Retaining walls serve many purposes — they reduce erosion and create focal points in your yard. Well-built retaining walls can turn unusable slopes into functional and beautiful garden spaces. But how do you finish the ends of retaining walls so that they look good?
Generally, making the ends of retaining walls look like comes down to three things. Early planning to prevent later surprises, using proper blocks/tools, and drawing attention away from the wall ends (if necessary).
You don’t want the time and effort you put into your retaining walls to go to waste. So, the rest of this article will explain the strategies mentioned above in more detail to help you finish the ends of your retaining walls to make them beautiful.
1. Plan Out Your Wall
Planning is an important step, but many DIYers choose to skip it and dive into the construction process. I generally discourage this unless you really know what you’re doing (and if you do, you’re probably not reading this article).
We wrote an entire resource on retaining walls here, so if you’re at the beginning stages I’d suggest you start there.
Planning will help avoid unexpected situations where you need to split the bricks you’ve purchased. Additionally, you’ll reduce the overall cost of the project by minimizing waste and potentially avoiding the need to purchase specialty bricks to make up for poorly laid plans.
The first step is to begin sketching out your planned wall, complete with dimensions. Make sure to take note of any curves, corners, steps, caps, or other potential setbacks. Make sure your wall is tall enough to hold back the weight of the dirt behind it. We wrote extensively about how much weight a retaining wall generally holds.
Add measurements to the drawing to estimate the number of blocks you’ll need. Doing this will help you select which block system to use. Again, do not neglect this step. It’ll save you hours of construction time and from additional trips to the store.
2. Choose the Correct Blocks and Tools
Choosing the correct blocks at a local hardware store can be overwhelming because of the variety. So here are some guidelines to keep in mind:
- Square or rectangular blocks will require less complicated cuts. Depending on the height of your wall, you might need to use glue or geogrid to stabilize them.
- Staggered blocks need some minor additional modifications. Plus, they’ll create a tapered look.
- Look for a system that has specialized blocks with two finished sides. These will be pricier but are designed to look good with minimal cuts. You might have to go to a store specializing in landscape rocks to find this kind of system.
We’ve covered the cheapest way to build retaining walls in the past if you need inspiration or ideas.
Work With Blocks That Can Be Easily Split
Looks and price are essential when selecting rocks, but if you work with blocks that can be split easily, you’ll get better-looking results. Especially if you’re not an experienced rock cutter.
Landscape and retailers like Home Depot sell blocks designed for DIY projects, and many of them have groves to make splitting the blocks easier. Use masonry chisels when splitting concrete, not brick chisels. Brick chisels will lose their edge if used on stone.
If you don’t want to bother with splitting blocks, opt for a system designed to create professional-looking corners.
Use the Correct Tool When Splitting Blocks
To split retaining wall blocks, choose between a chisel and hammer or a circular saw method. Use a chisel if you have only a few cuts to make or are experienced in splitting concrete. For more accurate cuts, use a circular saw of some type.
Here’s how to use a chisel and hammer to split blocks:
- Use a straightedge to draw a line where you want to cleave the block (unless it’s pre-split).
- Score the stone along the line using a light touch.
- Tap hard to split the block.
- If the block doesn’t split, tap again in the center of the block.
You’ll likely need to chip off some extra concrete to get a smooth cut. A paving stone splitter will let you cut more stones, but it’s not ideal if you need clean cuts.
If you opt for a circular saw, you have several options:
- A standard circular saw with a diamond blade. The plus of this option is that you only need a diamond blade. The downside is that you need to use a water spray bottle on your saw while you cut.
- A demolition saw. Demolition saws are typically gas-powered, making them portable. Most have an attachment for a garden hose, making wet cuts easier. In addition, the diamond blades on demolition saws are more abrasive, resulting in a cleaner cut.
- A tile saw. Tile saws use a table and have guides for cutting, so the likelihood of making mistakes is small. In addition, the cut from a tile saw will be smoother than standard or demolition saws.
- A masonry saw. Masonry saws are portable versions of tile saws. However, a masonry saw is best used for larger projects.
Do Not Order Specialty Blocks
If possible, avoid ordering specialty blocks separately. First, you must get your block count right, which isn’t usually a big deal as you can always order some extra blocks. The fundamental problem is that specialty blocks aren’t always manufactured in the same plant.
Blocks that are not made with the same aggregate can be a slightly different color. This mismatch will be prominent. Instead, you should have extra blocks if you make a mistake when you cut end blocks.
A rule of thumb is to buy 10% more blocks than your original estimate so you can avoid ordering mismatched blocks.
3. Draw Attention Away From the Wall Ends if Necessary
Imperfections at the end of a wall will be less noticeable if you have a textured or rustic-looking wall. Also, creative brick patterns using a variety of blocks can draw the eye away from the wall ends.
Creative placement of plants can also draw the eye away from a corner. Consider using ivy draped over the edge, strategically planted ferns/shrubs, or broad bushes (adept at hiding imperfections).
Building a stone wall isn’t a DIY project, but you can create an unusual pattern using different-sized stones and placing some of them vertically.
Finishing the ends of retaining walls requires that you buy stones and tools you can work with.
However, unless you focus on building a level first course, it won’t matter how nice your retaining walls are.
Expect to spend 50% or more of your time laying a level first course. By the time you finish the first course, you’ll have learned that the stone can be reset until you get it exactly right.
- Family Handyman: How to Choose the Right Retaining Wall Material
- Western Interlock: 6 Ways to Cut a Paving Stone
- Home Guides SF Gate: The Best Way to Split Retaining Wall Blocks
- Allan Block: Residential Retaining Walls
- Oregon State University Extension: Building a Landscape Retention Wall
- Bob Vila: Retaining Wall Ideas That Work Hard While Looking Good