A Water Artisans of the Year Judge Shares Aesthetic and Design Guidelines

Published on August 31, 2017

snow fed waterfall duensig
This is one of my favorite waterfalls because it is fed entirely by snow melt, and the flow over the stepped weirs is ever-changing. I constructed it in 2002. It also appears to be a single but extremely water and weather-worn boulder, but in reality, it is made from many different but similarly colored and textured boulders.

When someone asks you what you do for a living, do you notice that moment of confusion — those two or three seconds of blankness in their eyes as they try to visualize what you actually do?

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Many people don’t quite know what to say immediately, because what we do is not a clearly understood or defined career, such as a doctor, painter, teacher or automobile mechanic. It can be the same way with a prospective customer when they call on you to build a waterfall, water garden, pond, stream or lake — in other words, to transform their environment! There are so many variables to be defined, questions to be asked and information to be passed back and forth before each party actually has a good, clear understanding of what is being requested and what you as a contractor are willing and able to provide.

A Word from the Bench

Recently, I was given the opportunity to be one of several judges for the POND Trade 2016 Water Artisans of the Year contest. I enjoyed seeing the variety of projects and the prized work of many pond professionals in various parts of the country. There were commercial features that were designed and built to provide a major visual impact — a wow factor, as I call it. Then there were other extremely small, intimate, peaceful water gardens. Interestingly, there was quite a spread of voting by the judges, which reflects our own unique backgrounds, experiences and preferences. In my opinion, that’s what makes water features so diverse: everyone has a different focus, goal or detail they prefer in waterfalls and water features.

Aqua UV
 Having been in this industry now for almost 30 years, with a very humble beginning but a significant drive to excel and do my best each and every time, I hope to share with you some of my personal insights and opinions regarding what makes a water feature or waterfall successful or exceptional. My goal is to share with you some of the aesthetic and design details I have learned on my own, from observing the work of nature and other artisans or from the masters when they were willing to share their opinions and I was willing to listen. What is to follow is not the law or strict rules to adhere to, but instead merely ideas and details to consider while creating your aesthetic presentation.


When I work with one of my best and long-term friends and associate Anthony Archer-Wills, we use a colloquial language with each other when we evaluate our work in-progress and our finished projects. One of our most common phrases is, “Does it look comfortable?” What we are really asking is, does the work, the rock selection or formation look forced or artificial, or does the waterfall, water garden, stream or pond look comfortable, at ease and relaxed in its place? What we are looking for and measuring is the overall visual balance of rock, water, plantings or other visible man-placed materials. Does it appear as if nature has caressed, shaped and positioned the rocks in a natural manner? Does the blending of rock materials appear natural?

virgin island pond boulder
This 12-by-8-foot boulder is being positioned adjacent to
the outdoor kitchen wall, facing the swimming pool and lounging area. It will be one of the three waterfall weirs constructed out of irregularly-shaped, weather-worn boulders in the British Virgin Islands.

You may find yourself saying, “The client won’t know the difference,” or “I can make more profit if I take the easy route and use this material,” or “I am most comfortable with this rock type.” My approach, as well as that of many of my most respected associates and mentors in the industry, is to look first at the best material for the project that would make it look like a natural event or occurrence. I encourage you, if you have not already, to step back and really examine the beautiful examples nature provides. Look at how nature has created water courses and carried her rockwork off into the landscape farther from the water’s edge. Look at the bigger picture, not just where water contacts the rock.
Harmony in Nature

When I hike in amazingly wondrous places, such as Glacier National Park in Montana, the Great Smoky Mountains or Aspen, Colorado, I have unexpectedly come around a corner in the trail and been in awe of the visual display, interaction or visual balance of rock, water and plants. We need to actually see, be aware of and understand how all these elements naturally interact and work together. There is harmony in nature. So, why do I bring this up, and what is my point? These are good questions.

In our industry, I truly believe most water feature builders want three things: appreciation for their work, the creation of long-term visual and audible interest and recognition as a company that can replicate nature. If this is you, let’s understand and be very clear that just because natural rock is used in your project does not mean that the water feature or rock formation will automatically look real, authentic or natural. Why not? There are three common mistakes I see across the country.

First, too many different types or shapes of rocks are blended together within a feature that do not visually or geologically go together. This creates visual tension, not a look of relaxed comfort. Is the rock formation or collection at ease, or is there visual tension and chaos? For example, in reviewing the spectrum of photos from the contestants of the contest, there were many images where the stone selection, application and installation were beautiful, or where various sizes and shapes of the same type of stone were oriented in a “natural random” nature. In other cases, several types of rock, or rocks with extremely different shapes were blended together in a very unnatural manner, creating visual tension. When waterfalls are constructed from long, flat, horizontally-positioned waterfall boulders, but the transition to the landscape is littered with freshly fractured, sharp-edged, irregularly shaped rock, this creates a strong visual contrast and tension. In my opinion, feathering waterfall boulders of the same type and size out into the landscape creates a sense that the rock formation is actually much bigger than just the part that makes up the waterfall itself.

Waterfall boulder feature
This boulder feature is a perfect example of too much of the same type and size of rock being used, losing the accent of rock in the garden. The waterfall is also a good example of what can occur if you attempt to build a waterfall with a round rock. The end result is a “wet” rock.

