Set in stone

Photo by Deena Feinberg

Stone-wall building is a dying art. Manufactured materials, comprised of cement, are cheaper substitutes; easier to work with than the real thing. One can dictate form and shape to the material. With real stone, it’s more of a conversation.

To create a solid and aesthetically pleasing stone wall requires master craftsman, which is to say a dedicated, focused artist who isn’t afraid to spend his days doing back-breaking labor. It takes a special breed.

Unfortunately for the profession, it seems to be a pursuit that attracts few young people.

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A stone wall needs to be structurally sound and well drained, to prevent collapse from frost heaving the ground. But it should also be beautiful – graced with a richness of texture and form with an overall simplicity. It should “talk out,” as master stone mason Kenny Ostrander puts it.

Ostrander, descended from Dutch settlers who migrated to Silver Hollow, four miles north of Willow, and farmed there for over a century, makes stone walls the traditional way: he dry-lays fieldstones foraged from the woods and places them according to their natural shapes and aesthetic qualities, with minimal interference. Sometimes he’ll use a carpenter’s axe—a Norwegian hand-forged hatchet with a square head opposing the blade—to lop off a piece to make the stone fit better, but that’s it: the wall is mostly laid by hand using found-stones. Placement is everything. It takes an expert eye to know where to put the “stand-ups” (upright stones).

“It’s a compromise between ‘I really like that there, but is it structurally okay?’” said Ostrander one recent morning, as we stood admiring a wall, patio, bluestone threshold and wellhead he built around a stone house on Glasco Turnpike. The yard-high retaining wall, a cacophony of irregularly shaped stones in muted blues, grays, ochers, and russets fitted into a well-formed three-dimensional L, was a harmonization of nature and art. One stone wedged in the corner stood out for its veins of sparkling quartz. The “zebra striping,” convex bulge on its side and position at the corner invested the wall with a lively energy and contrast, breaking up the monotony of the ubiquitous bluestone. “In my lifetime I’ve picked over a 1,000 tons of stone and I’ve only seen that stone twice,” Ostrander said, noting it was probably transported to the area by the glacier. Normally, when he finds uniquely colored or shaped stones in the forest—he calls them flints—he saves them for fireplaces, but occasionally he’ll put them in a wall for a special client.

Like a mosaic
Ostrander has been building stone walls for 21 years. Although he relies on helpers for transporting and placing the stone, he essentially works alone, positioning each stone himself. His ability to “read the faces of the stone and know how to place them best and make the wall talk out”—his control over the stone—is what brings him clients, though they usually can’t explain why it looks great. One client, a Willow lawyer, came close.
Returning from a vacation in the south of France with his wife, he marveled at a retaining wall Ostrander built around his pool. It looked like walls they’d seen in Europe. “They talked about how it was like a mosaic,” Ostrander recalled.

Ostrander builds the wall stone by stone, scanning the length to see where a particular stone fits and flipping it over if the stone doesn’t quite sit right. “Your eye will start to catch different shapes, how one rock hooks around another,” he said. It’s the art of knowing “how you’re going to fill the next void. The trick is to get that stone out of hand and go to the next one.” From a structural perspective, you also have to know where to place the “chinkers” – support pieces, positioned in the back of the wall. And there can’t be too many hollows and voids, or the bottom will bulge out.

Ostrander builds stone patios, freestanding and retaining walls, fireplaces, and even rugged log cabins (he lives in one he built off the grid, on 50 acres of woods he owns in Willow). While he uses mortar in some projects—such as this property’s wellhead, which resembles a solid stone bench, capped with a big slab of bluestone—he prefers not to: it slows him down. “You have to clean up all your joints, or the job is shot. Whereas with the dry laid, I just lay the stone and it’s done.”

Ostrander has learned to sense when a client wants the “long lacy uniform look” of a quarry stone wall. Many people find his fieldstone walls “too unruly,” but it’s his personal preference: “This just flows. I can do this without thinking.”

Fortunately, the Woodstock area abounds with creative types who appreciate his artistry; Ostrander said two-thirds of his clients are people involved in the arts, including musicians, artists, and a ballet master. A photographer commissioned the next project on our tour, a beautiful free-standing dry-laid wall with a curve at both ends, each buttressed and subtly inclined, in Woodstock. The structure separates the property from the road in a graceful, understated way, an ordered work of natural beauty that nicely complements the townscape.

