Students build dry stone bench
Published July 10, 2018
By Jenn Watt
It’s 10:30 a.m. on a Thursday afternoon. It’s already 27°C and the breeze is hardly rustling the leaves on the trees around the site of what will be a dry stone bench in Sam Slick Park.
Students in John Shaw-Rimmington’s one-week class are sporting circles of sweat on their T-shirts, stopping at regular intervals to chug water and cool off.
They’ve got the boat bottom and two bench seats in, the bow has been placed and is pointing toward the water, as though with a gentle nudge the rock boat might just float out into Head Lake.
As the students lift the heavy rocks onto the gunwales, there are issues. Even with smaller shards tucked into the crevices, it’s not sitting snugly.
Shaw-Rimmington tells them to start that layer over.
There are 12 students in this class, offered through Haliburton School of Art + Design. Among them, an accountant, teacher, mason, homemaker and retirees. Two women are in this class, but Shaw-Rimmington said that’s an unusually low number. Typically about 50 per cent of his students are women.
Dry stone means the structure is built without any joining materials like concrete, mortar or rebar.
“We’ve been indoctrinated to think that you have to have concrete or something to hold [stone] together,” Shaw-Rimmington said during a talk at the college on Wednesday.
“I’m a recovering mason. I used to use mortar, but I’ve ascended – I’ve transcended – into that airy space where you just use stone.”
Last year’s class made the dry stone bridge over the creek in the same park, which is across from the high school on County Road 21. This year’s bench is supported by the cultural resources committee of the Municipality of Dysart.
Shaw-Rimmington constructs about one dry stone bridge a year and the rest of the time focuses on other projects, mostly walls or other features.
Benches aren’t his favourite project, which could be why this one resembles a boat.
Dry stone benches “look like they were built for elephants to sit on,” he said.
His talk on July 4 was all about the 14 bridges he’s constructed so far.
“If you like stone at all, I think probably one of the best things that one can do with stone is use stone alone and use stone to do something which is quite magical, which is suspend stone over a large area, preferably a creek,” he said.
The beauty of stone bridges became apparent to him years ago when he constructed a dry stone wall at the Highland Games in Uxbridge. He had two days to complete the task with 10 tons of stone. He was done the wall in the first day and was feeling disappointed that visitors to the event weren’t very interested in the work he was doing.
So he put a hole in the wall and made it into a small arch.
“That got people’s attention,” he said, joking that the crowd likely expected the arch to come tumbling down when the garbage drum used as a support was removed.
But it didn’t fall down. In fact, it kept its shape and kept the audience’s attention as well.
Since then he’s built bridges all over Ontario, frequently using the construction as a teaching opportunity.
Stone bridges have a humble history, with peasants building them out of necessity to get wool to market. In that spirit, Shaw-Rimmington said he tries to take the mystery out of their creation.
In order to create the arch itself, a wooden bridge form is created, which he calls a “lobster trap.”
The stones arranged overtop are called voussoirs, he explained.
Once the stones are in place, the form is removed and the stones remain.
His bridges have included ones with double arches, single arches and one that was wheelchair accessible.
Almost any kind of stone works, as long as it won’t crumble.
The bench in Haliburton is now complete and ready for the public to enjoy. You can find it sitting along the shore, waiting for its captain.