My Favourite Axe: a weekend of woodcutting

Slovenia, like much of Europe, had experienced a heavy winter. The copious snow combined with some vicious windstorms had done its damage to the trees around Breg House; many had limbs dangling, some had been brought down completely.


Now that the spring melt had arrived and the patches of snow were rapidly retreating, it was time to tackle these now-defunct trees so I headed up to Breg for the Velika noč (Easter) weekend to spend some time sawing, chain-sawing, splitting and stacking wood.


The (hand) tools for the job

As the trees were ‘windblown’ I had to consult my brother (who is a tree surgeon) on the best way to tackle them. There are numerous forces of compression and tension at work, and with one tree lying atop the other, I had to be careful to dismember the tangle in the correct order to avoid me being crushed to death by a falling trunk.

My brother also advised me that it was ok to use sunflower cooking oil in my chainsaw (since I’d run out of chainsaw oil and being the Easter holiday, the shops were closed). The sunflower oil ‘hack’ worked and my chainsaw powered on through the job.


My brother told me I could use sunflower oil in my chainsaw as a temporary substitute. So I did.

Sawing up wood by hand is tiring but I prefer it for many jobs, especially when dismembering a fallen tree in a tangle of branches. However, using a chainsaw to slice up trunks and limbs is satisfyingly fast and there’s a joy in sinking the chain-teeth into a log and watching it almost melt through the wood it like a hot-knife in butter. Apart from when your chainsaw gets wedged in the tree – which thankfully only happened once during this operation.


The dream team: chainsaw and axe

But no wood work is more fun than splitting thick trunks and limbs, into fire-sized logs. For this I use my Struc Slovenian-made splitting axe or ‘maul’. Mauls have a fat, wedge-shaped blade which forces the wood apart, helping it to split more easily along its grain.


Check my wedge: maul head


Axes: turning wood into firewood since the Iron Age

However, my favourite axe is a smaller one that I bought in Britain some years ago, and never had much use for it, but at Breg House, it’s the perfect tool for splitting wood into kindling, or snedding. Snedding is removing side branches from a larger limb or trunk. This can also be done with a saw or chainsaw, but a good axe is a quick and fun way to do it. This axe is perfect for both jobs – it’s perfectly weighted, nice and sharp and just feels great in the hand.


My favourite axe

My third axe – a ‘Viking’ – was somewhat of an impulse buy. I saw it in the local DIY store, Inpos, in Ravne na Koroškem, and I just had to have it. I love the shape of the handle and the colour of the blade. It can also be used for snedding or splitting kindling, but as it’s a little lighter, it’s not quite got the oomph of my fave axe. However I like the way it looks and its light weight means it would make a great ‘travel axe’ for a camping trip.


The Viking; my smallest but sexiest axe

I spent two days dismembering two fallen fruit trees, hacking, sawing, lugging, splitting then finally stacking the wood in my Kozolec – a Slovenian hay rack which doubles as my log store. With a hot Slovenian summer, those logs should be ready to burn in my Piazzetta stove this winter, and therefore I hope never again to suffer the great log famine of winter 2017/18.


Pimp my log pile: a fine mix of freshly cut apple, plum and a touch of elder

One of the benefits of doing a bit of hard graft at Breg House, is that my kindly neighbours ensure I am kept well fed throughout the day. Numerous rounds of potica, an elevensies break consisting of Turkish coffee, homemade biscuits, and a shot of their schnapps (in Slovenia it’s perfectly normal to drink schnapps in the morning and/or whilst operating chainsaws or other heavy machinery), as well as a beef and horseradish lunch.

My neighbours also invited me round for ‘Easter breakfast’ which is a big deal here. Everyone eats bread, ham and boiled eggs mixed with horseradish. It was delicious, but I was to later experience the somewhat noxious side effect of eating six eggs before 9am.


Elevensies for loggers at Breg House, courtesy of my amazing neighbours: homemade biscuits, turkish coffee, and schnapps

I got back to Ljubljana early evening, feeling zonked. One of the things I love about being at Breg is that there’s always physical work to be done, and despite the weariness from a day’s logging – doing it feels good. Especially with potica and schnapps.



Log Crisis Looms at Breg House: The Rules of Firewood in Slovenia

My wood burning stove probably gives me more pleasure than anything else I own. Fire is so basic, so simple, so primitive. Yet I seem to get an disproportionate amount of enjoyment from being in its presence. A burning fire obviously provides heat and light, but it’s greater than the sum of its parts. I feel a deep comfort, safety and contentedness, when sitting by a fire. My happy place is sitting by a blaze, watching flames dance the night away.


My Pizzaetta e905 – aka: The Post Box

This is what makes the looming log crisis at Breg such a concern. When I bought the house ten years ago, the woodshed was well stocked and I had not needed to order any more wood all this time, especially as the old wood-fired range stove was removed several years ago (after the chimney was repeatedly damaged by snow) and it was only in September 2016 that I had my new pride and joy – my pillar-box red Piazzaetta e905 woodburner –  installed, complete with a brand new, and much better positioned chimney. (Which was done very professionally by local company Kamini Kočevar especially as it was not a straight forward job considering the bizarre construction of the building).

An old cherry tree that my brother felled in Spring 2016 has supplemented my wood supply until now, but it was finally time to order a fresh batch of logs.


J-Bizzle splits some cherry

The Land of Log Piles

Slovenia is the land of log piles. There is firewood stacked everywhere outside of the cities, so I thought getting hold of some seasoned logs, would be a simple task. I was wrong.


One of best log piles I’ve seen in Slovenia. It even has a window.

