Re: Rock fireplace
From: Buzz Burrell (
Date: Tue, 28 Jul 1998 14:56:54 -0500
On 7/27/98 10:23 PM Stephanie Weigle wrote:

>Greetings!  We have gotten the go-ahead to use river rocks from our site 
>(currently being excavated) to exercise our sweat equity and build our 
>fireplace face in the commmon house.  It was originally spec'ed with some 
fake rock 
>covering.  While we are looking forward to this bonding (mortaring?) 
>community experience, there is no one in the group with extensive masonry 
>especially when it comes to using rocks for the fireplace.  The actual 
>construction event is a ways off, so I am writing to see if anyone has good 
>ideas for resources (books, people, videos) that might set us on the right 
>track in the meantime, so we can maybe practice and know what to expect.  I 
>thinking as an example of the Foxfire references that showed how to do all 
>sorts of self-sufficiency projects.

Congratulations on a good idea for sweat equity and community building, 
and avoiding the faux rock (concrete).

For all construction books, go to:  This is an excellent 
(For books in general, go to:

Normally I would suggest you not use river rock, since it is much more 
difficult to lay up than sandstone (as 4" deep face blocks), which is 
readily available in your area, but since you are "River Rock Cohousing", 
I see your point!

The easist thing to do is hire a single mason to work with you.  That way 
you also get tools to use, instead of having to rent or buy them.

Consider also landscape retaining walls out of river rock.  If they are 
low and your sub is very good, you may be able to place rock on one side 
of the form before pouring the concrete, strip one form while the 
concrete is still green, and "point" (clean up) the joints before it 
fully sets. 

Another cool thing is to use them, or mimic their use, with "exposed 
aggregate" flatwork.  On walks, driveways, or patios, use a large 
aggregate in the concrete mix, then hose it down and brush off the top 
layer of concrete before it sets (good flatwork subs know how to do 
this).  The effect is like cobblestone.  You can enhance it by using 
colored stones and white cement, or regular stones and color the cement 
red (like the canyon walls). 

For the all-out approach (my specialty), and entirely do-it-yourself, try 
these fun projects:

1. Create designs with river rock, accentuating certain areas in your 
site plan, such as social spaces, meditation, etc.  Lay down a layer of 
landscape paper (impervious to weeds), then sand, then make a mandala 
with variable sized and colored rocks.  This takes no tools or skill, and 
is quite fun.  And if someone doesn't like it, they can change it and do 
it themselves (big plus for cohousing).

2. Skip the paper, use soil instead of sand, and do a rock garden (these 
used to be popular).  Plant creeping perennials (they must compete well 
as rock gardens don't take to weeding) and add dimensionality with some 
huge boulders as well as rocks and stones. 

3. Another neat thing is to implant your most interesting rocks directly 
into wet flatwork (plan ahead);  this breaks it up so your patio doesn't 
look like a miniature parking lot.  

4. All these schemes work well with pools of water (use a solar-only pump 
to circulate a little stream flowing into a pool).  

Natural processes are the best (only?) design instructor.  Therefore, 
since river rock came from the horizontal, to return it to horizontal 
works well (sandstone comes from cliffs, so it works well for walls).  To 
do a "bonsai" representation of your location on earth in its former 
natural condition, or at least mimic it in a stylized way, is a great 
guiding concept for your landscape plan.  

Have fun!

Buzz Burrell
Bolder Building
Boulder, CO

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