Time for homage to the Holly King

Summertime in the city finds the good people at Monevator dwelling on thoughts of refreshment, but out here is the sticks while sipping my iced coffee I sensed a stirring in the Force and the distant laughter of the nascent Holly King, with thoughts of Winter. The old boy Thomas Tusser has something to say about summer idleness

Some of the Five hundred points of good husbandry, Thomas Tusser
From “Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry”, Thomas Tusser 1580 (link to Google books scan of reprint from 1848)

Even though the Oak King holds sway, the Holly King‘s powers are now rising. Hard to believe on balmy lazy Summer days when school is out, but this too will pass, and the nights draw in.

A depiction of the Oak King, on Lloyds Bank in Ipswich for some reason
A depiction of the Oak King/Green Man, in this foliate head on Lloyds Bank in Ipswich for some reason

Now, at the height of Summer, it is a good time to convert a pallet into the finest kindling known to Man – the wood is so dry the pieces are almost musical when they hit the ground, like the plates of a xylophone.

an axe, some wooden tongs to hold the piece upright, and some iced coffee
an axe, some wooden tongs to hold the piece upright, and some iced coffee are what’s needed to make a lot of kindling out of pallets

Sound of kindling pieces being moved – each almost has its own note, the tonality sounds different to me from ordinary bits of dry wood being moved.

Like so many things you can do yourself for modest cost, consumerism has a ready-made alternative – Wilkinson’s will sell you some in a plastic bag

Wilko kinding
Wilko kindling

but what’s the fun in that? The cynical part of me did wonder if the plastic bag might not have more calorific value than the product if you could use it without the noxious byproducts. I knew one fellow in an old house with an open fire and a massive inglenook who would toss an entire bag of coal on the fire, plastic bag and all. There was enough draught up the chimney that it didn’t stink the place out, but I still felt it a teeny bit on the coarse side of living.

Thomas Tusser would look askance at such effete consumerism, and I’m with him there. I now have a couple of great big garden bags full, probably about £200 worth of kindling at Wilko prices. And running it in July means it’s absolutely bone dry, I stow the bags in the garage so it stays that way. A fine alternative are pine cones which make good kindling, and they are to hand in the coming months.

£50 worth of pine cones, at Wilkinson's rates
pine cones – some people pour wax into them but if you collect them in summer they work just fine on their own

It’s the open structure and large surface area that seems to be the win here, rather than any particularly resinous property like fatwood. I figured I’d see why my kindling is almost musical in its dryness with a fine Chinese gizmo

what my cheap Ebay meter says for the kindling water content
what my cheap Ebay meter says for the kindling water content

Now you can’t rely on a cheap piece of Chinese junk traceable back to national standards of a finger in the air via an indirect measure (bulk resistance?) but comparing the kindling with

arbitrary piece of recently acquired pallet
arbitrary piece of recently acquired pallet
a piece of a joist that's been in a neighbour's garage since 1969
a piece of a joist that’s been in a neighbour’s garage since 1969
Biomass willow harvested earlier this year
Biomass willow harvested earlier this year
Log dropped off with us earlier this year and drying since
Log dropped off with us earlier this year and drying since

the kindling does seem pretty good! The willow is deceptive – the end I stuck the meter in is good (you can burn anything with less than about 20% water content) but further in it is too high, over 30%. They do generally say you have to season willow for two years to get the best of it.

The universal handy rustic construction resource – the wooden pallet

Loads of these get thrown out, and indeed I’ve seen many people on building sites burning pallets in the open to get rid of them. In the US they seem to worry about termites and stuff so they chemically treat them. I’d probably draw the line at using them for construction inside the house[ref]not only do you not know where they’ve been, but all the pieces are of slightly varying thickness and width. I’m not a competent enough woodworker to do cabinet making with decent regular sized wood, never mind all sorts like that![/ref], but for a log store extension they were neat

we need to finis the roof trim but this was done running ahead of an incoming thuderstorm so it wanted to be fast rather than great
we need to finish the roof trim but this was done running ahead of an incoming thunderstorm so it wanted to be fast rather than great

Unlike in the States the majority of pallets round here are untreated so they will rot, or maybe that’s just the result of scroungeable pallets tending to be one-wayers[ref]According to this in Europe we do not permit chemical treatment of pallets, which is why your pallet compost bin rots so fast. That’s good if you want to burn them, though avoid engineered wood bits like the compressed blocks of the side riser because the glue gives of bad stuff if it burns.[/ref]. This was constructed so the pallet used for the base and the side can be dismantled and replaced if need be. You can’t have too much wood storage, though most of our core drying is on the farm on a bigger scale. The one thing I am hopeless at is stacking wood – Mrs Ermine converted my efforts into something a third the size

I am just no good at this compared to Mrs Ermine
I am just no good at this compared to Mrs Ermine

That’s enough headspace allocated to the Holly King for now, time to consider the virtues of Pimms in the late afternoon like those decadent city folk 😉



13 thoughts on “Time for homage to the Holly King”

  1. What a co-incidence – I spent Saturday evening constructing a wood store from old pallets. I only got as far as getting the base in (I set mine raised on some old bricks to minimize premature rotting) before the monsoon started. I’m on the look out for a suitably waterproof roof material that Mrs UTMT approves of!

