Zen and the Art of Log-Piling

Many moons ago, when we first moved to the Corrèze with baby daughter and retired cat, a kind man with a funny piping voice and a name like Peugeot caught me struggling with a winter’s worth of wood one fine autumnal day. He watched with wry amusement as I tried to steady the volatile logs before chipping in with the Gallic equivalent of, ‘No, you don’t want to do it like that; you want to do it like this’. He taught me how to log-pile, yodelehehee!

This was the same kindly soul who lent me, a virtual stranger, his white van in order to drive to upstate Ussel and collect a flue for our chimney. I brought it back home, coiled up on the van’s roof rack like some monstrous metallic python. Monsieur Peugeot had a hell of a job to install that unwieldy flue. It was an easier matter to teach a callow city dweller from a foreign land the basics of creating a solid free-standing log pile. At the time, I little appreciated just how fundamental a lesson that was. I have piled logs now for 16 winters, but can’t describe myself as an expert. Shamefully I confess it: I am but a functional log-piler.

One of my most consistent distractions, as I’ve driven around the high ways and byways of the Lot and the Corrèze, is the spotting of immaculate log-piles. Some people look out for open-top sports cars, some for manicured gardens, and I look out for perfect stacks of firewood. So far, the finest example I have ever seen is but a ten-minute drive from here, en route for my friends the Thompsons. The logs have been piled from floor to roof under an agricultural shelter near the house. They look as if they have been mathematically matched and then interlocked with such finesse that the effect is that of some colossal patisserie. The logs that have been removed for burning have created an impression of slices in the outsized confection.![](upload://qug41SgCiZ2sYxiYvpVST1Vr4AO.jpg)

I look upon that person’s (or persons’) toil and marvel. However, I don’t beat myself up for my failure to emulate it back home. Because I think of the sheer time involved in splicing, stacking and adjusting those logs and it fills me with horror. ‘Pray, father, what did you do with your life?’ ‘Well, child, I created the neatest log-pile in the Lot, and perhaps the whole of France.’ I see. It’s a variation on the theme of ‘life’s too short to stuff a mushroom’.

If anything, though, my log-piles have got worse since moving to the Lot. In the Corrèze, Debs and I used to create serried ranks of stacked logs in the shelter of our barn. So every time you passed through those big ruined doors to fetch the day’s quota of firewood, every time you walked between the shoulder-high ranks of hewn oak, you got the impression that you were inspecting the troops. At ease. Yes, very smart…

What’s spoilt the effect here is the absence of roof. I have created some rather inelegant substitutes. The most effective have been the sheets of tin I bought when I was obsessing about termites during the construction of this house. I realised that they weren’t fit for purpose, but they have since served us well as covers for drying logs. They don’t look too good, though.

A couple of winters ago, after seeing something in a ‘prospectus’ for one of those travelling lorries that park up in the local square and open their doors to queues of home handymen, I built myself a series of labour-saving shelters with vertical wooden supports secured to bases made of old pallets. The supports meant that I no longer had to worry about constructing the log-pillars on either side that stop the pile from slip-sliding away. Crafty, I’m sure you’d agree. The black plastic covers, however, stapled to and stretched between the tops of the supports are never taught enough to stop the rainwater collecting in puddles. And as soon as the plastic tears, the collected water leaks down onto the logs. They look even worse than the tin covers.

As it happened, last Wednesday – after depositing The Daughter at school – I drove to the new-ish Brico Depot on the edge of Brive. France being France, the arrival of the pile-‘em-high builder’s merchant hasn’t triggered a price war with its competitors. The likes of Obry and Mr. Bricolage will just carry on regardless until one or both goes bust. As I have no particular loyalty to any one of them, I go now to the cheaper depot, particularly as it lays on coffee and biscuits for customers between 7 and 10pm. It’s not the best, but it’s a nice gesture all the same.

There on the forecourt were some wooden cache-poubelles (or dustbin hiders) seemingly reduced from about €70 to a mere five. Shurely shome mishtake. They had to mean reduced by €5, didn’t they? So I asked the nearest available member of staff. ‘Yes, cinq euros. You can pay more if you want.’ Aha! A man with a sense of humour, I thought. I could do business with his ilk. Big enough to hide something like one of those communal bins, and complete with gate and roof, I figured they would be an ideal means of creating an orderly and labour-saving log-pile.

Reader, I bought four. And I have to say that the humorous assistant was helpfulness itself. Not fooled for one minute by my accent, he even threw in a few phrases of English for good measure. I got the feeling that dealing with a slightly curious anglais had made his day. He certainly made mine. You get so used to the indifference, even the occasional outright rudeness, of shop assistants in big stores like these that it warms your cockles to come across someone who clearly wants genuinely to assist.

No instructions came with my new bin-hiders. The humorous assistant assured me that they are a piece of cake to assemble. They always say that. I rarely find it’s true, but maybe that’s just me. If they prove to be and if they help me pile our logs comme il faut, I do hereby solemnly promise to post a photo of the result.

