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How to Build a Retaining Wall

Instead of using stone or timbers, make an attractive, long-lasting retaining wall from pressure-treated 2x4s, plywood and trim boards. Construction is fast and simple, and the materials are much lighter to work with.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

How to Build a Retaining Wall

Instead of using stone or timbers, make an attractive, long-lasting retaining wall from pressure-treated 2x4s, plywood and trim boards. Construction is fast and simple, and the materials are much lighter to work with.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

Overview

I needed a retaining wall. But I didn’t want to abuse my back by schlepping around landscape blocks. Plus, I didn’t want to bust the bank buying good-looking blocks. So after accessing my internal carpentry database, I came up with a solution: a wood foundation built as a retaining wall. I’ve built dozens of wood foundations (yes, made from treated wood for real basements under new homes), so this was a no-brainer—super easy, attractive and cheap.

This 32-in.-high, 32-ft.-long wall was built in one fairly laid-back day by me, Brad and another friend of mine named Bob Cat (meet him in Photo 7). The materials cost $500, plus another $500 for Bob and his operator, who supplied gravel and some extra topsoil for fill.

Having Bob involved meant there was very little shovel work. And Brad appreciated having Bob there almost as much as I did.

The skeleton of the wall is a treated wood, 2x4 stud wall clad on both sides with 1/2-in. treated plywood. It’s held in place with 2x4 “dead men” assemblies buried in the backfill. The dead men are 2x4 struts bolted to the wall studs and anchored to a perpendicular 2x4 sleeper (see Figure A). The weight of the soil on the dead men anchors the wall against the backfill pressure. It’s important to locate the bottom of the wall below grade a few inches so the earth in front of the wall will anchor the base in place.

Get the right stuff

Ordinary treated wood will last a good long time depending on soil conditions, although wet sites with clay will shorten the wall’s life somewhat. I used ordinary treated wood from the home center, and I figure the wall will last at least 20 years. To build a wall that’ll last forever, use foundation-grade treated wood, the material used for basements. It’s usually Southern yellow pine, a very strong softwood that accepts treatment better than most, and contains a higher concentration of preservatives. You may find it at lumberyards where contractors shop. Or you can special-order it from any home center or lumberyard, although you’ll pay a premium.

Choose nails rated for treated wood: 16d for the framing and 8d for the sheathing. Use 3-in. construction screws for standoffs and dead men connections—again, ones that are rated for treated wood. You’ll also need a box each of 2- and 3-in. deck screws for the trim boards.

Cross section

Figure A: Wall Anatomy

No matter how large your wall is, it should have these basic elements.

Prepping the site

I had a gentle slope to retain, not a huge hill. This 32-in.-high wall is designed to hold back a gentle slope and is good for walls up to 40 in. For walls 40 to 48 in, place the studs on 12-in. centers and keep the rest of the wall the same. Don’t build the wall more than 48 in. high—a taller wall requires special engineering.

Do the digging with a shovel if you wish. The trick is to dig halfway into the hill and throw the soil on top of the hill. That way you’ll have enough fill left for behind the wall. The downside is that if you hand-dig, you’ll also need to dig channels for the 2x4 struts and sleepers (see Photo 5).

It’s much easier to hire a skid steer (Bob) and his operator to dig into the hill and then cut down a foot or so behind the wall to create a shelf for resting the dead men. Expect to pay a few hundred dollars for skid steer services. The operator can also scoop out the 12-in.-wide by 10-in.-deep trench for the gravel footing, and deliver and dump a 6-in. layer of gravel into the footing. Then you’ll only need to do a bit of raking to level off the trench. A yard of gravel will take care of 50 linear feet of wall. If you have extra gravel, use it for backfill against the back of the wall for drainage. Have Bob and his operator return to fill against the back side of the wall and do some final grading.

