apply the riser facing to begin with. By doing this, the rocks on the tops of the steps will lock the risers in, providing a more durable finished project. It is also much easier in the long run. First, we measure and cut each rock. We use an angle grinder with a diamond blade to score the rocks on each side and then pop it with a hammer.

cutting steps for stone risers

cutting steps for stone risers

Sticking rock veneer on an upright surface requires a bit of technique. What we do is to build an actual “suction cup” with the mortar mix. When the rock is applied to the riser, the mortar gives as the air is forced out. This works just like a suction cup on a kid’s play arrows.

"suction cup" of mortar to stick rocks upright

“suction cup” of mortar to stick rocks upright

The rock with the mortar suction cup is carefully tapped into place with a rubber mallet. The air is forced out and the rock stays in place.

set rock upright by tapping with a rubber mallet

set rock upright by tapping with a rubber mallet

It is quitting time on a hot Friday. The risers have been prepared. It is time to call it a week. Come back next week for the rest of the project.

To see part two o fthis article, click here

 **** Related posts:

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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