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The Portable Wood Stove

dave_with_stoveIn 1988, while canoeing down Manitoba’s Pigeon River in early spring, we got wet. There were many little rapids, and one of them tripped us up. The tactical details are unimportant, but on shore below the rapid, we found that we had 2 paddlers and one canoe of dry gear, and (due to inadequate waterproofing) 2 paddlers and one canoe of very wet gear. We lit a large fire against a rock wall and fended off hypothermia, but as the sun went down it got quite cold, and we’d have been faced with the prospect of a very unpleasant night, save for one thing: as part of our equipment we had a wall tent with a wood stove.

After setting up, we sawed a larger than normal supply of stovewood, hung the wet gear from the ridgepole, and kept the stove going all night. Those who were wet stayed close to the heat, slept reasonably well, and by morning all the hanging clothes and bags were dry. A grim experience had been turned into one we could joke about. ( A sure-fire way to raise eyebrows in any modern outdoor equipment store is to mention that when you travel, you take along a wood–burning cook–stove. I’ve done it a number of times. The sales clerks get a perplexed look on their faces and then leave their department.)

My small portable wood stove weighs 11 pounds, including the stove pipe, which fits inside. It’s a practical, ethical, multi–purpose way to be comfortable in the bush. As well as being used in a wall tent set–up, it’s practical with a Campfire tent or other lean–to.!

It’s the only proper way to go winter travelling. It heats the air, drys your gear, and cooks your food. It makes camping luxurious, and on a long trip, it’s not much heavier than the bottled fuel you’d carry for a gas stove. Also, you’re much more a part of the bush when you depend upon it this way. You are not relying on a fossil–fuel industry or a complicated piece of machinery. It isn’t zero–trace, but it uses far less wood than an open fire, and doesn’t scar the site like a fire–pit does. It’s easy to cook on, and smoke doesn’t get in your eyes. It’s a piece of gear that helps make you a little more independent. The only real negatives I can think of regarding it are that it’s too heavy for a backpack trip, some heavily travelled routes might not have much wood left, and if you drop plastic clothing on its hot surface, you’ll wish you hadn’t.

A question I’ve been asked is “Is it safe to cook in your tent?” Well, the stove is usually wired to 4 stakes driven in the ground, so it’s secure enough.

stove_on_shore

The stove is handy for a lunch stop. We had 3 pickerel to cook here.

As for bears, I’ve never yet had a problem and I’ve cooked 2 meals a day in my wall tent for hundreds of days. (In winter of course there is no bear problem.) To be fair, I don’t use a wall tent/wood stove rig in a heavy bear environment like Algonquin, but in the summer bear season I don’t need the heat and I take a campfire tent. Farther north, where bears get hunted, I have an idea they associate the hot metal and wood smoke smell with getting shot at. For a bear to wander into a “base” camp is poor insurance. You’d have to leave the unit set up and unattended to encourage a bear visit. There are of course exceptions, but I’ve never encountered any.

You can make one in a home shop, using light sheet metal and steel pop rivets. It’s easy to improvise a metal bending–break, and with tinsnips, a jig saw, an electric drill, and some ingenuity, it isn’t difficult. The only commercial ones worth buying that I know about are made by ——– of Quebec. Otherwise, you’re better off to build it yourself. There’s no rocket science in building a wood stove. Use your own ingenuity and follow these steps as a guide.

Good luck and stay warm

Materials
4′ x 4′ of 22, 24 or 26 gauge galvanized steel
100 1/8″ x 1/8″ grip range steel pop rivets (NOT aluminum)
10′ x 3″ galvanized downspouting
2 3″x3″ hinges for break
fine-tip permanent magic marker
3″ adjustable–angle galvanized elbow
scrap 2 x 4 for break
a piece of 1×6 hardwood for the top plate

Tools
pliers, vise grips, assorted clamps, hacksaw, electric drill, 1/8″ bit, tinsnips, straight edge, ruler, jigsaw with metal cutting blades (2), small grinding wheel for the electric drill to grind off rivets placed in error

stove_in_tentSteel

The lighter the steel, the more it will warp and the less time it will last, but when you’re pulling a toboggan all you care about is weight. Steel is measured by gauge — the higher the number, the thinner the stock. The next one I build will be of 26 gauge. Galvanized steel from 24 to 30 gauge can usually be found at a heating/air conditioning business. I paid $18 recently for a 4′ x 4′ sheet of 26 gauge. The zinc coating is poisonous, but will melt off, so the first time you fire it up should be outside. After, the residue of the zinc coating helps prevent rust.
The rivets must be steel. Aluminum rivets would prove to be a disappointment.
For stovepipe you’ll have to search out 3″ galvanized eaves trough downspouting. This is gradually being replaced by plastic. I found mine at Robinson’s Hardware in Barrie, Ontario, and it came in 10 ft lengths.

