DIY – Building Field Stone Columns

My husband and I wanted to add a little curb appeal to our house by taking our plain old front porch posts and adding field stone column bases and beefing up the posts into columns. We wanted a little curb appeal. We got a LOT of curb appeal! And we did it ourselves.

This project initially came to mind because the soil in our San Diego yard is VERY rocky and we have tons of field stone that has been dug up over the years from various projects. We thought, why not use it?! We began by looking for professional stone masons to do the job since we did not know how to. What we found was that the few people we called did not know how either. I am sure there are folks out there who still do this kind of work but we could not find them. I think since most people use cultured stone, stone veneer or concrete these days to simulate real field stone it is just not cost effective any more. That brings us to the second thing we realized; even if we had found someone, after doing the work ourselves and seeing the time it takes, we probably would not have been willing to pay what a professional would need to charge. It would just be too expensive. So if you want the look of real field stone columns (you can tell the difference if they are not) you can do it yourself cheap, but it will take some time and effort. But wow! The look is worth it!

We did some practice projects first which only reinforced the fact that we did not know how to do this. They just did not look right. We realized from looking at other people’s columns that the important thing was that the corner stones needed to be stacked on top of each other to make the column a square. We found a simple diagram on line that showed how to install guide lines at the corners of where you want your columns to be so you can follow these lines and keep your corners straight.

The following instructions are not meant to be exhaustive, but rather to give you a good idea of how the project will go and what it entails. You will need to do more research on the technical details you may need to know before being able to complete this project.

You will first need to determine what diameter you want your columns to be and how high you want them to go. Ours are approximately 18 inches per side and about 3 feet high. You must begin by pouring concrete bases for your columns to rest on for sturdy support. Then if you are building around existing wood posts as we were, you must waterproof the posts. We used roofing tar. After the guide lines are in place, (we used simple string lines taped in place from floor to ceiling. Be sure they are at at true vertical!) the stone work can begin. It is really quite simple but does take attention to detail and time. My husband and I worked as a team and we each had our jobs to do.

Mix up a batch of mortar, you will need enough to set two courses of stone for each column (2 high) and you will want the mortar to be on the thick side. Two courses of stone are all you can really do at a time or the weight of the stone and mortar will place too much pressure on what is below it and cause it to squish out. We did 4 columns and started by just working on 1 until we felt we knew we were doing a good job. After that we worked on the remaining 3 simultaneously, doing 2 courses on each of the three at at time. Between courses the mortar must set for several hours before laying the next course on top. You will quickly become familiar with the mortar and how it feels and behaves as it is setting and will be able to judge when it is time to set the next courses. Also refer to the instructions on the bag.

On the bottom level use a trowel and lay a base of mortar for your first course of stones to set in. An inch or two of mortar is sufficient. Choose your stones (they should be at least softball size or larger) and place them carefully so that the corner stones line up just inside the string and the other stones are nicely spaced and with attractive sides facing out. Then begin to fill in all around them, packing the mortar without moving the stones. Be sure to get all the air pockets out and add enough on top of your first stones to place your second layer. Feel free to use much smaller stones to fill in the interior areas that will not be seen.

While working, do not worry about getting mortar on the outside of your stones. Keep a bucket of clean water and a sponge nearby and as long as you wipe the residue off within a half hour or so you will have no problem. You will find as you work that there is a certain artistry to this work and you can work with the mortar blending and shaping it for quite some time as it dries. In the same way, blending the mortar between the courses is easy and when you are done and all the mortar is set it will be impossible to see where one course of stones ended and another began. The mortar blends perfectly.

After you have set your first 2 layers of stones use your hands (always wearing gloves as you work, the mortar is very caustic to skin) to shape the mortar and push it into place where you want it as it dries. After the mortar has begun to set, work with the water and sponge smoothing the mortar and shaping it and cleaning off the outsides of the stones so they do not have a film on them. In this way you will proceed with all the courses of stone until the columns are as high as you want them to be. When you reach your desired height be sure to have the top be as level as possible and then add capstones of some type to give it a finished look. We used travertine tiles attached by building a jig to hold them in place while the mortar dried since we had to work around an existing post.

For our final step we beefed up the posts by wrapping them in 1 x 6 lumber, and trimmed the tops and bottoms with 2 x 2 lumber. Be sure to prime and paint all wood surfaces to protect against rain and water intrusion.

This is a great Do It Yourself project. It can be time consuming, each section of work may take a couple of hours when you take into account mixing the mortar, laying the stones, doing the finishing work and cleaning your tools, but the results are satisfying and well worth it for this classic look.