How to a Build A Retaining Wall a DIY Installation Guide

This extensive How to a Build A Retaining Wall guide will cover the entire process, from planning to installation, using interlocking-block systems, a popular wall system that simplifies the process for DIY enthusiasts.

Retaining walls are a fantastic addition to any landscape, serving both functional and aesthetic purposes. They provide stability and support to sloping landscapes, prevent erosion, and create level areas for gardens or patios. Building your own retaining wall can be a satisfying and cost-effective DIY project.

Before starting, it’s essential to gather additional information on local building codes and consult a qualified engineer if your wall is above a certain height ( in the uk this is 1m for the front garden and 2m for the rear) or if there are specific grade changes. This will ensure that your retaining wall is safe, durable, and compliant with regulations.

Planning and Design

The first step in the installation process is to determine the desired height, length, and wall design. Measure the area where the wall will be constructed, and create a simple sketch to visualize the layout. Straight walls or those with a right angle are generally easier to build, but curved or freestanding walls can also be constructed with some additional planning.

Consider the materials you’ll be using, such as concrete blocks or natural stones. Retaining wall block styles vary, so choose one that complements your landscape design. Check the manufacturer’s installation guides for specific information on the chosen wall system and block units.

Preparing the Site for Your Wall

Start by marking the front of the wall with a string line, making sure it’s level and straight. Excavate the area to accommodate the leveling pad, base material, and first course of block. Remove top soil and replace it with coarse sand or crushed stone, as these materials provide better drainage and stability.

For small retaining walls, a depth of 4-6 inches is sufficient for the base material, while taller walls may require a deeper base. Use a plate compactor to compact the base material, ensuring a level base for the bottom row of blocks.

Installing the Footings

The fondation commonly known as the footing are an essential part of wall construction as it provides a stable and level foundation for the first course of block. The most common materials for leveling pads are made up of concrete and for smaller walls crushed stone known as type 1 MOT or coarse sand can be used. Spread the material evenly and use a hand tamper or plate compactor to create a firm and level surface. If your installing concrete footing why not use our calculator and work out how much you will need.

Laying the First Course of Block

Place the first block on the leveling pad, ensuring it’s level from front to back and side to side. Continue placing adjacent blocks, maintaining a consistent gap between each block unit. As you lay the first course of block, use a level to check that the entire length of the wall remains level. This is the most important step, as it affects the stability and appearance of the entire wall.

Installing Drainage Systems

Poor drainage can lead to hydrostatic pressure behind the wall, causing it to fail. To prevent this, install a drainage pipe behind the first course of block, making sure it slopes slightly away from the wall for proper drainage. Cover the pipe with drainage aggregate and landscape fabric to filter out sediment and prevent clogging.

Backfilling and Compacting

Once the drainage system is in place, backfill the area behind the wall with crushed stone or coarse sand. These materials allow water to drain freely, reducing pressure on the wall. Compact the backfill material in layers using a plate compactor to ensure it’s stable and secure.

Building Additional Courses

As you install additional courses, remove any debris from the top of the block to ensure full contact between courses. Most interlocking-block systems have a rear lip that automatically creates the correct setback as you stack blocks. If your system doesn’t have this feature, use a string line or level to maintain the proper setback throughout the wall construction.

Stack the next course of block, staggering the joints in a running bond pattern for added stability. Ensure that the front of the wall and the block units remain level as you build upward. Continue this process for each additional course until the desired height is reached.

Installing Geogrid (for Taller Walls)

For taller walls, the use of geogrid is necessary to reinforce the wall structure and prevent failure. Geogrid is a synthetic mesh material that stabilizes the soil behind the wall, distributing pressure evenly. Consult the manufacturer’s guidelines to determine the appropriate geogrid spacing and installation method for your wall system.

Place the geogrid on top of a completed course, extending it into the backfill material. Add the next row of blocks, backfill, and compact the soil on top of the geogrid. Repeat this process as needed, based on your wall’s total height and the manufacturer’s recommendations.

