Build a Homemade Alcohol Stove
An Alternative to the Flimsy Pepsi Can Stoves
by Ted Hawkins
Pepsi can stove burners are all over the web. There are any number of sites and videos showing you how to build one. The problem I found with pop can stoves is that they tend to be flimsy and get knocked over too easily. This makes them problematic and unsafe. I wanted an ultralight burner that was small, safe and gave me plenty of heat.
This is the alcohol stove I made
- It is stable (difficult to knock it over).
- Strong (unlike aluminum soda cans, I could not crush it easily).
- It’s made entirely of tin or steel (not sure which – so I’ve called it tin).
Tin seems to retain heat better than aluminum. Aluminum heats faster, but also cools faster. So when you use a tin one the heat stays and appears to increase a little. My flames started hissing after a few minutes. It’s kind of like pressurized without the “pressure” (I don’t know how else to explain it, I’m not an engineer).
How did I come up with the idea?
I searched the web and saw how the Pepsi can stoves were made (I encourage you to do the same to grasp the idea). The one I did inspired me, by it’s weaknesses, to come up with a different alcohol stove – but using the same concept. I have an open burner, made from a small baked beans can, that works very well. I figured if I use this can as a base, instead of the soda can, it would be more stable. But, I was still stuck with aluminum for the top. Then I found Pepsi cans from Germany, realized they were made from a different material and went from there.
If you live in Europe, you should be able to find the German Pepsi somewhere (maybe in those little shops that have all kinds of cheap stuff, usually run by people from India). If not, then use the best made aluminum one you can. The German can seems to be tin. Some aluminum cans have a tiny bit of steel in, you’ll know when a magnet sticks to it – Pepsi in England (where I live at present) have that kind of can, but it’s much softer than the German one.
Requirements to Build a Homemade Alcohol Stove
- 1 can of German Pepsi Cola.
- 1 can of Pepsi that is aluminum (for simmer ring).
- 1 can of Heinz Baked Beans. The smallest size (the one that you have to use a can opener on) – base diameter 2 5/8 inches (67mm).
- 1 can of soup (any kind I just had this one at hand). The base diameter must be 3-4 inches (say 75-100mm).
- Wet and Dry carbide paper (around 320-500 weight) – use with water.
- A small sharp spike. I used the one you see here, because it was in my little toolbox. Don’t even think about push pins, this Pepsi can is way too hard – I had no success at all they barely dented it. You could drill holes if you want.
- A small hammer.
- A hole punch of some kind (to punch a single hole).
- Needle nose pliers (just to flatten out any jagged bits before filing or burnishing).
- A good screwdriver (preferably Phillips head).
- A pair of metal snips/cutters (optional).
- A block of wood, flat, big as your hand (minimum) – 3/4″ thick (19mm).
- A Stanley Knife and several more new Stanley Knife blades – I used number 23 scalpel blades, but Stanley blades will do.
- Some kind of fine marker.
- A few thumb tacks – the flat headed metal ones.
- A curved sanding block with the metalized type of sandpaper on. I used 150-200 grain.
- A fine, flat file (must be perfectly flat on both sides).
- A steel ruler – 12″ (305mm) will do.
- Something as a cutting mat – I used a smallish art mat about 12 X 18 inches. You could use Masonite (hardboard) or the like.
Time – A lot of it!
I reckon I put about 2-3 hours on this total (didn’t count). So set aside an afternoon or evening and take breaks to give your hands a rest – and to avoid getting frustrated 😉
How to Make a Homemade Alcohol Stove
First off, take your time – there’s no rush on this. This is not a work of art, so I’m not going to try and make this all super shiny and cosmetically perfect – I just want a burner that works and is safer. If you want a mirror finish, use fine steel wool to rub off the color from the Pepsi can and have a spare hour or so – have a great time.
For this you need a piece of wood 3/4 inches (19mm) thick and big enough to put your hand on. It must be flat. I use scalpels, because I was a graphic designer and have boxes of these things. They are extremely sharp, harder than Stanley Knife blades and cut finer. Two thumb tacks hold the blade in place. The point should extend out about a 1/8th of an inch (3mm) or so. A Stanley blade would be held much the same way, except the lower thumbtack will be on the cutting edge of the blade.
