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Keep your firewood save and sound this winter with a versatile, easy-to-store rack.

Cutting, splitting and stacking firewood is a family affair at our house: ever since our son was five years old we've enjoyed the activity together. Of course, now that he's a teenager we enjoy our lightened workload even more-he's become pretty good with a splitting axe.

If you use wood as a source of heat it becomes rapidly apparent why oil is popular (apart from the cost): the delivery of firewood in a heap at the end of your driveway signals the need for physical labour, pleasant though it may be.

Stacking the wood somewhere out of the elements is the first order of business, and perhaps even splitting it, to aid in drying and to make the sizes manageable. We like a variety of sizes-they all contribute different qualities to a fire: small for starting or for quick heat, medium for an established daytime fire, large for "sleepers"-the fire that burns away for hours while you sleep, or on mild days.

The variety of tree species we have in Eastern Canada-maple, oak, birch, ash and to a lesser degree black cherry and beech-lets us choose what kind of fire we want. They all burn at a different intensity. The denser and heavier the wood (beech or yellow birch, for example), the hotter the fire.

We fill the woodshed, then stack some in the house and the workshop. The art of firewood stacking is in the corners; building strong, stable corners that will not topple from the weight of the pile contained by them. Rural dwellers will also tell you-only half-jokingly-that a firewood pile is a sign of character. It's said you can tell a lot about a person by their woodpile. Building a stable stack is also important for the safety of children and pets.

In the past, when all household cooking and heating were done with wood, a big stack by the stove was essential. Today however, with wood heat most often complemented by oil, propane or electric, a small stack beside the wood stove is sufficient. A firewood rack is useful for this.

This rack is designed to fit together as a series of interlocking pieces, so the rack can easily be taken apart and stored in the summer. Ours was built from ash that was destined to become firewood, hence the wain (curved corners of the natural log), knots and worm holes, features that add character. Any other wood would suffice, and any other dimensions, as well; this one is made to suit our space. The instructions assume that you're using dressed or "squared" hardwood; if you use softwood, the addition of a screw here or there is recommended, as the joints won't be as strong.

Tools List:

  • Saw (handsaw, jigsaw or bandsaw)
  • Chisel 
  • Hammer
  • Combination square
  • Tape measure
  • Electric drill and bit for pilot holes
  • Pencil
  • Plane (optional); file and sandpaper

Materials List:

Dressed lumber comes 1/2"smaller than the nominal size, so adjust your plans accordingly.

  • 2" x 4" x 9'-10"
  • 2" x 3" x 11'-0"
  • 8" x 3/4" x 9'-0" 
  • 1" x 2 1/2" x 4'-0"
  • 6 x 90° angle brackets and screws 
  • Finishing oil

Cutting List: 

  • 2 bases 2" x 4" x 27" each
  • 4 uprights 2" x 3" x 32" each 
  • 2 lower crosspieces 2" x 4" x 23" each 
  • 2 upper crosspieces 1" x 2 1/2" x 24" each  
  • 3 shelf planks 3/4" x 8" x 32 1/2"

1 Cut the lumber as per the cutting list. Then, rip the two base pieces in half lengthwise so that you have four pieces, which are 2" square in cross-section. Keep the sawn halves mated to each other: you're going to use them in tandem, two on each side of the base.

2 On one end of each of the four uprights, lay out the dovetails, which are simply two tapered notches near the end of your wood, made by removing a triangle from each of two opposing sides. Your first cut should be as far from the end of the wood as the thickness of your base pieces-in our case 2"; then another cut is made from the end of the stick on a diagonal to the depth of your first cut. The layout can be done manually with a ruler and pencil, or with a dovetail jig, which you can make by cutting a piece of plastic or card to the shape you want. Then just square it to the end of your wood and trace your pattern. Cut the dovetails out carefully, following your lines closely. A bandsaw, jigsaw or handsaw will work well; avoid saws with circular blades for making joints.

3 Time to make sockets on our base pieces to receive these dovetailed uprights. On the inside bottom edges of the outer base pieces, measure and mark 3/4" in from the ends. Hold your upright vertically against the base piece, inside this mark, and trace the dovetail shape onto your base piece. This will be the socket that accepts your dovetailed upright. On the top and bottom surfaces of the base piece, measure and mark 5/8" depth of the dovetail socket with a line parallel to the edge. Repeat these steps on the facing base piece: the sockets will face each other, eventually fitting on both sides of an upright. We've only made the sockets 5/8" deep so that even when they are closed on the upright, the tandem bottom rails will have a decorative space between them. Number the dovetail and its matching tracing. (Pencil the number outside the tracing so that it does not get sawn off.) Repeat the exercise for the other three uprights, numbering the joints as you go.

