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How to Build a Stone Fountain

Updated: Sep. 21, 2017

Bring the splash and sparkle of falling water to your yard in just one weekend.

FH05APR_456_51_137-2Family Handyman

You can customize this design to suit your yard without changing the basic construction. Our fountain is about 4 ft. in diameter. You could make yours half as big or twice as big using the same materials and methods. To change the look of the fountain, you can use a different type of stone, arranged any way you like. Everything you need is available at garden and home centers. The cost of stone depends on the type you choose and where you live.

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Simple Customizable Design

This fountain is designed for simple installation and easy maintenance. There are no hard-to-use materials involved, no special skills or tools needed. Any mistakes you might make are easy to correct. Maintenance is minimal: To remove the pump or clean out the basin, you only need to remove a few stones at the center of the fountain.

How it Works

The electric pump forces water up through the nozzle. The falling water trickles down between the stones, runs across the liner and drips back into the sump can. Simple! Please see Figure A in Additional Information at the end of this article.

What You Need

  1. The plastic sump can is simply a water container. It’s sold as a ‘sump basin’ for a basement sump pump and holds about 20 gallons. A smaller container (like a 5-gallon bucket) would quickly run dry in hot or windy weather. Be sure to use a sump can with a lid that can be screwed on.
  2. Plastic conduit (1-1/4 in.) is normally used to protect permanent wiring, but we used it as an underground pathway for the pump’s cord. Conduit is sold in 10-ft. lengths. You’ll also need an elbow and two male threaded end fittings. Your conduit run must be shorter than the pump’s cord. Don’t use an extension cord inside the conduit. Most pumps have 16- or 20-ft. cords.
  3. The liner is a waterproof barrier that channels water back into the sump can. We used a 5 x 5-ft.sheet of EPDM rubber, which is tougher than most other liner materials.
  4. The underlayment is synthetic cloth that protects the liner from punctures. Normally, a single layer is placed under the liner. But because we set sharp stones on the liner, we spread three layers of underlayment over the liner as well. You could save money by using old carpet rather than underlayment.
  5. The pump is rated by gallons per hour (gph). This rating, along with the nozzle, determines the height of the water spray. We wanted the water to shoot up at least 2 ft. and chose a 500-gph pump. Smaller pumps worked fine when the sump can was full, but the spray height dropped as the water level in the can dropped.
  6. Any kind of stone, arranged in any way, can surround this fountain. We set flagstones on edge, but you could use rounded stones, a stack of stones or a bunch of colorful pebbles spread over the liner.
  7. The power supply for the pump must be GFCI protected and sheltered by an ‘in-use’ cover. The pump uses about as much electricity as a 100-watt light bulb.’
  8. Dig a Shallow Hole

    The hardest work comes first: You’ll need a broad, shallow hole for the stone; a hole for the sump can; and a trench for the conduit. Start by driving a stake at the center of the fountain location and tie a string to it. Wrap the other end of the string around a can of spray paint and mark a circle on the ground. Then stand back and imagine the completed fountain. If the size seems right, go ahead and dig a hole about 4 in. deep.

    Before you dig, call 811 and arrange to have your buried electrical and gas lines located.

    Mark a circle on the grass with spray paint and dig a shallow hole. Check the depth of the hole with a board and a tape measure. Use a level to make sure the bottom of the hole is level.

    Dig a Deep Hole and a Trench

    At the center of this shallow hole, dig a deep hole for the sump can.

    Next, dig a trench for the conduit that will run to the power supply. Here’s how to dig the trench without killing the grass: Instead of shoveling out chunks of sod, cut a 4-in. deep slice in the sod all along the trench’s path with a square shovel. Then pry up the sod and fold it back. Deepen the trench if necessary. Have all your materials on hand so you can quickly complete the conduit and flip the sod back into place. Water the trench area immediately.

    Drill a hole in the sump can 5 in. from the top with a 1-3/4 in. hole saw. Set the can in place and center it within the circle. Set a 2-ft. level across the top to make sure the can is level. As you backfill, double-check the can’s position with your tape and level.

    Dig a hole for the sump can and a trench for the conduit. Set the can in the hole, with the conduit hole facing the trench. Make sure the can is centered within the circle and then backfill around the can.

    Run Conduit for the Pump Cord

    Plastic conduit is easy to work with: You just cut it with a hacksaw and push the parts together. Loosely assemble the conduit parts first. (If you push them together hard, you’ll have to knock them apart with a hammer.) Set the conduit in the trench to check the fit. If the fit is correct, push the parts tightly together. Plastic conduit is normally cemented at joints, but that isn’t necessary for this project.

    Before you place conduit in the trench, tie a string to a large nut and insert the nut into the conduit. Raise one end of the conduit and jiggle it so the nut pulls the string all the way through. Make sure the conduit slopes toward the can and add male threaded connectors to both ends to protect the cord from the sharp edges of the conduit. Press duct seal around the conduit where it enters the can to keep soil out of the can.

    Run conduit to the power source. Assemble the conduit and use a large nut to drag a string through it. Then set the conduit into place, add a threaded fitting and make sure the conduit slopes toward the can.

    Tie the string to the pump’s cord and use the string to pull the cord to the power source. Have a helper feed cord into the conduit as you pull.

    Connect to the Power Source

    Backfill the conduit trench and fold the sod back into place. Add or remove a little soil around the can to make sure the shallow hole slopes slightly toward the can. Finally, use the string to pull the pump’s power cord from the can to the power source.

    Tip: Before you remove the pump for winter, tie a string to the cord. Leave the string in the conduit so you can use it to pull the cord through next spring.

