How to Build a Concrete Block Retaining Wall

Get your weekend workout and an attractive, hard-working wall with this DIY-friendly project

Prep work: Materials, tools and site

The wall we built was a weekend-long project, and an exhausting one at that. It took a day to rip out the old, collapsing retaining wall, to dig farther into the hill to provide room for the backfill gravel and to help unload materials. It took another day to install the base, blocks and backfill.

Before launching into this project, contact your local building code official. Depending on the height and location of your wall, there may be structural, drainage and setback (the distance from wall to property line) considerations. A permit may be required.

Unless you own a heavy-duty truck (and back!), have your blocks, compactable base, sand and backfill gravel delivered. Blocks may cost slightly more at specialty landscaping stores than at home centers, but landscaping stores are often better equipped to deliver the small batches of base, sand and gravel that you'll need for installing the blocks. rolling yard.

The Versa-Lok brand retaining wall system we installed uses nylon pins to align and secure horizontal rows of 80-lb. blocks. Other block systems use lips, gravity and filled cores to connect rows and increase strength. Your system may differ, but most of the preparation and installation steps remain the same.

We used a transit level (Photo 1) to establish a flat base. But unless you own or rent one and know how to use it properly, just use a 4-ft. level taped to a long, straight 2x4, especially for short walls. The tamper, brick tong and block chisel are available at rental yards.

Figure A: Cross-Section of a Retaining Wall

A retaining wall is only as straight and solid as the base it's built on. For a 4-ft. tall wall, excavate a trench deep enough to accommodate 4 to 6 in. of compacted base, 1 in. of leveling sand and half the height of the first course of blocks. Step succeeding courses back 3/4 in., overlap vertical joints at least 4 in. and secure one row to the next with pins. Backfill with crushed rock, except for the top, where you should install a 6-in. “cap” of native soil to help keep surface water from entering the rock-filled trench. Use concrete adhesive to secure the cap blocks.

Note: You can download Figure A and enlarge it from the Additional Information below.

retaining wall tech art Cross-section of a retaining wall.
Back to Top

Planning and building tips

Every manufacturer and consultant we contacted stressed the absolute necessity of starting with a solid, level and well-compacted base. Failure to do this will result in a weak, wavy wall. Bear in mind: If your wall is higher than 4 ft., most concrete block manufacturers require extra engineering and installation steps not shown here. These steps range from using special reinforcement fabric to installing a series of terraces rather than one tall wall. Most manufacturers provide good printed installation guidelines. If you purchase your blocks from a specialty landscape center, there may be an onsite designer or engineer to help you.

  • Before getting started, contact local utility companies to mark the location of underground wires and pipes. Telephone and cable TV wires are often buried just beneath the surface.
  • In the Midwest, the compactable base material shown in Photo 2 is often referred to as “Class V” (as in the Roman numeral for five). In other regions, the rock may vary and the material may go by a different name. The important quality of the material is its different-sized rock and sand particles that interlock and compact to create a solid base. It's the same material used beneath road beds and paver patios. Make sure you use the right stuff. It's NOT the same as the crushed gravel you use for backfill.
  • The 16-in. wide x 12-in. deep x 6-in. high blocks we installed weigh 80 lbs. each. A brick tong (Photo 4) doesn't make them lighter, but it does make them less clumsy to handle, easier to position and less likely to crush fingers.
  • If your wall borders a sidewalk or deck, you may need a code compliant rail. Contact your local building code department.
Follow the photos for a complete step by step how-to.

Back to Top