How to stack wood

Every man [sic] looks at his wood-pile with a kind of affection. I loved to have mine before my window, and the more chips the better to remind me of my pleasing work. [1] — Henry David Thoreau

Falling down is the one wrong thing a stack of wood can do. [2] — Dirk Thomas

Last winter I ran out of wood, mainly because I was at home more and at my city sublet less. This was a big drag, especially after I saw my hydro bills. I have two sources of heat in my house: electric baseboard, which I use when I’m away, and airtight wood stove. Electric baseboard heat was costing me $300 a month! I nearly choked, rates had gone up so much.

Winter wood

So I asked a friend if I could buy some wood from him; he always has alot of it stacked in his yard. Here we are, digging it out of the snowbank, stacking it into the tractor bucket, loading it into the trailer.

It was freezing and alot of work to do this, and in the end the wood was too wet to burn properly. I vowed to get a load of wood in for the next winter.

Klemmer Lumber was delivering mixed loads – half hardwood, half slab wood, at a good price so I had it delivered. Daunting task ahead to stack it but the big problem was where to stack it!

Wood delivery

I’ve wanted a wood shed for the past ten years and now was the time to have one built. Although it’s not the greatest location aesthetically, there along my driveway, it’s the best place practically. The wood gets delivered in front of it and to stack it you don’t need to wheelbarrow it anywhere.

Wood shed, wood pile

Tony my handy handyman built me a woodshed out of local white cedar posts and pine, with a stainless steel roof. Luckily a friend’s teenaged son and friend were visiting the area and looking for work, so I hired them to stack all ten cords for me. Good for me, good for them! It’s been open all summer so the wood can dry but I’ll cover the front over with tarps once winter comes to keep the snow out of it.

Wood shed full of wood!

A couple of years ago I wrote a catalogue essay for an exhibiton called Hunter/Gatherer by Toronto artist Vid Ingelevics. One of the series of photographs in the show were of woodpiles shot in Grey County, Ontario and in Switzerland. Here’s an excerpt.

Many people in rural Ontario, either out of necessity or for pleasure, heat their homes with wood. The gathering of wood, splitting, stacking and burning of it is an annual, ongoing endeavour. Each winter one woodpile disappears and each spring a new one is stacked. Building a woodpile is seen as a time-honoured art, one that advocates the meditative value and virtuous tonic of thirty minutes of stacking per day. Rituals are invoked, order is made out of disorder.

Woodpiles are symbolic of heating and cooking, the domestic realm of the gatherers. The Yule log blazing in the hearth, itself a gathering place, is conjured. While heat is a necessity, it is also a safeguard against the dark and a symbol of home and safety. For urban dwellers, woodpiles represent a leisurely and bucolic way of life. A pile of wood at hand invokes the bounty and beauty of nature, the promise of mental and spiritual well-being. For rural dwellers who heat with wood, it is a labour-intensive pursuit. Considerable time is devoted first to gathering (the felling, bucking, splitting and hauling of trees) and then use (piling and carrying the wood, stoking the fire and, finally, removing the ash). Symbolic of a spirit of self-reliance and independence, woodpiles unite us with nature in the preparation for winter.

How wood is stacked and what shape the pile takes is determined by a number of factors (aside from the idiosyncrasies of the people who burn, and therefore stack, the wood). Firewood is not uniform, but often a mix of sizes and species. Type and length of wood, diameter, how it’s been split, whether it’s seasoned or green, whether it is to be stacked loosely or tightly, and the location of the pile all contribute to its final outcome. In Ontario, you tend to use maple and beech, hardwoods that are eventually cut to twelve to sixteen inch lengths (in order to fit inside airtight stoves) and split into quarters for delivery in measurements called face cords and bush cords. One bush cord of wood measures four feet by four feet by eight feet when stacked. Having a winter’s worth of wood delivered and dumped in your yard presents a daunting task for there will be several hundred pieces of wood, each of which must be individually handled.

To prevent a woodpile from toppling, it is best stacked up against a brace, between two trees or with cross-hatched ends hand built for support. Wood that is piled outdoors rather than in a woodshed is best covered with tarp or sheets of tin weighted down by stones or pieces of wood to keep off rain and snow. Logs should be stacked bark up to shed water. If there is any kind of lean to the pile, it should be toward a wall or brace. Wood piled around a structure acts as a weather break.

There isn’t a manual on how to stack wood. It is a skill learned by example and observation, trial and error. After much labour, wood burners develop an intimate knowledge of the wood they stack. Theories abound over the technologies and methodologies of the type of wood to burn, price per cord, seasoning times, height of stack, length of row, location for a pile and best way to burn it, but these are debated in woodlots, yards and kitchens, not in the pages of how-to books.

While wood heating is no longer necessary for survival in most industrialized countries, many people outside of urban areas have chosen not to abandon their woodpiles in favour of non-renewable resources. Woodburning for many rural people is an integral part of a contained and conserving way of life. Like Ingelevics’ tree stands, woodpiles take shape out of individual means, specific needs and complex desires. People use what space, materials and location are at hand to construct these utilitarian, but determinedly individualistic, structures.

1. Thoreau, Henry David, Walden, or Life in the Woods, (New York: Carlton House, 1854). Thoreau was an American naturalist, philosopher and early conservationist best known for his book Walden, a classic American novel that explores simple living in a natural environment as models for just social and cultural conditions.

2. Thomas, Dirk, The Harrowsmith Country Life Guide to Woodheat, (Charlotte, Vermont: Camden House Publishing, 1992)

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