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The big, scary project gets a little less scary

That’s the Wandering Monk up there looking like a rather tall member of the seven dwarves. That’s him taking a break from carving out the channel that will hold the footer for the retaining wall. That’s him with the block newly delivered to my driveway. You don’t see the pallet with the 54 sacks of concrete on it.

Still. Even with five pallets of block and one of concrete to go, the big, scary project is now a whole lot less scary.

Because this …


… and this …


… are done.

It took two days of this …


… plus an equal amount of shoveling by hand.

But except for a few small bits, the earth-moving part is complete.

Oh, and you on the Living Freedom Safety Patrol, don’t worry. That propane tank won’t be left in such a precarious position. On Monday we’ll concrete a pair of 4×4 posts into the ground and by Tuesday that tank will be securely strapped to them and its little earth island well bolstered with rocks or blocks.

On Monday we come to the last bit of footer-trench digging, pouring the footer, and laying the bottom course of retaining-wall block into the still-wet cement.

You might have noticed those aren’t standard concrete blocks the Monk was posing with. They’re extremely heavy-duty interlocking landscape blocks in contrasting colors:


My intention was always to do a standard vertical cinderblock wall, rebarred, cemented, and mortared. Then at the last minute we ran into a big supply problem. We could not get the bond-beam type block we wanted. I tried planning a hasty switch to a solid concrete wall, mono-poured (footer and wall in a single ready-mix pour). But that proved very expensive once both the cement truck and the wood for the forms were calculated in.

I’d been avoiding the idea of landscape block, partly because I don’t like the way it leans back into the hill (really wanted a straight wall I could sit on top of) and partly because I assumed it wasn’t strong enough. But I stumbled on these giant heavy-duty ones. They weigh nearly 50 pounds per block, have a solid lower-lip interlock and aren’t bad-looking at all. And Home Depot was willing to deliver. So there they are.

As a bonus it turns out that making a wall from these will cost considerably less in labor and secondary supplies (cement and rebar, in particular), though the block itself was on the high side, as cement blocks go.

But the main thing is, the big scary part’s done. Now it’s just the mechanics of the wall. Getting the footer right. Getting the drainage right. Making a trip across town for a pickup load of the right kind of gravel. Nothing that can’t be handled.

Given the weight of these blocks, the Monk might have to do more of the heavy lifting than I originally intended. But I’ll assist and will be in charge of aesthetics. Home Depot didn’t have enough of one color of block to make the entire wall. So I got about 4/5 rose-gray, about 1/5 gray and we’ll mix the plain grays in at carefully chosen “random” intervals.

This part of the work, I’m excited about!

And I will be so relieved this winter to have less water seeping under the house to rot and undermine the foundation. Once this is done … it’s on to the foundation itself, the last giant, scary project of all. But I’ll wait at least a few months and maybe until next year before taking that on. Enough’s enough. Mind and body will crave some rest after this.


  1. John
    John September 9, 2016 8:26 pm

    A salute to the Wandering Monk.
    Men are fools. We love it so!
    Another hundred pounds, and my back is so.

    So, will you put up a contribute link on a side.
    Not for you maybe, but so your help can have a beer and a smoke?


  2. feralfae
    feralfae September 9, 2016 8:52 pm

    John, That is a great idea. We could buy a few beers for Wandering Monk.

    Kent, I am singing that song in my head now. 🙂 Fun.

    Claire, that is a remarkable project. Congratulations on the progress!

  3. just waiting
    just waiting September 9, 2016 9:12 pm

    That’s a nice looking job there so far Claire. And that looks to be some good looking dirt you have there. Fill for across the way or are some raised planters also in your future?

  4. John
    John September 9, 2016 10:00 pm

    Hi feralfae,
    I was thinking more, a few cases. maybe one per cinderblock or so?

    See, We would need a donate / refuel link, to make this work smooth like…

    Hi ho, hi ho…

  5. Pat
    Pat September 9, 2016 11:48 pm

    They did a nice job of digging the dirt.

    Don’t know which rooms face your fence, but have you thought about painting them (if it’s worth the effort at all) — maybe pastel colors on each, or every other, panel?

    I like the two shades of block; it should break up the monotony of a retaining wall. Definitely greenery will contrast nicely; I’m inclined to think the bearberry might look well, if you don’t go for the strawberries. (Eating strawberries off the wall is like picking grapes off your private patio arbor — very decadent.)

  6. Claire
    Claire September 10, 2016 5:43 am

    Well. Block tongs. Who knew? I agree something like that would come in hugely handy and would certainly help prevent scratched-up arms. If tongs could be gotten here quickly enough, I’d certainly think about that.

    As to putting up that donate button again … thank you John and feralfae, but no. Everyone was already wildly generous to me and out of your generosity the materials got built and the Wandering Monk is being paid. He’s being paid remarkably little, given his skill, reliability, and intelligence. But he’s getting plied with snacks and paint-peelingly strong coffee and the occasional lunch, not to mention intense appreciation. He’s on his own with the smokes, though. 🙂 (And why do so many construction guys smoke?)

