Slipforming, part 8 – Successes and failures

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.

Any 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 to clean. 

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. 

A 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 did.

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.