Saturday, May 26, 2007

Custom stone lintols in less than 24 hours

lin·tel [lin-tl] -noun
horizontal architectural member supporting the weight above an opening, as a window or a door.
Also, British, lintol. (from

There are several methods for spanning an opening in a masonry wall. Arches are the most elegant, but angle iron is probably the most common. Rather than employ either of these methods, the stonemason suggested that I look for stones large enough to fabricate "lintols." I liked his idea because lintols would do a better job (than iron or an arch) of tying together the columns beneath them. Using the backhoe, we dug out nine of the biggest (longest) stones from my pile of rocks, and carried them to th
e front yard. I laid out the 9 stones and selected 3 that were nearly the same thickness. If we screwed up, or if the rocks just wouldn't cooperate, we had 6 more chances to get it right.

The collage to the right illustrates the sequence of events. The upper left picture shows the stones laid out for inspection the evening before. The next morning, the stonemason's son started pitch-facing one of the stones, and I started on another. The upper right photograph shows the stone that I worked on first. The face looks almost finished, but I had to spend about 30 more minutes on the face of this rock after taking the photo, in order to chisel off all of the orange iron deposits. After the younger mason finished facing his stone, we discovered that it was about an inch thicker than mine, so, using a chisel, he split an inch from it to make it the correct thickness. Fortunately, sandstone splits easily along the horizontal grain. After we made 3 lintols of the same thickness (6 1/2" + - 1/2"), it was necessary to cut them to the proper length and depth. The lower left photo shows the younger mason sawing the lintol to the correct depth (8"). The smooth saw-cut face will not be seen because it will be turned to the back of the wall. The lower right picture shows one of the lintols on the end of the crane, being flown to its final destination above the window.

By lunch, we had fabricated the three lintols (with all six spare stones left intact!) and the mason had set them above the windows. Fabricating three lintols from scratch and setting them in the wall was a big effort, but not a lot of square footage of wall space. Being paid by the square foot, the older mason was definitely not ready to stop for the day! I helped by selecting and cutting stones, and they were able to lay two more courses before the end of the day. Each of these next two courses required special consideration as well. The course directly above the lintols contains three keystones to relieve the weight on the three lintols, and to help hold the wall from collapsing should the lintols ever crack. (admittedly redundant, but it just "looks right.") The next course up has corbels that cantilever 4" out from the stone wall. The course above the corbels (not yet built) will extend out yet another four inches. Every old tower I've studied (in pictures) has a wall that steps out near the top... presumably to avoid the embarrassment of dribbling boiling oil on your walls as you pour it upon marauding Visigoths and other unwelcome house guests.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Stone Age - the mix up

Here's a view of our front yard from the third floor of the "big tower." I've been sorting our stones according to size in order to help the masons. This wasn't necessary, or even very helpful, when laying the random-type stonework on the back side of our house, but...

A few years ago when I was in Germany, I noticed that old castles had different styles of stonework on the same structure. I think this was due in part to the fact that many castles had been destroyed or ruined, only to be rebuilt many years later by different mason's with different stones. At least that's the story I told my wife and the stone mason's to sell them on the idea of doing a different style of stonework on the "little tower" of our house. Left over from the stone mason that disappeared more than a year ago, were several pallets of "pitch faced" stone. It took a lot of blood-sweat-and-tears (much of it my own) to create those chiseled stones, and I thought it would be a shame to place them in our walls backwards - like we had been doing on the backside of the house. To mix things up, we have decided to deliberately build the "little tower" portion of our house with a different style of stonework.

Even though the stones themselves come from the same layers of rock and have the same chemical composition, the styles are very different. One is more "coursed" than "random" and uses "pitch faced stone" rather than "split field stone." On the left side of this picture, you can see where the "random" stonework meets the "coursed" stonework.

Rather than put a "control joint" (or vertical seem of mortar) at each (135 degree) corner of the tower, I have asked the masons to weave the stones together, just as they have done in the rest of the wall. To me, it seems like the only proper way to do it and it will undoubtedly be stronger. On the other hand, it is a lot more work. I volunteered to help cut and face the corner stones. Here are two corner stones that I made for the wall. Although I have no pictures of it yet, the masons have already reached the windows, where the stone fitting/cutting is even more tedious. For instance, all of the stones have to be 8" in depth in order to hide the air gap (between the tyvek and the stone) where the stone surrounds the windows. Today, we spent the entire day cutting stone in preparation for tomorrow's work around the windows.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

How to baby sit boys

Relatives stopped in to visit Saturday. My wife, my cousin, and my grandmother (Mam-maw) pulled a fast one and slipped off to do some antique shopping, leaving my aunt to watch 4 boys and 2 girls at our house site where I was trying to work. The girls were happy to stay in the sand box, but it wasn't long before the boys were in my hair. Just as I was about to get frustrated, I had what I consider to be... one of my better ideas. I gave them each a hammer, separated them by 15 feet, and told them to "get to work!" I heard nothing but the wonderful sound of hammers tapping for a solid 30 minutes! (The ball players are my sons, the boys in jeans are their cousins.) Random as they might seem to us, the marks they left on the stones should be on the front of our house for a long time.

