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What is a Dry Stone Wall

A Dry Stone Wall is one that has been built using ONLY stone, without the use of any mortar or concrete. A well-built dry stone wall can be as strong as a mortared stone wall, yet at the same time flexible enough to adapt to its environment. Aesthetically pleasing, they enhance the beauty of the landscape.

Other advantages of dry stone walls include: economical to build – no concrete foundation or mortar filling; durable and flexible, requiring minimal maintenance; no unsightly expansion joints; self-draining, so less liable to damage from frost, subsidence, ground heave or thermal movement; secure habitat for a varied range of flora and fauna.

Dry stone walls can provide durable stock-proof fencing; they have a low-carbon footprint and are completely recyclable. See downloadable PDF's below for full list of benefits of dry stone walls and dry stone retaining walls. ​

Examples of Dry Stone

(click on the images to expand them)


Identifying Dry Stone Walls

So how do I know when I see a wall if it is dry stone or not, OR How do I know if my wall is dry stone?
If it is dry stone it will most likely be a wall/feature on the landscape like a field wall or a retaining wall and NOT a part of a building. There are of course many examples of dry stone buildings in Ireland but these have been mainly for agricultural use and not habitation for quite some time.

The vast majority of stone buildings in use as homes in Ireland today are NOT dry built or dry stone. If something is dry stone built there will be spaces or voids in between the stones in places where nothing but air exists. As a result a dry stone wall and a masonry wall or stone veneer will have a very different appearance. The masonry or veneer will look different in the light and will reflect light from the solid surface.

A dry stone wall will absorb light in places and will cast shadows across the stone in the wall therefore giving the impression of being more three dimensional than the solid masonry wall.
A dry stone wall is built using one single material, stone, and nothing else.
If you look at any wall it should be easy to tell quite quickly whether it is dry stone in construction or not. Here are a few pointers for the lay person:


  •  Mortar or cement can clearly be seen between the stones binding them together and waterproofing the wall.

  •  If no mortar is immediately obvious between the stones this does not necessarily mean that the wall/structure is dry in construction. Another clear sign that a wall is not dry stone is where a gap exists between the stones but neither do they touch each other. This type of construction is bad practice and can lead to problems with the ingress of damp and frost so loosening stones which eventually fall out or cause cracks in the mortar which leads to water getting in behind the stone and into the wall or even building.

  • If no mortar is visible between the stones and there is also contact between the stones themselves (i.e. the stones are touching) it can be possible to detect if the wall is dry stone by looking at it from the inside where often a concrete block work wall forms a supporting skin.§ In addition a ‘dry-faced veneer’ such as this can be identified by the presence of cement in the centre of the wall when viewed from above.

  • If the stones in the wall have good contact between them and wall is covered with stones which span the wall preventing inspection of the centre of the wall and both the outside and inside show a stone face it can be difficult to clearly identify if the work is dry but a dry stone waller or mason should be able to tell within a few moments.

  • If you have gone through all the points above and are still unsure whether your wall is dry stone or not contact DSWAI and we may be able to help clarify the matter for you. Take note that photographs are always useful when wishing to determine the method of how a wall was built so if you can send us an image this will also help.​


Some helpful DSWAI definitions

Dry Stone (drr- eye, ss-t-own):

Meaning stone built without the use of mortar i.e. using one single material in construction, namely stone OR where stones are combined in such a way as they gain their structural integrity from their connection to each other and without recourse to any other agent such as mortar.


Dry Stone Wall (drr-eye, ss-t-own, w-awl):

Building term referring to a wall constructed using ONLY stone and WITHOUT any mortar or supporting secondary material such cement or a block work wall background.


Masonry (may-sun-ree):

Building term referring to the use of stone in conjunction with mortar to assist in strengthening and weatherproofing where needed. Masonry is stone work using mortar and stone in many various forms from random rubble to ashlar and cut stone architectural features etc.


Dry-faced work (drr-eye, fay-sd, were-ke):

Modern building term referring to stone work where the mortar is held back from the face of the stone to give the impression of being constructed dry stone. 

Often referred to incorrectly by stone masons and the public as ‘dry stone’, this type of masonry needs to be built using dry stone principles (eg. stone to stone contact at the wall face top and bottom bed) or there is a strong likelihood of structural failure or shortened lifespan to the work. DRY FACED IS NOT DRY BUILT OR DRY STONE. Only a wall built using just stone and without the addition of mortar (cement) is a dry stone wall. 


A few examples of various Irish dry stone walls

(click on the images to expand them)

llustrations courtesy of Rory O'Shaughnessy ©

llustrations courtesy of Rory O'Shaughnessy ©

llustrations courtesy of Rory O'Shaughnessy ©

llustrations courtesy of Rory O'Shaughnessy ©

llustrations courtesy of Rory O'Shaughnessy ©

llustrations courtesy of Rory O'Shaughnessy ©

llustrations courtesy of Rory O'Shaughnessy ©

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