    Plug the conduit with duct seal at the power source. The power source must be GFCI protected and have an in-use cover.

    The Pump’s Plumbing

    Some pump kits include nozzles that produce different spray patterns. With others, you buy nozzles separately. None of the pumps we found had riser tubes long enough for this fountain. We took our pump and nozzle to a hardware store and found everything we needed in the plumbing aisle: 1/2-in. PVC pipe, a female fitting to connect to the pump, a male fitting to fit the nozzle and a valve to adjust the water flow. Your pump may require different parts. Some pumps come with built-in valves, but it’s smart to add one at the nozzle anyway so you can adjust the spray height without removing the pump. Cut the riser tube a couple of inches longer than you think you’ll need. You can easily shorten it later. Don’t bother to cement the plastic parts-just force them together. Set the pump on a brick to keep it from sucking in the sludge that settles to the bottom of the sump can.

    Lay the Liner

    Spread underlayment across the fountain area and cut a hole in it over the sump can. Then do the same with the liner and the following layers of underlayment. If you plan to surround the fountain with grass or plants, trim the outer edges of the underlayment and liner after the stone is in place. If you plan to place flagstone around the fountain as we did, simply cover the outer edges with the stone.

    Spread out the underlayment and cut a hole about 3 in. smaller than the can’s opening. Then add the liner and three more layers of underlayment, cutting a hole in each layer.

    Reinforce the Lid

    The lid for the sump can is a little flimsy. To stiffen it, attach two braces to the underside with 1-1/2 in. stainless steel screws. We used plastic 2×2 deck railing, but pressure-treated 2x2s would work just as well.

    Reinforce the lid with 2×2 braces. Cut a hole in the center of the lid to hold a 5-in. plastic planter tray. Cut a 2-in. hole in the tray with a utility knife.

    Place the Lid

    Next, cut a hole in the lid so you can get the pump in and out of the sump can without completely removing the lid. Drill a series of 1/2-in. drainage holes in the lid. The lid comes with a long slot already cut in it, but the slot is too narrow for the pump. Place a plastic planter tray at the center of the lid, trace around it and cut a hole slightly smaller than the tray.

    Attach the riser tube to the pump and set the pump on a brick. Then set the lid in place.

    Attach the Lid

    Now the tray’s rim can rest on the lid and the tray will act as a removable plug that lets you install and remove the pump. We used a 5-in. tray; your pump may require a 6-in. tray. Cut a 2-in. hole in the tray so it can slip over the fountain nozzle and valve.

    Predrill and screw the lid to the can’s rim with stainless steel screws. Slip the valve and nozzle onto the riser tube. Set the tray into the lid.

    Prepare the Stone

    You can surround your fountain with any type of stone in any pattern-there’s no wrong way to do it. Ours is surrounded with pieces of flagstone set on edge and radiating outward from the center. We began by breaking the flagstone into random pieces 3 to 6 in. wide. Breaking up stone can take a few minutes or half a day, depending on the stone you choose.

    Break stone into pieces 3 to 6 in. wide using a maul. Protect your eyes with safety glasses and your lawn with a sheet of plywood.

    Set the Stone

    We stood stones on edge, starting with an inner circle and working outward. For a jagged look, we alternated wider and narrower stones. When all the stones were in place, we filled any gaps with small shards left over from stone breaking. We also used a handful of small pieces to loosely fill in around the nozzle.

    Set stones on edge. A brick helps you get started by holding the first stones upright. Make sure to leave enough space so you can remove the tray and pull out the pump.

    Easy Start Up and Minimal Maintenance

    To start up your fountain, all you have to do is fill the can with water and plug in the pump. Adjust the valve below the nozzle to change the spray height. The rule of thumb for fountain spray height is this: The spray height should be half the fountain’s diameter. Our fountain is just under 4 ft. across, so the spray height should be about 2 ft. Go ahead and break that rule if you like, but remember to refill the sump can more often. We set our valve wide open on a hot, breezy day and found that the can was almost empty after just three hours. With cool, calm weather and a medium spray height, our fountain ran for two or three days before needing a refill. Never let the sump can run dry. Without water for cooling and lubrication, the pump can burn out in just a few minutes.

    If your pump seems to lose power, check the nozzle and the screen on the pump’s intake. Both can get plugged with small fragments of grass or leaves. If you live in a climate where the water in the can is likely to freeze, remove the pump each winter. Before you reinstall the pump in the spring, suck out any sludge buildup in the bottom of the can with a wet/dry vacuum.

    Pull out the small stones and plastic tray to clean out the sump can or remove the pump in winter.

    Tips for Stone Shopping

    Here are some pointers for stone shopping:

    • Bring a bottle of water shopping with you so you can wet the stone. Stone can change dramatically in color when wet.
    • If your fountain is about the same size as ours, you can haul the stone home in your trunk. We used about 200 lbs. Just make sure you have a tarp or old blanket to contain the mess.
    • Keep your eyes open whenever you pass construction sites and you might find stone that’s free for the asking.

    Here’s a lesson we learned the hard way: If you plan to break up stone, choose a type of stone that’s easy to break. We chose ‘Carolina Emerald Gray’ flagstone that came in large pieces 1 to 2 in. thick. A bad choice. Breaking it into smaller pieces was slow, hard labor that left me with a sore arm. Often, the stone shattered into useless fragments. There are types of stone (often versions of limestone or sandstone) that break more easily and cleanly. Ask how well the stone breaks before you buy em dash;-em dash;or better yet em dash;-em dash;take a couple of samples home and give them a whack.

    Additional Information