- Editor’s note: we have a new design for a portable rocket stove here.
Low-tech is the new high-tech, and the best example of the low-tech revolution is the miraculous rocket stove–a stove that makes it possible to cook with small twigs–no logs needed! Best of all rocket stoves are easy to build. We liked the idea so much that we decided to build a permanent one just off our back deck for entertaining and as a backup to our gas stove should an emergency take out our utilities.
The rocket stove was developed for use in poor nations where wood used for cooking has led to the vast, wholesale, deforestation of large swaths of the earth’s surface. Rocket stoves can be built out of metal or masonry and consist of a L shaped tube, at the bottom of which you place your wood. The chimney effect creates a highly efficient, largely smoke-free burn. There’s no need to cut down a tree to cook your dinner–all you need is a few small branches or twigs.
Before we built the rocket stove we considered making a cob oven, a mud domed wood fired oven in which you can cook bread and pizza. There’s a trend in the eco-world to build cob ovens and we felt a certain pressure to keep up with the eco-Joneses. We started to build the base for one and then began to think about how often we would actually build a fire, especially considering that it has to burn for several hours before a cob oven gets hot enough to cook in. Also, where would we get the logs? And how good is it to burn such a fire and contribute to Los Angeles’ already smog choked air?
Staring at the bricks we had scavenged to build the base of cob oven, we realized that we could re-purpose them for a permanent backyard rocket stove that we would actually use. Furthermore we realized that our rocket stove could burn some of the palm fronds that regularly tumble down from the iconic palm trees that line our old L.A. street.
Here’s the materials we used:
4-inch galvanized steel stove pipe elbow
4-inch stove pipe
ash (scavenged from park BBQs)
1 tin can
50 pound bag of premixed concrete for the base
The first step was to make a small foundation for the rocket stove. We fashioned a 18 by 18-inch by 4-inch slab with 2 x 4 lumber and a bag of premixed cement. Folks in cold places will need to make a deeper foundation to avoid frost heave.
Next we built a brick cube, leaving a small hole for the bottom of the stovepipe. For advice on how to build with brick we recommend taking a look at this. As you can see our masonry could use some more practice, but the results are not too bad–we like to think of our stove as being a bit “rustic”. You can avoid the hassle of brickwork by making a simpler rocket stove–check out these two instructional videos, one for a metal model, and another version using bricks. We chose brick largely for aesthetic reasons and we’re satisfied with the results.
The next step is to put the pipe together fitting the elbow up into the longer pipe, and sized so that the top of the pipe is just below the bottom of the grill. Check out our earlier post for a video that can help with this part of the assembly. Serendipitously, on a bike ride, we found a grill in the middle of Sunset Boulevard that fit the opening in our brick rocket stove exactly.
You pour the ash into the completed brick cube to fill the space between the pipe and the inside wall. The ash acts as insulation to increase the efficiency of the stove. You could also use vermiculite but note that sand or soil will not work. Insulation works because of small pockets of air between particles, hence the need for ash or vermiculite, which are also non-combustible. We used a piece of scrap sheet metal with a 4-inch circular hole cut in it to keep the ash from spilling out the gap between the pipe and the squarish opening at the bottom.
Lastly you use a tin can sliced down the side and flattened out to form a shelf which you insert into the elbow at the bottom of the stove. Note the drawing above for the shape of the shelf. You put your twigs and kindling on this shelf and start the stove up with newspaper underneath the shelf. As the twigs burn you push them in over the edge to keep the fire going.
Our first test run of the stove was very successful–we boiled a pot of water and cooked some eggs in a a pan. The fire burned cleanly with little smoke except during start up. For more info on rocket stoves check out the Aprovecho Research Center.
And please people don’t burn wood inside and watch out for embers. Make sure you put the fire out completely when you are done cooking!