Finding stones no easy task

The first thing Ostrander asks potential clients who own land is whether they have a quarry on their property. If so, the job will be that much cheaper. Sometimes he’ll use stones from his own land instead of purchasing them elsewhere to reduce costs.

“You have to put a lot of energy to get this stuff,” Ostrander said. “You put in days of your time with no pay, and it’s dangerous.”

He’s confident moving stone out of abandoned quarries using his John Deere tractor because of his long experience with machinery, which started with running a giant log skidder on the side of a 3,000-foot mountain in the woods when he was just out of high school. A relatively new risk of working in the woods is Lyme disease, which Ostrander contracted two years ago. At the worst of it, he felt like he’d “never walk again” but he’s fine now.

The other is mold, which covers the underside of the stones lifted from old piles in the woods. “My gloves are green at the end of the day,” Ostrander said. He blames the mold for a sinus condition.

Many jobs require him to travel as far as Pennsylvania to buy stones, particularly large bluestones, which have been pretty much picked over in this area. The stone is sawn in big sheets with diamond blades; to give it an antique look, Ostrander will “pitch” the stone—create a face on it with a chisel. In many cases, the bulk of his time is spent in obtaining the stone. That was the certainly the case for the most unusual job he has ever done—a re-creation of Stonehenge, commissioned at the height of the boom several years ago. Ostrander spent three days on the road looking for six to eight huge stones, which cost $10,000. The job called for the stones to be buried four feet deep in the ground on a site along the side of West Ohayo Mountain. They were placed by a friend operating an excavator at considerable risk. “He knew what he was doing, but it was still dangerous. The owner has no idea what went into it.”

Ostrander basically taught himself how to build stone walls. When he was in his late-twenties, he was caretaking at a house in Woodstock. Looking for something to do, he tried taking apart and reassembling a wall there. “I got it apart and I’m like, ‘what did you do?’ I thought the hair was going to fall out of my head I was concentrating so hard putting that back together.”

He used stone from an old cabin foundation on his property for his first job, a dry-laid wall in the neighborhood behind the Woodstock golf course. The wall, built of 20 tons of uniform flat fieldstones, all hand-picked, has held up well. “I’m glad it hasn’t been hit by the snowplow,” Ostrander said, during a visit later that morning. He was paid $2,600 for the wall, a job that would be worth $20,000 today.

Ostrander said cultivating long-term relationships with landowners has been crucial: they let him forage for stones on their property, trusting him to provide fair compensation and not pestering him about insurance issues. Unfortunately, those types of relationships are coming to an end.

And while the influx of second-homers has provided the work he needs to continue, he regrets the loss of a subsistence way of life, when people were dependent on the land. Grateful that his home turf of Willow has escaped development and is basically the same as when he was growing up—he shares his land with turkeys, deer, bear and bobcats—Ostrander said at the same time he’s not happy “we’re preserving everything in formaldehyde, as something just to look at. I’m a dinosaur.”

Fortunately, landscaping is the one construction trade that hasn’t been hemmed in by bureaucracies. “I get paid to be in the forest to forage for the stones and then to come to the job and hang out outside. There’s a freedom about it. I can meet with an owner on Friday afternoon, have him show me what he wants me to do, and start on Monday.”

Belonging to the land
While Ostrander said he loves to teach others his skills, but he doesn’t meet many younger people interested in learning the craft. But they’re out there. One outstanding exception to that trend is Dean Osterhoudt, 18 years Ostrander’s junior, a native of West Hurley who also is descended from 17th-century Dutch settlers. He, too, relies on his own land, 40 acres of woods with an abandoned quarry, for material. Osterhoudt apprenticed with Peter Gaffney, a master stone mason from Ireland, for five years following high school; when Gaffney abruptly died, he finished his education with an additional year under his wife’s uncle, Harry Wilber, Jr. The next year, he went into business for himself, eventually building it up to the point where he was grossing $1 million in 2006, at the height of the boom.