Get the footings ready

Fill the trench with gravel. Any type will do, but pea gravel is the easiest to work with. Roughly rake it level, then tip one of the footing plates on edge and rest a level on top to grade the footing (Photo 1). Use the plate as a screed, as if you’re leveling in concrete, and you’ll get it really close, really fast. Try to get it within 1/4 in. or so of level. Offset any footing plate joints at least 2 ft. to either side of wall joints. To drive down the plate until it’s level, stand on it as you pound it into the gravel with another board, occasionally checking it with a level. If you can’t drive the board down to achieve level, scoop out shallow trenches on either side of the footing plate with your hand. Then there will be a place for gravel to flow as you drive down the plate.

Frame and set the walls

Frame the walls in your driveway or on the garage floor. The walls are very light, so you can carry them a long way if you need to. Build them in sections, whatever length you like, and screw the end studs together at the site. Leave off the sheathing for now. Snap a chalk line 1 in. in from the outside of the footing plate to align the walls (Photo 2). Place them, screw the joining studs together with four 3-in. construction screws and screw the wall plates to the footing plates in every other stud space with 3-in. construction screws.

Plumb, straighten and brace the walls from the front side and then add the tie plate. Make sure to seam the tie plate joints at least 4 ft. away from the wall joints.

Sheathe and waterproof the walls

Set the plywood panels in place one at a time. Draw and cut 1-5/8-in. x 3-5/8-in. openings spaced 6 in. down from the underside of the top plate and directly next to every other stud. Nail each panel into place with 8d nails spaced every 8 in. before moving on to the next one. Cover the outside with ice-and-water barrier (Photo 4). The adhesive won’t hold the barrier in place, so staple it as needed. Cut off the excess at the top and cut out the strut openings with a utility knife.

Add the struts and sleepers

Slip the struts through each hole. Prop them up so they're close to level, either by piling up dirt or supporting them on chunks of scrap wood. Screw each one to a stud with three 3-in. construction screws. (Predrill the holes to prevent splitting since it's so near the end.) Screw the sleeper to the other end of each strut with two more screws.

Skin and finish the front

Before you can finish the front of the wall and backfill behind it, you’ll have to remove the front braces. So prop up the dead men to keep the wall near plumb while you finish the front. Cut the plywood and nail it on, orienting it vertically to the front so the exposed grain will match the 1x6 boards applied over them. Add the 2x8 cap, keeping a 1-1/2-in. overhang at the front. Screw it to the tie plate with 3-in. deck screws. Screw the 1x6 treated boards to the sheathing with 2-in. deck screws. We spaced our boards every 1-1/2 in. using a scrap 2x4 as a spacer. Don’t trust the spacer for more than a few boards at a time. Occasionally check a board with a level and make any necessary adjustments.

Backfill and finish

Plumb and brace the wall from the back by nailing braces to the top cap and staking them on the hill. Prop up every other strut and the sleepers with scraps of wood or the fill falling on the struts and sleepers will force the wall out of plumb. Backfill first against the front of the wall over the footing to lock the wall base into place, then fill behind it. Then fill over the sleeper, working your way toward the wall itself. The object is to lock in the sleeper before the fill pushes against the wall. Once the backfill is in place, it’s a good idea to run a sprinkler over the fill for several hours to make it settle before you remove the braces.

If you like the look of your wall, you’re good to go—no finish required. The treated wood will weather from green to gray in a year or two. We applied two coats of exterior butternut color stain to ours.

Back to Top

Required Tools for this Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

    • Hammer
    • Miter saw
    • Air compressor
    • Air hose
    • Cordless drill
    • Circular saw
    • Chalk line
    • Level
    • Hearing protection
    • Jigsaw
    • Stapler
    • Safety glasses
    • Spade
    • Utility knife

For large walls you'll need to rent a bobcat

Required Materials for this Project

Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here's a list.

