The Walls and the Shed

November 16th, 2009

I’ve been away… working on “The Wall” over the past week.  We were fortunate to have a week of mild, dry weather, and I took some time to spend almost every hour of the day (and some in the dark) outside.   I haven’t even left the property in five days… and I learned a lot along the way.   Mostly involving how hard folks work that do this for a living.  I think I have new muscles, and found a few old ones that I had forgotten about!

I could have built this somewhere else.  A little farther away perhaps.  Okay, it would have been too far away, or too deep in the woods, or… something.  It would have been easier though.  Then again I’ve never been one to do something simply because it was easier.   Often the right, or better, or more efficient, or simply the preferred way isn’t the easiest.  

Of course sometimes it is.   When things work out like that it’s just peachy.  But not in this case.  A hillside where I wanted to build the shed, closer to the house.   This was thirty-four days ago.


I really thought it wouldn’t be that hard.  That’s the problem with starting something before you reeaallly know what’s involved.  Mea culpa. 

After hand mixing over 1800 pounds of cement, moving and setting 2800 pounds of concrete blocks, mixing 540 pounds of mortar, spreading 300 pounds of sand and three tons of gravel, I can only wonder… what in the heck was I thinking!?!

In this case, once I swallowed a few more mea culpas and got some decent weather it was time to get to work.  I may not have needed such a big footer, or a large backfill, or drain tubes…  but some old aviation maxims come to mind:   It’s better to ask for forgiveness than ask… wait, not that one!  

It’s better to plan for what might happen, rather than end up fixing what you could have prevented in the first place.


A little planning goes a long way.  And sometimes you just can’t fix what you could have prevented.  Of course sometimes you just don’t know.  And sometimes ignorance is indeed bliss… for a while.  I tend to believe that ignorance is no excuse.  I think it was John Hope Bryant that said, “If you do not know better, you cannot do better.”  So true for so many people, and that’s where education is supposed to come in.   The problem is that somewhere along the way of  not knowing better, a lot of folks get into trouble.  

Not wanting to be one of those folks in this situation, I decided to remedy the ignorance part with some research.  Finally armed with coffee, determination and a little information, I forged ahead.

I started pouring cement 10 days ago, after digging things out for almost two weeks.  That back footer is 18 inches wide and nearly a foot high, but I placed the wall blocks on the forward portion of the footer so I wanted it to be extra sturdy.  Rebar is embedded throughout, and more was placed for the walls.

While the concrete was curing I brought in the rest of the materials. 



I started placing the blocks just six days ago. I was surprised at how much mortar I used.  It took a while to get that “creamy, buttery texture” that worked so well.  Stirring mortar is really good triceps exercise!  I was generous (and messy) with the mortar both inside and outside the blocks, especially for the lower blocks.  The first day I took my time and only placed eight.  By the last day I did fifteen more quickly and effectively.  There were more than 50 large blocks and 22 cap stones in all.


I started at one corner, and worked across.  Staging the blocks before hand allowed me to see where I would have too much or too little.  The corner blocks are staggered and interlocked with the side walls, and overlapped for the rows.  I still needed to cut a small block for the middle of the wall at one point, as the base was slightly wider than the upper row.


After finishing the back wall with blocks, I painted it with masonry sealer, and then backfilled it with one-inch clean gravel.  First a base on the footer, then I used landscape cloth to wrap more gravel and fill between the wall and cloth/dirt embankment.  About six inches from the top I layered sand and soil, compacting it firmly, and then covered again with sand and rocks.


I used levels and wooden guides to help keep things straight while building.  Or straight enough… like many things I learned again that it’s easier to fix something earlier, because that error just becomes amplified over time.


Along the back wall I built in weep holes with half-inch copper pipe.  After I dug out the hillside, I noted after a rainstorm last month that water was draining through the soil, especially toward the left side.  I knew tremendous hydraulic pressure would affect the wall over time, so I placed eight drain tubes in all, five on the bottom at the footer, and two above the first row of blocks.  When I backfilled the wall, I made sure the tubes would be clear with larger crushed rock all around. I finished the side walls with drain channels lengthwise, and packed that space on top with clean, course gravel also.


It seemed like I’d never be finished, and daylight ran out too soon.  I worked for an hour after dark one night under poor lighting.  The next morning I learned that wasn’t such a good idea.  I had to fix a few things… but progress came, day by day.


Some of the days were in the upper 60’s last week, nice and warm. Unheard of for November, but I wasn’t complaining. Evening came quickly, and I enjoyed the sunsets.  I remembered a really nice one the week before while watching the boy play in the leaves.


I’ve been a tired puppy each night…  like somebody else.   I know this kennel looks awfully small for a 90 pound yellow lab… but he won’t sleep anywhere else!  I’ve got a nice sleeping pad for him in a  larger kennel, and carpet and rugs in various places… but this was his “home” as a puppy.  He squishes himself inside and sleeps there at night; the door is even open, but he just feels cozy there.  He was so tired, my pictures didn’t even wake him up. 


I was finally building the ends, and the side walls extended out past the side footers by three blocks.  The soil outside the walls was only about six inches high at that point, so I wasn’t concerned about side pressures.  But I dug out and packed gravel for a base before setting the blocks in a thick bed of cement/mortar.  The blocks should also be strengthened by the footer, and overlapping blocks and mortar on top. 


