How to Lay a Retaining Wall with Blocks

  • 01 of 12

    Retaining Wall Blocks Make This Job a Snap

    Retaining Wall Block
    Craig Veltri / Getty Images

    A retaining wall operates quite differently from other exterior walls. If you just want a wall to mark property lines or to keep in livestock, pets, or children, nothing is more simple than erecting a wall of cinderblocks or a wooden fence. True to its name, a retaining wall isn't just there to look pretty; it's in the business of retaining the soil packed behind it. 

    With this completely DIY-able project, the key ingredient is a material called a retaining wall block. There are four features that distinguish retaining wall blocks from other masonry items:

    1. Weight: One reason why these blocks are so good at keeping soil at bay is because of sheer weight. The biggest blocks weigh 61 pounds. 
    2. Back Lip: A lip on the back side of the block helps you to position a block on top of the block below it.
    3. Backward Tilt: As the wall goes higher, it tilts backward. This has the same effect as a wrestler leaning forward to try to pin his opponent. Weight + tilt = retention.
    4. Angled: Looking at these blocks from the top, you will notice that they are angled. These angles help you create smooth inside and outside curves.

    Materials and Tools Needed

    • Retaining Wall Blocks
    • Flat Bladed Shovel
    • Sand or Gravel
    • Bubble Level
    • 2'-4' Long Piece of 2x4
    • Masonry or Cold Chisel
    • 6 lb. Sledgehammer or Framing Hammer
    • Gloves
    • Safety Glasses
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  • 02 of 12

    Prepare Site For Blocks By Flattening and Leveling Ground

    Prepare Site For Blocks 1500 x 1125
    © Lee Wallender

    With your flat-bladed shovel, grade the soil where the blocks will rest until the soil is flat, level, and compact.

    Use your short 2x4 as a screed to further level the soil by drawing the 2x4 towards you, scraping off soil to create a level area.

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  • 03 of 12

    Lay Base of Sand or Gravel As Base For Retaining Wall

    Lay Base of Sand or Gravel - 1500 x 800
    © Lee Wallender

    There are various, often conflicting prescriptions for how much or little sand or gravel to lay down as a base for the wall.

    Keep in mind is that you want to provide a base that will keep your lowest course of blocks above mud. Water will inevitably seep to the bottom of your wall, and when it collects at the base, it will turn into mud. By laying 1 or 2 inches of sand or gravel, you raise the lowest row above this mud.

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  • 04 of 12

    Lay First Starter Retaining Wall Block

    Lay First Block - 1500 x 1125
    © Lee Wallender

    Begin at one end of your wall with a single block. Press it firmly down into the base, though not so hard that you squeeze your base layer away. 

    Use your level to check this first block for the level in both directions: side to side and front to back.

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  • 05 of 12

    Maintain Level Between Blocks

    Maintain Level Between Blocks - 1500 x 900
    © Lee Wallender

    Lay down your next, adjoining block.

    This block must be perfectly level both on its own and in conjunction with the adjoining block. Use your bubble level to span from one block to the next. Adjust the second block until it is perfectly in line with the first block.

    Aligning block-to-block is highly important. As you continue to add courses of blocks upward, any differences between lower blocks will be transmitted to upper courses, often in disastrous ways. 

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  • 06 of 12

    Lay Block In Staggered Fashion For Stability

    Lay Block In Staggered Fashion - 1500 x 1000
    © Lee Wallender

    Do not lay blocks on top of each other in a column. While you can get by with this with the very heavy (61 lb.) blocks up to 3 rows high, it will not work for lighter blocks.

    To lay blocks in brickwork fashion, advance each upper row horizontally 1/2 block over (to cover those open 1/2 block ends, I will show you later how to cut blocks).

    Brickwork masonry is enormously more stable than installing in independent vertical columns.

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  • 07 of 12

    Check Level With Each Course

    Check Level With Each Course 1500 x 1125
    © Lee Wallender

    Every row must be level. Keep spot-checking your level with the bubble level. 

    The only way to keep an entire row at true level is to run a string between two posts pounded into the ground at either end of the wall. Spare plumbing pipe, 1x1's with the ends cut into points, and rebar--all can be used for posts.

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  • 08 of 12

    Cutting Block - Set Chisel In Groove

    Cutting Block - Set Chisel 1500 x 1125
    © Lee Wallender

    To cut a retaining wall block in half, set the block on end, with the back side facing up. You will notice a V-notch groove in the back of the block.

    Put on your safety glasses. Set your chisel into the block.

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  • 09 of 12

    Cutting Retaining Wall Block - Cleaving

    Cutting Retaining Wall Block - Cleaving - 1500 x 1125
    © Lee Wallender

    With the 6 lb. sledgehammer (holding near the head) or the framing hammer, sharply strike the end of the chisel until the block cleaves in half. You may need to strike several times for the block to break.

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  • 10 of 12

    Setting Half Block At End Of Course

    Setting Half Block At End 1500 x 1125
    © Lee Wallender

    Use one of the cut half-blocks to cover the end of the row.

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  • 11 of 12

    Backside of Retaining Wall

    Backside of Retaining Wall 1500 x 1125
    © Lee Wallender

    When laying out your retaining wall, provide ample room between the lowest course of blocks and the soil behind it. Remember that as the blocks progress upward, they will tilt backward--so you will need to cut back more of the hill than you might initially think.

    Pictured here is a good example of the space behind the retaining wall. Note how the blocks are tilting backward, and how at least 4' of space has been provided for the backfill.

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  • 12 of 12

    Backfill Retaining Wall Blocks With Sand or Gravel

    Backfill Retaining Wall Blocks 1500 x 1125
    © Lee Wallender

    Carefully fill the back side of the retaining wall with sand or gravel; this process is called backfilling.

    Mete out the backfill material in small amounts in order to let the material settle.  If you shovel too much at once, you may create hollow spaces in the backfill that can compromise the wall's stability.

    It helps to occasionally jiggle the wall front-to-back to coax the backfill material into settling.  The more compact the backfill, the more stable your wall will be over the long term.