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How To Build Beautiful
Backyard Waterfalls

while avoiding the usual mistakes


I treat backyard waterfalls as a separate item only because they are so important a component of many pools, fountains and streams.


Waterfalls can be really wonderful components to streams, fountains and pools if tastefully done. Most of the backyard waterfalls we see in home water features are fairly sorry affairs, however, for a variety of reasons having to do with material selection, size of the fall, volume of the water and size of the pool.


If you want the drama of falling water and have a setting that can support a contemporary structural element or a pool or stream which can be enhanced by a waterfall, then this feature will be well worth the effort.


Except for the rock just above the main flow of water, these stone are well placed and the whole is quite convincing and satisfying. The rock at the top on which the water is flowing is not right for water-flow, it is too rough, but if not for the unfortunate angle of the rock above it, would seem perfectly fine. That one rock which in its off angle breaks from the otherwise perfect horizontal/vertical arrangement creates a disharmony and draws the eye. Were it level, all would appear perfect. We can see too that the pool into which the fall spills is of adequate size and the surrounding stone are well chosen and well placed.

 pool waterfall well made

The reason for specifically addressing waterfalls and showing these pictures of waterfalls is because more often than not, a reasonably well designed pool will possess a really badly designed waterfall. They=re easy to get wrong and difficult, aesthetically, to get right. But there are principles behind the creation of right looking waterfalls and here we will look at design elements as pertains to their creation, and show a few well designed and a few not so well designed examples. It is useful to see what doesn=t work so as to know what to avoid.


When building waterfalls remember that in nature they occur where rocks are an abundant element within the entire landscape. Stones will be found not only in the fall, but above, below and on both sides of the fall and ensuing stream or pond. A waterfall that is a collection of stones with water running down them and with no stones to either side looks completely contrived and is to be avoided in designing the natural pond.


There are four common mistakes in the creation of waterfalls. These are: Selecting the wrong type of stone, poor placement of waterfall stone and surrounding stone, too small or too large a fall for the pool it feeds and too much or little water for the size of the fall. This is true regardless if it is a waterfall into a stream or pond, or if it is a pondless waterfall.


 backyard waterfalls badly made

 Note the rough stones which seem to be falling forward
photo by K. Davitt



The most common of these mistakes is using the wrong stone. In nature, we find streams flowing over stones that have been beneath the incessant influence of moving water for a very long time. They are smooth and worn. River rock, or river flats or rounds (which in fact come from these situations) are commonly available but they are not so easy to work with. Water passing over a stone with a rounded edge tends to cling to the rock, follow the curve around to the bottom and go under the rock rather than cascading from its edge.


Many waterfalls are built of rough granite recently taken from the interior of some mountain side and have never before been touched by so much as a rain drop. With their sharply angled edges they control the flow and fall of the water really well but they often don=t look right. This sort of stone must be worked with and placed very carefully if a successful waterfall is to be created from them. For example, if massive pieces of stone are used, bearing a torrent of water, the drama of it all is captivating and convincing enough, provided the stones are reasonably well placed and the pool into which it spills is in scale.

 backyard waterfall stones - wrong


 backyard waterfalsl well made from wrong stones

 The waterfall to the left has similar virtues and faults as the one above on a smaller scale. None of the stone is appropriate for water flow, however the water does fall nicely and on the whole, this waterfall is satisfying enough, particularly in the foreground. The water follows a meandering course and divides to fall from several points, which is all quite pleasing.

Additionally, the size of the fall is in scale with the pools and the volume of water with the fall.

 The weak aspects of this creation, above, are in the wrong selection of stones, in the rear stones over the first fall and in the placement of the surrounding stones. In waterfall construction; side, or supporting stones, are like supporting actors in a drama, they can either contribute to the overall impact or detract, depending on which are used and how placed. Here, the rear stones over the waterfall and side stones appear weak. The stones there do not fit well together, and so it appears a little unstable. A little refitting of those stones in order to create a sense of solidity would improve this otherwise attractive creation.



The photo below shows a waterfall with poor stone selection, poor placement and  a lack of scale. As with the one above, it is built of stone unaccustomed to the passage of water and in both, the stone are poorly placed with a jumble of stones haphazardly scattered about. In the example below, we have the additional flaw of much too large a waterfall for the pool into which it spills. It lacks scale.

 backyard waterfalls with wrong stones badly placed

 A poorly made waterfall with the wrong stone types


 proper backyard waterfalls stones placement diagram



waterfalsl beautifully made

 The fall above is a man-made creation superbly well done.


city backyard waterfalsl, well made

 The waterfall stone is smooth and rounded with a bottom edge that cuts upward underneath,
permitting the water to glide over and off. - Design, build, photograph - Keith Davitt
Though located in an urban back yard, this arrangement is quite convincing with all of the stones relating well to one another. The stone over which the water flows is a perfect waterfall stone. It is smooth and curved with a downward sloping face. Water flows easily from it.





Possibly, the most enjoyable water fall is the multi-tiered, with water falling from stone to stone and finally into a pool,  and such can be employed in intimate settings, if the notion of scale is allowed to govern. This small fall and pool is a case in point.

 water fall picture

 Monks of New Skete - Designer, builer, photographer - Keith Davitt

 monks of new skete waterfall picture

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Unless otherwise noted, all photos on this page are by John Glover.