This post follows “Slipforming, part 7 – Murphy’s Law, a constant companion.” For a complete list of links to all slipforming posts on this blog, click here.
time one tries something brand new, it is unreasonable to expect only
glowing success, but I did anyway. Bolstered by the fact that I had
read every article I could lay my hands upon, I was, after all, an
expert. (Heavy sarcasm here.) Of course, the laws of the universe always have some humility lessons to offer. And my rock laying was no different.
I had (mostly) overcome doubt, hand pain, gravel quarry
funny-men loading my truck to near un-drive-ability, and the lack of
bathrooms. I had successfully built some outstanding forms, and even
layed my first rocks in cement. The problem? Well, I really had no
idea how close to set the rocks to each other. Tom Elpel mentioned in
his book that one should grout the joints at some later point. I went
to neighboring rock buildings in the area, probably done a hundred years
ago by masons who actually knew what they were doing, and they had
small joints less than an inch in width. The only way I could figure to
achieve that end was to mash the rocks up very close to each other and
then grout over the gaps. That is probably one way to do it.
Fortunately, that is not the only way, and with hindsight, I do not
believe it is the best way. For our project, as I progressed, I got
“looser” with the rocks. I would leave bigger gaps between them and
found that the result, to me, was both more eye-pleasing and much easier
I want to note here – slipforming is different than stone masonry
– with stone masonry, the strength of the wall is inherent in how the
rocks rest atop one another and a great deal of skill, patience and
forethought is necessary for the strength of the wall to stay in tact.
With slipforming, you are actually using the cement/rebar portion of the
wall for the strength and using the rocks only as facing. The home is
not dependent on the rock setting for the entire load of structural
strength. This difference allows a novice, like me, to enjoy the stone
home ”look” without having to spend years as an understudy to a genuine
mason. Secondly, much of the work is done blindly, i.e., one cannot see
the rocks beneath cement to adequately assess if the new rocks are
bridging gaps between rocks, or not.
fundamental lesson was determining how long to leave the forms in
place. Dad and I were eager to pull the first forms, to see the
results. After much waffling, we decided to leave the forms in place
for six hours. Wow! We were stunned. The relief, compounded by sheer
joy, was palpable. The “look” we were hoping for was there, all right.
What a relief!
Here, a rare photo of Dad and I immediately after pulling forms
off the rock wall. If you look closely, you will see the small white
chunks of foam in the photo. These worked wonderfully as gap-fillers
and reduced cleaning and spilled cement substantially.
My husband Ken and I chipped out the unwanted cement and gloated over
how beautiful the rock work looked. Building on one another’s thrill,
we quickly went from “Wow, it worked,” to “This was easy!” to “We could
do this professionally!” Then, we realized we needed to do it again,
and our cockiness dissolved. Could we? Of course. In fact, I thought
we could do it with even less curing time.
The next day, we tried three hours of cure time. Oh my! Three hours
was not enough. The rocks were not sufficiently adhered and quickly, a
rock came tumbling out of the wall. As I have mentioned, this has only
happened about four times in the entire house, but this one was
depressing since it was the first one to fall out, and I had no idea how
to repair the problem.
A quick phone call to my ex-boyfriend’s mother (the same one that
helped me with the hand pain) eased my concerns. “Oh honey,” she said.
“You just go buy some rock glue. It’s at the lumber yard – they’ll
have it. It’s gray and you’ll frost (woman-t0-woman instruction coming
back to cake decorating) the back of the rock. If the cement on the
wall is still soft, chip out a little more room so that your rock will
not stick out too far. Otherwise, this will work.” She was right. It
I got more guffaws when I went to the lumber store seeking rock
glue. It’s understandably not a big seller. A couple of contractors
ribbed me saying that if THEY were building my house, they wouldn’t be
resorting to glue already! At any rate, the pain of the experience was
sufficient that I did NOT want to duplicate this error. Toward that
end, I thought we could make a thicker mix of cement. The cement thus
far had been fairly soupy, meaning it would pour out of the coffee can
without much trouble. I thought a little thicker cement mixture might
be better, so the next day Dad mixed a thicker batch and I got
sidetracked that afternoon with other important stuff. The cement cured
for nearly 10 hours. Oh boy! What a difference the added time and
thicker consistency made.
Ken and I each had a hammer and were pounding away at the excess
cement on the seams, sometimes with not much success. Sparks were
flying from the ends of the hammers. Our arms were exhausted. “What
did you leave it this long for?” he asked. “Good grief, we’ll NEVER get
this off!” The seams were choppy and crude. Any overconfidence I had
gained from the first day was dashed by day two and then compounded on
day three. But, I had learned a very important lesson: Consistency is a
virtue in cement work. Make the batches of cement the same way, leave
them for the same amount of time, and you can expect a similar end
result. Do it any different, and you will be your own worst enemy.
With hindsight, four hours is a nice amount of time in moderately warm
weather to let the cement cure.
My lessons were not limited to cement. I was pouring cement on one
side of the house while still setting up the foam panels on the rest of
the walls. I had this great tool, a chalk line dispenser, which I
thought was a wonderful invention. Men reading this will wonder why I
was so impressed with the chalk line, but in a woman’s world there is no
need for such a tool. You don’t use one to bake, sew, or clean. You
don’t need one to balance a checkbook, or get the family pets to the vet
and you can get a child from kindergarten through graduation without
EVER needing one. Consequently, I adored my chalk line with it’s little
pop-out lever for reeling the string back inside…until I ran it over
with the truck.
This was, indeed, unfortunate. I grieved. Knowing I could not
continue my life without another, I bought a replacement and returned to
the work site where I did not need it again until one afternoon while I
was killing time awaiting the visit from a windshield repairman. As I
was waiting, I had extended the chalk line out to mark a foam panel for
the next saw cut, and found, much to my horror, that this chalk line did
not have a pop out lever to reel in the string. I sat there, staring
at the chalk line, cursing the fact that the string was now extended and
I could not get it back inside when the repairman drove up.
He fixed the windshield quickly enough and then saw me diddling with
the chalk line and asked what the problem was. I explained that this
stupid chalk line was already broken and ranted that things today are
certainly not made like they used to be, as this chalk line didn’t even
have a lever! What was it, I asked, a single-use chalk line?
Intrigued, he asked me to hand it to him. Inserting his index finger
into the circular inset finger hole, he effortlessly dialed the string
back into the chalk line. Boy, did I feel stupid! And, boy did he get a
big laugh out of it! He was my mother’s cousin, so you can probably
imagine how discreet he was with this finding. (Not!)
He wondered what bank in their right mind would loan funds to a house
builder who could not operate a chalk line. He laughed even harder when
I said that I had not borrowed on the project yet.
He continued to laugh as he jumped into his truck and laughed the
entire way back down the driveway. It is a good thing I have a thick
skin, or else that exchange might have shaken my confidence in
attempting a house like this. Instead, it fired me up to prove that
even I, who could not figure out a stupid chalk line, could overcome
absurd obstacles if I wanted to bad enough.
It is important to mention that with each setback, growth occurred.
As humiliating as it is to realize you are being stupid – it is equally
heartening to find that there is one less area where you will ever
be stupid again. Though sometimes, that is an admittedly hollow
comfort, especially from ground floor of a project like this one
offering so MANY opportunities for embarrassment.
To see “Slipforming, part 9 – Some cool rock inspirations,” click here.