Monday, June 10, 2013

How to Construct a Retaining Wall

I showed you back in this post how a new retaining wall turned out in the front yard, well the following weekend my hubby was back at it again on the other side of the driveway. Because he is so good at making retaining walls, I figured I would take more in-detail pictures to show you the steps he takes.

We were building a circle wall to go around a tree, but these steps will also be used in making a strait or curving wall that is holding the earth back from someplace you don't want it to be.

Step #1: Finding and Purchasing your Blocks
My husband owns and runs a used car dealership, so he has many choices of vehicles to bring home. Last weekend with the first retaining wall he brought home a huge pick-up truck. Well, he sold it during the week, so we were left with a small SUV. I would suggest trying to use a pick-up, borrow a pick-up, getting smaller batches if you don't have a pick-up or just having them delivered from the home improvement store. Wow, I said pick-up a lot in that paragraph... This smaller wall ended up using 55 blocks. The first larger retaining wall used 70 blocks!

Step #2 Gather the Tools you will Need
Here is a picture of the tools that we use with each wall. You may use others, or not use the same as us. See what works the best for you and use those!

  • Sod Cutter-cutting sod into easily removable strips 
  • Large Level-making sure the whole wall is level
  • Small Level-checking each individual block as you go
  • Hatchet-to remove sod in even smaller pieces
  • Medium Level-to check the level of three blocks across
  • Gloves-to save your hands from the drying cement on skin
  • Pic Ax-hubby's new favorite for removing sod quickly

As you will see below we also purchased a cement circular saw cutting blade also.

Step #3 Setting the first Block
It was kind of funny talking to my hubby about the directions for this post. His only comment was "Get the first block level and your set". You will need to find the lowest point of the earth that you want your wall on. You then start the first block on that lowest point. Remove the sod, or flatten the dirt if you have no grass there. When setting the first block you need to be absolutely sure it is level from front to back and left to right. If your first block isn't level, your wall won't be level and it will just look bad. This is where the small level comes in handy. Be sure to check EVERY SINGLE block for level. They might shift a little and you can fix it before the whole wall is finished then.

Step #4 Keep setting the Ground Level Blocks
Once the first one is level, move to either side of the low point and level more blocks. It may take some time, it is hard work. Take your time and drink water if it is hot out! Check the level of the three blocks with the medium level to make sure the outermost blocks are level with each other. If these are still level, you are on the right path. If not, stop now and fix them until they are level.

Step #5 Stepping the Blocks
At some point, unless your ground is perfectly level, you will need to step up the blocks. This is because you started at the lowest point of the wall. You will need to judge as to when the block you just laid is level with the earth next to it. At that point you can add the extra blocks on top of the row you finished and then level the next stone with the earth and the second row of blocks. Make sure this block is level and not wobbly at all. This will also effect the sturdiness of the wall.

Step #6 Lunch Time & Free Entertainment
By the time you are stepping up the wall, you might need a break and some lunch. I always make sure that we eat lunch outside during one of these projects, because the guys are normally very dirty. We were lucky enough to have some free entertainment this weekend. We live a few blocks away from a small airport, and they were having their annual Air Show. We had so many cool planes flying overhead all day long. We did stop quite frequently to look up to see which plane was flying over.

Step #7 Keep working on the Rows of Block
Keep going, stepping up and adding to the top rows of your wall. When you start reaching the end you will need to judge how to finish it off. Our last wall we were lucky enough that the last block fit in without needing to be cut. This wall we were not that lucky. At that point we called it a day and went shopping for a new blade to cut the block.

Step #8 Cutting Cement Blocks
We found a circular saw blade that would cut through cement and stone. It cost $20 at the Home Depot, but hubby said it was worth every penny. He set up scrap pieces of wood on the driveway to elevate the block that needed to be cut. After measuring and marking the block for the cut, he went to work. It needed to be cut on all four sides, but only took about 3 minutes to complete. It was VERY dusty and loud. Not sure if the graduation party three doors down appreciated us at that moment. Just make slow cuts and it goes through like butter. My hubby now can't wait to do more walls and paver patios that I have planned now that he has this blade. Yea for me :)

Step #9 Set in that Last Block
Now we purchased the type of blocks that have a lip on the back bottom of them to lock them into place once back filled, so we didn't need any construction adhesive. That will come into play when we do the cap stones at a later date. If your measuring was accurate, that last stone should just fit the empty space like a glove.

Step #10 Finishing up
Step back, enjoy your work, perhaps pop an adult beverage. The wall is finished, but remember you will need to back fill with dirt or compost to give the wall it's strength. At that point you can add plants or flowers to make it your own. We divided hostas from the back yard, you can read how to do that here. You can see by the picture below, our maple trees throw off quite a bit of shade, so hostas were a natural choice. Also be sure to receive the neighbors complements gracefully. Because everybody in your neighborhood has been watching you all day to see what your doing!

 I am sharing this post with all of these lovely bloggers.


  1. We just did a HUGE retaining wall project at our house but there were a lot more steps than this for us with such a large project. :)

  2. What a great tutorial you have on building a retaining wall. It is hard work and you made it look easy. Thank you for sharing with the Clever Chicks Blog Hop this week; I hope you’ll join us again!

    Kathy Shea Mormino

    The Chicken Chick

  3. Great tutorial, but I'd like to invite you and hubby to practice building another retaining wall for us. Thanks for sharing at Inspire Us Thursday at Organized 31.

  4. I've been thinking about adding retaining walls to my yard, but I'm not sure if I should attempt them myself or higher a professional landscaper to put them in. I am not the most handy person, so I'm leaning towards getting someone else to do it. How easy would you say this project is for the average person?

    1. It really isn't that hard. We can normally crank out a smallish wall in one Saturday. The hardest part for me is carrying the blocks as they are heavy. Hubby says the hardest part is getting the first block level and then being on his knees all day. If you start with a smaller wall, you will see it is not that hard to DIY at all!

      Let me know how it goes.

  5. This does look like a great DIY project! Recently we had EP Henry Roxbury come out and add retaining walls in our backyard and we loved them so much we want to add more. It's funny how popular retaining walls in nj are becoming! I think I am going to forward this to my husband so we can get started!

    1. Don't go getting me into trouble with your husband though!

  6. thank you for this very informative post and tutorial. Im gonna apply this at home cos im planning to retain the walls in my garden.

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  7. Thanks for posting this. I have been wanting to put in a landscaping retaining wall for my yard.

  8. Thank you Agnes. On tip four, when you are laying the bricks, what tools did you to level out the ground? How much should you be removing before stepping the blocks?

    Wayne. |

  9. Adding retaining walls is a great way to keep your trees and plants healthy. This also provides protect from animals and keep rodents away. I did this with the help of some of my friends and I did my entire garden.

  10. I appreciate your manner of writing about retaining walls warwick qld i would like to thanks to share such a great info with us and want to continue with your blogs.

  11. I really love the look of that retaining wall around your tree! It probably makes mowing the grass a little easier. You said you didn't have to add any sort of adhesive to make sure all the blocks stay in place?

  12. We are installing a tennis court in our neighborhood and have been asked about what additions we would like to see added. I recommended constructing a retaining wall for the court. The ball always gets stuck in the fence when we play.

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  14. I'm really glad that you've posted this information about how to build a retaining wall. I've moved into a house that was built on a really steep hill. Parts of my yard would sometimes slide into the neighbor's yard. They have a problem with this, so I need to have a retaining wall built to keep my yard right where it is.

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