    So. If you really want to support the blog, just keep bookmarking and using those Amazon links. That’ll do it.

    OTOH, if you’re really determined to throw more money my way, there will soon be a non-donation way to do it — over at the private member site. Your previous donations will get you your initial membership, but you can extend those memberships as long as you like — thus benefiting both me and (I hope) yourself over the long term. You could even buy gift memberships for great freedomistas who can’t afford to join on their own. Even in beta-testing phase the site is shaping up to be a good place to congregate. Just a few more days and everybody will have the opportunity to see.

  7. Claire
    Claire September 10, 2016 5:52 am

    Pat and just waiting — The dirt got dug, though not without travail. Shovel work by the Monk went great. Lester’s tractor work was less successful. That poor old guy really was too old and feeble for the job. He labored gamely (a total of about 11 hours over the two days), but he simply no longer had the ability to properly control the machinery, causing the Monk (who supervised) much frustration.

    As to where all that dirt goes … there we really lucked out. I was thinking we’d have heaps and heaps of dirt we’d have to deal with later. But as it turned out, the guys took the extra step of spreading dirt in places (on the house side of the street) that I’d eventually have needed to level or fill, anyhow.

    There’s just enough loose dirt left to backfill behind the retaining walls. The rest — and it was a LOT of soil because we had to dig down four feet in places! — already got put to good use.

    And yes, mostly pretty decent soil, too. Some clay, there on the narrow side of the house. But mostly not bad stuff at all.

  8. M Ryan
    M Ryan September 10, 2016 9:28 am

    @ Claire – It’s good to see the progress of the excavation and work. I’m happy that there are no real issues that have reared their ugly heads (knock on wood). The wondering monk looks like a good guy and if his only serious vice is smoking, hell buy him a pack.

    Funny thing about soil dispersion we had the same issues when we built our home. There was a heck of a lot of fill left over. After spreading as much as could be used the rest I simply sold to folks in need at another job site. I didn’t get a lot but it was better than paying to have it hauled away.

    A favor please… While I don’t buy a lot off Amazon these days (I’m retired and don’t have the cash I used to) when I do it’s from the Canadian site. Could you permanently post a link to so I can at least know a few bucks will be heading your way when I order something…

    @ Arthur Murray – That tip about the block tongs was a good one. I have seen them in use before and wanted one but I always thought they were too expensive for something not used a lot. Even though they are a little more on the Canadian Amazon site I figure the grief saved is worth it. Thank you for posting the link.

  9. Comrade X
    Comrade X September 10, 2016 9:49 am

    I view these pictures and remember hand blisters and a sore back along with the good feeling a job done with hard labor & will power will leave you with once complete!

  10. Tahn
    Tahn September 10, 2016 9:50 am

    Could the store (Home Depot) who supplied the blocks loan you a block lifter (tongs)?
    Maybe a local rental store has them?

  11. Claire
    Claire September 10, 2016 11:26 am

    M Ryan — You have your very own special Amazon link now. In the same box as the U.S. Amazon link. And who knows, there might be some other Canadian Amazon shoppers lurking about.

    Tahn — There’s no local rental and Home Depot is too far away to rent and return anything from them (I’m sure HD wouldn’t loan something, in any case). But given the number and weight of the blocks, I went ahead and splurged on the tongs Arthur Murray pointed to.

    Comrade X — You’re so right. That sense of satisfaction afterward is always good. I like being DONE with the work. 🙂

  12. Joel
    Joel September 10, 2016 11:55 am

    Though I’m reluctant to introduce a negative note into this well-deserved tale of success,…

    You did all that tractor work without getting that propane tank out of the way first? I’d rather have your luck than a license to steal.

  13. Claire
    Claire September 10, 2016 12:29 pm

    Joel, I assure you that tractor was never within three feet of the propane tank.

    Still, technically yes we should have moved the tank, shoveled away the dirt underneath, and put it back. We instead decided it was safer, easier, quicker, and required no special equipment to cut around it. By hand.

  14. FishOrMan
    FishOrMan September 10, 2016 2:20 pm

    Oh, hand pick work… my back is sore from that myself.

    Grabbed a kitchen aid, (extra/smaller one going to my mom’s), about a week ago. Hope you saw it.

  15. Arthur Murray
    Arthur Murray September 10, 2016 3:15 pm

    @ Claire – RE: block tongs. You may have to perform some surgery on them. I just finished 45 feet of similar wall, using 188 blocks (most were the 81 pound, 18″L X 12″W X 8″ H, a few were 11″W, a few were 7″W – I used the different sizes to both break up the visual impact of a long run of same-size blocks and get a “fit” between the dirt walls i was working with). Anyway, I had to shorten the main frame member of the Bon block tongs about 2″ and drill a new bolt hole for them to get a solid grip on the 12″ W dimension. My first course was in a 18″W X 18″ D trench filled to 8″ from grade with hand compacted crusher run stone (a mix of 1/2″-1″ stone with the coarse “fines” (powder) from the crushing operation; lightly moistened and compacted firmly, either with a LOT of manual tamping using a steel base tamper (Home Depot, Lowe’s, Tractor Supply has them) or a gasoline powered “Jumping Jack” tamper, crusher run is nearly as solid a base as concrete, and much easier to level the base course on. I centered the base course in the trench, each block leveled F-R and L-R, and the entire run level L-R using an 8 ft mason’s level, and secured from movement with compacted crusher run in front and behind the block, between the block and trench walls.