Do not open any of the cans to begin with.
The soda can is for the top only and I’ve cleaned off the paint with wet and dry carbide paper (use anything between 320 – 500). It is not meant to have a mirror finish. Rub around the tin, not up and down. Do about half the can, from the ridged part on. Don’t worry about the depressed center. This’ll take a while.
The other can is the Heinz Baked Beans one. Remove the label and clean off the glue with paint thinner. Try not to scratch the can.
I scored both cans before opening, that way I could get a good clean “groove” for the actual cutting. When you are doing the initial scoring, go easy. I did around 5-7 turns of each can, lightly, then stopped. I put the Pepsi can in the refrigerator, let it get good and cold, then opened it and, well, drank it. Rinsed it out and let it dry. The beans can I opened but cutting the top off on the side. Emptied it and cleaned the inside.
The Pepsi can
Make 16 small holes with each one directly opposite each other. I used the little spike thingy and tapped it through until I had a small hole – I did not go very far down it. After the holes are done comes the hardest part. Cutting the big hole in the top of the can. You scribe it first, right where the down part of the ring turns into the dome. Then keep on until you are through. This takes for-ever. That area of the can is thicker than the rest and is very, very hard. I took me over an hour (not including two breaks to stop my hands from cramping up) to do this right (a quick job, found me having a very uneven cut – seen on the one here). I went through 4 Stanley blades. An aluminum can takes about 2 minutes at the most (my simmer ring is aluminum and done in no time at all).
Next, cut around the can, on the groove you made before drinking it. This is the top of your burner. I just kept going round and round, changed scalpel blades after about 10 minutes and after a bit, the new one began to go through the tin. Do not force this. It took me about 15 minutes or so. Let the blade do the cutting. As you turn the can gently, it will cut through until the very last little bit. There, I had to move the can parts up and down until it snapped (it was about the thickness of a thread). Then I cleaned up the edge with the flat file, making sure I removed the sort of thread from the break. This has to be even all the way around. Do not be heavy handed with the file, just go lightly until it is smooth. You can also use the flatness of the file to check for any irregularities.
Next I used the sanding block and went over the top of the edge again. I followed that by gently doing a kind of swooping around the inside (at an angle of around 30-40 degrees) until I had a nice smooth bevel (you can hardly see the bevel but it will be there). This is important for later on. If you ‘crinkle’ the edge, you may to start over with a new can of Pepsi.
I smoothed the outside of the edge in a similar way, but not as much. To test if there are any rough parts, do not use your fingers. The tin will cut you. Instead use some toilet tissue. When the paper stops snagging and moves smoothly, all around the top, inside and out – you have finished the top of the burner.
The baked beans can
The cutting is the same as the tin of Pepsi, but… this is thicker, harder and takes longer. Clean the edge up with the flat file. Don’t worry about the inside of it. The outside is important here. Once you have run the file over the top of the edge (gently for a few minutes). Then go all around the outside of the edge, with the file at about a 40-45 degree angle, pulling the file backwards – kinda like filing your nails. This burnishes it and puts a miniscule bevel on the outside of the baked beans can. I also polished it a little with steel wool.
You will be left with the upper part of the beans can
Use the file to get rid of any snags – make sure you have smooth edges before going any further. Cut through it, down the seam. Once cut, it will curl up a little and is a bit springy. Now, as best as possible, lay it flat (curling side down) with the metal ruler on top. Then with your ruler measure up 7/8ths of an inch (22mm) and make a little mark at one end. Do the same for the other end. Take great care not to cause any creases, this has to be completely smooth all the way around. With the Stanley knife and a brand new blade, score down lightly several times. Keep going like that, until it is cut in two. I tried a tin snip and wished I hadn’t – it left marks. Once you have the 7/8th inch (22mm) deep strip, you can clean off the plating with the fine steel wool – if you want. I did it just because I wanted to (it only took a minute and a bit). The plating will not affect the function of the stove.
