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Materials Used in Retaining Walls

retaining wallRetaining Walls Charleston SC can combat erosion and help you get the most out of your property. They also protect your lawn and landscape from floods, heavy rains, strong winds and other natural occurrences that cause soil erosion.

Retaining walls can be made of many different materials. You can build a retaining wall yourself with the right tools, but we recommend leaving it to professionals for any significant height or design.

Retaining walls can be built with a wide variety of materials. Some, like concrete block walls, can be DIY projects, while others require professional expertise. The choice depends on design tastes and the purpose of the wall.

A retaining wall can help solve a site problem, add usable space or create a dramatic landscape feature. But a well-designed and constructed retaining wall is more than just functional; it adds value to your property.

Concrete retaining walls can be moderately challenging to build up to four feet tall for a do-it-yourselfer with good building skills. Choose blocks that are specifically designed for retaining walls, with a locking flange along the back of each unit to ensure they fit together without mortar. Look for them at your local stone yard and home improvement store. The blocks come in a range of gray and earthy hues, with textured or smooth faces, to suit any design aesthetic.

For a more natural appearance, consider a dry-laid stone or timber retaining wall. These walls can blend seamlessly into any landscaping project and are more environmentally friendly than a poured concrete wall, which can be harder on the environment and less adaptable to changing weather conditions.

A gravity retaining wall, which rests on a bed of crushed rock or gravel, is another option for homeowners. To protect the soil behind the wall, use a layer of landscape fabric and install drainage to carry runoff water away from the base of the wall.

For a long-lasting and stylish retaining wall, choose a system that incorporates concrete block, natural stone or brick. These are the most durable and versatile choices. If you’re designing a very tall retaining wall, consult with a professional engineer and be sure to follow all local building codes.

Poured Concrete

Concrete is extremely strong, which is important for retaining walls that keep back tons of earth. They are also very durable, able to last for decades with minimal maintenance. However, poured concrete is expensive because it requires extensive labor and materials. Local regulations, building codes and taxes all affect regional pricing. Concrete is also heavier than other retaining wall construction methods, which can make it more difficult to build on slopes and require special equipment such as cranes.

Poured concrete is a great choice for homeowners who wish to create a retaining wall with a modern look. They can be colored, stamped or accented with embedded objects. This type of retaining wall can be very attractive when paired with other hardscape elements such as water features, trees or shrubs.

For a more rustic look, a poured concrete wall can be built with an exposed aggregate finish. This is done by combining the concrete with pebbles or other decorative aggregate before it sets. This gives the wall a unique texture that is beautiful and functional, especially for steps or a garden area.

If you choose to use a poured concrete foundation for your retaining wall, be sure to lay the footings first and then pour the concrete. This will prevent the wall from collapsing into the ground. Concrete that is poured in place has more strength than block foundations and can withstand more lateral soil pressure. It’s a good idea to engage an engineer for any retaining wall over three feet in height.

Brick is another time-honored material for retaining walls that can be used to create a unique style. It’s a labor-intensive process, but can produce a beautiful, sturdy wall that can match the architectural elements of any house. Brick is less prone to leaks than other types of retaining walls, but must be designed with drainage in mind.


Wood retaining walls are a natural choice, blending into the landscape with tree and shrub plantings. They can rise to a maximum of four feet and offer many design options. Although they may not have the strength and rigidity of poured concrete or other materials, a well-designed timber wall is very stable. In addition, they are relatively affordable and easy to install. However, they are susceptible to water damage and rot and require regular staining or painting.

If you choose to go with a wood retaining wall, ensure it is pressure treated. This will make it rot resistant and last much longer than untreated wood. Also, ensure the contractor you work with is experienced in constructing timber retaining walls. If a timber retaining wall is not constructed properly, it can quickly become unsafe and may cause soil erosion.

When constructing a wood retaining wall, the first step is to excavate the site. Ensure the area is free of rocks, refuse, and any plants that could be pulled up during construction. Then, dig a trench to backfill the wall. If a drainage system is required, it should be installed at this point as well. Finally, a layer of plywood should be put down to protect your driveway and any other valuable landscaping from the excavating equipment.

The next step is to construct the timber wall itself. Large timbers are usually used, but railroad ties are also an alternative. The best kind of lumber for a timber retaining wall is Douglas fir that has been pressure treated with preservatives to discourage rot. It should be green or brown in color and rated for wood-to-ground contact. When constructing the timber walls, be sure to stagger each row with a 1/2-inch setback from the previous one. This will dramatically improve the stability of the retaining wall.


Stone is one of the most popular materials to use in retaining walls for both aesthetic and practical reasons. These walls are great for preventing soil erosion, providing a place to grow planters and creating focal points in gardens or yards. They are also a popular option for country, colonial and English garden-style landscaping.

These types of walls are typically dry-stacked, meaning that they are built without the use of mortar to hold the stones together. They are more labor intensive than other wall construction methods, but they can be very beautiful and add a sense of character to your home. They can be stacked in various ways to create unique shapes and designs for your retaining wall.

Before you begin building your retaining wall, make sure that you have the proper tools and equipment to complete the job. It is recommended that you plan ahead and make a list of the materials that you will need. This will help you to avoid overspending on the project and will keep your project on time and within budget.

When you’re ready to start building, dig a trench where you want your retaining wall to go. The trench should be a few inches below ground level and as wide as the rocks or stones that you’ll be using for the foundation.

It’s important to backfill the area behind your retaining wall with pea-sized gravel to provide support and stability to the structure. It is important that you do this in stages and not all at once to prevent shifting or sinking as the backfill settles. It’s also a good idea to add landscaping fabric as you backfill to help keep water away from the wall and promote proper drainage.


Brick is a time-honored building material that has served many purposes over the years. It is durable, strong and attractive to look at. A brick retaining wall will provide a timeless addition to any landscaping project. However, it can be very labor intensive and requires the skills of a mason or landscaper to lay correctly.

Like other types of retaining walls, brick ones are built to resist the horizontal – or lateral – earth pressure exerted on them by the material they retain. To do this, they need to restrain the engineer fill material at an angle steeper than its natural “angle of repose.”

A properly constructed brick retaining wall will last for decades or even centuries, depending on the soil conditions around it. But it is important that the design and construction process follow local and state guidelines for these structures.

The first step is to build a proper foundation. This is done by spreading a 2-inch layer of sand or gravel over the area where the first row of blocks will be placed. This base layer is then compacted using a hand tamper to ensure it is flat and level.

After tamping, the block layers can begin to be laid in the desired pattern. Most of the bricks in each course will be full size blocks, but half-size end bricks can also be used to reduce the amount of mortar that needs to be applied at the ends of each row. This technique is called a running bond and allows for a more even and stronger retaining wall than one with all full-size end blocks in every course.

When the wall reaches its final height, it is finished with a row of coping bricks that act as a cap and help prevent rainwater from penetrating the wall and potentially damaging the underlying earth. This last row can be topped with a variety of different materials, such as stone, timber or concrete.