Building DIY retaining walls on your property can be an easy process when you’re equipped with the right plan, blocks, tools and resources to do the job. So where should you start this process? Before you begin stacking blocks, our CornerStone experts have identified key tips, considerations and resources to save time and costs while installing your retaining wall.

  1. What’s the Purpose of Your DIY Retaining Wall?

Before putting shovels in the ground, it’s important to give some thought to why you’re building a retaining wall. Some retaining walls simply require more planning and preparation than others.

For instance, the scope of work is vastly different for a retaining wall on a sloped property with base elevation changes versus a straight wall on level ground.

Is your goal to create more usable space for the family to enjoy, to replace a rotting wooden retaining wall, or install an elegant, raised garden? No matter the size of your retaining wall project, being well prepared is important!

  1. Is Engineering Required for This Retaining Wall?

For safety and structural integrity, will your retaining wall require an engineer’s expertise? First and foremost, always adhere to your local town, city, county or municipal guidelines for building permits and approvals. Generally, three sure signs that your retaining wall requires engineering are:

  • If your retaining wall measures over 4 ft. (1.22 m.) in height
  • If there are structures behind the wall – parking lots, buildings, roadways
  • If major slopes above or below could impact the retaining wall design

Retaining walls over 4 ft. (1.22 m.) tall always require engineering due to their size and associated risks. Engineers can confirm the safety of the retaining wall to put your mind at ease with advice on how to navigate a property’s tricky soils or clays.

If the wall is load bearing, this is another scenario where engineering is necessary. Structures and parking lots behind and above the wall create dangerous pressures, whether it’s the static pressure of a house or active pressures of moving vehicles. Engineers can use the CornerStone Retaining Wall Design & Analysis Software for comprehensive plans and details.

  1. How Many Retaining Wall Blocks Are Needed?

Wait, how many blocks did you need, again? CornerStone’s Instant Estimator can take the guesswork out of the equation to give you an accurate quantity of the materials needed. If you know the approximate height and length of each retaining wall, this software can calculate the number of CornerStone retaining wall blocks to get the job done.

This ultra-savvy technology can detect and advise you on how many retaining wall blocks, corner units, caps and even the amount of geogrid, too. Accurate material estimates are just a few clicks away with CornerStone’s Instant Estimator.

  1. Are the Blocks and Materials Readily Available?

This may seem obvious, but we’ll say it anyway. Always call ahead or visit your nearest CornerStone retaining wall block supplier to ensure they have inventory. There’s nothing worse than having a leveling pad ready to build on with no blocks in sight!

Our recommendation? Follow these three tips to save time when selecting project materials:

  • Find your nearest CornerStone retaining wall block supplier – click here
  • Visit the supplier’s location to see, feel and lift the blocks before ordering them
  • Ensure you discuss the logistics of getting these blocks to your property

Having trouble envisioning the blocks at your house? Many suppliers can direct you to nearby retaining wall installations so you can see them in person. This hands-on approach to the blocks can make a world of difference so there’s no surprises once the blocks arrive.

And finally, how will the blocks be delivered? Is there enough space to store, access and stage multiple pallets of concrete retaining wall blocks? Planning this out in advance will save plenty of stress once it’s time to start building.

  1. What Blocks Should You Use for a DIY Retaining Wall?

Depending on your DIY retaining wall preferences, there are several key deciding factors. For residential applications, interlocking concrete segmented retaining wall (SRW) systems are often recommended for longevity and their easy-to-use, step-by-step installation guides. Other factors to consider are:

Block Color – Ask your local supplier if they have samples that you can bring home to help visualize your new CornerStone retaining wall. Seeing the block beside your house or in your yard’s surrounding landscape can have a huge impact on the block you select.

Block Style – Will the retaining wall primarily be for functional performance or stylish aesthetics? It can be both! For outdoor lounge areas and patios, retaining wall systems like StoneLedge offer a stunning, natural, quarried stone appearance, while the textured facing of CornerStone 100 blocks deliver a classic, ageless look.

Block Size – Each retaining wall system is different, with unique dimensions, textures or weight of the block. As all DIYers discover, be sure you can lift and handle the blocks you select, as they tend to be heavier than they appear.

Ease of Use – Here we’re referring to how easy the retaining wall blocks are to lift, lay and adjust during installation. CornerStone 100’s hollow core block design has built-in SecureLugs on the bottom of each block. These ensure steady, consistent alignment and setback while eliminating the hassle of retaining wall pins. These blocks have easily removable wings on the back which can be knocked off with a mallet to create beautiful, curved retaining wall features.

  1. Necessary Tools for Building DIY Retaining Walls

What are some of the most common tools and equipment required for building a DIY retaining wall? Well, recruiting a friend or two to assist can sure help the project move quicker! Aside from more hands, leveling tools and renting a vibratory plate compactor are highly recommended to make your project run smooth.

A mini excavator or skid-steer loader can come in handy for the excavation of the leveling pad, moving crush gravel and backfill materials. Screeding levels will also be useful, although leftover lumber can be an effective makeshift screeding tool. Cut-off saws and mason chisels with handguards are great for making block cuts to accommodate drainage outlets at the toe of the wall.

  1. How to Properly Install a DIY Retaining Wall

Building retaining walls could be a whole blog in and of itself (in fact, we have free online CornerStone retaining wall installation videos for DIYers here), so let’s outline some areas that need extra focus.

Leveling Pad & Base Course – The quality of any retaining wall foundation will ultimately decide if it stands the test of time. Ensuring the base pad and base course of the wall are level is critical to its success. Take your time with this process to ensure each are level and aligned from front-to-back and side-to-side. Check out our How-To Resources for more details.

Drainage – Water damage is the root cause of most retaining wall failures. CornerStone 100’s hollow core blocks are filled with crush gravel, which reduces the likelihood of silt and debris clogging drainage channels. The system’s exceptional drainage network, combined with perforated drainpipes, provide optimal drainage by diverting and removing water from behind the wall. This should keep your DIY retaining wall happy, healthy and upright!

Photos: Boxley Hardscapes, York Building Products, LibertyStone Hardscaping Systems & Expocrete Oldcastle.