Cutting And Shaping Rock And Cement – Part One

This is an old favorite post of mine I thought I might recirculate. The subject matter – shaping rocks – is about as old as prehistory – and we know that is some really, really, really old stuff. In fact, it is an excellent concept for placing the interaction between Mankind and Rocks closer to Infinity.

Modern concrete technology is now proud of its replication of rocks. When replicating rocks is considered “modern”, then you have to realize rocks carry some value which might just mirror their age – often counted in billions of years, which is dang old.

Anyway, here is my experience with these hardbodies. ;-)

As if anyone wondered……..rocks are some incredibly hard stuff. ;-)

Particularly rocks such as granite, marble and the various basalts landscapers encounter on a regular basis. Concrete products are obviously much the same – hard, unyielding and perfectly suited for their roles in pavements and building construction.

During the processes of landscaping, we are often asked to make products we use conform to our weird ideas and plans no matter how seemingly impractical on the face of it.  In terms of your basic rock impediments, we can encounter huge boulders right smack in the ground where no one guessed they would be. Take it from one who knows – as is illustrated further down – this happens.

So we learn ways of dealing with all aspects – boulder impediments, shaping stuff for practical and aesthetic purposes, slicing bricks to help us make a curving effect, cutting rocks up to clear room or to actually use.  We learn about cutting brick pavers and wall systems; we learn about the tolerable gaps which maintain the security while allowing us to provide a curving element to the landscape.

(enlarge any picture by left-clicking – some, twice, to get real detail)

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What happens in the length of a landscaping career for the luckier – (or is that “Unluckier?” I forget!)  is that we run into these great persons with great tools, who can direct our energies to rectifying our little problems. Being willing to learn and listen comes in very handy when dealing with some of these smart fella’s who specialize in things we never even heard of.

As a perfect example, I was taught by an elderly Italian guy how to cut granite into increasingly small sizes. Here’s the formula:

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Seems simple, eh? These little items go by various names – we called them “Pins and Feathers”, although I have also seen them as “Plugs and Feathers”.

But wait. The addition of a small sledge hammer and a masonry power drill complete the picture. Generally, as can be seen, the process does not involve dramatically pneumatic or gas-powered machinery. Nor does it involve psychic power to discern “weak spots” or advantageous lines for the work. The nature of these stones are somewhat uniformly crystalline – with some exceptions being breakage in handling – so one can literally create the line one desires to establish.

When all are engaged, it looks something like this piece of marble prepped for sectioning – prior to gentle taps which serve to break the stone:

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To relate all this to my existence, a small story:

We encountered a project in Deep Cove, British Columbia (a gorgeous suburb of Vancouver, hard by the Burrard Inlet) on a chunk of land which was something like 30′ wide by about 200′ long – one of those chopped-up residential sections specially-inserted to allow more people to savor the salt air and shoreline. The property was shoreline property with a severe slope to the rear and a long boat pier extending outwards in to bay. Our client was interested in our  somehow providing some specific landscaping wants – walls for perennial beds, the irrigated lawn, a paver walkway and landscaped stairs to conduct folks down easier to the pier and his boat (s). Needless to say, it was an architectural feast for an innovative home designer and I was the chosen fool to implement the outdoor plan. The house itself was marvelously eccentric – as was the owner, lol.

Well we ran into “issues” right off the bat. Needless to say, the sloping nature of the hillside was the geological result of rock behaving very much like rock – in this case, the common granite which composes so much of the area’s geology. To make matters worse, the home was a replacement and “improvement” over what had once been there – all landscaped and apparently full of great pockets of soil.

Here, thanks to the Deep Cove Yacht Club (link provided) is a look at the small burg and it’s lovely setting. The home referred to in this post is on the left back, about a mile from the harbor park, one of the piers jutting out into the bay. It’s pretty easy to see why someone would want to live there.

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All that aside, we return to how great the landscaping looked to deal with and how simple this was going to be.  ;-)

Au Contraire.  Not really. I was kidding and so was Fate.

“Hey, Steve! This crap is all rock!”

As we stuck one of our first stabs of our ubiquitous shovels into what we figured was a great lush dollop of dirt, we heard the clang of all clangs and, as we explored more, we realized we were plain on top of good old rock. Lots of rock. Tons of rock. Uh oh.