Sorry to hear that your log-piling days are over, Jo. But maybe that's devoutly to be wished. It's not a whole lot of fun really. So it sounds like Brico Depots France over have discovered the joys and benefits of customer service.

Your post made me smile, and rather relieved that I have a back problem so my log piling days are over and done. I shall enjoy reading about yours instead. Brico Depot in Dissay remains my favourite shop. They are always friendly, cheaper than other hardwear shopperies and welcome english attempts at technical language. yes, Photo of 5€ covers & logs asap please.

You're most welcome, Zoe. Glad to be of assistance!

appreciated this piece. brought me back to the ground after a pretty crazy day at work, Thanks, mate.

The article said it was a British couple and the inference was that they had been sold the wood through someone less than scrupulous.

Thank you Carol, thank you Nick. I shall have to ask for a subscription to Woodpile Monthly. Glad I'm not the only one. As for the exploding log!! I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. But what happened to the unspoken code of honour then?

Chris, thanks for the link. I shall check it out. We burn our logs vertically in our France Turbo cylinder-style stove and it seems to work very well. I'm open to any new ideas, though. By the way, dried citrus fruit peel makes fine fire-lighters (and smells great while drying, too).

lovely piece...thank you Mark...enjoyed reading this. Have to tell you...our best friend..(male) really loves the log piles in France...never known anyone get quite so excited by an orderly pile of logs...we have suggested that instead of the more usual Playboy magazine...this friend would prefer Woodpile Monthly for his choice of pin up pictures!

Mark, thanks, brilliantly written. We have generally wraggely stocked wood in our neck of the, however the locals have come up with a dangerous yet effective way of ensuring that noone helps themselves to a log or two. Gone are the painted lines that would move if so much as one log is moved out of place.
The recent story appeared in the Charente Libre of how a couple were taken aback when their wood burner suddenly exploded.
Turns out one of the logs had been doctored with gunpowder from a hunting cartridge.
Luckily, nobody was hurt in the incident - thankfully.

Here's a video. I do this now and it's night and day compared to trying to build a pile of stuff that doesn't catch and then collapses.

Will take a look at your site.

"Top-down" burning is quite successful.

There's an American site which deals with all aspects of burning wood - I find it quite useful:



Do you all stack your wood up in the fireplace or stove and light it at the top?

I imported an old Rayburn - the logs are a bit smallish but at least do not need halving or quartering with most of the wood we buy.

Yes, I hope you're right Patricia. Maybe they were reduced because they don't come with instructions. Anyway, thanks for your kind words. Thanks Chris, Brian and Hayley for your interesting additions. Chris, I sympathise about the short stuff. We had a lovely old Deville cuisiniere in the Correze and the food tasted fabulous cooked in and on it, but my God the work involved in cutting all those little logs that its voracious fire oven demanded constantly. There's something to be said for gas!

Bon fin de Bank Holiday Lundi.

Thanks Mark, I loved your story. I just hope there is not a good reason why the little bin sheds are reduced to 5 Euros!

Hmm, logs. When we first arrived, there was a huge open fireplace, with an equally huge iron "Typhon" grate, which weighed a ton, and which had hollow bars leading to a squirrel cage fan which blasted out the heat. The whole thing smoked like crazy, with clouds of the stuff billowing under the mantelpiece and into the salon. The logs were one metre, and we must have got through a veritable forest each week.

So we had to order 1 metre length logs, which are cumbersome, awkward and heavy..

Then we bought a Jotul woodburner, and had to cut all the remaining logs in half to fit it. Nice woodburner, no smoke (inside!) and more heat. Then we thought what fun it might be to buy an Esse wood-burning kitchen range, so we did, and it was! The food always tastes better (especially baked potatoes, bread and pizza), and you can fry eggs and stuff directly on the radiant hot plates, and as a bonus it keeps the kitchen warm-ish in the long, cold Correzien winter.

Great, but that meant more wood, and the maximum log length for that was 40 cms, so I had to start lopping 10 cms off each log intended for the range, and I am now getting through 6 cords annually.

The last lot I had cut to 33 cms and use it for both woodburning devices.

Keeps me fit, although any splitting I do is with a hydraulic device, and any shortening is done with a saw bench designed for the purpose. (I gave up axes and bowsaws some time ago, except for kindling). You certainly need a lot of kit out here.


Oh Mark, how could you! You have reminded me that sooner or later (probably sooner before the price goes up) we have a vast amount of wood to order. As everybody on SFN will be bored to hear, I have the broken shoulder which is going to take at least a year of physio-therapy to get back to decent working order (unless there is evident, early necrosis and that means a prosthetic joint, so add another year plus). My OH will have most of the stacking to do and we really do have to order a lot of steres of mixed wood to last a winter, especially if we have a repeat performance of the one just passed but longer. We have a dedicated barn, it is stacked roughly two and a half metres high, three rows deep when we have all we need plus a small reserve (in case). Thus, the art of log-piling should you come across someone who can explain how to do it one handed would do two things: 1. eternal gratitude to you and 2. save me from some excrutiatin ear bending from my nearest and dearest.