I did not rush either of the circumscribed cuts because I wanted this to be as cleanly cut as possible and both cans sit flat on the cut edges. The reason for this is that they are both the same circumference and the top has to fit over the bottom. That is why I took my time on cleaning up the Pepsi can and doing the inside bevel on it. When I did this the can kind of stretches – only a few microns, but just enough to do the final fit (don’t “try” to stretch it – you’ll mess it up).
The inner sleeve
This is probably the most important part of the burner.
Now that you have the fully cut and cleaned sleeve, you need to make it so that it holds itself inside that groove in the top. To do that – VERY CAREFULLY – roll it up with your fingers. Have the forefinger of one hand inside, holding the end. Try it first with some paper to get the idea – be careful not to cut yourself. Keep going until the entire thing is wrapped around your finger. Then let go of it with both hands. You should end up with something like you see on the right. I cut off some of the length so that I end up with about an inch (25mm) of overlap. I had to make some slight bends on the ends so they’re flush. Then, using the hole punch, make 3 half punches (away from the overlap). These allow the fuel to go into the outer chamber.
Now turn the top of burner upside down. You want the rolled sleeve to fit inside the big hole freely. The side with the holes in should be up. Very gently, lift it a little, open it up a bit so that it slips into the grooves with a spring fit. You need to use both hands. Again practice with some paper. Once the sleeve is in place correctly you should be able to turn the entire assembly upside down and the sleeve will not fall out.
Put it all together
Remember how we “beveled” the inner and outer edges on the cans? This is where it all comes into play. You must treat this like an extremely thin eggshell. Gentle may not be gentle enough – get the idea?
First – Practice it
Hold the top assembly in one hand and the beans can bottom in the other. Support your elbows on a table. Should you knock the inner sleeve loose, start again. Ready? Very carefully slip just a little, tiny, bit of the bottom can into the lower part the upper assembly. Only a millimeter or two max. Slowly, bring the two edges together and very slightly turn them until the top part of the burner slips over the bottom part. Do Not Force This! If you have done everything correctly, you can turn the parts in opposite directions and they will slide a little stiffly over each other.
Do this several times so that you know what’s happening – but only go a little way on it. The two parts should slide on each other. DO NOT PUSH IT ALL THE WAY TOGETHER! Once you have the gist of putting it together, then you can finish the job.
Final Assembly of Your Alcohol Stove
Remember, once the top is fully down, you will not be able to pull it off again (without wrecking the whole thing and probably cutting your fingers/hands)!
Now repeat what you practiced. Make sure the inner sleeve is fully in the groove and very carefully slide the two parts together, so that they still spin on each other. Continue to slide the two parts together until it stops.
Put the burner top down on a level surface (several sheets of paper under it is a good idea). Sit a small piece of wood on it and gently but firmly push the bottom of the can further onto the top. Then, use a hammer to tap it down until the bottom edge of the top part sits on the bottom lip of the can or very near it. I used a standard hammer for this. Don’t hit too hard as you might damage the top of the burner. When it’s finished the inner sleeve should be sitting on the bottom of the can. It may be just a tiny bit loose (like hardly moves) – that’s fine.
If you screw this up and the inner sleeve is crunched in any way, you will have start the thing, all over from the beginning (recommend taking a long break first).
The Simmer Ring
For this I used an aluminum Pepsi can. I prepared it the same as the tin one, but did not remove as much paint. You need the score to be about 1/2 inch (13mm) up from the very bottom of the can – make a mark. To do that and the cutting, sit something underneath it so that the point of the blade (on the wooden block you made) is on the mark. I used a bit of foamboard and some sheets of paper to bring it to the right height. Then do the scoring – don’t cut through the can – it still has Pepsi in. Now drink the Pepsi. The depression in the bottom needs to have a hole cut in the center. The hole I made is one inch (25mm) in diameter. Do the best you can to center this (it does not have to be perfect). This took me a few minutes and then I clean up the edges of the hole with the shaft of the screw driver. Just go round and round until it’s smooth and don’t crush the thing – the underside doesn’t matter.
