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The Art of the Waterfall

Essential elements for natural looking installations
By Freddie Combas, FWG Desings
The Art of the Water Article This three-foot, pondless waterfall is built with one large boulder.
The lush landscaping hides a retaining wall that separates the waterfall from the
parking lot behind it.

We have all seen both the “WOW!” waterfall as well as the “What were they thinking?” waterfall, right? Most prospective customers have been exposed to the latter, which makes selling them on your better-built and more aesthetically pleasing waterfall much easier.

Since the aesthetic aspects of a waterfall are subjective, I will try to focus this article on the structure and mechanics of how to properly build a natural-looking waterfall. I will not get into the design basics of location, viewing angle or geometrically shaped architectural waterfalls. That being said, follow these steps and the outcome will deliver both a properly built and an aesthetically pleasing waterfall, regardless of where and what size it is!

Be the Water

When building a waterfall it is critical to the end result that you are continuously asking yourself, “What will the water do now?” after every stone is placed. In essence we build the waterfall backwards. So when we place a boulder above another boulder, we are focused on making sure that once the water cascades off the upper boulder, it creates the desired result when the water drops onto the lower boulder. Do this over and over and over and you have yourself a consciously built waterfall, not one built by chance.

Though the concept is easy, there are many factors to be considered in order to accomplish this, such as:

  • Waterfall dimensions (height, width, depth)
  • Number of initial weirs/waterfall filters
  • Number of overall spillways
  • Boulder size
  • Pump size
  • Build a slope or retaining wall?
  • Waterfall landscape areas
  • Lighting placement

NOTE: All of the above considerations have to be decided prior to starting to build the waterfall, as they are all interrelated. As you build you can modify your initial concept, but a prior overall plan is needed for space layout, aesthetic and budget planning.


The Art of the Water Article A residential waterfall we call “E.T.’s waterfall.” We installed three waterfall weirs at varying
elevations and 3-man-sized boulders for this waterfall. Can you find E.T.’s head in this waterfall?
Waterfall dimensions are the most important factor to be considered, yet they are also the most-ignored by contractors who build what a customer tells them they “think” they want and not what they really want. A lot of customers need some education as to why a 6-foot waterfall cannot go into a 6-foot by 8-foot pond. It is your job to explain visual aspects, dimensions, scale, et cetera. The height must be to scale with the slopes on both sides of the waterfall. If the height of the waterfall is too high and is not to scale with the side slopes, you will end up with an unnatural-looking, pyramid-like waterfall. The waterfall also has to be scaled to the pond being built (or to the area if a pondless waterfall is being built).

The depth (front to back) measurement is extremely important, as it is what determines both the quantity and style of cascades. The greater the distance between the waterfall’s origin at the top and the ground elevation at the pond or pondless basin, the higher the quantity of cascades, directional water flow changes and mini catch-pools can be incorporated.

If you are installing basic filtration such as waterfall filters, then the number and overall dimensions of the waterfall filters being used to filter the pond needs to be considered. If you’re building a pondless waterfall or a pond utilizing an external filtration system, then multiple weirs can be used. If using multiple or a combination of either, I recommend you install them at varying elevations in order to create a more interesting waterfall. Three waterfall filters in a straight line across the top of a waterfall is not appealing.


NOTE: This applies to every waterfall regardless of the waterfall’s height.