Building A Retaining Wall (pt1)

A few months ago, Brad and I paved an entire patio with a built in pergola all by ourselves.  It was not easy... it took us about about a week and a half to get the whole thing done, but we love it, and it's kinda amazing.
Pergola of awesomeness
But, the worst part of the patio was the digging.  And, there was a lot of digging.  About two full days of it.  And that dirt was awful.  It's not the good dirt that they show you in the how-to Lowes video that we studied before we got started.  That looked like it came up pretty easy.  It was the crappy clay dirt that has been sitting stagnant since probably 1963 when our house was built.  But, the previous owner had a giant shed where our patio now is, and the grass never grew back right.
Yard "before"... yikes.
  So, we decided to save some money and DIY our patio.  In the end, the entire project only cost us $1500, which we think ended up being a pretty sweet deal.  (Considering I modeled the pergola after the Pottery Barn one that used to cost $5600 on its own, I felt pretty good about the savings.)  But, I regress... back to the digging.
The giant hole in the ground post digging
  So, we dug the giant hole, finished up the gorg patio/pergola, and then we were left with this:
The Problem

There were even weeds growing and thriving in our pile of dirt:

At least I can grow something...
 
Yes... thriving.
I'm not really sure what most people do with all of their leftover dirt.  But, what we decided to do was build a retaining wall in between the patio and our back fence to later plant some fruit trees and flowers.  (Lets hope they survive my negligent black thumb.)  So, we started out shopping and soon realized that retaining walls can be expensive depending on your materials.  We always try to shop local, and stopped first at a nearby stone yard in Lomita.  After getting quotes from them, it was looking like their options were going to cost us between $3.50 and $9.50... per stone.  And we needed about 210 stones.  And you could only purchase them by the pallet which meant we would have to buy even more of them.  Plus delivery costs.  Holy cow.  Clearly that was not happening.  So, next stop, Home Depot, where we found these beauties.  They were cheap at $1.58 per block (which passes the Shane test), and easy to install as they had the back lip to build them up without any mortar (which passes the Brad test).  We added a few more blocks to our order just in case we were miscalculating, so our number came up to 230 blocks, delivered, for $450.  (At Depot, you can return the blocks you don't use, which we plan on doing once we're finished.)
Yay! The delivery came!
As I started hauling the blocks into the backyard with the wheelbarrow (which weigh 22 lbs. each), Brad started tackling the giant mess in the corner of our yard that the previous owners left us.
Where concrete goes to die
The first bit of it went easy, but then we ran into this:
Heaviest. Tire. Ever.
We had frequently looked at this ugly mess and figured we could just roll it over to the other side of the yard for the time being.  Then, we tried to pick it up and realized that it was literally a tire filled with concrete which weighed about two tons.  (I think that pole was once full sized and used for tether ball at some point in its life?)  So, Brad got to work on it with the sledge hammer while I "encouraged" him by saying things like "Brad smash!" and "By the power of Thor!" and taking pictures.  I'm sure he liked it.
How is that man even hotter with a sledge hammer?
Once the back area was cleared and we had quite a few blocks in the backyard, I started getting to work on the first layer of pavers.  In order to make sure that they're level to the ground, the "lip" of the stone has to be taken off of the base layer.  I purchased a mason chisel ($6.99) and a drilling hammer ($15.97) to do the job.
My weapons
I started out with the brick on its side on the ground to get an even surface.

Then I positioned the chisel at the bottom of the brick at the lip, and tapped it off with the hammer.  After the first few taps, I seemed to get a hold of it and the rest went pretty easily.

In doing all of my research prior to this project, I discovered that the most important part of building the retaining wall is making sure that each of the base layer bricks are even and level.  If they're not, the entire wall would be wavy and jagged.  Knowing how the leveling sand worked so well with our patio, I purchased two bags (at about $3.50 a piece) to even out the bases of the wall.

Using the leveling sand to fill in the uneven areas of the bricks, I made sure each of them were level both on both the length and depth sides to make sure we wouldn't have a wall that falls over in the future.

We were incredibly lucky since we had the straight line of our patio to use as a guide of where to place all of our bricks.  If we hadn't done that, we would've had to stake out the area to ensure a straight wall.  But, placing and leveling out all of the bricks was definitely one of the more time consuming parts of the project as I really wanted each one of them to be perfect.  After the base was laid out, they all went up like legos.  The bottom lip (which I cut off for the base to make them more level to the ground) goes directly over the back of the block it's sitting on top of.  There were also little notches in the back of our blocks that let us know where the halfway point was.

The really heavy adult legos all put together
View of the blocks from the back
We still have quite a bit to do tomorrow, but we got the first three levels completed out of the four rows that we want (minus the sides, which I have to cut).
Not too shabby for a days work
I think even Piper seemed to like it as the minute we called it a day she decided to take a walk along the top of the wall.
Piper suddenly gained the extra foot and a half of height she always wanted
So, plans for tomorrow, if we can walk, is to get the last layer of blocks on the top and secured on, cut and install the pieces for the sides, and try to level out the still-giant mound of dirt into the wall.  I will keep you posted on the progress!

2 Replies to “Building A Retaining Wall (pt1)”

  1. Nice job, I would like to do the same thing but, is it okay to leave the dirt along the cedar fence.; will this hurt the fence in anyway or will this take a long time.

  2. How inspirational, I plan to do the same thing in my yard. That’s an awesome idea to use the excess dirt as backfill to the retaining wall. I actually start with needing a retaining wall and go from there, but may follow your experience and do both at the same time. Thanks for posting!

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