    • (For a 32-ft. wall)
    • 1 Roll of ice-and-water barrier
    • 1 50' roll of 4" drain tile
    • 8 – 4 x 8 x 1/2" treated plywood (sheathing)
    • 2 – 2 x 6 x 16' treated (footing plates)
    • 20 – 2 x 4 x 8' treated (studs and struts)
    • 8 – 2 x 4 x 16' treated (sleeper and wall plates)
    • 2 – 2 x 8 x 16' treated (top cap)
    • 20 – 1 x 6 x 8' treated (trim boards)
    • 8 – 1 x 4 x 8’ (braces)
    • 16d galvanized framing nails
    • 8d galvanized framing nails
    • 2" deck screws
    • 3" deck screws
    • Ice and water barrier
    • Drain tile
    • Gravel
    • Topsoil
    • Exterior stain

Comments from DIY Community Members

Share what's on your mind and see what other DIYers are thinking about.

1 - 5 of 5 comments
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November 22, 8:29 PM [GMT -5]

I built this exact wall (4 feet high) in the corner of my yard...45' along the back and another 45' along the side for a total of 90' of retaining wall! I mounted my 4' aluminum fence to the top of the wall...it looks extremely awesome!
I would love to help anyone who wants to build this wall...I took pictures of every step.
Feel free to contact me.
cevert@d211.org

April 06, 5:51 PM [GMT -5]

The question was asked: "How long should the struts for the deadman be? The article does not say. I'm building a 4' tall wall."
This is a good question. They must, of course, be beyond the area you are filling, so the dirt will be packed down, allowing it to hold the "Deadmen" better.
Their are several things that determine the construction and design of these "Deadmen."
The main thing is the type of dirt that will be used to fill behind the wall. If it is a dirt that is loose, sandy type soil, it will be constantly pressing and packing down on the wall, trying to push it outward. If it is a hard, red-clay type of soil, it will pack, and tend to hold itself better. The looser the soil, the more the holding power of the "Deadmen" will be required.
Another thing that will determine how long the struts should be, is, of course the height of the wall. The higher the wall, the more weight will be against it. I built a concrete wall many years ago, and used 1" re-bar for the "deadmen." I left it the full 20 feet long, and dug a trench to bury it in. On the end the farthest from the wall, I bent the end and poured a concrete pad 2' X 2' and buried it below the ground surface.
The struts in this wall, shown in this article, in my opinion should have been twice as long, and DEFINITELY need a much bigger size on the end that is the farthest from the wall, to bury under the ground. What is shown in this article will not hold long. It will start to lean quickly. I bet, even as they back-filled the wall, it started leaning. Those "Struts" aren't holding very much. That little, flat, 2" X 4" (Sleeper) that is being buried in the ground will just slide as the wall tries to lean outward.
So, basically, what I am saying is that the way they have done it here is good, except for one thing. The "Struts" should be LONGER, extending 2 or 3 feet beyond the "Sleeper" and made to hold themselves to the ground by, maybe pouring concrete, or driving a full 2" x 4" stake into the ground, as far as you can, at the end of each one, and screwing the "Deadman" to the stake. If using that method, the stake should be driven into the ground with the widest side (3 1/2") facing the wall, for more holding power. There are countless ways to design this, my method is only one.
FYI, I am in the process of building a retaining wall on my own property, and, I used NO struts. My wall is 3' high at the highest point, and I used 4" x 4" posts, concreted 2 1/2' into the ground, every 7 feet. When I back-filled my wall, it actually bend some of the posts, so, I know from recent experience how much pressure is exerted against a retaining wall.
SO, you have to understand that the wall in this article is totally dependent upon those "Struts" to keep it from falling over. I like my 4" x 4" post idea much better.
I've rambled on long enough. I hope this made sense to someone.

klc

August 31, 2:23 AM [GMT -5]

I love the look of this wall!! I have a steep sloping hillside in front of my house down to the street ....about 5 ft high and 45* that I would love to make into terraced flowerbeds. Could you give a suggestion on using this wall with 2 terraces about 21/2 feet deep??

Thanks...K

June 27, 11:39 AM [GMT -5]

How long should the struts for the deadman be? The article does not say. I'm building a 4' tall wall.

Thanks

September 18, 8:37 PM [GMT -5]

Hello, About to build a few walls following this guide. What is the purpose of the Rain & Ice shield? Also any recommendations on stain for the lumber? I live in Arkansas if that matters. Thanks

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