City folks are salvaging wood for their fireplaces, braziers and pizza ovens. Amy Williams is at the coalface.

When summer's just around the corner, a curious type of urbanite walks the streets pushing a wheelbarrow, following the sound of chainsaws, in the hope of taking home a haul of wood to chop, stack and dry.

These are professionals - exclusively men, apparently - who spend the warmer months stocking up their wood piles with foraged firewood to heat their pizza ovens and later, wood burners. Neighbours and friends send tip-offs about branches or logs for the taking – where there is a chainsaw, there will soon be a wheelbarrow.

You can spot a wood-burning enthusiast by their crispy fringe. AUT senior chef lecturer Alan Brown admits his got singed when he was tending to an incinerator on the lifestyle block he shares with his partner in Kerikeri.


The classically trained chef commutes to Auckland for work and has written two books focused on the joy of cooking over fire – his first, The Complete Kiwi Pizza Oven: Wood, Fire, Food and Friends, covers what type of wood to use and how to stoke and maintain a pizza oven and a range of recipes.

"It's no different from an oven at home, except there's no thermostat and you have to be aware of where the flames are licking. This is where the wood control comes in," says Brown, who has cooked for silver service at the London Ritz.

All his wood has been sourced on their property, a former lavender farm.

For a pizza oven he suggests using small pieces of bone-dry hardwood that has been split to reveal sides, but says there's no need to be precious about the type. He often starts his pizza oven with pine before moving on to a hardwood.

Hardwoods are ideal because they burn slowly with a high heat, turning to charcoal and holding heat rather than disappearing into ash. It's best to gather pohutukawa, totara, manuka, kanuka and the likes of poplar, douglas, fir, oak, eucalyptus, puriri, wattle and fruit trees.

"If you've got a few people round and don't have any wood, just go up to the gas station and get whatever's there, it will work," says Brown.

He cooks everything from pizza at 350 degrees, to meringues when the flame has died down.

His father, Ash, taught him a healthy respect for fire. Now 88, Ash used to be a firefighter, and it took him time to get used to his son cooking on open flames.

"For me it's something innate in human nature," says Brown. "There's probably a little romance because it reminds me of my childhood where we'd have a barbecue and light it up in the back garden."

As for braziers, he says they're not only for toasting marshmallows. He suggests putting strips of tender meat such as skirt steak on long metal skewers and turning them once or twice over the heat.

"You do get a different profile of flavour with natural wood than you do on a barbecue with metal bars, definitely."

There's no arguing that a roaring fire feels like the sun shining. Just think of a campfire at night and the warm glow on your skin. And there's something romantic about a fireplace - "let's make love in front of the heat pump" said no one, ever.

"Flames and glowing embers release electromagnetic, infrared radiation that has much the same characteristics as sunlight. Warming occurs, feeling of wellbeing and security, air circulation," writes Lars Mytting of wood burning in his book, Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way.

"These factors, combined with the smell of wood and a little woodsmoke, and the sight of the ever-changing play of flames, connect us with the primordial magic of the fireplace."

Our wood burner is magical, our backyard not so much. We live in suburban central Auckland, and whenever there's a storm or the sound of chainsaws, my husband Euan grabs his wheelbarrow and disappears down the street – this is the time to weather wood for next winter.

Grant Perry and Euan Williams. Photo: Michael Craig
Grant Perry and Euan Williams. Photo: Michael Craig

Looking out the window I can see tree branches on the driveway waiting to be sawn into lengths and stacked. Big rounds of wood are piled up on the deck ready to be split. Pohutukawa, manuka, lemonwood and gum.

Why go do some blokes forage firewood all year long, when they could pay for a truckload to be delivered?

Mytting writes that chopping our own wood connects us to the seasons and nature itself, and brings the "same deep sense of satisfaction that the cave dweller knew. The way a person cuts and stacks wood can tell you a great deal about him. Woodpiles are a reminder that wood is a connection between the forest and the home."

It's also cheaper if you're not paying for electricity for heat. Consumer New Zealand estimates a household needs 10 cubic metres of wood, so getting free firewood saves us at least $800 a year.

Euan tells me he enjoys the hunter-gatherer feeling and can get quite singleminded about bringing home the wood: "It's foraging so it takes an effort but it's very satisfying."
A few years ago, he noticed a pile of freshly split wood piling up on someone's driveway just around the corner from our place.

Grant Perry, 67, enjoys splitting wood with an axe and it wasn't long before he and Euan were tipping each other off when there was wood left on berms around the neighbourhood.

When a streetside tree came down on our road in a storm earlier this year, together they chainsawed and wheelbarrowed it away to their respective wood piles like squirrels carting nuts away for the big freeze, except it doesn't even snow in Auckland.