tove_bending

Size

On spring and fall canoe trips I use a stove 8 1/2 x 8 1/2 x 22″ with 5 sections of 3″ pipe plus an elbow. This package, made of 24 gauge galvanized steel, weighs 11 lbs and can overheat an 8′ x 10′ wall tent. I’ve used this combination in winter and it’s fine, but if the temp drops below minus 30 you need to be careful to select only sound dry wood to keep the stove working at its maximum.
The stove being built in this article was 10 x 10 x 24″ of 26 gauge galvanized, with 5 3″ stovepipe sections plus an elbow, and weighed 12 lbs.
A larger cross section needs a larger stove pipe, and I have a 12 x 12 x 26″ unit made of 22 gauge, with 5 sections of 4″ pipe plus elbow, and it weighs 21 lbs.
You have to decide if you want to keep a fire going all night. In winter you have the choice of carrying only a summer sleeping bag and keeping the fire stoked, or letting it die out and carrying more bedding. I opt for the latter. I use 2 down bags rated to minus 5 degrees, sandwiched. When I go to bed in the warm tent I start out with 1 layer above and 3 below. As the stove cools I shift as required. In minus 35 weather, I end up with 3 layers above and 1 below, along with long johns, socks, and a balaclava. In the morning I reach one arm out of the bag, open the stove, stuff in birchbark and kindling, light it, close the door, set a pot of ice on, and put my arm back in. Five minutes later I get up in the heat, get dressed, stick some more wood in, and go outside. By the time I get back, the water is hot for ablutions and for oatmeal. The alternative is to carry a 12 x 12 stove and keep a fire going. You don’t need so much bedding this way but every half hour or so you’re going to have to get up (or at least half up) and stoke the stove. The extra stove weight is close to the weight of an extra down bag.
The choice is yours. Either way works. If you got caught out though, it’d be nice to have the extra bag

Bending Break
Make a bending break by hinging a 35″ 2 x 4 to a workbench as in the photo. Use reasonably strong (3″ x 3″) hinges. The sheet metal to be bent up is held down by a hardwood 1″ x 6″ x 28″, with its front edge bevelled at 45 degrees. (This bevel allows you to bend past 90, allowing the piece to spring back to 90 degrees.) This top plate is held down by stout screws at the

ends, into the work bench, but the screws by themselves don’t exert enough downward pressure. To add more, make a center press by fastening a 6″ block to the middle of a 4′ 2″ x 4″. This is placed on the top plate, block side down, and the ends are clamped to the workbench with large C clamps. All the C-clamp pressure is exerted by the block, onto the center of the top plate. Each bend thus requires a bit of a set up, but this is not a production shop

Mounting

The traditional way to mount the stove is on 4 22″ stakes cut from the bush and driven into the ground just inside the wall tent on the left side. I face the end of the stove towards the center line of the tent, which puts a large radiating surface towards the living area at the back. The stove is set on them and the stakes are tapped as required to ensure level (it helps the draft if the rear is slightly higher than the front). Then a 5′ piece of electric fence wire is wrapped around a front stake below some knob or projection, pulled up over the stove tightly, and then wrapped around the other front stake. Repeat for the rear. Place the stakes where the wire won’t interfere with the stove ring.
The stovepipe is assembled and a 4′ piece of wire is used to fasten its upper end to the ridgepole. First wrap the wire around the ridge pole, twist a few times, then wrap it around the pipe and twist. This keeps it off the wood.
For a damper (though I don’t use one), cut the first pipe about 1/3 through and slide in a bean can lid. In snow I use a different set-up. I lay a barrier log (any old punky 6″ log, longer than the tent is wide) across the tent about 4 1/2′ back. Then I lay a sill log across the front of the tent just outside, holding down the sod cloth (which in winter goes outside the tent). These 2 logs are parallel, 4 1/2′ apart. Then I lay 2 2″ dia poles across the 2 logs, and spike them to the barrier log. Next I screw 2 sheet metal spacer fittings to the poles, set the stove on, and wire it on tight. This set-up stays solid no matter how much snow melts away inside, and the 2 poles are a useful framework for water pails etc. To recover the nails, just saw off the wood 1/2″ away and they’ll split free.
There are other mounting styles (see Conover’s “Snow Walker’s Companion”), but most involve bringing along steel supports. When pulling a toboggan, all that seems to count is its weight.

stove_bending_drawing

Construction
1 Mark out the stove body for bending as per the diagram using a fine tip permanent marker. Be careful to be square and straight. Double check the measurements, then bend it up as in the photo using the center press to apply additional pressure to the top plate.


