A few weeks ago my neighbor and I were talking firewood. Specifically, we were talking about whether to stack with the bark up or the bark down. He’s a rugged, quiet, mid-western Norwegian type. “Well, you know,” he said. “The most popular show in Norway was about stacking firewood. There was a lot of controversy about bark side up or bark side down.” I looked at him trying to figure out if he was pulling my leg. A show about stacking wood?
“Oh yeah,” he said. “It was four hours of how to gather wood, split it and stack it. And then eight hours of a fireplace burning. Not a looping fireplace, it was somebody putting wood into the stove every once in a while. People were calling in to comment about how the wood was added.” This was something I had to follow up on.
Turns out the show was the most popular show in Norway when it aired a few years ago. It’s part of Norway’s popular ‘Slow TV’ programming which presents shows like a 7.5 hour train ride, 18 hours of salmon swimming upstream, knitting a sweater all the way from shearing the sheep. Imagine programming with no cop shows, no broken marriages, no pain. What a concept. The firewood show was called ‘National Firewood Night’ and twenty percent of Norwegians tuned in. It’s based on one of the most popular books in Norway, ‘Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way” by Lars Mytting. I called Powell Books at once to see if they had it in stock. They did. I ordered four copies. Christmas is coming.
Oh my gosh, the wood stacks in that book! I felt like Jimmy Carter in his ‘lust in my heart’ Playboy interview. Some of the stacks are perfect rectangles with alternating cross stacks and layers. Some are round stacks, twelve feet across and twenty feet high with conical tops—gigantic yard phalli. Some piles are stacked to fit the outside walls of houses ground to rafter except the doors and windows, with each face of each stick exactly flush with its neighbors.
Our wood piles here are not so elegant as Norwegian wood piles which is partly a different way of thinking (not many of us go around with a hammer plinking every stick to make it flush with its neighbors) and partly the fact that their forests have been cut over so many times that most of their trees are thin and uniform. In Southeast Alaska we get knots in our rounds bigger in diameter than the trees Norwegians are cutting. Skinny, uniform logs are easier to split and stack.
For most of us, the goal of stacking is a strong, aesthetic construction that air can circulate through. A well made stack of wood is a pleasure to look at out your window as the sun hits it at various angles through the year. Wood has to be off the ground. If you’re seasoning wood outside of a shed, which many people do as a preliminary even if they have a shed, lay pallets in the sunniest part of the yard that has good air circulation. This means away from the house. You want it off the house anyway to keep bugs outside.
The old rule of thumb is stack loose enough for a mouse to run through but tight enough that a cat can’t follow. Sometimes little squirrels take up residence in one of our wood piles and watching them dive into it, pop up on the side or top or end, run a foot and disappear again is watching three dimensional travel, like otters just off the beach.
Another rule of thumb is that a small child should be able to run over the top of a good wood pile without making it collapse. Build it like the lineage was going to run across the top. Wood cut into short rounds splits easier than longer rounds but it makes unstable stacks. This is something to think about when buying a stove. If your stove takes short wood less than 14 inches then you’ll want to keep the wood pile low. Stove wood 16 to 18 inches long stacks nicely.
Some people like to stack individual rows with all the pieces facing the same direction. The rows are contained by posts or trees at either end. Wood pundits say to leave a foot between these rows for air circulation. Cross stacks can stand on their own. Each layer of wood is laid straight across the one below it. You can cross stack each of the four corners and then stack rows of wood between them. Stronger yet is cross stacking all the way across opposite ends of the rectangle incorporating sticks to lock in the cross stacks. When you set the wood in rows between the cross stacks, build in a few cross layers as you go to increase circulation. Leave a few inches between rows and lock the rows together with sticks set between them as you build up. For ultimate stability you can work poles in that are four feet long and cross several rows. It’s best to keep the courses level and build the whole thing up a foot or so all along a bottom row then move to the next level. In her article ‘The Science of Stacking Firewood’* Ceylon Monroe says build it, one-over-two, two-over-one just as you would build a stone wall, to avoid vertical seams that can cause the pile to collapse. That would be strong but she also says you have to build air into the stack. Balancing those things is the art. If wood is odd shaped or small it’s good to place that piece in the middle and have it leaning into the center. Well-built stacks can be as high as you want them. Just remember that you or the kids have to get the wood back down. Six feet is about as high as most people go.
The holtz hausen (wood house) is a round stack generally ten feet in diameter and five feet high at the edge and rising to a six foot apex. Building one would be an article in itself and there are lots of YouTube videos on how to do it but in a nutshell; they hold three cords of wood, use capillary action to wick moisture away, settle into themselves as they dry, are more stable than the others and well-built ones are, hands down, the most beautiful type of wood stack.
THE WOOD PILE GUIDE TO FINDING A GOOD MARRIAGE
Ceylon Monroe listed several Maine aphorisms for a young woman evaluating partners based on how their wood pile looked. In a similar vein, Lars Mytting’s book appeared first in Norway under the title, ‘Solid Wood.’ In Norway solid wood is an affectionate term for a solid man. In his book Mytting also offers advice ‘for those looking to marry.’ From Chapter 5 of Norwegian Wood:
Upright and solid pile: Upright and solid man
Low pile: Cautious man, could be shy or weak
Tall pile: Big ambitions but watch out for sagging and collapse
Unusual shape: Freethinking, open spirit, again, the construction may be weak
Flamboyant pile, widely visible: Extroverted, but possibly a bluffer
A lot of wood: A man of foresight, loyal
Not much wood: A life lived hand to mouth
Logs from big trees: Has a big appetite for life, but can be rash and extravagant
Pedantic pile: Perfectionist; may be introverted
Collapsed pile: Weak will, poor judgment of priorities
Unfinished pile, some logs lying on the ground: Unstable, lazy, prone to drunkenness
Everything in a pile on the ground: Ignorance, decadence, laziness, drunkenness, possibly all of these
Old and new wood piled together: Be suspicious: might be stolen wood added to his own
Large and small logs piled together: Frugal. Kindling sneaked in among the logs suggests a considerate man
Rough, knarled logs, hard to chop: Persistent and strong willed, or else bowed down by his burdens
No woodpile: No husband
Last word on bark up or bark down. Lars says inland Norwegians like the bark down because bark up can slightly inhibit evaporation. Coastal Norwegians, who live where it rains a lot, favor bark up because it helps keep the rain off. So, the bark controversy has regional roots from the days before tarps. For us it’s mostly a non-issue, especially since the size of our trees means a lot of the wedges have to be stacked with bark on the side anyway.
*Mother Earth News Oct/Nov 1994.
• Dick Callahan is a Juneau writer. In April 2016, he won first place in the Alaska Press Club Awards for best outdoors or sports column in the state.