My wife and I recently decided we needed to upgrade our camping setup. We camp several times a year and have a fairly minimalist mentality about it – usually cooking directly over a fire. However, our last summer trip was during the rainy season in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and starting a cook-fire from found wood was a real chore. My wife did the research and found a stove that met our needs: it was relatively light weight, had good reviews, and didn’t use those annoying little propane tanks. The only problem for me was the price tag: it cost about $150.00. That’s $150.00 that I’d rather spend on anything else (mostly Arduinos and snacks really). My wife had spent a couple of days deciding which stove was right for us and she knew that I get buyers anxiety before a big purchase, but I asked for ten minutes to find a DIY alternative that might work for us.
I didn’t really know what I was looking for, but Google did, and led us to the wonderful world of DIY alcohol stoves made from bits and pieces of what most of us consider trash. This was a Tuesday and we were leaving Friday for a weekend excursion to a remote spot in the National Forest, so we had to order a stove that night to make sure that it would get here in time. That meant that if I was going to save my snack money we had to build a stove out of common materials that would work well enough for my wife to approve it. My wife did like the fact that we needed some aluminum cans to work with – we took a short trip to the store to buy a six pack.
The first design that I read about was the Penny Stove and since I didn’t know about any other designs we went ahead and built it. The Penny Stove is a pressurized alcohol stove with a self-regulator (that’s what the penny is for) and an amazing efficiency when used with just the right pot.
This was good enough for my wife. We had a solution that worked reliably and remarkably well in the wilderness. The food got cooked, nothing exploded, and the stove was relatively easy to work with. The problem for me was that although we had hacked it together out of found materials, I hadn’t designed a thing!
The way pressurized alcohol stoves work is pretty simple:
- Create a chamber with small holes that operate as jets.
- Pressurize this chamber by setting a fire in close proximity to it.
- When the alcohol reaches vaporization point it shoots out of the small holes and catches fire.
Although the basic principals of pressurized stove design are simple, the finer aspects like preventing thermal runaway, figuring out the right number of jets, etc, are not as simple. Since my degree is not in physics, I looked at the designs others had come up with and started to prototype.
Although the Penny Stove we built was efficient, there were two parts of the design that I didn’t like. A pot-stand is required for cooking, whereas a lot of other designs used the stove structure itself to support the pot. Also, priming the stove is a bit of a pain. Side-Burner alcohol stoves avoid both of these design flaws and a lot of guys build them out of Budweiser aluminum bottles turned in on themselves with a press:
The problem for me is that I don’t have a press at home, and I wanted to come up with a simple method that most people could achieve themselves without a press or any special tools – so I came up with the Red Bullet – a compact design that uses a RedBull can and a Coors Silver Bullet can to make a really classy stove.
- RedBull Can
- Silver Bullet Can (16 oz)
- Sharp Scissors
- JB Weld
- 1/16 inch Drill Bit
- Electric Drill
I ran some tests with several different stoves and found this design to be the most efficient with the following caveat: TO MAKE THIS STOVE EFFICIENT YOU MUST USE A WIDE POT.
The skinny pot my wife and I usually take camping works far better with the Penny Stove design than the Red-Bullet, but the Red-Bullet works excellently with a wide pot - it's one of those complex system things.