Monday, July 16, 2018

STONE HUT ( 6 ) ~

A front yard retaining wall and stairway I built at a home one mile down river from us


A friend asked how long it took to build the stone hut. At a guess I answered 500 hours, and a third of that time was spent in the woods finding the stone to build. We don’t have great stone in this valley, it is old country rock, random rubble, odd shapes of chunk, or smooth river stone. Some call it trash stone. I work with it and make something of it because it is all I have, and it blends back into the rural landscape. I know someone who bought all the stone for a large retaining wall he wanted built, and every stone was delivered in dump trucks — loads of flat, wonderful stone, with at least two good faces on the stone. It was a breeze to set up this wall with a crew of workers, but when finished it showed only uniform structure and no character in the overall expression of the wall. There were no quirks in the stone arrangement, no wisdom of perfect stone meshing with oddball rock. It was boring to look at. It works as a retaining wall, so the money is well spent, but there is no soul. The stone in this valley has a rough look, it takes patience to work and occasionally you turn up the surprise of a flat stone, with even one good face, and save that for a corner stone in the hut, or a stone pad under the windows. I did find quite a few long flat stones that were used in the hut as tie stone: the length of the stone turned inward joining one section of a wall with another. These stones are essential. Though some stonemasons will use the full length of the stone to show off its beauty, this is okay if you have enough to spare, I didn’t. I used all as tie stone and continued to hunt for good face stone. I usually took the Willys into the woods for a few hours in the late afternoon and loaded stone and delivered them back to the hut site. After six deliveries enough stone was gathered for a full day’s work. The stone was spread on the ground — piling shim stones into one heap, saving the face stone in another stack, and basic stone being the largest pile. I would lay the face stone for the outer section of the walls, saving a few for the interior wall, and filling in-between both walls with rubble rock. Each course had many tie stones weaving outer wall with inner wall. I shimmed with the smallest stone as I went along, concentrating on fine shim work at the end of the day…filling gaps, providing extra strength with a two-inch stone. There would be gaps showing daylight, but no gaps in the stonework. There has to be an understanding with the material. It wasn’t the best stone, but it would build, and by the end of the week, mid-July, the hut walls were over four feet high. Gaining.

Years later, still grubby at stone work


Maybe it is the work, but stonemasons seem an independent bunch. Most, like myself, work alone. The work requires it — unlike carpentry where a 2" x 4" is used in an obvious job location, nothing is too obvious with stone. It always boils down to a reliance on balance, at what will work and what won’t. There is much picking up of stone, tossing it back down if it doesn’t feel right in the hands, then picking up another stone. Some days everything fits. Work runs smooth. The hands, the eye, the feeling of stone is all netted to a coordination. Nothing feels better on those days. I’ve heard from others that John Regan was an independent Scot stonemason. He lived in southern New Hampshire but did a fair share of his work over in Vermont. I’ve worked at different places and seen his work, both brick and stone. The basic uniform of the brick work never caught my eye but the stonework always had a flavor that stuck. He was a fine dry wall stonemason. Worked the flat and round and oddball stone together into a mosaic of his skill. A retired doctor I once did treework for was still talking about the merits of John Regan ten years after Regan had done work for him. He told me of different places in the area where I could see Regan’s stonework: a chapel he built for another doctor, stone walls, and terraces. I searched the places out and continue to return for longer looks, enjoying new detail in the work at every visit. His style has the charm and strength and body that is built by a man. No tell-tale signature of any heavy machinery at work, and being man-made allowed my appreciation to light all over the work, never tire, really marvel. When I heard about John Regan he was already retired and into his seventies. By now he might not even be around. When workers and customers remember him they recall a tough man of principles — he’d walk off a job if anything crossed the grain of his ideas and all you have to do is visit his work to see the principles are everlasting. John Regan left us that. Awhile back a barn was torched by vandals and it burned to the ground. What was left in the smoking lot was the library of a stone foundation. John Regan was hired to move that stone to the roadside and build a long stone wall two feet thick, with gateways. The property owners were wealthy enough to afford the monumental effort. It was done. I won’t tell you where this happened…driving the backroads of southern Vermont sometime you might see this wall. It isn’t classy work, it’s rugged beauty. Stone talking to stone. I drive by the wall from time to time and always study it closely. That’s John Regan’s signature.

