The Art of the Woodpile

These creative Mainers are elevating wood stacking to an art form.

South Berwick’s Emily McLaughlin, Tom Beattie, and their 4-year-old twins, Willa and Gus, hang out by the heart they created with ash and walnut firewood.

South Berwick’s Emily McLaughlin, Tom Beattie, and their 4-year-old twins, Willa and Gus, hang out by the heart they created with ash and walnut firewood. Photo by Danielle Sykes. 

By Sara Anne Donnelly
From the Winter 2021 issue of Maine Homes by Down East

Anyone who has spent even a handful of winters in Maine knows that stacking firewood to dry in the elements before woodstove season is no mere chore, but an existential statement. Author Lars Mytting points out as much in his seminal 2015 book, Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking, and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way: “Stacking is an aesthetic and a practical challenge, so much so that in the late 19th century, in the heavily forested state of Maine, young American women considering a potential husband were advised first to consult a piece of folksy wisdom that revealed the young man’s character based on the way he stacked his wood.”

By this rugged standard, South Berwick’s Tom Beattie is a bona fide catch. While he and his wife, Emily McLaughlin, were splitting felled walnut and ash trees unloaded by their neighbors this fall, he had the idea to stack a dark heart shape in a sea of pale stove lengths in their shed. Their first attempt looked more like an eagle, according to their 4-year-old son, so Beattie, who cops to being “maybe a bit fastidious,” restacked the pile while McLaughlin was out. “When people walk by, they can see the heart and it’s been a happy, fun conversation piece,” McLaughlin says. Warmed by the response, Beattie is mulling a red heart made with cherrywood next year.

While Beattie gets an A for adorableness, aficionados might dock him a few points on technique. Portland potter Ayumi Horie, who used to run a Facebook group called the International Society of Woodstack Enthusiasts, believes piles should be self-supported, as a matter of craftsmanship. “And ideally be designed to be beautiful when they’re covered in snow.” Her favorite shapes are the beehive, otherwise known as the round stack or holz hausen, because it looks like a cupcake after a snowfall, and a small, square stack with “window” cutouts that conjures a playhouse.

One of Horie’s former members, Steve Niles, didn’t worry about appearances until he moved to a Portland house where his woodpiles would be highly visible from the street. Now he and his three sons build a pair of walls, connected via a wire-mesh gate, that undulates along their driveway like a wave. “Instead of having this big mass hidden in one spot out of the way, the walls visually flow through our space,” says Niles, who nestles beer and plates of food on the snow-capped stacks during winter parties. Cape Elizabeth’s Jon Courtney, screenings programmer for PMA Films at the Portland Museum of Art, also leverages his woodpiles for entertaining. For the last decade, he’s assembled facing half-moon-shaped walls around his firepit to form a tidy outdoor “living room” that seats a dozen people. Ideal for pandemic gatherings, the spot is also a popular viewing area during Courtney’s annual Lawnchair Cinema event, when he projects a film for 50 or so guests — or, more recently, his COVID pod — onto his barn.

Karina Steele and Adrian Ferrazzutti’s Camden woodpile boast graceful curves and a doggie door.
Karina Steele and Adrian Ferrazzutti’s Camden stacks boast graceful curves and a doggie door. Photo by Kelsey Kobik

Artist Karina Steele and woodworker Adrian Ferrazzutti, of Camden, like to park chairs next to their stacks too. Inspired by Mytting’s book, their sculptural creations have ranged from beehives to complex, intersecting walls with doggy tunnels, archways, and peaks topping 10 feet. They use a plumb bob to establish straight vertical lines and reinforce arches and other precarious elements with rebar or rope. “I would say that people should be prepared for failure and learning from their mistakes,” says Steele, who notes that even simple stacks will shift as the wood dries and shrinks. Next year, the couple is thinking about building an igloo. If there’s a limit to what they can do with chopped wood, Steele says, “I don’t know if we’ve gotten there yet.

Read Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know About Heating With Wood for more woodstove tips.

Down East Magazine, March 2024 cover

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