Firemaking is part of the Scandinavian concept of hygge – a sort of cosiness. “For us,” says Danish-born, London-based Peter Agertoft, “fire is an integral part of life. Indeed, so passionate is Agertoft, he speaks of fire-building almost as an artform.
He’s not alone. For firemaking is becoming something of a cult pastime. Choosing a particular type of wood – from aromatics to eco logs made from sustainably forested virgin timber – is now as minutely discussed in some circles as others might critique the latest small-batch coffee beans or artisan chocolate. The same attention is lavished on stacking and smouldering. There are specialist courses for fire lovers, keen to spend their weekends splitting logs with hand-hewn Japanese poleaxes. Designers, too, are turning their attention to fires, creating beautiful accoutrements to make the hearth aesthetically alluring.
In UK city centres open fires are only allowed with smokeless fuels, but wood-burning stoves in the home and chimeneas in the garden are permitted and have become centrepieces in their own right. Norwegian brand Jøtul is a market leader; especially stylish is its sleek new Scan 66-5 with a smart inbuilt brushed-steel log rack (£2,075). Family-run Charnwood is the oldest British manufacturer of wood-burning stoves. Its new Arc (from £1,495), made in its Isle of Wight workshop, is engineered from cast iron, plate steel and ceramic glass; of the eight colours, chicest are gunmetal and pewter. And design store Skandium offers the sculptural Aeris Hanging Cocoon, which comes in stainless steel (£2,988) or black steel (£2,214) and is suspended from the ceiling on a pole to create a floating, flickering fire.
When it comes to the wood itself, London Log Company founder Mark Parr is something of a wood sommelier; his knowledge extends to recommending the best firewood for cooking different foods. For Parr, it’s important to create a perfect arboreal cocktail when building a fire. “Use a little silver birch, with its citrus top notes, to get it going, along with a natural firelighter [such as Flamers wood wool]. Beech is robust like a good coal, which is why it is used in pizza ovens. Add hornbeam for a long-burning fire that will see you through the night. And for the smell of Old England, burn oak.”
Lars Mytting is the author of Norwegian Wood (£20), a surprise international bestseller that won the 2016 British Book Industry Non-Fiction Book of the Year and chronicles the best ways to fell trees, and then chop, stack and burn the wood. From his home in Norway, he throws down the gauntlet for fire lovers: “A perfect fire gives out no smoke at all; there may be no smoke without fire, but it is possible to have fire with no smoke.” To do this, he says, “dense hardwoods should be mixed with softer woods such as aspen or alder that burn more easily.” Hardwoods come from trees that lose their leaves in winter, like oak, ash and beech. Most softwoods, such as pine, larch and spruce, grow faster, and the logs are less dense and tend to burn more quickly.
“Grandma’s advice might be to use only oak or hickory,” cautions Mytting, “but that’s from a time when houses were badly insulated and you had to armour yourself against the cold. Lighter woods such as aspen or alder give pleasing, clean fires without becoming overly hot.” But be careful of burning spruce in an open fireplace: “Coniferous trees crack and spit embers into the room. For fragrance, fruit trees are great, and dry cedar is fantastic – it really is the finest-smelling wood.”
In terms of seasoning wood, the earlier logs are chopped and stacked the better, and many start wood piles in spring, ready for winter – though it is possible to buy kiln-dried logs from companies such as Luxury Wood and Natural Fires. For others, however, the act of chopping wood is a pleasure in itself. New Orleans-born, London-based hedgefund research analyst Charlie Dan turned to the Best Made Co, an artisanal axe-making atelier in New York. “I have always admired the company’s axes,” says Dan, “and after buying some antique axe heads on eBay – one a plumb axe from Pennsylvania from the late 1800s, the other a late-19th-century/early-20th-century carpenter’s model – I wanted to restore them. I went on an axe-restoring course where we learnt how to fit an axe head and handle; I then painted them in colours to match my sailing boat. I now use them to chop wood for fires here in London.” The company’s beautiful ready-made axes range from a hickory-handled American felling axe ($188) to a Japanese Warikomi axe ($174) made in Sanjo from steel, carbon and scorched white oak.
The question of how best to carry wood from stack to hearth is addressed at design store The New Craftsmen, which represents high-end, sought-after British artisans. The Cuckmere Trug Company’s sturdy but stylish log carrier (from £80) is crafted from locally coppiced sweet chestnut for the handle and rim and cricket-bat willow for the body. Annemarie O’Sullivan’s kindling basket (from £310) is made from homegrown willow – she grows 20 varieties – and each takes seven hours of handiwork. And even the kindling gets a design upgrade, in the form of Jeremy Pitts’ “pimps” (£65 per bundle of 25) – an old word for individual bunches of kindling – made from sweet-smelling, oil-rich dried birch twigs, larger hazel sticks and tarred string.
Tidying the hearth is similarly improved with Geoffrey Fisher’s dustpan and brush (£45), made from steel with a pleasingly tactile natural bark handle. Eldvarm’s fire companion set (from £745 from Skandium) comprises a brush and pan, tongs and a blow-poker made from sustainable French beech, powder-coated metal, horse hair and leather from Swedish tannery Tärnsjö. The blow-poker is an alternative to bellows (air is blown through the top to fuel the fire), but for bespoke bellows in materials from ostrich hide to Harris tweed (£327), there’s Scottish artisan Ruth Devlin, who handmakes bellows in her Berwickshire workshop. And to light fires stylishly, David Linley has created the walnut Great Fire Matchbox (£175), inlaid with motifs in walnut, ebony, anigre and red bolivar.
Other top-name designers turning their hand to fire-focused pieces include Fredrikson Stallard and Mattia Bonetti, both represented by David Gill Gallery, and Francis Sultana, who have each sculpted firedogs. Designed to hold up logs, enabling air to circulate, these also offer decorative interest for an empty fireplace. Fredrikson Stallard’s jazzy design (£4,500) is made from gold-plated bronze and steel, while Mattia Bonetti’s bronzed “flames” (£7,200) and bronze fire companion set (£4,200) are lustrous. “Fireplace accessories are becoming a design feature and a conversation piece once again,” says Sultana, whose Neville firedogs (£6,950) are models of restrained elegance in rectangular patinated bronze.
For Mytting, fires and firemaking serve a fundamental purpose: “The more digital we become and the more our work is intangible, the more we long to do something tactile, like building fires,” he asserts. “Carefully crafted fires give a sense of calm, and as you gather around the flames, there is a code printed deep inside every human that the place is safe.”
“I like the silence of a fire,” adds Arctic explorer Erling Kagge, founder of Kagge Forlag, which published Norwegian Wood, “not in the sense of no noise, but in not being disturbed and only concentrating on one thing. Also it evokes the feeling of returning to your roots, back to where you started from.” Reason enough, surely, to fire anyone’s enthusiasm.