To course or not – coursing of course.

Sep 8th, 2014

The great debate in the dry stone walling world is always whether to course or not and there are two distinct schools of thought. On one hand you have the coursed wallers, predominantly based in the Pennines where the local sandstone lends itself to level bedded, regular coursed work and then you have the random wallers generally working where the local stone is of an irregular nature, limestone, whinstone etc. I have been criticised in the past for describing random work as inferior, this is not exactly correct, true I have quoted the Oxford English Dictionary definition of “random” in discussions on the topic, the definition being ; Random, without cause or purpose. In all seriousness though it is surely the geology of an area denotes the technique and style of walling that will work best. I am a firm believer that if a stone can be coursed it should be, unless the client or designer specifically requests otherwise. A  coursed wall built from level bedded stone is the strongest most durable method of construction with that material and I see it as my responsibility as a craftsman to utilise the stone available to its best potential. 

On the other hand when presented with irregular lumps of carboniferous limestone or whinstone then a random approach must be adopted, admittedly I am not as comfortable with this style of walling, though to be truly proficient as a craftsman I have had to adopt this style when necessary. Contrary to popular opinion I do actually like the look of a random wall, if  tight and built well they can be very impressive but in the past I have seen poor quality work being excused under the label of random. Random does not mean rubbish, it must be straight, tight and strong.

Somewhere between these to distinct styles there lies a third way, random brought to courses. In reality probably most dry stone walling falls into this category. This type of work is where the wall is built to a line, I usually work with a line about eight inches above the work and then build to the line using multiple thin courses or one or two thicker stones depending on what is available. All the stones must be laid with their bases level, even round stones to the skilled waller’s eye all have a definite top, bottom, front and back. This style of walling is the most versatile allowing random rubble to be built in a uniform manner that is both strong and attractive. It allows round or irregular stone to be mixed with more uniform material of different sizes.

Which ever style you choose to employ, whether dictated by geology, specification or preference the key is to use the stone available to its best advantage, work with the material using its inherent characteristics to create a strong and durable structure.