Buddy Burner

An easy craft project for the family survivalist, taken from the brilliant 70’s Mormon classic: Roughing it Easy, by Dian Thomas.

A buddy burner is a heat source for camping or emergencies made out of a tuna can, candle stubs and cardboard. It acts like a Sterno can, will burn for 1 1/2 – 2 hours, and can be recharged and reused.

To make a buddy burner you need to gather: a clean tuna can, a piece of corrugated cardboard, a bunch of candle stubs, and a soup can or something similar to melt the wax in so you don’t get wax on your cookware.

Cut the cardboard into strips as wide as the can is deep. Cut across the corrugation, across the ridges, so that when you look at the edge of the strip you see the open channels. Capiche? You are going to coil the cardboard in the can, so you will need maybe 3 or 4 feet of cardboard. One Amazon mailer made 3 BB’s here at Survive LA. Roll your strips up like a sweet roll and tuck them into the can. It does not have to be tight, but you do want to fill it up.

Pile your candle stubs next to the tuna can to get a sense of how much you need. The wax soaks into the cardboard, so you always seem to need more than you expect. Don’t worry about the wicks, dust, soot, those little metal things–the purity of your wax doesn’t matter.

Melt the wax. If you melt your candle stubs over direct heat the wax will burst into flame if it gets too hot. Therefore it is safest and best to use a double boiler set up. Now, if you own a double boiler you probably don’t want to coat it with wax, so use a tin can to hold the wax, and place the can in a saucepan of simmering water. Here we balance the can on a metal cookie cutter to keep it off the bottom of the saucepan.

When the wax melts it will liberate bits of old wick. Fish these out first and tuck one or two or three between the cardboard layers to help with lighting the burner. Then pour the hot wax slowly into the can. It will fill up fast, then the wax level will sink as the cardboard soaks up the wax. Keep adding wax–you want to be sure the can is absolutely full of wax and the cardboard completely saturated.

To cook with your buddy burner, all you have to do is figure out how to elevate your cooking pot above it. You could use your fondue set up, or perhaps stack up some bricks on either side, or best of all, make a stove for it out of a big #10 can. That will be the subject of another post.

To light the BB, light the wicks and turn the can up on its side so that the cardboard catches fire too. The cardboard is a huge wick. That inferno effect is what you want. Control your flame by making a damper out of a piece of aluminum foil folded into a long rectangle three or four layers thick and as wide as the can, but much longer so that you can use the excess as a handle. Slide the foil back and forth to expose or repress the flame as needed.

To recharge the BB, place chunks of wax on top of the BB while it is burning. The wax will melt down and refuel it. The wax will always burn at a lower temperature than the cardboard, so the cardboard should last a long time.

UPDATE – 7/1/08

Reader Michael writes:

“Hey! I love your site. But some thoughts on Buddy Burners! I made SOOOO many of these as a kid growing up (Mormon, y’know?), but they are not safe anymore. Most aluminum cans are now fully lined with plastics and other coatings (to prevent botulism, yay!) but they cannot be burned (boo!). Please please please do not suggest people make these as burning the coatings can be TOXIC.”

I’m beginning to wish we had a science lab here at the Homegrown Evolution compound to test these sorts of problems. I’d add to Michael’s concern that these plastic coatings leach estrogenic compounds into our food. BooII! See this alarming article from Cornell University on the connection between plastics and breast cancer.

Leave a comment


  1. Hey! I love your site. But some thoughts on Buddy Burners! I made SOOOO many of these as a kid growing up (Mormon, y’know?), but they are not safe anymore. Most aluminum cans are now fully lined with plastics and other coatings (to prevent botulism, yay!) but they cannot be burned (boo!). Please please please do not suggest people make these as burning the coatings can be TOXIC.

    Thanks for the great site.


    Mike the Girl

  2. I use these, but instead of a tuna can I use large empty candy tins, there is no plastic coating on the inside and they have a lid that is handy for extinguishing the burner and keeping any soot off the other stuff in your pack.

  3. Mrs. Homegrown here:

    A candy tin! What a great idea! Thanks, Anon.

    While I am extremely concerned about the plastic coating inside our food cans–to the point that I’m avoiding canned foods–and I appreciate the concerns raised by both Mike and Anon, I’ll confess I’m less concerned with the plastic coating in the context of making buddy burners.

    My solution is to toss the tuna can on an outdoor fire–and step away ;)–and let the lining burn off. The charcoal will scrub off the can, and then you can go ahead make your BB.

    Since the buddy burners are used outdoors, I’m not sure that the tiny amount of burning plastic that might occur in the use of an lined can is going to be much of a health threat. (Perhaps I’m just cavalier about air quality because I live in LA???)

    After all, because the cardboard doesn’t burn down much and the flame stays at the top of the can, so once that upper ring of exposed liner burns, I don’t think you will get any more fumes.

    So if you have a buddy burner that you made before you learned about this horrible plastic lining business, my advice would be to use it anyway.

    But yes, if you can find tins of different sorts that are not plastic lined, by all means it would be better to use those.


  4. Thing is that cans have always had some type of coating to keep it awhile but I’ve always put the cans in the trash burner and after a few times of burning trash I would take them out and wipe them off and after melting Gulf Wax{paraffin wax}I would put the ripple cardboard rolled into a ball to fit the size can both in wiegth and heigth than pour the wax in slowly while filling the ripples until it was within 1/8 from the top. I also would use a cotton ball with vaseline {very small ball} with my Fire Steel would strike it and away it would go.I’ve used it for light and cooking and heat in a tent from a hole dug in the ground where it was put and a hole in the top of the tent {building tent} another subject anyway, this can be used in so many ways but always think of ANY fumes as harmful. Tolet paper is also a good starter if you lay a single peace on top of the wax.

  5. @Anonymous:

    You mean you intend to tap pine trees? That’s ambitious! 🙂 My understanding is that pine pitch is quite flammable, so it would certainly burn, but I’d fear it would burn too fast and hot–and give off lots of noxious fumes in the meanwhile that would make it hard to use for cooking, & etc.

    If you want a backwoods alternative to parafin, perhaps animal tallow would work?

  6. I have used a soup can and cut the sides like a castle to hold my pot/pan above the flame so no bricks needed…

  7. If you ever burn the inside lining of those cans it gives off very acrid and irratating fumes. Your throat will tell you what your momentary lack of mother wit (Common sense)did not. Do not make a buddy burner with a lined can. Either find a can without the liner or throw the can in a roaring camp fire and walk away until it has been burned off. Also a lid for the can is very convenient to properly and safely extinguish the burner.
    I have made it with bees wax and there is a big difference between the smell of beeswax and parafin. also consider that bees wax is natural and parafin contains harmful chemicals. DO YOUR HOMEWORK. To hold a pot or pan above the burner use 1/2 inch hard ware cloth ( a type of metal screen sold in hard ware stores) that easily can wrap around the burner for compact storage in your backpack etc. BTW pine pitch works fine as a fire starter but will burn with a lot of black smoke which makes it too smokey for cooking.

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