With the simmer hole made, you can now cut through the score you made and end up with the simmer ring as seen in the picture. I didn’t go wild on the cleaning of this, so it’s not very shiny, but I deburred the edge like I did on the top (no bevel needed).
Flare out the bit that will fit over the burner
In one hand hold the ring on top of a piece of wood at a slight angle (see the image). Using the Phillips head screwdriver, place the shaft on the edge of the ring and with just a little pressure, so that the edge is pressed out slightly from the center of the ring. You do not want to do this too hard or it will start crinkling and you will have to get a new can. Just keep going around a few times, turning the ring as you do. If you look closely, you can see why I used a Phillips head instead of flathead screwdriver.
Now offer up the simmer ring to the top of the burner. It must be able to sit over whole burner top loosely. Keep repeating the flare out bit until that happens. The simmer ring must not “stick” to the top, just sit on it. The reason for this is, that to put the simmer ring on a lit burner – you have to kind of toss it on and it will drop over the holes by itself.
Once you’ve finished the ring, practice tossing it on the top. Normally, simmer rings stay on the burner until it is snuffed out, because it’s usually that last bit of your cooking process.
The Snuffer (extinguishes the flame)
Ah yes. That Tomato Soup. Make yourself a nice sandwich. Open the soup can, heat up the soup have a nice little break eating second lunch, thinking about this burner you have just made. Imagine yourself out on the trail in some exotic location, cooking your meal or boiling water for a cup of tea etc.
Right… the can. Clean it out and use the tin snips to cut with. First remove the label and sticky bits. Then mark it all around at the cut point. It needs to clear your burner, with the simmer ring on, by about half an inch (13mm). Cut the excess off with the snips and file/clean up the edge. I put a couple wraps of electricians tape around just for the sake of it. To use it, just drop the thing over the whole burner and let it sit for a while. The burner will go out almost immediately and cool down while you are washing up from cooking, taking a leak or whatever. This type of snuffer is a ton easier to use than most I have seen on the web. Plus you can store your burner inside it for protection in the cramped environment of your backpack. If you can find a whole can, with all its edges on that does this, so much the better – no cutting involved. Just as long it it clears the sides of your burner well enough.
The Finished Product
The finished homemade alcohol stove is 1 inch (25mm) high overall. This fits, with the simmer lid, inside my snuffer tin and has room to spare. I realize the making of this is a bit fussy, but if you want a more stable, safer, burner, then it has to be done.
If you want your burner to be deeper, the inner sleeve and snuffer tin depths will have to be adjusted accordingly. I made another burner after this one that is deeper. At first I used part of the rest of the Pepsi can for the inner sleeve. I had to burn the plastic off and polish it up. It’s springier and lighter, but I found it a bit too flimsy for my liking and decided to use another baked beans can for the sleeve. I also took more time and managed to get the top part to fit all the way down to the rim of the bottom part (looks nicer and, yes, I used steel wool to remove the Pepsi can paint). Only used 8 holes – drilled, works fine.
Accessories like a stand, windshield etc, are up to you. Whatever you like to use. I found that I needed the top of my stand around 3/8ths of an inch (10-12mm or so) above the simmer ring for it to work right.
Since someone is bound to ask, “Why don’t you use a Trangia?” This homemade alcohol stove boils water faster.
A bit about the author:
I’m a retired web developer (amongst other things) who has taken up travel writing as a hobby. Due to injuries I am very limited as to how much I can carry, so the less weight and hassle the better. Visit the Simian Circles Site, where you can learn more and find some of the obscure places I go to in the UK and Europe.
True adventures are those we do not plan. They take place, usually while we are on-route to something else. More often than not, we look back on that time quite differently than when going through it. The destination, is only part of the journey.– Ted Hawkins
Unsealed homemade alcohol stoves can be unsafe if used in the wrong hands. If you build and use one, as a result of this article, do so at your own risk. Ted Hawkins and Startbackpacking.com are not responsible for your construction and/or usage of the burner!