Recently I was fiddling around with several of my camp stoves, putting together a backpack for an afternoon hike, when I started to realize I was getting low on Esbit fuel tabs. I know most folks are familiar with the Esbit stove, but if you’re not, let me explain. Ya’ see, the Esbit stove is simple, folding, sheet metal stove designed to be light and durable. They burn solid fuel ‘tabs’ similar to the old military trioxane fuel bars. Four of the fuel tabs will store in the folded up stove, making for a compact and tough package that can fit in a shirt pocket. I’ve used them for years, and have always had great luck. The only glitch to the Esbit system is their proprietary fuel tabs are a little pricy to use for a quick meal on an afternoon hike.
I broke down and ordered a package of the Esbit tabs to include with my stove for long term storage and as an emergency supply, but the hunt was on to develop a cheap fuel alternative that I could make myself. My first thought was to replicate the alcohol sterno-style cooker my buddy Dave put together, but I didn’t have any of that handy and I wanted to tinker on a wax candle style burner anyway. I’ve made a few small candles before, so I had plenty of wax left over. The only other materials to gather were a container, and some sort of wick. The container needed to fit down in the Esbit stove, allowing me to still utilize it as a pot stand, and burn the Esbit tabs in an emergency or when my other fuel source was gone.
The entire materials list for the little burner is pretty simple. You’ll need wax, which should be available at your local grocery store. Mine has it next to the canning supplies. Cheap candles, or candle stubs are also good sources. Any small, metal container should work fine as the burner body. If you plan on using your burner with your Esbit stove, make sure it fits down in it. If you’ll be building your own pot support, then build to suit that. Wider is better on the container, too narrow and you won’t have enough flame to heat your food/water when you’re cooking. Wick material is also needed, and I’ve found corrugated cardboard to be superb. The other materials you’ll need are pretty straight forward; something to melt the wax in (I used a cleaned out tin can), a knife to cut it up with, and a means to melt the wax. I used a heat gun to melt the wax, but you can do it on your stove top, camp stove, BBQ pit, or even with a plumber’s torch. It’s very possible that you can scrounge all the necessary materials with no out of pocket cost!
My recommendation for a container is a small, flat, metal container with a removable lid. The common candy tins are perfect. I used an empty shoe polish tin, but you can use whatever you have handy. Having a removable lid will be important to you for two reasons. First, I found the easiest and cleanest way of putting out the burner is to be able to drop the lid on it and snuff it out. Secondly, if you use a container with a hinged lid it’s very easy to spill the molten wax through the hinge holes with the slightest movement. Altoids style tins just didn’t work out for me with this project, wax went everywhere during the burn and when I tried to move the burner without letting it harden back up.
Once you’ve got all your materials in one place, start the assembly by cutting strips of cardboard to fit in your tin. The strips should be thick enough that when stood on end, they’ll stand out of the tin slightly, but still allow the lid to fit on. This ensures the burner will get proper air flow and operate at its most efficient. I didn’t measure my strips, I simply eyeballed them and got most of them approximately the same. A little taller or shorter in the tin won’t hurt a thing. As you get the strips cut, spiral them around inside your tin taking up most of the room. You can be as fancy with this as you want, but try to fill your container mostly full. Near the center of the tin, cut small pieces of cardboard to fill the space. The more wick material you have, the better flame you’ll get, thus a more effective burner.
Now that the tin is full of cardboard wick, the next step is to add the wax. Remember that one big chunk of wax is slow to melt, so chop, dice, and shave your wax in to small pieces. When filling the tin with wax, you’re not simply filling empty space. The wax will absorb into the cardboard as well, so it’s deceiving how much you’ll need. Wax also shrinks a little while it cools, so several applications may be necessary. I did the wax melting with a standard heat gun in a tin can, but whatever method you use, be safe. Molten wax sticks to you and burns, so make sure you have a plan on how you’ll safely melt and pour the wax into your burner tin. I used a shop rag around the tin can, but plan ahead and make it easy on your self.
Melt the wax with whatever method you’ve decided to use. When melted, pour the wax into your tin from the center out. This ensures that you’ll get the best distribution of wax throughout the burner, and also helps to keep things clean. Allow the wax to cool and harden, and melt and pour more as necessary. The tin will be full when the level of wax is slightly below the rim of the tin, and fairly even across the surface. Overfilling the tin above its rim will result in a difficult to light burner, as well as a giant mess of wax running all over once it’s going. Trust me, I cleaned a lot of wax off my work bench.
Once the burner has cooled down, you’re ready to use it. Lighting is best done with an open flame, such as a match or lighter, just like any other candle. But if all you have is your Vaseline-cotton ball fire kit, don’t forget you can always make your own match. Make sure you’re ready to cook when you light the burner, to prevent moving a lit burner and possibly a hot wax burn. Cook time will vary with the size of the burner you make, but I’ve had excellent success. I was able to cook a pack of Raman noodles, and heat a cup or so of water for tea or coffee in two separate burns. After that, I had enough burn time left that I could’ve cooked a small meal or heated more water if necessary.
So there you have it. Once burned up, you can easily make another burner in the same container. And, one of my favorite benefits of the home made burner is that it has no foul smell or odor. I can store the burner directly in the same container I’ll be cooking in, without imparting a filthy taste to my cookware or food. The burner also has applications as an emergency fire starter, heat source to warm frigid hands, and light for the power outage. After you’ve got your materials together, you should be able to make the small burner in less than twenty minutes. Get to work, save a penny, and make a burner!