“There is definitely a difference in what type of wood somebody would buy for their fireplace versus what they would buy for a braai. And it also differs from fireplace to fireplace. Take, for example, someone with a more traditional open fireplace; that’s going to be different from someone who’s got a closed combustion fireplace,” says Jacques Botha, owner of Cape Town-based wood wholesalers The Firewood Company.
For many shoppers who buy wood by the bag at retailers like Woolworths, Spar, Pick n Pay or the nearest petrol station, as and when they need, the decision as to what wood to buy is likely to be informed by what is available at the store.
However, different retailers will often have different types of wood, and it is worth knowing how to shop for the best option. For those who stock up on large amounts and buy from a wide selection from companies such as Botha’s, the end use also determines what they should be shopping for.
It’s in the seasoning
“The really popular woods in South Africa to burn in your fireplace are black wattle and blue gum. Although some people tend not to like blue gum… if the blue gum hasn’t been seasoned properly, then it is the type of wood that really struggles to burn, so it smokes and it doesn’t want to get going and then people get frustrated,” says Botha.
Seasoning refers to the drying or curing process, and the ideal amount of time to properly dry blue gum before use is between 12-18 months.
“A seasoned blue gum burns really well in both the open fireplaces as well as modern enclosed fireplaces with a glass front,” he adds.
Burn the invaders
An added incentive to use blue gum wood as well black wattle, is that both are invasive alien species, native to Australia. They are both very “thirsty” and deprive surrounding vegetation of necessary water and minerals. Hence, cutting them down is considered good for the environment.
“They were designated for removal by the government because they are so water greedy. Farmers were told they must clear those trees away from any natural water, like running streams, and the difference that it made was dramatic. So, what we do is we go and collect those fallen trees, then we chop them up and season them,” says Rachel Taylor, owner of The Fireman, a wood wholesaler and retailer.
The average shopper would be dependent on the retailer for information on seasoning. However, Taylor adds that if the wood is packaged in clear plastic, consumers should look out for evidence of moisture.
Says Taylor: “Sadly, a lot of the supermarkets just get pretty much fresh wood, which is hard for the consumer to light. You’ll be able to tell the difference because you’ll see moisture in the plastic bags. Avoid anything that’s got any moisture that you can see already from storage, because that means it’s still seasoning.”
The hot hard Namibian
To counter the possibility of insufficiently seasoned wood from retailers, both Taylor and Botha recommend that shoppers consider Namibian hardwood, especially for open fireplaces and braais.
“The Namibian hardwoods like the sekelbos, the kameeldoring and the mopani; now those are what we call the Rolls Royce of braai woods. They are grown with hardly any water so they are almost dry immediately,” says Taylor.
Both Kameeldoring (camel thorn) and mopane are listed by the Namibian ministry of agriculture, water and land reform as a protected species. Their trading is regulated and farmers are only allowed to harvest and trade trees that are already dead. Various stakeholders require harvesting permits, transportation permits, exporting permits, import permits as well as marketing permits.
Says Botha: “I would recommend that buyers don’t buy these woods from the side of the road or something like that. Make sure to buy from wholesalers who have the appropriate permit. We have all our permits which we are happy to show to our customers. We only buy and sell dead, fallen stock harvested for firewood and imported directly from Namibia.”
In a February 2020 interview with Capetalk, award-winning veteran investigative environmental journalist John Grobler, reported that he found that “there is evidence of Chinese-related syndicates operating in the plundering of Namibian wood,” for products. But “most firewood comes from commercial farms under permit and is, therefore, legal to use.” And he adds, “If you are buying firewood please just try and confirm with the seller that it has been harvested under permit, and transported under permit. There is a whole lot of smuggling going on.”
Taylor also confirmed to Maverick Life as well as on their website that they also trade strictly legal Namibian hardwood that was harvested as dead or fallen trees.
“You could use those in your indoor fireplace as well, as long as it doesn’t have a glass front, because the coal gets so extraordinarily hot. Over time if you just use those Namibian hardwoods it can actually damage the internal fabric of the unit. It has actually even been known to crack the screen of some units,” says Taylor.
However, when combined with blue gum and black wattle, it is less of a risk, says Taylor:
“Some people combine it with black wattle and the blue gum in their enclosed units. You can do that and pop a piece of kameeldoring late at night, and then that’ll keep the unit really nice and warm throughout the evening.”
Namibian hardwood tends to be more expensive, so for customers concerned about cost, but also worried about the moisture content of insufficiently seasoned blue gum or black wattle, Botha recommends combining the woods for a “50-50 burn”:
“So you buy 50% Namibian hardwood for your fire, and you’re almost guaranteed that it’s dry. Then for your other half you buy blue gum or black wattle. And then you mix the two. Even if the moisture content is a bit too high in your black wattle or your blue gum, that heat and the dryness of the Namibian hardwoods should help you cut through that and still get you a good amount of heat out of your fireplace in the winter.”
As for braaing, the added advantage of the Namibian hardwoods is that they burn much hotter and much longer than the blue gum and black wattle.
“Even though it seems more expensive, I can guarantee you that you’ll be able to cook the same amount of meat if not more on a smaller bag of Namibian hardwood than you would on blue gum, black wattle or even rooikrans wood. It’s basically got double the power, double the punch, and double the heat,” explains Botha.
No softies allowed
Both he and Taylor advise customers to steer clear of soft woods such as pine for braais, as they burn quickly. Those are recommended mainly as kindling to get the fire started. Pine in particular is also a big no-no for enclosed fireplaces.
“Pine actually has a resin in it, whereas the blue gum has a gum, but that over time becomes your flame. The resin in pine can actually create an invisible film around the interior of the chimney, which over time can become a real fire hazard. So we don’t touch pine at all for firewood,” explains Taylor. DM/ML
Disclosure: This article was updated on the13th of August to reflect the status of Kameeldoring and Mopane as protected trees that require permits to harvest and trade.
"If you try to predict the future know that you will be wrong. The trick is to be as least wrong as possible; and be ready to change when you see how wrong you are!" ~ Sir Michael Howard