Woodpile Wisdom: How It All Stacks Up

Woodpile Wisdom: How It All Stacks Up

Image 1: A Swiss farm stacks firewood under the eaves of the barn. Round coppice wood (left) is seasoned for two years, while spilt firewood (right) is seasoned for 12-18 months.

In 2013, The New York Times ran a story exposing a Scandinavian controversy that has divided Norwegians (and New Englanders) for eons. The question centered around the proper way to stack firewood. The Times story quickly made its way to social media, with woodsfolk declaring themselves either “bark-up” stackers, or part of the smaller, but equally enthusiastic, “barkdown” crowd.

At the risk of alienating fellow foresters, I’ll admit that I’m a bark-up guy. I like the way it locks the woodpile together, and also sheds water, especially on uncovered woodpiles. But bark orientation is only one factor and, admittedly, may be based more on tradition than function. However, there are other wood-stacking considerations that every firewood stacker should be aware of.

Location: Three main factors control the rate at which your wood dries: sun exposure, wind exposure, and time. Stack your woodpile so that it faces south. In experiments on my own homestead I’ve found that stacked and covered (but not fully enclosed) firewood can dry twice as fast with good southern exposure as firewood in heavily shaded or enclosed areas. If your woodpile needs to be located in a shaded area, orient it so that the prevailing winds blow toward the face of the woodpile, not the end. To compensate for blowing rain/snow, build a deep overhang on your woodshed. As for time, many people use one year as the standard length of time to season their firewood. In practice, I’ve found that an additional year of seasoning pays big dividends, especially on small-diameter stove wood that’s burned without splitting. (Image 1)

Build it Strong: Strong corners make strong piles. Build your ends as you stack, with each course staggered in toward the center of the stack about an inch. If you’re stacking wood inside a woodshed, “lean” each row back a bit so that your woodpile doesn’t tumble forward. If you have both split and unsplit wood in your woodpile, mix them as you stack to avoid a cascade of rolling round wood.

Woodpile Wisdom: How It All Stacks Up Image

Image 2: Use the slabbing technique to maximize storage volume. Realize that reduced airflow requires a longer drying period.

Woodpile Density: Should you stack your woodpile loose or tight? If your objective is to dry the wood as quickly as possible, a loose woodpile will allow for more air circulation. On the other hand, if space is at a premium, split and stack your wood to maximize capacity. One method is “slabbing,” which allows about 20 percent more wood in the same area as a conventional loose stack. (Image 2)

Woodpile Wisdom: How It All Stacks Up Image

Image 3: Use the slabbing technique to maximize storage volume. Realize that reduced airflow requires a longer drying period.

Plan Ahead: We’ve all rummaged through the woodpile looking for just the right piece of wood, or perhaps kindling to get the fire going on a wet day. One way to ensure you always have the appropriate mix of kindling and fuel wood is to use the sandwich stacking method, where kindling is layered into the woodpile every three rows or so. (Image 3) This means that each armload of firewood has an appropriate mix of wood to both start and maintain the fire.

Brett R. McLeod is an associate professor of forestry and natural resources at Paul Smith’s College and the author of The Woodland Homestead: How to Make Your Land More Productive and Live More Self-Sufficiently in the Woods (Storey Publishing, 2015).

  1. Kaymarion Raymond → in Western Massachusetts
    Jul 13, 2016

    I’m a bark-up stacker. Common wisdom in this part of the country used to be to fell trees in the winter when the sap was down, pull out lengths while ground frozen and covered with snow, cut and stack four footers in the sun. By autumn most would be dry enough to split, cut to length and sell as “seasoned”, except for oak which needed another year. Now however, the old time wood cutters are dying or retiring and unless you cut your own wood it’s hard to know how really “seasoned” a cord bought is. And oh the destruction logging in spring mud.  I also oriented my piles north-south because in sunny winter day or so, a mis-oriented stack could thaw and expand on one side and totally spill the stack the other way. Otherwise you got a lot of it right according to our local custom.

  2. Adam Moore → in alamosa, co
    Jul 22, 2016

    Wildfires may not be as much of a concern in the northeast, but they do occur. Firewood placed on or under decks against a house or outbuilding are a leading cause of houses lost to wildfires. Embers may fly miles ahead of a fire and land in all of nooks and crevices of a woodpile which will burn up not only your woodpile, but your house. during the active wildfire season no firewood should be placed on or adjacent to a structure.

  3. Jim → in VT
    Apr 20, 2017

    One year we (we?, some stacking help from the wife and kids) bought 120 cords of log length wood. All the wood was cut with a chainsaw, split with a mechanical splitter, and stacked by hand in a hay field. After 6 months of drying the wood was loaded on to a 3 cord truck and delivered. That was the most ever done in a single season. The lesson learned during that season was that pretty stacks don’t earn you any extra money!! Just get it off the ground.

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