In the last few years, I have finally achieved a lifelong goal: gathering my own firewood! While I feel no shame in acquiring your firewood split and dried from a local expert, I craved the sense of accomplishment that I knew building my own woodpile would bring. So, I got myself a chainsaw for my birthday, grabbed my splitting axe, and got to work!
First, an important disclaimer: felling trees is both exceedingly dangerous and illegal if not done correctly. DO NOT simply walk out into the woods and start cutting down trees. Do research, get certified locally, and get a firewood permit before you get to work. I’d hate for you to get killed by a tree or fined for felling wood illegally, so please do things properly.
With that out of the way, let’s get to it! While I’m still an amateur and thus won’t be teaching you the delicate art of tree felling, I have split a good amount of firewood over the years. It isn’t hard, but there are several tips to help you be successful and avoid painful mistakes:
Read! The book to blame for igniting my passion for firewood is Norwegian Wood by Lars Mytting. It compiles everything there is to know about firewood, spanning centuries of Norwegian knowledge, from growing the trees to burning the wood, from folklore to science. While knowledge is no replacement for experience, this book is an excellent jumping-off point to getting you inspired and understanding the more technical aspects of gathering and drying firewood.
Pick the right tool for the job. Once you’ve bucked your tree up into manageable pieces, it’s time to get to work. Think of the bark like the peel of an orange, keeping all that pesky moisture inside. We need a tool capable of easily splitting it open without leaving our backs desperate for a massage. I mostly split pine and aspen here in Alberta, so I use a splitting axe. My Hult splitter from Hultafors is designed to blow the wood apart without sticking, and the sturdy handle ensures it can stand up to a tougher task like this. While you could use a thinner felling axe like a Qvarfot, and they work well for smaller pieces, splitting big logs like this will be an unpleasant chore. A skinny, broad blade sinks deep and sticks a ton, so reach for something purpose-built. Folks who heat their house with wood year-round often use a hydraulic splitter, but for casual purposes, a reliable splitting axe does the trick.
A narrow wedge-shaped blade is ideal for splitting whole logs.
Make your wood easy to split. Splitting effectively is all about being set up for success. Trying to split wobbly wood is awkward and dangerous, so square off any uneven ends before you get to work. I try my best to do this when I buck up the tree but don’t be afraid to get out your bucksaw or chainsaw to clean up the ends of your logs. The offcuts make excellent garden mulch!
Use a proper chopping block. This one isn’t optional. Makeshift chopping blocks or old rotten stumps are a recipe for danger. Remember, we want our wood to be stable when we split it! Your best bet is to take the thickest round from the bottom of the tree you felled and cut it down to about 16 inches. I like mine a little taller, but go with what feels comfortable. If you’re unsure, take a few swings at some firewood, and if you find yourself bending forward, you may need to shorten your block. Once you find a block you like, you’ll want to keep it protected, so it lasts longer. I slathered the bottom of mine in tar to keep it from rotting, and I bring it into the garage in winter to keep it from getting soaked.
Take your time when splitting. Now you’re ready to work! Stand far enough back from the block so that the axe handle doesn't strike the wood but close enough that if you miss, you won’t hit your foot. Place your feet shoulder-width apart, put both hands a few inches from the base of the handle, and bring the axe up over your head. Your downward swing should be firm but not require all of your strength. You should be able to swing your axe for an hour, if not several, so take it easy! Based on how the axe lands, adjust your position and swing again. If the wood doesn’t split, try spinning it 180 degrees or flipping it over. If you’re getting frustrated, take a step back, take a few deep breaths, and try again. Don’t rush.
Splitting wood is a game of patience and minor adjustments. If something doesn’t work, make a small change and try again. I find chopping wood like solving a puzzle. Each piece is a little different, but eventually, you figure out tricks for overcoming each problem. In addition to Norwegian Wood, I found Buchanan Smith’s Axe Book an excellent resource. With time and experience, you’ll get the hang of it.
Where are you storing it? So now you’ve got a proud pile of chopped wood - congrats! Now comes the waiting game. That wood is still super green and won’t burn nicely, so we need to let it dry for several months, even a year so that it’ll burn cleanly. When selecting a site for your woodpile, you want an area exposed to wind to help that moisture evaporate quickly, so if your yard has a windy spot, that might be the best area for your woodpile.
You’ll want to elevate it to help with airflow and prevent the bottom piece from rotting, and you can accomplish this in a number of ways. My first woodpile sat on a few shipping palettes that I levelled out with shims. You can screw a couple of 2x4s to the sides to stop the wood from falling off and fasten it along the top with paracord for an easy beginner woodpile. If you’re feeling like taking on a building project, there are a million designs on the internet for woodsheds. I’m excited to build mine next spring.
If you don’t have a dedicated woodshed, cover your wood during the winter and heavy rainfall. Stacking your wood bark-up helps keep the moisture off, but a tarp or corrugated plastic weighed down with bricks will help it stay bone-dry during the wet months.
Stacking it. In much of Norway, firewood was traditionally stacked twice. Once for drying and once for storage. This approach has always made sense to me, as wood twists and warps as it dries, leaving your pile looking a lot less pretty than it was when you built it. While this method is more work, I like the results better.
The first stack should be intentionally rough, with enough space between pieces of wood for air to easily pass through. If possible, stack it in a single row with space between each row. You’ll need supports to keep your stack from tumbling over, as the more the wood dries, the less stable the pile becomes. In some areas of Norway, this has traditionally been used as an indicator of dryness, with folks building massive round structures in their yard only to restack them once the structure collapsed, indicating dryness.
Once the wood is suitably dried, it can be restacked more tightly to save on space and create a more stable pile. It will continue to dry but should be ready to burn. In my yard, I have two piles: green wood in the drying process and a dry pile that I use for fires. When I build my shed, I plan to separate it into two sides much the same way.
Burning!Once your wood is seasoned correctly, you can celebrate by burning some! Check out this great article by Adam about the best way to build a fire. Hopefully, the wait was worth it, and you’ve enjoyed the process enough to do it again next year. I find the best things take time, and firewood is no exception. If life gets too busy, I can still call my firewood guy, but I always get a better sense of satisfaction from burning wood that I split and stacked myself.
A famed cocktologist and axe man, Nathan opened the first Kent of Inglewood store in Calgary, and now spends his days writing most of what you are reading here and teaching straight razor shaving classes. Ask him about his world-famous Three Cherry Manhattan. In his spare time Nathan can be found sharpening his axe, making fermented foods, or practicing his amateur butchering hobby. He doesn't slur his words, he speaks in cursive.