5/10/12 – Chop ’em straight, stack ’em strong: the art of building an Alpine wood pile

This beauty is in Ischgl, Austria

This beauty is in Ischgl, Austria

Autumn has set in, it’s not long till the clocks go back and the blackberries (such as they were) are over. It’s the time of year when I light a fire in the evening – and that means it’s also time to get my wood pile in order.

It’ll be no surprise to skiers that the countries that lead the way in the art of building a successful wood pile are the mountainous ones.

The bars were traditionally used for drying hay, but this Alagna house also has lots of scope for wood storage

The bars were traditionally used for drying hay, but this house in Alagna, Italy, also has lots of scope for wood storage

From the villages of the Valais to the towns of the Tyrol to the dwellings of the Dolomites, householders across the Alps are masters in stacking them neat, stable, dry and, in some cases, high.

I have been photographing these labours-of-logs (sorry…) during my travels in the mountains.

We sledged past this Swiss super-stack in Gimmelwald, a lovely farming village just below Muerren in the Bernese Oberland

We sledged past this Swiss super-stack in Gimmelwald, a lovely farming village just below Muerren in the Bernese Oberland

As you can see, there are regional variations. Now I’m no expert, but what I think they all have in common is the following:

1. To make a good pile, logs need to be cut to the same length.

2. Larger logs are split to similar widths.

Here's another goodie in Gimmelwald

Here’s another goodie in Gimmelwald

3. Smaller unsplit logs – almost kindling-sized – are stacked all together, sometimes in their own section of the pile.

4. A good stacking place must be found.

5. Sometimes this place will have support at one or both ends, but often it doesn’t.

Freestanding stacks in Pontresina, in the Swiss Engadine, with perfect criss-cross ends

A store in Pontresina, in the Swiss Engadine, with effective criss-cross ends

6. To build an ‘end’, some sort of criss-cross system is used, such as two logs one way, then two at 90 degrees, on top; repeat up to desired height.

7. The pile does not necessarily need to be under cover – only the top layer gets wet or snowy – and if you leave any bark facing the elements, this is minimised.

Not as neat but it does the job. A wood store in a fjord-side hamlet in Steigen, Arctic Norway

Not as neat, but it does the job. A wood store in a fjord-side hamlet in Steigen, Arctic Norway

8. But most piles are next to a building with an overhang, such as most chalets have. In fact, it looks like many houses have been designed with a wood pile in mind.

9. The logs are usually very easily accessible from the dwelling.

10. Many households have a second, messier, pile of unsplit/chopped or partly split/chopped logs, which are being seasoned.

My dad has always kept a very organised, well-seasoned wood pile, and my parents installed a wood stove long before they became fashionable – which is probably partly why I started noticing other people’s ones.

The industrial wood-burner that heats half the ski village of Anzere, in the Swiss Valais

The industrial wood-burner that heats half the ski village of Anzere, in the Swiss Valais

And the village where I’ve done most of my skiing – Anzere, in Switzerland – now has a giant log-burner heating virtually the whole village (read about it in my Telegraph article here).

I, however, have only recently got the hang of dealing with wood. Or have I? Judge for yourself by looking at the little stack at my back door in Surrey – I know it’s not up to Alpine standards.

Peaslake, Surrey. How does it rate?

Peaslake, Surrey. How does it rate?

I confess that although I did the stacking, it’s my house-mate, Alex, who has been responsible for the sourcing and splitting.

Readers who know me won’t be surprised that I also have a box of easily ignitable material so I don’t have to waste money on smelly, synthetic fire-lighters.

As well as newspaper I’ve taken to hoarding loo rolls and egg boxes.

Amazingly, this is on the Isle of Wight. Its builder, Gert Bach, who runs the excellent Hillside b&b in Ventnor, is Danish

This is on the Isle of Wight. Its builder, Gert Bach, who runs the excellent Hillside b&b in Ventnor, is Danish

My uncle and aunt get their fire roaring – and fragrant – by adding orange peel, dried in a warm oven or on top of a Rayburn or Aga. I’ve tried it, and it works.

So I’m ready for winter. Bring round your loo rolls, egg boxes and orange peel, if you like – I can use unlimited amounts.

And finally, one of my favourites - another Gimmelwalder

And finally, one of my favourites – another Gimmelwalder

Meanwhile I think I’ll just go into the woods to fetch some kindling…

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Filed under Austria, Italy, Link to article by Yolanda Carslaw, Switzerland

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