If anything shifts or cracks on this wall it will probably be near the front ends.  I believe the gravel and mortar is deep enough and strong enough to prevent shifting from freezing and thawing over time. The lower blocks are also filled inside with mortar and small gravel for the whole structure.

The wall is almost finished.  I didn’t ask them to sit there, but the basset and the lab found a new place to lay down.  I gave them bones to keep themselves busy.  Of course one bone wasn’t enough… they tried to sneak each other’s bones when they could.  The lab had an advantage- the basset hound kept falling asleep throughout the day!


I painted everything with masonry sealer once again, a race against time yesterday with rain coming.  Thankfully the rain held off while I continued to pack gravel, sand and dirt all around the outside of the walls.  


Finally it’s finished!  Almost.  I have eight end cap pieces that I need to cut to size and fit.  I don’t have a masonry saw and need a clean cut to set them properly.  I tried splitting a couple blocks with chisel and hammer, but that didn’t work out very well.  Actually, I did manage to split and shape that one small piece in the middle of the back wall, but the front end pieces will need to be exact. 


I just got things wrapped up last night when the rain came.  I covered up the wall end-holes with extra block  and went inside.  It rained steadily all night and we got about an inch.   This morning I went out with the umbrella to check the drain holes at the base of the wall…


It was nice to see clear water coming through about half the drain tubes, and draining down the gently sloped gravel bed.  That’s one of the reasons I want to support the shed on a “floating foundation” off the gravel base- to keep the floor off the moisture.  And there should be enough air circulation underneath to keep things dry over time.   Once I finish packing more dirt around the outside walls, I hope to get grass sod established to channel the water around the structure a bit more during rain.  A lot of it comes from the natural slope and the pasture beyond the fence line- I may try to build a smaller berm along the fence to redirect some of that water flow during rain.

Now if I can get another 4-5 days of decent weather it will be time to get the shed up!  I really have learned a lot… and I’m glad this part is finished.   I certainly have new respect for masonry craftsmen.   Not only because of the effort and skill involved, but the patience and diligence that it must take over time.   I wouldn’t ever try this on a large scale, but it makes for an interesting home project.

My little block wall is far from perfect, but I kind of like it.  There’s quite a few dips, curves and bulges here and there.  Kind of like me :)  But that’s okay, it just needs to serve a purpose, and with luck it should last a bit longer than most of us!

11 Responses to “The Walls and the Shed”

  1. Ed

    From now on, I am going to start referring to this as the big dig!

    Looking good. Makes me wish I had a building project of my own. I love that kind of work.

  2. It’s looking great, though the description of the effort has caused me to rethink several projects which have occupied my fantasy-life lately. I salute your industriousness!


  3. Looks great Beau! and i’m sure it will last for a long time! it may be a little overbuilt but that’s much better than trying to repair something later. I couldn’t see but did you have rebar dowels running vertically through cells of block?
    i had a good friend lay the block at my house and it is a marvel to watch an actual mason. he made me lay the last 3 blocks and it took me like, 45 minutes. i just had to fill in the hole! lol!

  4. Ed- No kidding…and more digging to go. Projects like this do keep you going, but sometimes it’s like a time warp!
    Randall- I underestimated the time and effort for this aspect, but the shed part “shouldn’t” be too bad… I’m searching for the rest of my industriousness :)
    Annie- Thanks too; I hope it lasts… we had a good couple inches of rain and it didn’t fall down! I did place/embed rebar vertically in the back wall supported by the footer, every 2-3 feet or so horizontally, and extending upward 3 feet. Cutting some with the hacksaw was fun. The side walls have cement/gravel support inside since they are much shorter, and the hillside drops away. The side footers do have rebar within them for structural integrity. I’d love to watch a real mason- and you were faster than me with those blocks!

  5. I recently got an education in concrete as well and, like you, gained new respect for masons. There really is something to make your chest swell, though when you build such a thing as it is so solid. Anyhow, good work…can’t wait to see the rest.

  6. OK…I am not longer gonna whine about having a little raised bed to build. At least it doesn’t involve mixing concrete…by HAND…oh my!

    I can’t wait to see it all done! Kim

  7. mild, dry weather…sounds dreamy! your dog cracks me up. this post brought back memories of parging walls when i was 16 for extra money. oh, that was hard work!

  8. Vincent

    Is it not really freaky that the Hoover Dam has yet to cure 70 or so years later. And then it will become brittle.

  9. Warren- Thanks; maybe it will last beyond, so someone down the road can get some use out of it too!
    Kim- That’s why I went with ROWS in the garden :) Actually, the previous owners years ago built a dozen or more raised beds… I’m still taking out the old boards. One day maybe I’ll build some more too!
    Chook- At least it WAS mild and dry… now back to wet. I’m praying for a few good dry warmish days again… just a few before winter! And you were 16 when you did that work? Wow… hard to imagine many 16 year olds today doing such, except on the farm perhaps.
    Vincent- That IS freaky… I didn’t know that. And what happens when it becomes brittle?! I wondered what was going on in the “inner middle” of the concrete pour…

  10. Vincent

    Well, to be honest with you, I’ve never really believed that the Pantheon existed either. National Geographic have a lot to answer, re Hoover and the Grand Coulee.


  11. Wow, lots of work for a wall–I’ve built several with timbers, but never blocks. Great photo of your dog!

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply

«   - | -   »