Second, too much rock are being used only at the water’s edge. The rock or hardscape does not carry off into the landscape, tying the shoreline rock into the surrounding area. Rock is a strong visual element, and it draws the eye to more distant areas of the landscape, helping to create a grander visual experience. If it is only used at the water’s edge, an opportunity to enhance and expand the view is lost. For example, lining the entire perimeter or edge with cobblestone-sized rock is a common mistake. One term I use for this look is the “necklace effect.” Keep in mind that too much of any one element, such as rock, removes it from being an accent or a focal point and minimizes its visual impact.

In nature, there is randomness — a shoreline will have areas of rock and plants, rarely just one or the other. Boulders, stone or rock should not only balance well at the shoreline but also extend outward and away from the water’s edge, unifying the landscape and the water. I encourage you to at least take a quick look at Chinese or Asian gardens, where the balance of yin and yang is critical. Rocks are the body of the world. The water is the world’s spirit, providing oxygen, breath, the liquid clouds and blood running through the veins. The rocks symbolize all that is active — the work and the forces of work. The water symbolizes all that is contemplated — all that compliments work, thought, freedom, silence and reflection, or in other words, serenity.

Finally, I often see too many rocks of the same size used throughout a feature, again negating the accent or the dramatic element that was intended. Rock is one of the critical elements that draws the attention to the water or into the landscape. It is that strong accent that stands out in the landscape or pond edge and draws the eye to that area. If too much of the same shaped or sized rock is used, it is not an accent anymore. Finding and properly placing the key focal points — the boulders — into the water feature and surrounding landscape is essential to create a complete visual picture, to guide the visitor’s attention to where you want and to ensure long-term interest for the client or their visitors. Always keep in mind and execute the idea of “natural randomness,” the seemingly random blending and changing of the visuals from rock to water to plants.

Waterfall Weirs

Waterfall weirs represent another area where I see great potential for improvement in our industry. This is the art of selecting and incorporating various weir shapes and materials into waterfalls and streams to truly replicate how nature works.

waterfall weirs
This waterfall is a part of a Japanese water garden and was designed to be understated. Tennessee fieldstone was selected for its rounded and softer looking, aged appearance. This type of stone, similar to a hard sandstone, is more easily trimmed and fitted together, allowing the water feature to have many facets and weir elevations that provide cascading views from several different directions. (Photo by Stephen Dunn)

I would expect that when most of us started our experimenting with waterfalls, we tended to use flat rocks as weirs, regardless of what other type or shape of rock is used elsewhere in the feature. Flat rocks are easy to find, shape and seal into place, and they provide for a wide visual waterfall. There is nothing wrong with that, unless the rest of the water feature is constructed from more irregular, water-worn stone. When I am out hiking in places like South Carolina, I see water flowing over horizontally-grained sedimentary rock, yet the weirs are worn and gently blend into the rock structure with formations extending well beyond the edge of the flowing water. This is one of the many key details that makes what you see look correct and comfortable, rather than forced.

When reviewing my inventory of rock material for a new water feature, I first look for the special weir rocks and set them aside. I’m looking for visually worn rocks, boulders that also have some type of an edge or a relatively sharp change in shape that will force the water to leave the rock rather than run down its face. My goal is to find an assortment of weir stones that allows me to use a minimal amount of water and provide the maximum visual waterfall display. Flat, sharp-edged rocks are by far the most efficient at making water break off the weir edge, but they rank the worst, in my opinion, at providing a natural waterfall look. On the other hand, water-worn boulders require a higher flow rate to achieve a waterfall, since more of the water tends to roll over the rounder weir edge. Take that to the extreme and use a round boulder for a weir, and all you really get is a wet rock.

Avoid the Lackluster

This apparently water-worn limestone waterfall constructed by Anthony Archer-Wills and me has a depression allowing water to flow over the weir. The limestone carries far to the right
and left of the weir, giving the impression that there is a considerable limestone ledge partially buried by soil. There are also random boulders in the water in front of the weir, providing the impression that the waterfall has eroded backward over eons.

The bottom line in our business is that we usually not only have a budget to meet but also a specifically sized water feature to build. Flat weirs are easy to find and install and are less costly to build. They also provide the best waterfall weir width for the buck. But, there is a major downside to flat weirs. They are two-dimensional and promptly become visually and audibly boring. They become a non-changing event, and, if the weir edge is a sharp edge, the falling water is clear, allowing you see right through it in the daytime and when lit at night — in other words, a very lackluster waterfall. On the other hand, when randomly sized and shaped rocks are expertly selected and configured together properly, three-dimensional weirs and waterfalls can be formed that provide enhanced, easily seen waterfalls with an ever-changing melody of sound.

It is an exciting, creative journey that takes time, money and consistent effort to learn the true art of water-feature and waterfall construction, but it is well worth the gratification that comes from seeing your projects look more and more like natural occurrences. In this industry, we continue to find new rock sources and learn how to handle, shape, cut and position the different types and textures of these rocks. We learn to use new tools and hone new skills. Continuing to learn and advance our industry is a passion for most of us — not just a way of earning a living. I saw this clearly in the talent displayed in the 2016 Water Artisans of the Year contest, for which I had the honor of serving as a judge. Thank you to all who participated and for the opportunity to be part of the Supreme Stream Court.

David B. Duensing, a long-time industry expert and educator, created Aquatic Construction Services, LLC in 2006 specializing in combining natural stone, living water and his clients’ dreams to build unique and exceptional aquatic features throughout the Americas, the Caribbean and abroad.

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