4 Cut your dovetail sockets out. One at a time, put the wood in your vise, and handsaw the dovetail lines down to the depth you've marked out (5/8"). Then score the depth lines both top and bottom using a chisel, and chisel the material out. (Hint: it's easier to chisel out the wood if you make a number of cuts between and roughly parallel to the outside cuts, leaving thin fingers of material to chisel away.) Clean up the bottom of the joint with your chisel. Remove the base from the vise and try the dovetail in the socket. Tap it in with a hammer-gently, using a piece of scrap wood to tap on. (Remember the goal is to make a snug, self-supporting joint, so if you need to remove more wood, do so carefully). Repeat Step 4 seven more times until you have four captured dovetails in two bases. Put the bases together using clamps to pull everything together. You will have two "U" shaped sections.

5 Now you'll join these. Align and square the bases 14" apart (less if you're burning wood shorter than 16", as the wood will be stacked across the gap.) Use a carpenter's square or tabletop corner as a guide to position your bases, and place the crosspieces against the insides of the uprights, edge up. You're going to notch these crosspieces in two places: on the bottom, so that they fit over the bottom rails, and on the side, so they help hold the uprights rigid.

Clamp them in place. Use a pencil to trace both sides of the uprights on the crosspieces: this is where the vertical dados (notches) will go. Trace on the undersides of the crosspieces also where the base contacts your crosspiece-on both sides of the base. (Don't bother tracing in the gap between the base pieces.) Mark the depth of your vertical dados for the uprights: remove the crosspieces and mark a line 1/2" in (from the edge that touches the uprights) on the top of your crosspieces, making the line parallel to the face. Repeat on the bottom edge.

Next, mark the height of the base on the side of your crosspiece that contacts the upright, using a line parallel to the bottom. Then using a combination square, extend your base dado width lines up to meet the depth line. The photograph shows the horizontal and vertical dados in relation to each other. Ours has a curved section where our rough wood had a wain; again your project can be done using squared wood.

6 To cut out your dados, carefully saw down the width lines to your depth lines (for each of the dados), and make several more cuts between these outer cuts for ease of removing material. Score your depth lines with a chisel and clean out the material in each dado. Clean out the joint with your chisel for a flat area of contact. If you use a bandsaw like we did, a series of sweeping cuts can remove material in the joint quickly.

7 We chamfered the ends of our crosspieces, and then lightened the look of the crosspieces by making cut-outs in the centres, using the same angle as on the ends. Measurements and angles for your decorative cutting is up to you, but if you use softwood, keep any centre cut shallow so you don't compromise your rack's strength.

Once you have completed all the cuts, fit the crosspieces into place, tapping them down if necessary. Make pencil marks anywhere an adjustment will give you a better fit. (Later you'll take it apart and do whatever extra cutting is needed.)

8 Next you'll notch the uprights to accept the top crosspieces. Align and centre the upper crosspieces on the tops of the uprights; pencil a line on top of the uprights each side of where they cross. Use a combination square to lay out the four 3/4" deep notches in the uprights that the crosspieces will slot down into, or easier still measure from the uprights' sides the same distance in as your lines on the top, and connect the marks. Take your rack apart, and on the uprights, cut the notches as you did your dados, with a saw followed by a chisel. Then do any minor cutting for adjusting the way your base fits together. Put the unit together once more and slip the upper crosspieces into the notches. We're going to notch the upper crosspieces as well for extra strength: after they are centred, measure the distance between the tops of your uprights, and make sure it's the same as at the bottom. Then trace around the tops of the uprights onto both faces of the crosspieces, and across the bottom on both sides. Take the crosspieces to the bench and with pencil and combination square, increase the notch depth to 1". Cut them out.

9 With the upper crosspieces in place it's time to affix your top planks. Centre and square the top planks on the top crosspieces, leaving 3?8" between the planks. A few thin spacer blocks will help with that. (If you wish to have the planks touching there won't be any overhang of your planks on top-if you've used our measurements-so you might wish to chamfer the undersides of the upper crosspieces so that there are no corners protruding below the plank top.) Trace on the undersides of the planks where the crosspieces are located. Remove the planks, and lay them out upside-down on a flat surface in the same order. Place your crosspieces on them according to your lines on the plank undersides.

Use small 90° angle brackets to fasten the planks to your crosspieces. To keep your wood from cracking as it expands and contracts with varying seasons and temperatures, use brackets with oversized holes and washers under your screw heads. If you're using hardwood, pre-drill 1/8" holes for your screws.

Remove sharp corners; chamfer or round them with a plane, file and sandpaper. Apply a coat of oil. Put your rack together, bring in the wood and stack 'er up!

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