Holz Hausen: Old world woodpile

Deep last winter just as it was getting dark, with the woodstove keeping the place at seventy degrees and supper nearly ready, the doorbell rang. On the porch was a rugged fiftyish man who said, “I see you burn wood. I’m selling cords of wood and wonder if you’d be interested.” He had hemlock and alder at a good price and would go lower if I wanted to split the rounds myself. The trees had been dropped last summer so they’d be partly seasoned. I looked at him and thought, ‘If I lived my whole life in a New York City penthouse I would never meet a man selling cords of wood door to door.’ “Sure,” I said, “I’ll take two.”

Three days later a big old truck came roaring up the hill loaded with rounds. By loaded I mean there was a sheet of plywood braced above either side of the bed to hold it all in. There wasn’t much snow so they backed it up over curb (poor old truck) and the man, his partner and me hucked the rounds into the yard. Woodshed Mansion was already more than a year ahead woodwise, so I rolled the new recruits into place beside the garden beds as the woodcutters went off for another load. And another. So, we were all set.

Set until April when my friend Steve called and said, “Hey, there’s a guy who’s dropped half an acre of trees and he wants them gone.” Honestly, I had planned to just go along to help but somehow another cord ended up in the yard. Split and stacked the whole bunch transformed into a row of pallets twenty-two feet long and about five feet high. It was fine until spring happened and that wood shaded out the garden. Which was unpopular. Which brings us to the holz hausen.

Holz hausen means ‘woodhouse.’ These beautiful round stacks are found all over northern Europe and especially in Scandinavia. They take longer to build than cross stacking but the advantages are: a ten foot diameter circle holds about three cords, creates a wicking effect that pulls moisture out of the wood, sheds water, and is a joy to look at. Back in the day, when women looking for a husband were advised to look at a man’s woodpile to judge his character, round stacks were good advertising for the men.

To build one, level a place on the ground ten feet by ten feet. Lay pallets down on this so air can circulate from underneath. Find the middle. Attach a five foot string to that spot and scribe all the way around so you’ve got a ten foot circle. Lay split firewood pieces about the size of your forearm in a ring around the circle. Next, arrange a row of firewood like bicycle spokes with one end of each piece on the wood circle and the other end on the pallet. Pieces are touching on the inside end. There will be a slight gap on the outside end. Add rows, keeping the angle of each piece pointed down towards the middle. That way, as the wood dries and shrinks the pile will tend to settle towards the inside creating an increasingly stable pile.

Use your cleanest splits for the outside rows. As you go, throw all those gnarly pieces, cut branches, short stuff etc. that don’t stack well into the middle. Build the wall up to whatever height you like, usually about five feet. If you find you’ve let the walls angle outwards you can smack them vertical with a piece of firewood. On the top couple of rows let the angle of the pieces level out and even angle upward slightly from the middle to the outside. This helps shed water. Keep throwing wood into the inside until there’s a peak in the center. A five foot wall wants to go up to a six foot peak. Throw a tarp on when it rains and water won’t pool anywhere as water tends to on tarped flat stacks. Before tarps, old timers topped the wood house with shingles they split themselves with an axe.

There are holz hausen images on the internet and how-to videos on YouTube. Most people love the ones they build. A few don’t. Common complaints of the latter are that they don’t dry the wood, don’t look very good, or they fall down. Typically, the ones that don’t dry are built directly on the ground in a wet climate so what they’re doing is wicking moisture from the earth and pulling it up through the wood. Ones that don’t look that good are usually too small in diameter and incorporated wood that is too big or too short. They don’t look bad, exactly, but they’re clunky. If they fall down, it’s because the ground wasn’t level, the wood wasn’t angled down towards the inside of the stack or the walls arched outward.

Everyone brings their own ideas to the stack. Some people reduce the circumference of the circle as they go up to add stability. Others cut ten foot poles and work them into the pile crosswise to lock it together. Others lay multiple rings of wood around the outside to keep a steep angle pointed towards the middle. To increase the wicking effect some people stack a row or two row upright across the whole bottom inside of the circle before throwing in wood randomly.

Ultimately this is a process thing. Impatient people in a hurry will be happier with regular stacking. But if you like that centered, old-world combination of aesthetics, simplicity and functionality building the round wood house is a satisfying meditation.