** addendum: no one got hurt, but just to be safe, I should have made them wear safety glasses **

Dawn of the Stone Age

My B-I-L and I were hanging from the end of a crane, fabricating the very last piece of copper ridge cap for the roof when a truck pulled up in the driveway. One of the guys stepped out and yelled up "found a stone mason yet?" "Uh no, not really, I started on the fireplace myself... have a look around... be down in 40 minutes... got to finish this roof!" This is how the stone age (aka the next phase of our house project) began last week. When I got to the ground, I walked around the house with the two masons (a father and son pair) and told them what we needed. I also showed them the stone that we had quarried from the farm. (see archived blog entry "Rubble Rousers", May 14th 2006)

The next day, the elder stone mason dropped off some photographs of his previous work. In one photograph, all of the vehicles were late 70's and early 80's models. "Maybe he's been doing this for a while," I thought to myself. The limited set of pictures included some nice brickwork and stonework, but nothing very close to the style that we were looking for our house. When he returned, I described the style we wanted, and then showed the mason some pictures of stonework that I liked. He felt confident that he could do it. I agreed to let him do a patch of stonework on the back of the house first... you know... just in case.

Within the two or three courses of stone, I could tell the look wasn't exactly what I had described, but to the degree it differed, it was in some ways better. The more stone that he laid, the better it looked, so I decided to bite my tongue and let him do his thing. He only grumbled once or twice about my stainless termite flashing, and he never once complained that the stones from our farm weren't suitable. In fact, he laid almost everyone he picked up. So far, we love it.

Most observers (masons included) now think we should cover the whole house with stone. Albeit the stone is free, but digging it out of the ground and paying a mason to lay it is not, so for most of the house we have decided to only go about 5 1/2 feet above the 1st floor (7 feet above grade) with the stone and then cap it with a thin layer of pitch faced stone. Above this will be stucco. (The window sill and capstones weren't mortared yet when this photograph was taken)

The highest hill on our farm is about 1100 feet above sea level, and the lowest creek is about 650 feet above sea level. Steep hills mean crappy farmland, poor roads, and low real estate prices, but it also means that a lot of geological time is represented in the layers of rock within the hills, and there are a lot of rock types to chose from. Due to the iron content, most of the stones here are tan, brown and rust colored, but we are fortunate to have several thin veins of blue stone as well. I picked up big slabs of blue stone out of the creek and faced them with a chisel to create the window sill and cap stones. Using a Stihl chop saw and a diamond blade, the masons cut the blue stones to exactly the right depth after I faced them. I put the extra capstones on an empty slate pallet and they look store-bought-- perhaps some day I can sell stones like this. My 9 yr. old son thinks they look like styrofoam, and I must admit to having the same thought - I guess we've been jaded by so much fake stuff in this world.

We decided to leave an airspace between the SIP walls and the stone wall (evident in this last photo) in case moisture should ever get through the stone wall. This also let the mason lay stones as deep as 8" and as shallow as 3". The bluestone caps had to be 9" to 10" to cover the top of the air gap as well as the top of the stone wall. Of course, every-so-often, there's a wall tie screwed to the SIP, and occasionally a stone touches the SIP - to give the wall extra support. The wall ties can move up and down a little - enough, I hope, to accommodate my still-drying sill timbers. Where possible, we screw the wall ties to 2x4's within the SIP, or even better, to timbers on the other side of the SIP. The masons are using S-type cement in the mortar which is considerably stronger than regular N-type cement typically used for blockwork.

More stone age chronicles to come...

Friday, May 11, 2007

DOT approved finial

We're done slating the tower, and have moved on to the last remaining bit of the main roof. The ladder in the picture allows us access from a 3rd floor window to the top of the main roof, without walking on the slate. It is much easier to cut the slates inside the house and carry them to the roof than it is to cut the slates on the roof.

Due to head on collisions with endangered birds and hazards to light aircraft, decorative finials have been banned by a local ordinance in this region of KY. Instead I am required to use a day-glow orange road cone with at least a 30% retro-reflective silver tape surface.
Ha - just kidding! This is all we had available at the time to leak-proof the tip top of the tower. I plan to buy or fabricate an appropriate finial, weather-vane, or lightning rod at some point. The white patch of coorogated metal roofing you see toward the back of the house (near the skylight) is also temporary. Hopefully, some day, a stone chimney will grow out of that part of the roof.