    You mentioned you had saved dirt for backfill – it’s better to put 6″-8″ of crushed stone behind the wall, either #5 (3/4″ – 1 1/2″ stone) or 57 (5/8″- 3/4″”) to allow drainage, after you place a “U” of landscape fabric behind the wall to keep dirt fines from washing into the stone and clogging it. Leave enough extra fabric to fold it over the top of the backfill drainage stone to keep the top backfill dirt (about 12″ of dirt) from migrating into the stone from the top. 12″ of dirt is enough to plant grass or shallow rooted plants in to dress up the top of the wall. Without the fabric, eventually dirt will not only clog the crushed stone drainage, it will migrate through the wall and discolor it. If the wall is more than about 36″ high above grade, perforated drainage pipe should go behind the wall before backfilling with crushed stone, pipe inside the landscape fabric and on a bed of about 2′-3″ of stone, to carry water to daylight.

  16. Claire
    Claire September 10, 2016 5:45 pm

    Arthur Murray — Whoa, serious voice of experience.

    We’re going with a sturdy concrete footer because the wall is going to be as much as 48″ tall and although it’s not strictly holding a hill, it will be at the base of a hill which could put attitional pressures on it.

    But as to your second paragraph, you’ve pretty much described what we’re doing: perforated 4″ drain pipe wrapped in a “sock” behind the bottom of the wall; bed of rock over and a bit under the drainpipe; landscape cloth. In our case, this being such a soggy climate, we’ll also have 3/4″ PVC weep holes at intervals above the drainpipe. So got that covered.

    While we will be using dirt to backfill, it will only be above a well-designed drainage system.

    Sounds like an impressive wall you built. Hm. Mine might be impressive, too. I hope. There are 215 blocks on those pallets out there. Whether we use them all is another question. Might let the wall be lower in some places and save the extra block for future projects. We shall see.

  17. Claire
    Claire September 10, 2016 5:55 pm

    “Oh, hand pick work… my back is sore from that myself.”

    Oh, FishOrMan. Were you doing that sort of work, too? Or does just the thought make you ache? LOL. I’m sure glad I didn’t have to do that part. Even the strapping young Monk got pretty sore and tired.

    That KitchenAid … was it red? Or did it at least have an illustration of a red model on the page? I remember that coming through. Thank you.

  18. woodshopdoug
    woodshopdoug September 10, 2016 6:22 pm

    Why constructive guys smoke – from all that intense appreciation shown by customers! and having there tails ridden hard by not so nice bosses.

  19. FishOrMan
    FishOrMan September 10, 2016 11:47 pm

    Yup, it was red. 🙂 And I’m trying to finish up a back yard ground level deck. Lots of rainwater issues to deal with here in the wet skagit valley. Not too much pick work was required, (and “required” is the only time I wanna touch that thing), but what was was still more than enough.

  20. Arthur Murray
    Arthur Murray September 11, 2016 2:32 am

    I don’t know that my wall is impressive, it’s just a wall (the ibuprofen bill during construction, now that was impressive….). I cut into a bank to double the size of my patio and needed a wall to prevent erosion of the cut bank and keep the dirt in check, and landscape block was the cheapest and most DIY-friendly solution. RE: weep holes. I cheated a bit – my wall is 48″ high above grade (measurement includes the 4″ thick cap blocks), and rather than drill holes into the blocks for through-drainage I used a piece of 20 gauge stainless steel sheet (scrap from a friend who builds commercial kitchens) as a fitment spacer to create a tiny gap between the blocks when I was placing them. 20 gauge (.036″) is very slightly thicker than 1/32″, after flat sanding to make sure it was flat and smooth mine measured a “fat” 1/32″. That gave me a drainage gap between each block, and since the gap is uniform it doesn’t catch the eye and it’s narrow enough that none of the #5 stone between the back of the wall and the dirt bank will come through the gap (I placed the landscape fabric only up to the 3rd course of above-grade block behind the wall, but completely covered the dirt bank plus 2 ft. to fold over the #5 backfill, which fills the 10″ between block and dirt). I anticipate that some of the stone dust left on the #5 may wash through the wall gaps during the first couple years, but it’ll be about the same color as the block. Whether lots of small gaps works as well as several PVC pipes to keep water pressure from pushing the wall, well, I’ll find out. My climate is a lot drier than yours, so maybe I’ll luck out.

  21. Ellendra
    Ellendra September 12, 2016 9:32 am

    “Strapping young Monk” indeed. Am I the only one who thinks he’s kinda cute?

  22. Claire
    Claire September 12, 2016 10:44 am

    You’re not the only one, Ellendra. If I were only a few years younger …

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