Chop Wood, Carry Water

Published on January 01, 2015
Written by Ray Access

Zen masters tell their students: “Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.” Chopping and stacking wood, as well as carrying water, are acts that are at once both art and science. You too can get into the processes to find the spiritual and aesthetic aspects in these simple chores.

Our Appalachian ancestors needed wood and water for survival. Today, water comes out of a tap. Wood still grows on trees, but you’ve got to work a little harder to get firewood. And once you have it, you have to stack and store it properly for use. Stack the wood too tightly and it won’t dry; stack it too evenly and the whole pile comes tumbling down. It is an art and a science and maybe even a religion.

Cut, Split, Stack and Store

Maybe you had a pile of wood delivered to your yard. Maybe you cut down some trees to get your firewood. Perhaps you were offered a free woodpile if you’d haul it away. However you got your wood, you’re going to need a few tools and a few hours of heavy work. Do it right the first time, and you’ll not only save time and sweat, but you’ll enjoy a brighter fire because well-tended, split and aged wood burns better.


  • Cut the wood at least six months before you plan to burn it in a stove or fireplace
  • Cut the ends flat so you can stand them up for splitting
  • Swing your axe on hairline cracks and avoid cutting through knots (or use a chainsaw)
  • Cut each log to fit in your firebox


  • Set up a chopping block close to the ground, about knee-high
  • Aim your splitting tool toward the center of the log, preferably along the grain
  • Use a splitting maul to drive wedges into the larger pieces
  • Wear protective glasses


  • Position the split wood in staggered rows, allowing air to get between the logs; it prevents slipping too
  • Stack on top of a base of longer logs not directly on the ground; a pallet makes a good base too
  • Leave sufficient room in the pile for settling, as wood shrinks when it dries
  • Stack the logs between two vertical stops, such as 2x4s, or alternate the angle of the end logs to keep the pile in place


  • Store the wood in a shed or cover it to prevent precipitation from falling on the pile
  • Arrange the wood so the bark faces up because bark serves as a moisture barrier
  • Store the bulk of firewood at least 30 feet from your house; keep only a small supply nearby because bugs and rodents like to settle in woodpiles
  • Cover only the top of the pile to allow air to get in to dry the logs

A well cut, newly split stack of weathered logs creates a natural ambiance and a charming vision on cold winter days in the mountains. When wood is split and stacked properly, it’s pleasing to the eye, easy to reach and practical. Stored correctly, your firewood will last for years.

Cut wood evenly and stack it near the fireplace for an interior accent piece that’s both useful and beautiful. Once all the hard work is done, you can grab a hot chocolate and curl up in front of the fireplace, knowing that you have plenty more where that came from.