I first started enquiring about buying firewood in the summer. In the UK, most people buy loads of seasoned firewood – ie wood that has dried out to a moisture level that is considered acceptable for burning, which is <20% water. I had assumed it would be even easier here, a country where almost everyone outside of the cities uses wood as their main source of home heating. But I have discovered that Slovenia is not so forgiving to the unplanned wood-burner.

My initial enquires to my Slovenian friends were that I should speak to my farmer neighbours. They would surely know the best place to get wood and may even be able to sell me some. So I did that. My kindly neighbours took pity on my ill-prepared fuel situation, and gave me a couple of barrows of crisp, dry wood from their own store but explained they would not be able to sell me any as they needed all the wood they had for the winter.

However they told me about a local supplier, who could provide ‘ready to burn’ wood and would deliver to my house. Perfect I thought; my wood worries are over. A few days later, I went to make my order. Everything sounded ok; expect the ‘ready to burn bit’. The man said the wood was ‘dry, but not really dry’. But with winter looming and fresh out of firewood options, I had to take it.

The following day, the delivery arrived in a rather large, square truck. It was so tall, that the roof snagged the fruit trees on the track to the house, preventing it from being able to get very close to my woodshed. With little more than sign language, gesture and the occasional word of mutual understanding, the man unloaded the pallet of oak from the back of his truck onto his little pallet truck. I thought we’d be able to drag this along the track to my wood shed but I was very much mistaken. 1.8m cubed of Slovenian oak is very, very heavy and pallet trucks are not designed to roll over unpaved, gravel tracks.


The track is not pallet truck friendly

Plan B: the man pulled out a tow rope, and gestured to my car. We would tow the pallet truck closer to the house. Initially I was reluctant to try this plan. I had visions of 1.8m cubed of Slovenian oak crashing through the rear windscreen of my hire car and me having to pay a hefty excess (I suspect that ‘towing towers of firewood’ would not have been covered by my standard insurance).

But there was no other way to get the wood any closer. So the man popped the little secret tow socket at the back of the car, delved into the spare wheel and attached a metal towing eye. This was useful knowledge for me – I had no idea these even existed. Eye attached to car, and rope attached to logs, I cautiously took up the slack, and with the log man steering the pallet truck, we towed the 1.8m cubed log pile closer to its new home: my wood shed.

However, due to the lay of the land the closest we could get was still about 20 metres way. So the log man dropped his load there. He then promplty disappeared in to Anchka’s house, no doubt for schnapps, coffee and cake. Meanwhile, I fetched my wheelbarrow and began the task of porting 1.8 cubic metres of Slovenian oak to the wood shed.

As I began, I could see that the wood was very far from being ‘ready to burn’. In fact I estimated it couldn’t have been cut down much more than a month ago. Some logs still had a twigs of green oak leaves attached (at least I knew I was definitely getting oak). Conventional wisdom says that oak takes at least a year to dry, (some people recommend two – it obviously depends on your drying conditions). So, although I had 1.8m cubed of oak – right now – it was useless to me.

As I ferried barrow after barrow into the woodshed and stacked it neatly, I considered my options. I  had probably enough cherry to last me a couple of weeks if I was careful. After that my firewood choices slimmed somewhat. I had a stack of offcuts from 10 years’ worth of renovations but this was little more than kindling really. I was surrounded by forest – there would inevitably be some hanging deadwood that was dry enough to burn, but taking trees from the forest is frowned upon by the authorities (ie illegal) and would unlikely be able to provide sufficient amounts of dry wood anyway.


Firewood, firewood everywhere, but not a log to burn.

Could I somehow ‘speed season’ my new log load? I could certainly stack some close to the fire but I doubted I could dry enough, fast enough. The only other option was to try and track down a supplier of genuinely ‘ready to burn’ firewood or buy some bags of the compressed sawdust logs which I’d seen at the local DIY store – Inpos.

About halfway through the log relocation job, Štefka, my kindly neighbour, invited me in for a coffee. Sipping on the thick, Turkish-style brew, we compared log-notes. My 1.8m cubed had cost me €128. She normally paid €120; no great discrepancy there. However, she was not impressed at how freshly cut the wood was.

“It was the best they had” I said, remembering what the wood man in the shop had told me.

“Not the best!” she retorted.

I wondered if I’d been duped into taking a wet load when they had had drier. Were they taking advantage of the ignorant foreigner? It was possible – although the logman had never claimed to have had any fully seasoned wood, and another log supplier had also told me that at this time of year, no one had dry wood.

It just seems that people in Slovenia are much better planned when it comes to firewood, ordering their loads in the spring, stacking it outside where it would experience a Slovenian summer – plenty of sun and warm wind – so that by autumn, they had plenty of bone-dry wood to burn. I had assumed, that just like in the UK, buying seasoned firewood at any time of year would not be a problem in Slovenia. I was wrong.

But there was hope on the horizon. Štefka explained that autumn was a good time to dry wood and that wood stacked outside, where it would get wind and sun, could dry quickly.

How long? I asked, expecting that even in ideal conditions, my log load would take at least 6 months.

“Maybe one month” – Štefka replied.

I have to say I’m sceptical. But she’s been doing this for decades so I have faith. I stacked half of my supply outside, under the cover of a mini-hay rack (known in Slovene as a kozolec these structures are a very Slovenian thing found almost nowhere else and are somewhat celebrated here). I’m going to buy a wood moisture meter and do some proper measurements so I can compare drying zones – more on that soon.


Pimp my log pile: a kozolec (a Slovenian hay rack) doubles as my log store

I just hope Štefka’s right – otherwise it could be a cold, log-less winter.