“There”, thought I, “goes a perfectly good plan.”

We had a wall designed to be out front and, to be honest, we had not really investigated very thoroughly, seeing as how it was a long ride out through traffic to assess the place and it was in the midst of a rainy season. But – the saving grace: the “Price was Right” – we had something of a license to make it all work. It was an interesting moment.

Fortunately for me, I had been watching another construction project down the street that very first morning. Indeed, my attention was ostensibly focused on how they arranged parking (my original impetus) on the narrow little street. (One learns as a contractor – real early – to grease the wheels of all trades in a neighborhood, including those on separate projects! This is called “Survival”, for those wondering.).

That then led to more than one handy discovery, as I illustrate below. I also advised them that we had deliveries of fairly large stuff scheduled which might block access at a future point – always a landscaping dilemma.

As we conversed about logistics and what we could do for them to trade favors during the course of both projects, I could not help but notice the masons who were constructing the entire face of this other cool home with a Granite facing. I watched, fascinated, as an older gent ran his rock drill into a large slab of native granite, piecing off chunks of the stuff for the guys inserting these “chunks” into cement, and into what was an absolutely gorgeous finish.

He was amazing. He’d drill holes along this line of his devices – usually no more than 3 holes – and then add some grease to his “Pins and Feathers”, then insert them into the holes, wedges facing out. He tapped on the “pins”, just firmly, not terrifically hard, very patiently, running from one to the other in sequence. As he did this, suddenly you’d hear this cracking sound and the entire rock would split, exactly where he wanted . It would just fall right off into the pile of other pieces.

Here is a Youtube vid of a guy doing much the same thing. He is unidentifiable and therefore unattributable for credit by any means I can find, but his lesson is perfect and the video aptly describes the process to a ‘Tee’. The virtue of this video is in how it deals with a general stone – one which could be used as either an example of creating shapes or in removing obstacles. Both are the same, in the end.

Remember to wear your ear muffs as you watch this drilling festival – it ends soon enough, lol:

Indeed, cutting huge slabs of granite into increasingly smaller pieces turns out to be somewhat simple. It hurts, “giving away the store” like this – I mean, it seems so specialized – but this is one highly satisfying chore, in the end. It always seemed so “Lilliputian”!  ;-)

Anyway, as we discovered our rock hard impasse, I returned to the guy and asked if he’d give me some advice on how to deal with things. He was kind enough to wander up with me to assess my situation.

He was a virtual fount of information. I showed him the parameters of the dilemma and he had a very ready answer: “No problem! Just cut that granite out and use it for the wall!”

I blinked and asked if he’d help us out. We could wait for him to finish down the street seeing as how we had major work first, out back. He then informed me he was booked for 2 years, lol. My heart sank.

He smiled at me, seeing my obvious disappointment. “Tell you what,” he said. “You stay around after work and I’ll teach you how to do it. You’ll learn this in about 20 minutes.” I was dubious, but I was young and dumb and this guy was one interesting as heck guy. I gladly complied.

He came up and I delivered the promised beer – (a detail I omitted). In the end, it turned out he was right. Within 30 minutes, I had cut through two big portions of the impeding granite rock. I could barely contain myself, I was so crazy happy. He saw my wonder at the result and he well knew he’d “hooked me” into the whole “rock-shaping” world – a place where no one can be unaffected. I guess it’s short of “orgasmic” or “Cathartic” – but I wonder. ;-)

All of you “Closet Rock Fans” should thoroughly enjoy this next video!

True Rock Fans will endure this next one as well – especially inasmuch as it displays authentic and melodic Music. It’s a party. You also have to love the safety boots.

The project was an unmitigated success in the end – except for the raccoons – but that’s another tale.

2 thoughts on “Cutting And Shaping Rock And Cement – Part One

  1. Hi, the first You Tube video you posted – “Shorter Rock Splitting” was mine. I live in Port Coq. so it was nice to see it used locally. Feel free to use it, no problem. Like to see more of your work one day. I’m an amateur stone guy but a professional instructional designer. The video was an exercise for a course I was in.

  2. Wow, how cool, Brian. Thanks for checking it out. You would obviously have enjoyed my depiction of Deep Cove, being from Port Coquitlam, lol. Hey – I loved that vid. Thank you so much.

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