The Science of Stacking Firewood

Stack wood the in a deliberate and effective manner using this primer on a variety of methods that ensure your timber is seasoned to the max.

  • 146 stacking firewood 3 shaker round
    A Shaker round covered with thick shingles and surrounding a holed plastic leach field drainpipe.
  • 146 stacking firewood 4 stacking methods
    Top: Don't stack too tightly. Allow drying air to get at the logs. Bottom: Stack with irregularities in the pile, avoiding long vertical seams that might collapse.
  • 146 stacking firewood 1 cover
    Arrange for proper air flow and drainage when stacking firewood. A peaked roof of overlapping splits, shingles, tarp, or plastic will do the job nicely.
  • 146 stacking firewood - classic cord of wood
    The classic cord: 128 cubic feet of logs and air.

  • 146 stacking firewood 3 shaker round
  • 146 stacking firewood 4 stacking methods
  • 146 stacking firewood 1 cover
  • 146 stacking firewood - classic cord of wood

In my part of upper New England, winters are long and cold; security is a big stack of well-seasoned firewood. The urge to "get the wood in" runs deep. It's an itch that kicks up when the leaves begin turning in mid-August and that won't stay scratched until the snow season's fuel supply is split, stacked, and ready to hand.

There is an art and a science to stacking firewood in a woodpile. Some say there's a spiritual side to it as well, but I can't help you much with that. You'd have to come to meeting already knowing that there's something more to a tree than wood, bark, and leaves as the Indians and the old-time French-Canadian axmen did, and the way a few modern woodsmen and women still do.

Firewood just dumped in a heap won't dry and it won't burn well. Rain will run down and soak into cut ends while ground moisture will migrate up and soak into spongy inner bark. But even the toughest ash and beech fire logs will start quickly and burn efficiently (with little creosote-making smoke) if seasoned in the woods for 6 months to a year, sectioned to stove length, the big logs half-split, and all of it piled in the woodshed or barn for some months more. The hardwood should be quartered; the pine should be split to kindling and piled again to surface-dry in a warm cellar for a few weeks or months and finally brought upstairs to heat and dry crisp for a day or two near the stove. Henry Thoreau neglected the work of piling and repiling when he wrote, "Wood warms you twice ...once when you cut it and again when you burn it." By my count it warms you six or seven times — most of that in building and tearing down woodpiles.

Stacked in the Woods  

Since colonial days, wood cut from trees too small to saw into lumber has been bought, sold, and traded by the cord — 128 cu ft of 4-ft-long logs and air in a stack 8 ft long and 4 ft high. Loggers were paid by the cord as piled in the woods — each cord was anchored at one end against a standing tree with the other end ricked against a pair of stout poles sunk in the snow or soft ground. A crafty woodcutter would build in as much air as he could, padding his wages a bit and helping speed the seasoning process. Left in the woods through at least one season of dry winter air, the logs would lose their live wood moisture content in excess of ambient humidity (about 20%) through evaporation in warm weather and, more slowly, via sublimation after a frost.

Come the wood selling season next fall, big-wheeled log wagons pulled by ox teams would haul the 2-ton cords to wood yards in town. There, the 4-ft logs would be sectioned to stove length (a bit less than the width of a parlor stove's door or length of a range's firebox), or divided in the middle for 2-ft-log-burning stoves. And it would be stacked in 4 x 4 x 8 cords again for sale. A clever wood merchant would show the yard hands how to stack in as much air as possible and a clever buyer would insist on restacking his own way or would go elsewhere.

It works largely the same way today, except that much of the work is automated. High-powered skidders and logging trucks can harvest and transport whole trees to be seasoned and processed in the yard. Logs are aged whole and then sectioned to order with a big cordwood saw, split with a hydraulic ram, and moved by conveyer belt into trucks with one-, two-, or four-cord-sized beds that will dump the wood in your yard. It never sees a cord-sized pile. Modern wood merchants have been known to sell air, charging exorbitant prices for little ricks or full-cord prices for face cords that measure 8 ft long and 4 ft high but are only one stick deep. Some years ago, many states passed laws defining a cord as 128 cu ft and imposed fines on merchants selling air for the price of wood.

10/13/2019 2:14:16 PM

My neighbors are Russian. They just moved in and cleared out the dead trees from the former owner. They cut up the trees, split them and stacked all the wood in a day and one morning. It's the shaker in design and is quite impressive. I'll be getting wood this coming spring. I'll keep a shed style myself. I see getting the wood off the shaker pile to be a pain. It's a high climb to get it.

10/10/2019 10:48:57 AM

Great article, I've been going to your website for a while now for information. My boyfriend and I recently bought 17 acres in Texas and and I'm having my dream home finally built. Your website has given me a lot of very good information as it has been a very long time since I have worked on a ranch at age 18 and now my only animals are 3 dogs so starting over at 54 on a small farm trying to raise my own chickens, dairy goats and finally have a couple of horses again is going to be a big change for my boyfriend who has never been around any of these animals really except chickens. Will be a very big learning experience. I've milked goats before years ago but it's like riding a bike I still remember how. Lol

4/11/2019 11:17:47 AM

Great article, enjoy reading all of them. I am 79 years old and have a local young man fell and buck a few trees on my land every spring. I then, with the help of another teen age neighbor, cut up and haul to my barn where I split with a log splitter. I stack against the back wall, keeping it away from the wall by 4 inches. I stack 4 ft high, , as my late husband tought me. I season for about 9 months and some of it does not get used for over a year. I use old 2 by 4s to keep it off the floor. Must be doing something right as it burns great. It is mostly alder with a few crooked douglas thrown in for good measure.



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