Hickory wood is stacked at Firewood Factory in Bladensburg, Md. (Deb Lindsey/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

I’m tired of trying to burn damp firewood. Neighbors of mine leave their wood unprotected as well. Right now I can’t afford to build a nice firewood storage shed. I can’t put it in my garage either as I’m worried about termites and insects. What are some affordable and effective methods to store firewood outdoors? I’m looking for stacking tips and ways to help air-dry the wood as well as keep it dry.

— Kelly L., Apple Valley, Minn.

I see unprotected firewood piles all the time where I live in New Hampshire. I’ve always wondered how well that wood burns. You get a much hotter fire from dry wood than from damp. Some of the combustion British thermal units in any fire are absorbed by the water and water vapor from the wood as it cooks in the fire. The more moisture, the more energy will be wasted vaporizing it.

As you might imagine, I’ve seen all sorts of gorgeous and practical methods of covering firewood. A friend of mine has his own wonderful firewood shed adjacent to his home. I had plans drawn up for a new detached garage that had an extended shed roof at one end that was to be a giant firewood storage area.

There are endless ways to store firewood. But when money is tight and you need dry firewood stored outdoors, something simple such as inexpensive tar paper and a fiberglass tarp can do the trick.

Many years ago, a retired engineer taught me how to stack firewood so it air-dries quickly. The first thing to do is to split all the firewood to the size you intend to use when you burn it. Be sure when it’s cut that it’s the correct length to fit in your fireplace, wood stove or fireplace insert. You’d be surprised how many people try to maximize the length only to discover it’s too long by an inch.

It’s best to store the firewood off the ground. If you can afford some treated lumber 4-by-4s to use as runners, these work great and can last decades. If you have access to some younger straight trees, such as birch, you can cut those to make runners that are about 14 inches apart center to center. If you use trees, it’s very important they be the same diameter. You want the stacked wood to be plumb so your pile doesn’t tip over.

If you can’t afford the treated lumber or don’t have access to the trees, then at least store the wood on well-drained gravel. You just don’t want the wood in contact with damp soil. That will cause the lower row of firewood to rot over time.

Think about the prevailing wind direction at your house. It’s ideal to stack the wood so the long rows are parallel with the that direction. Once the wood is covered, the piles act like a miniature wind tunnel as the wind blows through and across the wood.

At the end of each row of firewood — I usually have three stacks next to one another — you want to stack each successive layer at a 90-degree angle to the previous layer. This tower of firewood offers pretty good stability at each end so that the weight of the pile doesn’t cause the wood at the end to tumble off the row.

I also keep about six inches of space between each row to promote air circulation. If you stack all the wood tightly, it takes longer to dry. If you do three rows of wood, try to make sure the center row is higher than the other two by about four inches.

Once I’ve got the wood all stacked — I usually go no higher than about 54 inches — I cover the wood with two long pieces of overlapping tar paper. The higher center row of wood helps ensure that water drains to the sides of the pile. I then cover the wood with a fiberglass tarp; the top is covered and the tarp extends partially down the sides. I try to keep the ends of the rows uncovered as much as possible to promote ventilation.

Tim Carter is a columnist for Tribune Media Services. He can be contacted through his Web site at www.askthebuilder.com.©2009 Tribune Media Services