Susan and Carson having a visit at the stone hut work site


Five feet high with the front wall of the stone hut I stopped at the end of the work day and jumped up and grabbed the 6" x 6" beam over the doorway and let my body hang, for two minutes. When I dropped back into a stance my back felt better, at least for awhile. I would do the same thing again, this time inside the house hanging from one of the kitchen beams. The back is abused in stonework. It can’t be helped unless you are fortunate to have a pliable frame. Fingers can be busted, thumb nails blackened, toes crushed. I can wear gloves loading stone onto the Willys and then unloading, but often I have to feel the stone I am working with and gloves get in the way. I had two bouts of back trouble while building the hut, but nothing that was serious, I could still work. Both times happened from working too long and stretching the possibilities of the back. And I only blackened one thumb when a stone I was loading onto the Willys broke apart; it dropped my hand down between another stone and the broken stone met it all. Luckily I got away with only a bleeding thumb nail. Of course I wasn’t wearing gloves — not that the gloves would have helped much — but I put them back on. I used that broken stone and know right where it is in the hut, buried between the outer and inner walls. Wrenching the back — and that’s how you feel when it happens — is all part of the work. Since the back is essential for stonework it is best to be conscious of the body that goes into the work. Five hours of hard paced stonework, especially when working alone — performing the pick up of stone and laying down — is almost enough for one day. A good deal is accomplished, the back isn’t beat on, and you can work seven days a week with that treatment. Eight hours a day doesn’t accomplish much more — it abuses the body. Somewhere in those hours, one to two hours is wasted on coffee breaks, talking, and the exhausted pattern of being driven by the work. I would rather work with the work. Enjoy the work with good health and that enjoyment will show up in the finished job. With a driven voice the worker that tells me he works a twelve hour day tells me nothing except that he is stupid, or unlucky. He no longer owns himself, the job owns him. The stone builder should feel the stone on his hands during the day, then other things: someone he loves, firewood to split, music that comes to his ears. Life has to be allowed. All that life returns to the stone he lifts, and with inspirations he has picked up elsewhere, he sets that stone down.



The days away building the Hauptman house were long days. The twelve hour day kind, but I loved it. Nine hours of carpentry and travel between locations, then stonework in the evening when back home. Between the carpentry and stonework I would swim in the river with Susan and Carson, which was icing on the cake for a long day. The river has been for many years our summer bath. We would carry Carson down in a small plastic tub and wade one arm of the river that shallowed to our knees to reach the main flow of the current where it was deeper and private and the sun lasted until late in the day. Carson was now over a month old. We would prop him up in the tub left on the shore while we swam, and he watched us with a steady eye. Nothing got by him. The third day of his life, upstairs in our bedroom where he slept with us, his eyes were already following the upper wall of the room, above the bed, where dark green stencilling trim was laced. I had painted that on three winters ago never thinking a child would be with us to enjoy it. After supper, walking to the stone hut with Carson in my arms, he would open his eyes to the singing robin, and as weeks went by he eventually found that robin and stared up at it, studied it for awhile, then laughed. He was finding things. Other parents warned us he wouldn’t distinguish things for weeks. Whenever he smiled, and he did on his second day, it was chalked up to gas. For some reason people won’t allow anything to follow its own course — everything that happened to them has to happen to you. I stopped reading the childhood guide books the first week of birth. It brought back the enjoyment of learning with Carson, watching him; allowed the delight of surprise to return. Susan read one helpful book on nursing to get the hang of it. Otherwise, it was paying attention to the child and listening to a few friends who realize the commitment to trusting yourself. A plank swing in the backyard, hung from a low apple branch by two chains, something put up awhile back. One evening of Carson’s first week of birth I sat in the swing and moved him gently to sleep. I was learning. Resources around you are the best tools. A swing.

all photographs by Susan Arnold

Stone Hut
a builder's notebook
Bob Arnold
1988, 2013