Q: I’m building a very small house and love the look of natural stone. I also intend to build some low garden walls that I want to look like stone too. I’ve seen the artificial stone at building centers and home and garden shows. What’s your opinion of this fake stone? Will it last? Is it hard to install? Can it be installed by someone like me with a great attitude and moderate skills? The physical labor is not an issue.
— Melissa P., Tucson
A: I salute that great attitude about trying to do a job yourself. That inner drive is how I accumulated all my building knowledge. I made mistakes along the way but learned from each one to become a better builder. You can do the same. Embrace small failures and use them to move forward.
You're lucky in that you want to use the stone in two ways, on your petite house and the garden walls. You need to know that the first piece of advice I always give someone when trying a project for the first time is to practice. You can practice on a garden wall before attempting to work on the house. This way you can refine your skills on a part of the wall that's least visible. Even if you weren't planning to build garden walls, you could build a simple fake wall from wood to practice laying the artificial stone.
Almost all artificial stones are made from poured concrete in ideal factory conditions. Concrete is the original artificial stone. You make concrete from small stones, sand (which is almost always very tiny pieces of stone), Portland cement and water. Remember, Portland cement is made from stone: limestone and shale.
You can see why concrete that’s made correctly can be very durable, because all its ingredients are stone. The manufacturers of the product have become quite adept at creating the look of real stone using very detailed forms and colorization processes. I have artificial stone fireplaces and an exterior chimney at my own home in central New Hampshire. The chimney has survived brutal summer heat and bitter icy weather for over 20 years and looks perfect.
Installing the stone is not too hard at all. There are quite a few videos on YouTube made by the manufacturers and mortar suppliers. After watching a few of these videos, you'll gain confidence in no time.
It's key to understand how to mix the mortar that holds the fake stone to the vertical surfaces. I'd make sure to add some hydrated lime to the mortar mix, as it increases the bonding power.
The biggest way to get into trouble is to try to mix too much of the bonding mortar at once. It’s best if you have a helper who can mix small batches that you use up completely every 30 minutes or less. The fresher the mortar — assuming it’s the perfect consistency you see in the videos — the better chance the stone will never fall off the wall.
You’ll have to practice cutting the artificial stone to fit in certain situations. It’s not hard, and, again, there are plenty of videos to guide you. The biggest challenge will come as you graduate from garden walls to your small home. You need scaffolding to work your way up the walls. This can be rented, but the price might start to get as high as the stone on the wall if you don’t work quickly.
There are other building products out there that look like faux stone but are not made from concrete. Some are made from high-density polyurethane. These are lightweight, and you can cover a wall surface much faster than you can using artificial stone made from concrete.
I’d give these faux stone products a serious look, because they can produce the look you want and are no doubt much easier to work with. You may discover you can save more money and do all the work with no help whatsoever.
Your biggest concern should always be time. You don't want the project to stretch out too long. You're not a professional, and there will be a learning curve because you're doing something for the first time.
You’ll get better as you go, but you could lose valuable time early in the process. That said, tackling a big project is just like eating an elephant: You do it one bite at a time. Bon appétit!
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