I would like to publicly admit I am a charter member of ASBA – Alcohol Stove Builders Anonymous. I got addicted years ago when I saw my first one and have been hacking up pop cans ever since. I realized my addiction was severe a few years ago when I looked across the table at my teenage son who had joined me in a binge building spree over the course of a whole weekend. Our dining room table was littered with scraps of aluminum, 20 or so completed and partially constructed stoves, tools of all sorts, spilled alcohol, pennies, screws and tubes of epoxy. Fortunately, I sobered up in time to clean things up and make it to work Monday morning.
I have literally built dozens of stoves of all kinds – side burners, top burners, penny stoves, pressured and non-pressured. Many were difficult to construct and some were down-right dangerous to use. Through it all when I took one to actually use, I normally grabbed one of my first ones – a simple open top one that had a piece of fiberglass insulation held by screen wire. It was easy to light, burned well enough to get the job done and was super easy to make.
I’d like to take you through some of my evolution as a member of ASBA and show you what I have found to be my best choice for a backpacking, survival or hotel camping stove.
Step 1: My Old Favorite
The one shown above is identical to one I took on a three week trip to Central America a few years ago. I spent a lot of time in rustic little hotels and used it every day to cook my evening meal in my room. The great thing about using alcohol as a fuel is that you can find it at a pharmacy in the smallest of towns in any country.
I usually didn’t use it correctly though and turned it upside down and used a cotton ball in the concave base as a wick, adding a little alcohol as needed until my meal was done. That’s another reason I like this type of stove. You can invert it and burn solid fuel tabs, sterno, Vaseline or just about any fuel in the concave base.
Step 2: Stands
One drawback of the pop can stove is that you need a pot stand and maybe a windscreen. Now, I know there are some who set their cooking pot directly on the top of the can stove. Some stoves even require that you do so to get them to burn correctly. In my opinion, however, to set a pot, even a small one on something as unstable as a pop can is asking to scrape your supper out of the dirt.
Here is the stand I use with the pop can stove – simple, and easy to make – its just three pieces of coat hanger wire with fine copper wires wrapped around the legs. Nothing fancy, but it works and is quick to set up and pack.
The downside is that the wires tend to poke holes in stuff if you’re not careful.
Step 3: The Tomato Sauce Can Stove
What you see here is my latest and probably last stove. It is simply an 8 ounce tomato sauce can with the bottom of a pop can inverted in the bottom. As you see, I drilled and cut a number of vent holes to allow it to breathe. It is not much larger in diameter than a pop can but is much more stable when sitting on a hard surface and doesn’t require a pot stand. The extra height also allows you to push three or four large spikes into the ground to make it solid if you’re using it outside. If you do tip it over or over-fill, the spillage will usually be contained in the bottom of the can.
I use it just as I described above – by placing a cotton ball or wad of fiberglass on the can bottom and filling the concave depression with alcohol. If you are camping and run out of cotton balls, you can use a bit of dry soil to act as a wick. I normally use a mix of about 80% denatured alcohol and 20% rubbing alcohol. I find this gives me enough heat, but the little bit of water cools it enough to lengthen out the burn time. (In the photos, I used rubbing alcohol only so the flame would be visible) Besides the variety of fuels I mentioned above, if you are camping, you can use bits of forest litter and small sticks in this stove which is another advantage.
Step 4: Construction
Besides drilling and cutting vents in the tomato sauce can, the only construction needed is to cut the bottom off a pop can and then use a dremel or sharp knife to cut slits in it so it will slide inside the can. Be sure to place the can bottom inside before drilling/cutting or the burrs from the holes will cause problems.
Step 5: Fueling
To fill or re-fuel mid-way through cooking, I use a syringe with a long needle and simply stick it through one of the vent holes and squirt alcohol on the cotton ball. If you miss a little, no worries, as the can should catch the overflow. You can buy syringes and needles at most farm stores that carry livestock veterinary supplies. I like the 6 CC syringes with a big 16 gauge needle filed so it is dull.
Step 6: Happy Cooking
There you go. That’s my nickel’s worth of alcohol stove advice.
This is certainly not the sexiest nor the most fun to build of stoves. In fact, after I built the first one, it was so easy and quick I felt somewhat cheated out of all the build challenges and was left with time to fill. But, on the other hand this stove works great, is durable, packs well, doesn’t need a separate pot stand or windscreen and uses a wide variety of fuels. It’s just a good all-around little camping or survival stove.