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

146 stacking firewood 3 shaker round

A Shaker round covered with thick shingles and surrounding a holed plastic leach field drainpipe.


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.

1/15/2016 9:20:27 AM

Interesting and informative. Thanks for sharing your story about Uncle Will as well.

1/15/2016 8:03:48 AM

Lots of good information here. Would love to get some hardwood at the prices mentioned in the article, but where I live in So. Oregon softwood is the only wood available locally, so I burn ponderosa pine and juniper ($125.00 cord in rounds for pine and up to $225.00 cord for juniper.) Lots of beetle kill pine is available, but the buyer has to be careful as ants invade the dead trees quickly. You won't see them if the wood is delivered to you cold, but once the day warms up, they make their appearance like something out of a horror movie.A few will remain buried deeply in the splits until brought into the warm room when they make their appearance.

7/27/2015 3:17:06 PM

Yeah, this is a great article, for wood users! I have heard, that the very bottom wood should lay perpendicular. Is this method correct, for air flow? Thanks again. GOPHER.

4/10/2015 3:59:22 PM

I never realized that it's so important to avoid stacking firewood tightly. I guess it makes sense because you want it to dry out over time, but this is good to know. Is there a specific stacking method that does this best? Thanks for sharing your tips with us!

peter noli
11/5/2013 12:18:55 AM

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peter noli
11/5/2013 12:14:57 AM

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judy waters edwards
12/7/2012 6:59:29 PM

I get excited when I see a stack of wood. I have been the primary wood stacker for the few years. I appreciate what goes into a stack of wood. I get wood delivered. I also have branches from our property that I try to use every bit of. Break the smaller stuff for kindling & put it into large empty dog food bags.

alan hughes
1/3/2012 6:02:27 PM

This is a very useful and well written article

3/20/2010 8:24:52 PM

Fun Common Sense article. Maybe more than some of us need to know. Here it is March and next years wood pile is on its way. By the time cold arrives I should have enough wood for the heating season. My under the ramp "Dry wood Area" is starting to fill with kindling and other wood. A 10' long X 6' tall stack is started. Another 6'X 5' area will be filled, and my "Horse Shoe" rack 4x4' will be filled. A little wood is left from last years pile and may get used this summer or fall for out door burning, in my outdoor stove or fire place.

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