    I’m also an avid pine cone collector when the time is right to stock up on kindling.

    I’ve found it very hard to acquire pallets for free locally. Maybe because I’m not out and about during the week when building sites are not active. Most places open at weekends that have them seem to want to charge me to take them away.

    There’s something primevally satisfying about gathering a large neat pile of fire wood.


  2. @UTMT we cracked and bought the roofing felt, it was the only paid for part bar the screws. Here in the sticks pallets seem to be still had for free, mind you we put a reasonable amount of business our supplier’s way!

    Raided Adnam’s Cellar & Kitchen in Woodbridge on the way back 🙂


  3. just slap a bit of creosote on the bits of pallet that get wet and it will last a good deal longer. it looks quite nice, but you’re right – you need to revisit the roof-felt detailing. Use a creosoted pallet plank as a batten to hold the edges in place or something like that – would look a lot tidier


  4. I love a good woodpile. Here’s a traditional rhyme to help remember what’s best (and ash is my favourite in our woodburning stove, followed by oak):

    Beechwood fires are bright and clear
    If the logs are kept a year
    Chestnut only good they say
    If for long it’s laid away
    Make a fire of elder tree
    Death within your house will be
    But ash new or ash old
    Is fit for a Queen with a crown of gold

    Birch and Fir logs burn too fast
    Blaze up bright and do not last
    It is by the Irish said
    Hawthorn bakes the sweetest bread
    Elmwood burns like churchyard mould
    Even the very flames are cold
    But ash green or ash brown
    Is fit for a Queen with a golden crown

    Poplar gives a bitter smoke
    Fills your eyes and makes you choke
    Apple wood will scent your room
    With an incense-like perfume
    Oaken logs, if dry and old
    Keep away the winters cold
    But ash wet or ash dry
    A king shall warm his slippers by.


  5. Ermine,

    Thought I’d better report back having finally finished my wood store. I relented too and bought some felt…actually I probably should have bought your spare if you had any!

    Not sure if i can post pics here but here goes…


  6. @The Rhino – creosote eh, Mrs Ermine loves the smell of that, I figure it should be a controlled drug. Not sure it’s still permitted in the EU – certainly don’t come across it that much now.

    @Boston – £8 and one can be yours! – it’s not too great a foray into consumerism!

    @Kevin one of the joys of a woodburning stove is you can burn almost anything though. Some of the pine spits that would be bad on an open fire. Strange that poplar has such a bad rap – it’s what matches used to made from?

    @UTMT – that’s a nice piece of work. And I have to say I’m with Mrs UTMT – roofing frlt does make it look better. Interesting that you cladded the back – I was idle and left that open. With Mrs Ermine’s log stacking that’s okay. With mine, well, that’s a different matter!


  7. Ermine,

    You over estimate my lack of idleness!

    The wall is actually made of rendered blocks with a 3 brick top layer added on top, presumably for show. The back of the store is just the cracked render 😉

    My next obvious question is where do you get your wood? We manage to scavange a bit here and there if any neighbours take a tree down but are forced to buy pre splt/dried logs by the m2. I’m always on the lookout for a good (cheap/free) supplier!


  8. Nice use of local resources with the wall 🙂

    Wood is a lot cheaper as cordwood and green here I’d look in Yellow pages, because wood has to be local – its power to weight ratio means it’s dear to shift far.

    We store ours on the farm and get with a chainsaw and axe (splitting maul) as required. However, you do need space and it would be rude to run a chainsaw near any neighbours, so this may not be an option for you. OTOH they do make electric chainsaws which are presumably a lot quieter, it’s the two stroke motorbike engine than makes the noise, not so much the chain bit. You can also buy wood from tree surgeons as cordwood – the advantage is cordwood is a lot less nickable, if that’s a concern.

    Pre split logs by the cubic metre is the dearest way of buying logs I think – round here some local firms will sell you a tipper truck load dumped on your drive.

    Being able to air dry the wood offsite helps deal with oddball sizes and lumpy loads, we have nowhere near enough storage at home even to last through a winter. But taking it green is the way to save on the cost – time is money as they say.

    The forestry commission used to offer scavenging permits in autumn where you could take fallen and discarded wood as long as you didn’t use power tools (so bow saws OK chainsaws not)


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