Wild NZ: Annual Firewood Muster

Wild NZ: Annual Firewood Muster

It also doesn’t help that a handful of misguided, planet-saving councillors are trying to get fireplaces banned in some areas. They claim that users of fireplaces are contributing to the downfall of mankind due to rising sea-levels. Apparently, the combined heat of all our fires is melting polar icecaps …

Annual Firewood Muster - awakening your inner lumberjack

Splitting your own firewood, they say, warms you twice: firstly – when you swing your axe, and secondly – when you burn the wood. However, it’ll warm you four times if you do it properly: firstly – when felling the tree and ‘ringing’ it up; secondly – when splitting the wood; thirdly – when stacking it; and finally, when you’re sitting in front of your fire, sipping on a nice warm mug of hot chocolate – or mulled wine. Oh yeah – the perks of winter!

Sadly, fewer people nowadays get to experience the wonders of firewood. In an age of instant gratification and heat pumps, the tradition of the annual firewood harvest is becoming a thing of the past. It also doesn’t help that a handful of misguided, planet-saving councillors are trying to get fireplaces banned in some areas. They claim that users of fireplaces are contributing to the downfall of mankind due to rising sea-levels. Apparently, the combined heat of all our fires is melting polar icecaps …

However, the truth is, you don’t get much more environmentally friendly than burning well-seasoned wood. It’s sustainable, cost-effective – and, for all you eco-warriors out there, carbon neutral. Something heat-pumps aren’t. (Sorry Stephen Fleming!)

So, the aim of this scientific, peer-reviewed report is to encourage more of you men (and women!) to engage in this most masculine of activities. It’s time to take up your chainsaws and axes, and harness your inner lumberjack.

It’s in there somewhere – it just might need awakening …

As someone who tends to leave things to the last minute, my yearly firewood mission usually starts too late. And this year, regrettably, was no different. It was the middle of April, and my lovely wife was mumbling something about the cooling weather and our empty woodshed. I tried ignoring her, but when her majesty reminded me how grumpy she can get when cold, I quickly leapt into action.

Now, I’m not totally useless. I had some split wood already stacked outside, but it was still too green. And the 50+ eucalyptus nitens I’d planted for firewood, still had a lot of growing to do! I needed dry stuff – and quickly! Thankfully, my mate Havoc had it sorted. A quick mission to his family farm, armed with chainsaws and kids (for the heavy lifting), put me back in wifey’s good books in no time. Mission accomplished!

So, how DO we reignite the annual firewood muster and release our inner lumberjack? Well, it helps to have a fireplace. But to be more specific …


It goes without saying that, first of all, you need to find some wood. And wood doesn’t grow on trees. Umm … okay, it does. But trees need to be processed somewhat before they turn into seasoned-chunks of firewood splendour.

Not everyone has suitable trees growing in their backyard, so your options are: (i) find a friend or family member who has; (ii) ask a local arborist – they’ll almost certainly be able to help; (iii) look for a recently felled forestry block, and grab some offcuts (maybe ask first); or (iv) you could buy it. (Oh, the travesty!)

It’s best to prepare a season ahead. And I’ll make the point now: dry (seasoned) firewood is far superior to wet or even moderately damp wood. Got it? It burns hotter, cleaner and more completely. Burn wet wood and, if it’ll burn at all, you’ll be standing around your fireplace shivering, wondering why your marshmallows aren’t toasting. Plus you’ll need to get your chimney cleaned more often.

However, not all wood is created equal. In my humble opinion, these types make some of the best firewood: manuka, macrocarpa, black wattle, most eucalypts, rata, totara and granddaddy pine (those massive, gnarly old pine trees). These are mostly hardwood species, whereas softwoods like pine, poplar and willow burn well, but aren’t quite as hot. They also burn quickly, and can produce lots of ash.

FELLING & RINGING IT UP (the 1st warming):

Felling trees is both an art and a science, and requires a fair bit of skill. There’s little chance of injury when dropping one of your wife’s lavender bushes. However, a 25 metre gum tree done wrong will provide you with a world of hurt, mayhem and potential death. Make sure you know what you’re doing before attempting such a feat of awesomeness – or get someone who does.

Ringing your dropped timber, while not without risk, is definitely more doable for your average wannabe lumberjack. Simply put, it’s the job of cutting the log to its finished lengths. This is also usually done with a chainsaw – one of God’s greatest, most manly creations. It’s important to get the rings the right length. It’ll make your wood stack look neater, plus there’s nothing worse than finding out later that none of it fits in your fireplace …

SPLITTING YOUR RINGS (the 2nd warming):

Although this subtitle sounds really painful, it’s not. But it is a good work-out! Unless you’ve got something like a dry and twisty piece of gum, the manliest way to split firewood is to swing a log-splitter (or a maul for our American friends). And I’m talking about a hand-held tool here – not the large, hydraulic version! Leave that for the aforementioned ring of twisted gum.

Not to be confused with an axe, a splitter is blunter, and has a wider wedge-shape to it. And it’s designed to, well, split – unlike an axe, which is designed to cut. When splitting your ring (I’ve got to find a better phrase!) it helps to sit your timber on a chopping block. This lifts it a little higher and stops the ground absorbing some of the impact – making your splitting-power less efficient.

Check the ring for natural cracks on the ends, and aim for those. These will be more noticeable on dry timber. On smaller pieces, you can smack it in the middle – splitting the ring in half. Then split those pieces again until you’ve got the size you’re after. On larger rounds, you may need to wack the edges off first, before attempting the big centre split.

So how do you swing a splitter or axe? Start with your hands wide apart and swing the splitter up and behind you. At this point, don’t let go. Then, at some random instant, slide your top hand down to the other on the downward swing … (Oh stuff it – it’s too hard to explain. Just have a go.)

As an aside, some timber (like gum) is best split when it’s wet. But most others split a little easier when dry. And don’t bother blowing a valve on a gnarly, knotted piece of devil-wood. That’s what hydraulic splitters and dynamite are for. Your aim is to get the job done with minimal blood-loss and swearing …


Stacking your manly pile of split wood is an art form – especially if it needs to dry. Wet timber typically contains 50% of its weight in moisture, whereas seasoned firewood has around 15%. How efficiently that moisture is removed is hugely affected by how it’s stacked – and can mean the difference between your firewood being ready to burn in nine months, or three years.

Most moisture is released out the cut ends (which is why a large log can take years to dry) – and if those ends are exposed to sun and wind, it’ll be removed even faster. So, the worst thing you can do is chuck all your precious firewood in a shed, and shut the door. Without circulating air, that wood will still be as wet as an otter’s pocket a couple of years later.

By far the best way to stack your green firewood is in a single row with both ends exposed. It pays to cover the top to keep the rain off and it’s also important to keep the wood from laying directly on the ground. The challenge in doing this is making a structure that’s not going to topple over in the first bit of wind. Some build their stack along a wire fence or chicken netting. I prefer amazing skill and a couple of massive logs at each end to hold it all in place. Use your imagination.

Once it’s dry, you can stack it anywhere you like. Then you can start …


This requires little explanation. If you don’t know how to light a fire, come along to one of our Wildman courses. If you’ve done everything right thus far, when winter arrives you’ll be sitting in front of your warm fire, sipping on that mug of hot chocolate or mulled wine. Your wife will think you’re the manliest of men, and she’ll be putty in your hands …

Which, if you’re lucky, might lead to a fifth warming.

You won’t get that sitting in front of a heat-pump!


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Issue 2 2014 Wild NZ Issue 2 2014 Wild NZ (1219 KB)