Visitors to the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary in Topsfield over the past year have enjoyed the graceful likeness of a felled tree displayed in the woodpile built by Mass Audubon regional property manager Richard Wolniewicz. “People really seem to gravitate towards that,” Wolniewicz said. “They are always posing and taking pictures in front.”
Wolniewicz has been adding images to the face of the shrine’s woodpile for a few years now, ever since a volunteer sent him a picture of the woodpile art. “We stack the wood anyway, so why not go for it?” he said to himself. “And for three years, that’s what we’ve been doing.”
The first year he tried the technique, Wolniewicz used a bare tree that the beavers had left without bark to create an image in the heap. The following year, the black wood of a cork from Amour provided the contrast. “We made an owl, with its wings outstretched, and we used different types of wood to draw the owl,” he said. “Some thought it was a butterfly, some thought it was a bat, but most people thought it was an owl.”
Wolniewicz takes care to wedge and weigh down the illustrative logs so that they do not fall over during the winter. “Sometimes I feel like putting a nail in it just to hold it up,” he joked. The current stack is two stacks deep – the back stack adding support – buttressed by Jenga-style bookends. “At the ends of these carvings, we do a bunch of hatching, and that way it locks down the center,” Wolniewicz said, “and that adds a lot of integrity and strength to support the whole structure.”
The pile contains about six or seven cords of firewood, Wolniewicz said, which the sanctuary uses in March to support its sugarbush operations — including a series of demonstrations open to the public on the first three Saturdays in March. With 12 miles of trails to keep clear, fallen trees produce plenty of firewood to pile in early spring, when Wolniewicz starts brainstorming ideas for next year’s pile. Sometimes stacking seems effortless; other times it’s a struggle, and that’s when he walks away. But when the process unfolds, he said, “I can be completely lost and absorbed in it, and not care about the world while I’m putting it together.”
For Vermont farmers Ben Servoz and Nicole Antal, a pile of firewood is already a beautiful sight in its solace. “We’re 100% off the grid, so for us that’s sustenance, right?” Servoz said. “All year round, we pass by these piles of wood, and they comfort us. It’s very comforting to see the wood and know that it’s going to be hot water, it’s going to be heat… it has a profound psychological effect on us.
In recent years, Servoz has also made a habit of embedding a photo in their pile of wood, which faces the road and, he hopes, brings a smile to neighbors and visitors. One year it was a fish and a snake; this winter he placed some of the logs on the bark side to look like a hammer and a chopping block.
“People are doing gradients and amazing things, and I’m not there yet — I’m still learning the medium,” Servoz said. Incorporating an image takes a bit more effort, he added – “You have to schedule and sometimes undo a few logs to make everything look right.” But like Wolniewicz, Servoz loves the work of splitting and stacking wood; it’s something productive that he can do in short bursts. “It’s repetitive in a way that you can get lost in it, but it won’t get boring,” he said, “because not all wood pieces are the same.”
It’s also a great activity for the whole family, Servoz added – just challenging enough to keep the kids interested, but simple enough to keep a conversation going. “It’s actually one of the things we can do together as a family, and there’s a little task for everyone.”
If Servoz grew up in France, it was in New England that he discovered the art of woodpiling. But people are creating unique and impressive wood stacks all over the world, said Ayumi Horie, a studio potter in Portland, Maine, who founded the International Society of Woodstack Enthusiasts.
“As far as scale goes, the most impressive stacks are in China, where some are so massive they’re bigger than tiny houses,” Horie said. In Japan, she added, long, thin pieces of wood — intended for fast-burning, hot pottery kilns — are often tied into tidy cylindrical bundles and then stacked like round logs.
“In Norway, there’s at least one farmer who puts his firewood under stone ledges on the mountainside to dry it, evoking a world where trolls are real,” Horie said. And in Scandinavia, as well as northern Maine, “a common way to stack is to put firewood on the end and tip it into something resembling a haystack,” said Horie – creating a look “very magical” when a collection of them dot the landscape.
After seeing many piles of wood overturned during winter storms, entrepreneur Rob Cagnetta, founder of Heritage Restoration in Rhode Island, decided there had to be a better technique and began looking for global inspiration. “During those thousands of years of burning wood, someone must have found a better option than our linear pile,” he thought – and that’s when he learned german holz hausen method. He was quickly intrigued by the “beautiful little beehive-like structure” that combines form and function, and has been using the technique for the past seven years.
Make a holz hausen, Cagnetta begins by laying a ring of logs, end to end, in a circle 6 feet wide. (Ideally this would be on gravel, stone or pallets, to keep the bottom layer off the soggy ground.) Then he stacks a layer of logs perpendicularly, with one end resting on top of the ring and the other end tilted downwards. the center of the circle. “It doesn’t need to be airtight, because you want air to flow through it,” he said. Then just keep going around that circle, stacking the wood like spokes on a wheel – and making sure they angle inwards.
“The idea is that every piece of wood you put in sinks inward, so it’s almost like falling in,” he said. As the stack rises, it begins to level and you may need to place another ring of horizontal logs on the outside edge to maintain the desired inward slope. “Some people can do it without putting that piece horizontal – I can’t,” he said. “But it allows everything to kind of fall to the center.”
And as for the hollow center created inside the stack, Cagnetta gradually fills it with two layers of upright, upright logs before covering it with irregularly shaped pieces that don’t stack well. This indoor fireplace design can actually create a sort of convection current to dry and season the firewood faster.
Perhaps the best of all, from an aesthetic point of view anyway? A holz hausen does not need a tarp, but rather exploits the natural water resistance of tree bark to keep the inside of the pile dry. “At the end, I put all my bark up for about two more layers on top, so it wicks the water away,” Cagnetta said.
“If you’re wondering how wood can dry out without a cover, there’s a difference between moisture trapped deep inside the wood and moisture on the surface,” Horie said. “I like round stacks myself, because of the way they collect a snow cap on top, like a knitted cap or a dollop of frosting. They take a little longer, but are worth the beauty they bring.
This year, Cagnetta hung the holiday lights on all five holz hausen in his yard. (Each holds about a cord of wood, which he burns in a wood-burning stove to warm his drafty old Victorian.) But beyond their appeal, he’s found them incredibly practical. It took him a few tries to master the technique, but now Cagnetta says if he accidentally backed his truck into one of the piles, he probably still wouldn’t fall.
After all, when it comes to something as useful as firewood, practicality is beautiful in itself. “The temporal nature of woodpiles and their experience over the seasons has always made me think of art installations – but without any pretensions,” Horie said. “Beauty of function is enough.”
And even a simple, unadorned pile of wood can tap into our emotions like art can. Servoz said he could read his pile of wood almost like a photo album over the winter. “You can recognize layers, and you can recognize things that happened during those layers,” he said. “Like, my brother came over and helped me put down a birch tree, and I’ll get to that birch tree when we cross the pile, and I’ll remember all of our adventures together.”
Jon Gorey blogs about homes in HouseandHammer.com. Send feedback to [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @jongorey. Subscribe to our free real estate newsletter at pages.email.bostonglobe.com/AddressSignUp. follow us on Facebook, LinkedIn, instagramand Twitter @globehomes.