The morning is cool, the birds just beginning to stir in their nests, the wind a soft whisper among the trees. My oil lamp casts a warm glow on the cement slab that has become my testing ground. Its light casts long shadows across the slab, glowing eerily where the water in my Nalgene captures and refracts the light.
A sudden shower of incandescent sparks explodes from my fire steel, a shower that ignites the 20 milliliters of alcohol that pools in the bottom of what was once an aluminum beer bottle; now it is a rugged alcohol stove and pot stand. Blue flames rise genie-like from the circle of aluminum, a hypnotic, mesmerizing dance in the cool morning air. Seconds pass, and then, one by one, blue jets of flame burst out of small holes along the outside perimeter of the stove. Success!
I am euphoric as the water gurgles from my Nalgene, filling my Snow Peak Mini Solo pot. Setting the pot on the stove, I watch with satisfaction as my afternoon project from the day before heats my coffee water. But I know, too, that this success will only spur me to make more and different stoves. Such is the MYOG curse.
For quite a few years, I had been perfectly content to use a gas stove (pictured above with other stoves of my own creation)—I enjoyed the convenience and the speed with which it heated water. But , while I enjoyed this stove, I found myself yearning to play with a stove of my own design.
The first design that caught my attention was a gasifier, wood-burning stove constructed from a Progresso soup can and a 1 quart paint can. The principle of this stove is ingenious, burning found fuel–wood–at first, but then, by virtue of the stove’s design, recirculating the wood gases produced by combustion and reigniting these at the top of the stove, creating an efficient stove that reduces the fuel to a pile of ashes. Soon after I gulped down some Progresso soup, then zipped over to a hardware store to get an empty 1 quart paint can. The beauty of this design is its ease of construction: my cordless drill and a can opener converted the cans into a gasifier stove that produced a fierce inferno of flame to boil water. A ring of hardware cloth mesh served as a pot stand. Carefully I sawed and battoned wood until I had a stack of fuel. A twist of birch bark was my tinder, and within a minute I had a functional stove beginning to heat water. I was in DIYer heaven!
The stove worked admirably well, reducing the wood to ashes, but when I got ready to store the stove, I realized that it was messy: soot had blackened the stove, and ashes clung to the interior. I was also struck by the bulk of the stove: it was actually bulkier than my gas stove, though it did benefit from being able to use found fuel. Perhaps, though, there was another option . . . .
Somewhere along one the way I discovered forum posts devoted to DIY/MYOG alcohol stoves. These were ingenious and simple devices, made of recycled aluminum cans. I had to try to make one! I had a slew of aluminum cans about, and so I rescued one from the more conventional recycling future that lay in front of it and set about making my first stove. I quickly realized that I was going to need several cans given my novice stove-making skills, but in the course of an afternoon I successfully made my first alcohol stove.
It was elegant in its simplicity, light in weight, and . . . completely without any fuel. Frustrated by a search of house and shop that yielded no fuel, I raced to the store to get the alcohol I needed. My subsequent first test was exciting, especially when the stove began to work as I had seen it work in the images online. But I quickly realized that blustery afternoon that I needed two things: a pot stand and a wind screen.
The circlet of hardware cloth from my gasifier stove worked as a pot stand, and plywood served as a wind screen (not exactly practical for backpacking, though!). Soon I had water bubbling in my old Boy Scout cook pot. Success, yes, but hmm . . . I still needed to work out some things about this MYOG stove enterprise if I was going to commit to using it on a trek.
Those realizations led to a subsequent run to a convenience store to buy large aluminum bottles of a beer that I don’t drink (usually) in a size I don’t purchase (usually). But, Dear Reader, I forced myself to consume the contents of these containers so that I could fashion the stove based on some plans I found online. For some reason I was very relaxed during the making of this stove. Life was good.