Like me, Perry's wife tries to pour cold water on such outings when the wood pile reaches a peak. His has manuka, pohutukawa, totara, gum and cherry wood.

"She tries to rein it in. She says 'we've got enough, we've got enough' - but we've never got enough," Perry says.

In the Williams family, the firewood disease as we call it, runs deep and has been passed from generation to generation like a baton in a relay.

When our 9-year-old son, Liam, arrived home from staying with his grandparents with a box of firewood he'd hand-sawn, I began to feel pride in this family pre-occupation.
One thing leading to another, I found some stalwarts who find firewood in the most opportune places.

Physician Matthew Farrant, 44, lives in Mt Albert and sources all his firewood from skips left outside neighbourhood renovations.

"In these established suburbs someone is going to be renovating at some stage and I see it as my civic duty to save timber that would be going to the tip," Farrant says.

He burns kauri studs, kwila decking, even untreated pine from leaky homes. He's a dumpster-diving doctor.

Farrant found his best haul last year when a house at the end of his street was being renovated. He visited their skip most days to retrieve old kauri studs. Because they've been inside homes for decades, they don't need to be dried.

"It's interesting that I'm burning some of Auckland's history really, these kauri trees which could have been hundreds of years old went into building Auckland," he says. "Some people, when I say that I burn kauri, they say, 'Well how could you?'"

He either loads the wood into his car boot or carries the long lengths home.

There have been various family outings with their three kids, where he has returned carrying a piece of wood.

"For each kilogram of firewood that you pick up you're looking at maybe 75c to $1 in heat value, so when you think about it like that it sounds quite worthwhile," he says, but admits his enjoyment runs deeper and is likely hereditary.

His father used to be a carpenter and stored wood for later use that would travel with them from house to house when they moved.

"I think there's an inherent satisfaction in knowing that you're providing warmth, you hunt and gather the timber," says Farrant.

Brett Cornforth. / Photo: Michael Craig
Brett Cornforth. / Photo: Michael Craig

His friend and fellow firewood enthusiast Brett Cornforth, 44, has read Mytting's book on Norwegian wood.

As well as describing how people bitten by the firewood bug find great pleasure in chopping, stacking and burning wood, Mytting profiles the artists behind masterpiece wood stacks.

On Cornforth's backyard in Takapuna on Auckland's North Shore, foraged logs and rounds wait to be split under tarpaulins, which he says looks boring compared to the Norwegian wood stacks he aspires to make someday.

Working with wood is a different kind of work from his day job, in IT business software.

"Apart from the effort of hauling wood around, the effort of starting the fire is pretty small really, it takes two minutes. You can't start it up on your way home over the wireless but there's just something romantic about having a fire," says Cornforth.

He enjoys the feeling of being a bit off the grid. Most of the wood Cornforth burns is either trees neighbours have cut down or piles he's come across on the side of the road and collects with his wheelbarrow.

"It doesn't matter how much wood I've got, if I see some nicely sized timber there, especially something like a nice burning macrocarpa, there's never too much wood," he says.

Cornforth tells me how Farrant used to start his fires.

"He had this massive pile of coffee cup holders, everyone on his [hospital] ward whenever they bought coffee, would drop him the coffee holder and he'd use them to start his fires," says Cornforth.

"I thought that was quite funny. I guess we both like it."

The day after talking to Cornforth, I meet my friend Charlotte Farrant (Matthew's wife) for coffee and talk soon turns to cardboard coffee holders.

An obstetrician, she worked at the same hospital as her husband at the time. The midwives in her department got wind of his fire-starting idea and started collecting on his behalf.

Like me, Charlotte struggles to rein in her husband's desire to salvage every bit of potential firewood he sees. While we're talking, Euan calls. He's in Silverdale for a work meeting and has seen some wood he wants to get. He remembers I'm with Charlotte, and asks to borrow their trailer.

Ignition Firewood is Auckland's largest sold firewood supplier, delivering wood to restaurants with pizza ovens and outdoor fireplaces, although households make up the main chunk of its customer base.

Founder Carlos Ter Huurne, 26, says spring and summer are the wood-collecting seasons, when his crew focuses on splitting and seasoning the wood to get it dry. Most people buy their wood between February and April.

Ter Huurne says it's best to season wood outdoors, letting the sun and rain do the weathering, before storing it undercover in time for winter.

"If you have a couple of trees fall down on your property then you're away laughing if you can get those away in the shed in time."

Or perhaps a tree on a building site on the other side of Auckland. As I wrote this, Euan brought a trailer load of manuka branches home from Silverdale and added it to the pile on our driveway. It's time to install a pizza oven.