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Saturday, November 07, 2009

How to build a concrete block retaining wall

Retaining walls are great for "terracing" your yard, or for reclaiming unusable lawn areas.

There was a time when cinder block retaining walls were all the rage. That was during post-war American building boom fifty years ago. Times have changed, and now these utilitarian walls more typically adorn commercial sites.

Somewhere in between, the use of once-popular cinder block lost ground to the more contemporary "concrete block." With the that change came a lot more options that once again made block retaining walls an attractive choice for suburban homeowners.

This isn't your grandfather's cinder block wall.

We've all seen those aging, crumbly cinder block constructions. That is exactly the image that convinced so many of us to choose more modern variations. Today, many landscapers prefer dry-laid walls composed of pre-cast concrete blocks designed specifically for the job. They're very pretty, easy to work with, AND extremely expensive. For those of us on a budget, choosing a cinder (concrete) block retaining wall could be just the right choice.

The block wall advantage:

Modern concrete block is inexpensive and very durable. It's widely available for home delivery, and offers unsurpassed strength in many applications. Today's cast block is available in a variety of dyed colors and an assortment of facing finishes, although both choices add to the cost. Block retaining walls are a good choice for long straight runs, especially for heights above 16" or so. They are perfect for perpendicular walls that meet at a 90 degree corner. You can, however, lay ordinary rectangular blocks in gentle concave or convex arcs.

But first, the disclaimer:

Laying block isn't an ideal DIY project. You can't easily do the job piecemeal, or without the correct tools. Mixing and applying mortar properly can be exhausting and frustrating. You'll need to start with a decent-quality footer, too. This isn't a half-weekend task that offers easy shortcuts. Let's have a look at what's involved...

Read the rest of the retaining wall story at

copyright 2009 Jim Bessey - reprints available upon request

For a fantastic, in-depth look at your retaining wall options, please visit Raymond Alexander Kukkee's Zone, Retaining walls and how to build them. Thanks to Raymond for the photo shown with this article.

See this story as it appears on

We're collecting pictures of retaining walls that failed. Got one? Leave a comment here, or reach me via email.


  1. You're right. The day of building walls out of just plain cinder blocks has come and gone. They are more work and not as strong as modern walls build with segmental retaining wall (SRW) - concrete blocks. And the patterns you can make these days with such walls loom amazing. Like this wall we made using Allan Block. Segmental wall blocks have come a long way in recent years too. Lots of amazing beautiful options these days.

    Retaining Walls Portland Oregon

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Jim!