The Science of Stacking Firewood

From Shaker rounds to ricks, here's a primer on methods of stacking firewood for maximum seasoning.

| October/November 1994

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.

11/10/2017 2:43:25 PM

I have found that stacking wood in the wood shack that I built exceeds by far anything stacked out in the weather. I built a 12X12X24 foot shed for the purpose of drying wood. It has a tin roof and three sides are slatted with eight inch wide slats spaced two inches apart. One 24 foot side is open and faces south. In one side of the shack is this year's dried wood, and on the other is a growing pile of green wood that I will burn next year. I always cure wood for at least a year before burning it. My efficient wood burning stoves require wood to dried to at least 18 percent moisture content, and I have found that this woodshed does the job in about a year. Also, I have lots of yellow poplar and pine, which makes poor firewood, so I fell it and trade it to saw mills for leavings of oak and hickory that was used to make railroad ties. Sawmills cut up poplar logs to sell to furniture manufacturers and pine for general lumber.

11/10/2017 2:43:24 PM


11/10/2017 7:10:52 AM

I have found that stacking wood in the weather is not near as good as stacking it in a wood shed that I built for the purpose. I built a shed 12 ft deep, 24 ft wide and 12 ft high with vertical 8 inch slats with one inch gaps between them. The front is open and faces south. This works extremely well. A 12 foot square, eight foot high stack on one side is this year's fuel, while a growing 12 ft stack of green wood on the other side is curing for next year. I fell poplar and pine, not for firewood, but to trade for oak and hickory sawmill leavings. The sawmills love my softwood, and I love their leftovers.

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