Like Ostrander, Osterhoudt said the downturn has been tough. And he concurs with the older man that finding committed workers willing to do the hard work is a constant challenge. “They want the paycheck, but they don’t want to work,” he said. The costs of running an above-board business are also prohibitive: Osterhoudt estimated he spends 30 cents on every dollar he makes on workers’ comp, insurance, and other state-required expenses. “The cost of insurance alone is enough to bury a man,” he said. “It’s a struggle.”

Nonetheless, Osterhoudt loves what he does and obviously is blessed not only with the physical strength and committed work ethic, but also the special talent. “Your senses have to be keen. You have to know how to shape a rock, hold it and listen to it when you’re cutting into it,” he said. “When the steel hammer strikes the rock, you have to know how hard it is, how it wants to break. And when you start putting the rocks together, there are certain dos and don’ts, in terms of how good it will look, how strong it will be, how rocks lay on top of each other.”

Osterhoudt builds dry-laid walls using what he calls the buttress technique, in which the base is wider than the top. However, because a tight dry-laid wall costs up to $100 per square foot, many of his clients opt for a solution that offers the same effect for much less money. For example, he’ll construct a wall out of poured concrete and block, which is then faced with “blue blacks”—Osterhoudt’s term for the native blue stone.
We are standing in front of a modern house on Ringtop Road, in Kingston, the site of a major landscaping project recently completed by Osterhoudt: a handsome stone retaining wall, wall-faced house foundation, concrete driveway and walkways, and rear bluestone patio. The job involved ripping up an asphalt driveway, and the result is a harmonious softening of the hard edges and stark appearance that sometimes afflict newer, ranch-style houses. This one now looks nestled into its hilltop yard, the natural stone facing on the concrete block foundation giving it a pleasing weight and look of belonging to the land.

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Pulling off such a job required a formidable level of skill and artistry. Passersby noticed; the job helped Osterhoudt garner more work in the neighborhood, including reinforcing an old dry-laid wall located across the street. Each of the stones in the free-form curve of the retaining wall was chiseled to fit. To avoid monotony, the flat, rectangular stones were arranged in a staggered pattern with none of the bed (horizontal) joints measuring more than six feet nor the cross (vertical) joints more than 10 inches. The color is also varied, with blue blacks interspersed with reddish, gray and yellowish stones, obtained from a stone yard in Delhi, which are softer and lighter in color. The patio in the back of the house, cut out of old pieces of flagstone the owner had on hand, adheres to the same pleasing aesthetic of a varied color and pattern.

The walls he constructed on the property have solid concrete footings, to ensure stability. The wall facing along the house foundation, which curls around the front corner, is only two inches thick, but it looks like it’s integral to the house, thanks to the careful mitering. Osterhoudt said a popular alternative for such jobs is man-made stone, but he always prefers the real thing, which doesn’t fade, is irregularly textured and, when laid, avoids the monotonous sameness of identical parts.

Osterhoudt’s training included all aspects of masonry, including pouring concrete and laying brick. Over the years, he’s refined his artistry with a number of custom jobs. He credits client John Henson (son of Jim) for teaching him how to dress up stones with an etched capstone and edge; Osterhoudt’s work for Henson’s place in Saugerties includes a gable stone entrance in which bluestone is masterfully arranged in long radials extending from the round top of a door and an oval window. “I can give people what they want because I learned to cater to people like Henson,” he said.

Osterhoudt also specializes in Rumford fireplaces, a special, energy-efficient design involving a prefab clay smoke shell, which was popular in the U.S. from 1796—Jefferson adopted the design at Monticello—to the 1850s, along with conventional hearths. Samples of his walls, patios, stonework, fireplaces, brickwork, and poured foundations can be viewed on his website, www.osterhoudtmasonry.com.

While he said he especially enjoys laying brick, he never tires of working with the native stone—blue blacks hauled out of the rubbish piles in the abandoned quarry on his land. “It’ll take years to pick through all the stuff on my property,” he said. Compared to picking up a load of stone from Delhi, “it’s a fight. Our stone is more dense, and you have to pry it out of the ground. But I like the way it cuts. It’s predictable.” There’s nothing like working with stone, he added. “With real stone, you avoid repetitiveness. Every stone is a little different.”

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