When I tested it I was pleased: here was an ultra-durable stove that also worked as a pot stand! One of my problems had been resolved. That morning coffee was better than usual for some reason, a heavenly rush of warm richness (I used my REI DoubleSHot Press Mug to make it) that seemed all the better for having been brewed from water heated on a stove of my own creation. DIYers and MYOGers know this heady rush of pleasure that accompanies the success of a project. But DIY success is a drug, energizing and addictive. After a few mornings of enjoying this stove, I found myself hunched over the stove on a drizzly, breezy morning. The weather reminded me of the second problem I had not solved–the wind screen–because the wind blew the flame all about, drastically reducing the efficiency of my latest stove creation.
More internet research followed. I was busy with my job, unable to go camping, so instead I worked on my kit. Stove-making was front and center on my list of things to improve. By then I was participating in a number of online forums, and I kept stumbling across mention of the Caldera Cone, a product designed and manufactured by Trail Designs. All the reviews were rave reviews, and a bit of good fortune led me to a YouTube video that outlined in superbly explained fashion how to make my own Caldera Cone out of aluminum flashing. My next project? Yes, you better believe it!
Trail Designs’ ingenious cone–I must credit Rand and company here–solved both of my problems at once: the cone itself functions as a pot rest, and the cone also does double duty as a wind screen. Moreover, the conical shape channels the heat around the pot for efficient concentration of heat. This thing is brilliant! I just had to make one for myself. I happened to have some flashing, I reasoned, and soon I was in the heady throes of another MYOG project. This one had a few challenges, notably my discovery that the flashing was coated in something that released noxious fumes and smoke when heated. Ugh. Don’t make that mistake. The baked coating also discolored the aluminum, as you can see below.
A random orbital sander and some fine sandpaper removed this coating (and thinned the aluminum, and soon I had my very own functional Caldera Cone clone. [Note: I have since acquired the real thing from Trail Designs, mine in titanium, which permits three different fuel options. I love it, and it is my go-to stove. See my review of it here.]
My sense of pride was huge, my elation through the roof! I warn you, if you haven’t made your own gear, don’t start now unless you are prepared for an addictive journey. Of course pride goeth before a fall, as my grandmother was fond of saying, and I have had plenty of MYOG failures, too. But those are stories for another day.
So what now?
Well, I was not satisfied with the stoves I had made. My beer bottle stove was too tall for use in my Caldera Cone clone, so I was using my first aluminum can stove. This one, though, seemed inefficient as my knowledge of stove-making principles grew. One late night, the work for my real job completed, I browsed YouTube, searching for alcohol stove designs. I found many videos describing and demonstrating the use of the so-called SuperCat stove, a simple construction made from a cat food can. Well, I don’t have cats, but you may recall that not drinking a variety of beer did not stop me from consuming the beer to make a stove, so of course you know what this meant: I zipped to Walmart, bought a can of cat food, went home, opened it, sniffed it, and then grabbed a spoon from the kitchen drawer. In short order I had scooped it into the trash (you didn’t think I was going to eat it, did you?), and within fifteen minutes my own SuperCat was boiling water (for detailed discussion, see this post). I liked it, but somehow it didn’t seem like what I was seeking. It felt almost too easy, unearned.
Enter Tetkoba, genius of DIY alcohol stove design. One happy night I stumbled across his Capillary Hoop Stove, a diminutive thing fashioned from a few Red Bull cans that produced a glorious whirling vortex of blue flame–not on the outside of stove, as my first few stoves had done, but a spiral of flame rushing to a point from the middle of the stove.
This was an elegant design (although less elegant than his when made by my own hands). It seemed to me the pinnacle of alcohol stoves, the solution to my problems. I took me a few attempts to get it right, but then I had a potent burner that became the companion to my DIY Caldera Cone clone on a number of wilderness treks and day trips. Cook time was great, efficiency was great, and my own satisfaction was deliriously high. The miles I logged during the day were forgotten when I sat down to boil water for the evening meal, or, indeed, any meal. Cook-in-the-bag lunches and dinners and morning coffees never tasted so good! The addition of a secure fuel bottle made my kit complete. I was finished; I had reached the pinnacle! MYOG stove bliss was mine!
Then I saw a really great DIY ultralight backpack concept . . . .
But that, my friends, is another story.