The Ancient, Arduous Art of the Stone Wall—Alive and Well in the Upper Valley

After they’ve lugged, chiseled, and lifted the 100-lb. stone into place, Luke Blake and Jake Chase step back to survey the wall—and their next move. 

“It’s like a game of chess,” says Blake. “You’re always thinking a couple steps ahead.”

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Blake and Chase are the guys you’ve probably seen in front of a Main Street residence in Norwich this month, building a stone wall.

Or, rather, they're rebuilding a stone wall, this time in the old style—akin to our ubiquitous, iconic New England walls, but even older than that. Think of the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu, and you’re closer to Blake’s standard of excellence.

The one they’re dismantling first, which in some ways dismantled itself, consists almost entirely of machine-cut, rectilinear stones (like a child’s toy blocks) laid in what can best be called a flimsy “cookie-cutter” fashion, probably only a decade ago, and now coming apart at the seams. The wall rebuild is part of an overall landscape design for the property, spearheaded by Shepard Butler Landscape Associates.

Although Blake, a stone mason for 15 years who runs LB Stone Crafters out of Perkinsville, VT, certainly prioritizes long-term structural integrity, his heart is in the original craftsmanship of the new wall they’re building. And while some of those rectilinear stones will be salvaged for the project, his signature elements are the larger, rounder, character-rich field stones being placed throughout.

Stepping back again from the wall, Blake points out the textural variety. “It’s giving your eye more places to travel, isn't it?”

These heavy, round field stones come from a hillside Blake knows about in Perkinsville. “They were hard to get. Jake and I hand-rolled a bunch of them down the hill.”

“It's like rolling a snowball," says Chase. "Just a lot heavier."

They're careful, too, not to disturb the stones' natural patina. "As much as possible, we try to preserve the moss and lichen that's grown on the surface," Blake says.

And then to shape, however minimally, each stone so it fits snugly into place, they’re using traditional hand tools: heavy-duty, carbide-tipped chisels and hammers made in Barre, VT.

Doing it this way—methodically, the right way—makes the work slow-going, and they’ll be at it another three or four weeks, carefully reshaping and placing each individual stone. “It’s kind of a dying trade,” Blake laments. “You don’t find too many younger people who want to grab a chisel.”

But Blake and Chase are at least two younger people who have. And they’ll tell you the reward comes not just when you step back to admire the finished wall, but knowing that the wall will stand the test of time.

“It’s nice in the end,” says Blake. “It’s what keeps us going on these hot days.”

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