If you look closely, you’ll see them all over. They’re lining front yards on the outskirts of the city, found randomly in the woods and at one time they were probably used to settle property disputes.
We’re talking about stone walls – and when you see one, you can’t help but wonder the story behind them. Who built it? How long had it been there? Why was it built?
Sure, we could probably throw a few stones together and call it a wall, but in all likelihood it wouldn’t last that long. Not as long as the one we found Matt Persechino and Nate Vance of Contoocook Stone Works building.
You see, last week we got an email from a faithful reader (thanks Brian) telling us about this stone wall that he passed on his way to work that was described as “a craftsman building a stone wall” at the corner of Hopkinton Road and Long Pond Road – and that we should check it out.
So we figured, why not?
We took the long way to the office on Friday, avoiding the highways and all the traffic lights to see what this wall was all about.
Sure enough, there were two guys (Persechino and Vance) building a stone wall. And we had to ask a few questions – which they happily obliged to answer.
What we learned is that constructing a stone wall is really an art form. It might just seem like you put a bunch of rocks in the shape of a wall, but there’s a lot more to it then that.
Persechino, owner of Contoocook Stone Works, learned the European way to construct a stone wall from a guy, who learned from an old guy. And now he’s teaching Vance.
“The technique I use is passed down through stone masons,” Persechino said.
The wall they were working on and expecting to have done by early this week was about 25 years old, but it had issues. Persechino expects this one to last four times as long, but it will be up to future Insiders to see if it makes it that long. Don’t think we’ve got another 100 years in us.
After tearing down the existing wall, the duo started with a solid base of leveled out loam and crushed stone. The issues with the previous iteration was with the bottom, which in turn jeopardized the entire structure of it. That’s why Persechino puts so much importance on the bottom part of the wall.
“The problems you see with many stone walls is at the bottom,” Persechino said.
After getting the base leveled just right and the crushed stone evenly distributed – about a foot wide for each foot in height – you start with some big base stones. You want the big and heavy ones at the bottom to support the weight of all the ones that go on top.
You also want the wall to lean in a bit, but not enough that it’s noticeable.
“If you can get the stones to fall into each other, that’s great,” Persechino said.
And what you really need out of each stone is one good face (or flattish side) that people will see. The rest of what it looks like doesn’t really matter because it will be buried by all the other rocks.
“It’s a natural ability to match shapes,” Persechino said.
The beauty of a stone wall is that each is unique. Since no rock is the same, you’ll never be able to use the same approach from one wall to another. So in other words, you’ve got to be good at recognizing whether a stone is good for the base, one of the layers or perfect as a topper.
“A lot of the job is getting really good with angles in your head and getting the angles right,” Persechino said.
If it has a good face, it can be used for one of the outside spots that people will see. But some stones just don’t have a good side that a wall builder would want to show. That’s okay, though, because the middle needs to be filled in as well.
“The key is to get the stones to touch at three spots as tightly as possible,” Persechino said.
That’s where the sledgehammer and chisel work comes in. Sometimes they have to break down a stone to make it fit.
“It’s all about shape,” Persechino said. “Every stone has a purpose.”
Persechino and Vance worked on the wall for a little more than a month, spanning about 200 feet. And they basically used all the stones that were there, except for bringing in a load toward the end, which they typically find at farms, stone dumps in fields and logging operations.
“It definitely takes some time to do it right,” Persechino said.
For more info and pictures from other projects, visit contoocookstoneworks.com or facebook.com/contoocookstoneworks.