2
Rivet the 4th side to the 1″ tab. A good way to support your work is to clamp a 2″ x 6″ to your workbench, leaving about 3′ projecting out, which the stove slides over (like a sock on your foot) and rests on as you drill the rivet holes. (If you’ve never used a pop rivet gun before, practice on some scrap. It’s quite simple. Just try to get the 2 pieces of sheet metal firmly together before working the gun. Also, if you want to drill all the holes before riveting, it would be better to place at least 1 rivet first, to guarantee alignment.)

3 For the stovepipe socket cut 2 1/2″ off a piece of stove pipe stock. (Start the cut with a hacksaw, then continue with the jigsaw.) Then mark it all around 1″ from the end, make 1″ cuts up to that line spaced about every inch, and bend each of these tabs outwards 90 degrees with pliers, forming a flange.

4 Cut a hole for the socket in the back left corner of the stove. (Start the hole by drilling, then continue with the jigsaw.) Leave room for the tabs underneath and for the stove end, which will intrude about 5/8″. Drill holes and rivet each tab to the stove top.

5 For the rear stove end, carefully measure the opening, then cut a piece 1″ larger both ways. Mark 1/2″ in from each edge, and bend a 1/2″ tab up along each edge. You’ll find of course that the tabs interfere with each other. The way to deal with this is to cut the corners at 45 degrees, then make a cut about 3/4″ deep in the front edge of the break’s top plate about 10″ from one end. As you bend, the previously bent tabs go into the 3/4″ deep cut on one side, and just off the edge of the board on the other. Then fit the piece into the stove body and rivet about every 2″.

6 Make the front end-piece the same way, but cut out the center first about 1 1/4″ from where the edge will be after bending the tabs. Then rivet it into place.

7 Make the door on the workbench, not the stove. Decide which way you want it to open so that you can stoke it while still inside your sleeping bag. (The other way from the one in the photo.) Examine the photo for the draft control. This is only 1 way to do it; if you think up a better way then by all means use it. To allow the slider to move freely the flanges that hold it in place must be raised about twice the thickness of the slider by using shim pieces and/or washers. Keep in mind where the door will fit on the end piece and be careful to make sure the rivet tails won’t conflict with the edge of the door, or it won’t close.

8 I used tabs bent around a coat-hanger for a hinge. Once again plan out the rivet tails. Also ensure that the lower hinge tab on the door is snug against the hinge tab rivetted to the stove, or else the door will slide down when opened. (We forgot this step as you can see from the photo.)

9 For clasps I used simple pivoting tabs. These get hot, but I operate the stove with small needle-nosed pliers. The clasps have a portion bent up and then back down in the middle, so your pliers have something to grab. The lower tab should be stopped from pivoting vertically down by a rivet tail, or else it will interfere with closing the door when you’re one-handed. To help them pivot freely, install them with a paper washer, which will burn away and leave some clearance.

10 For stove pipe cut 5 20″ inch sections from the 3″ stock, and take them to a heating/airconditioning business to have 1 end of each crimped. (A crimping tool from Home Depot is about $30.)

11 I’d cut at least one cooking ring in the stove top. Before cutting it, measure your middle sized pot (one with a bail handle, about 6″ across, fairly deep) Then cut the circle slightly wider so that the pot can be lowered into the hole right up to the bail. This allows you to boil water in a hurry. For stove lids, cut a circle of metal at least 1″ (dia) wider than the hole, set it evenly on the hole, reach inside, and mark the hole on the lid from underneath. Then install about 8 rivets just inside this line. The rivet tails will stick down into the hole and stop the lid from shifting around. (Use longer steel rivets if you have them, to get longer tails.)

12 Lighting a hot fire directly on the stove bottom will warp the metal unnecessarily. Sprinkle in a 1″ thick layer of duff or dirt or sand if you can, first. In winter you can lay a bed of split logs on the stove bottom and light the fire on top of them, or you can bring along a piece of sheet metal to line the bottom with. To keep this spaced off the bottom, make it in 2 pieces. First take a piece of sheet metal about as long as the inside of the stove, cut it in width so that after you bend down a tab 3/8 on each side, it will be half as wide as the inside of the stove. Then make another, and rivet the 2 together by joining tab to tab. This should keep an air space.

13 Use this article as a guide only. As with all home-made gear, make it fit your priorities, and when you think up a better way, use it (then share the idea!). If there’s one thing I’ve learned about equipment, it’s that human beings can make just about anything work.

tove_drawingstove_door_drawing

ETHICS
A wall tent/wood stove rig is not zero-trace. It isn’t designed for use in a heavily travelled conservation area. It’s a northern kit, and is easiest to use where jack pine grows, although you can nearly always walk back into the bush and find standing dead poles. If it doesn’t feel right to be cutting wood where you are, then don’t do it. Go farther north. (Not a bad motto anytime.)