Cutting and Fitting Blocks

In some cases, you may need to cut blocks to fit your wall design, such as creating a 90-degree corner or finishing the end of a wall. Use a circular saw with a masonry blade to make clean cuts. Always wear safety gear and follow the manufacturer’s instructions when using power tools.

Wall Cappings and Finishing

Once the wall reaches the desired height, install the facing unit or capstones to finish the top of the block. These units provide a polished appearance and protect the wall from water penetration. Depending on the wall system, you may need to use adhesive to secure the capstones in place.

Backfill the area behind the wall up to the finished grade, and then add additional gravel for proper drainage. Fill any gaps between the wall and the surrounding soil with topsoil, then landscape as desired.


What is the purpose of a retaining wall?

A retaining wall serves to hold back soil and prevent erosion, providing stability and support to sloping landscapes. It can also create level areas for gardens, patios, or other outdoor spaces, as well as add aesthetic value to a property.

What materials can I use to build a retaining wall?

Popular materials for retaining walls include interlocking concrete blocks, natural stones, bricks, and pressure-treated wood. Each material has its own advantages, aesthetic qualities, and installation requirements.

How high can I build a retaining wall without needing a permit or engineer?

This varies depending on local building codes and regulations. Generally, retaining walls under 3-4 feet in height may not require a permit or engineering consultation. However, it’s essential to check with your local authorities for specific requirements.

Can I build a retaining wall on a slope?

Yes, retaining walls are often built on slopes to create level areas and prevent soil erosion. Proper planning, design, and installation techniques are crucial for ensuring the wall’s stability and longevity on sloping terrain.

How deep should the foundation be for a retaining wall?

The depth of the foundation depends on the size and type of the retaining wall, as well as the soil conditions. For small retaining walls, a depth of 4-6 inches is generally sufficient for the base material, while taller walls may require a deeper foundation.

Do I need to install drainage behind my retaining wall?

Yes, proper drainage is crucial to prevent hydrostatic pressure buildup behind the wall, which can lead to failure. A drainage system typically consists of a perforated drainage pipe and drainage aggregate, both installed behind the wall to allow water to flow away freely.

How do I ensure my retaining wall is level and straight?

Use a string line and a level when installing the first course of blocks to ensure the wall is level and straight from the start. Continuously check the wall’s level as you add additional courses and make any necessary adjustments.

Can I build a curved retaining wall?

Yes, many interlocking-block systems can accommodate curved designs. You will need to adjust the spacing between the blocks and possibly cut some blocks to fit the curve. Always consult the manufacturer’s guidelines for specific instructions on building curved walls.

How do I maintain and care for my retaining wall?

Regularly inspect your retaining wall for any signs of damage or wear, such as cracks, shifting, or bulging. Address drainage issues promptly and keep the area around the wall clear of debris and excessive vegetation. If you notice significant issues, consult a professional for assessment and repair.

How much does it cost to build a DIY retaining wall?

The cost of building a DIY retaining wall depends on factors such as materials, size, complexity, and labor. Interlocking concrete blocks are generally more affordable than natural stone or brick, and doing the work yourself can save on labor costs. Be sure to factor in the cost of additional materials like drainage systems and base materials when estimating the total cost.


Building your own retaining wall can be a rewarding and cost-effective project that enhances your property’s function and appearance. By following this comprehensive guide, you’ll be able to construct a durable, attractive retaining wall that suits your landscape and needs. Remember to consult local building codes, work with a qualified engineer if necessary, and always prioritize safety throughout the installation process.

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Mark Cullen
Mark Cullen
I have many qualifications and certificates in construction, such as City & Guilds, CPCS and CITB. These are the highest standards of training and competence in the industry. Whether you need help with plumbing, carpentry, bricklaying or any other trade, I’m here to help you succeed.