How to Make Your Own Esbit Stove, Firescreen, and Fuel Tablets
In preparing for my 2014 thru-hike, backpacking stoves have been a new thing for me. Although I’ve backpacked before for a few days at a time, I usually avoid doing any actual cooking. So, I researched the stove options, coming across this helpful article on ultralight backpacking stoves, which outlines the different types available with some examples of specific products. Solid fuel stoves were the lightest and simplest, so I started looking into those. The stoves seemed overpriced for a very simple mechanism ($10 to $30) and solid fuel tablets are shockingly overpriced at $1.60 each for the Esbit brand ones ($7.50 for a pack of 12). Even the off-brand Coghlan’s tablets, which I hear are of inferior quality, cost 25 cents each ($5.30 for a pack of 24). At a tablet each morning and each night for five months, this would rack up to about $150, which I find absurd. So, I decided to make my own tablets, and while I was at it, I made my own stove as well. There are several really great videos and step-by-step instructions I found online for different pieces of the one I’m about to give (such as this awesome video, in which a guy with a beautiful Irish accent uses crayons to make colorful butterfly tablets). However, to simplify the process for you, here is a tutorial that covers the whole process, including hints and adaptations from different blogs, forums, and videos:
- Fuel tab tutorial
- Stove tutorial
- Firescreen tutorial
- Example of use
DIY ESBIT FUEL TAB TUTORIAL
To make the tablets, you will need the following:
- Mid-size cooking pot
- Cotton balls (if jumbo size, 1 for every 2 tablets)
- Old candles or other wax (I’m not sure of the candle-to-tablet ratio, since I used old candles in various sizes and states)
- Cloth scissors (if opting to slice your cotton balls)
- Cookie sheet (cover in foil if you don’t want to scrape off the wax residue)
- Wooden chopsticks or cooking tongs
- Ziploc bags for storage (fancy waterproof bags are unnecessary, since the tablets will light even when damp)
- A kitchen stove
Turn the stove to high heat (7 or 8) and drop the candles inside. There is no need to remove the wick, but if your candles have a metal base, remove it first. Place the lid back on to retain heat and help the wax melt more quickly.
While you wait for the wax to melt, cut your cotton balls in half. By doing so, your tablets will still last 7-10 minutes, which is plenty of time for water to boil. If you want to cook something longer than that, you can always use two tablets, so it will save money and pack weight to use half a cotton ball per tablet.
Once the wax melts, you can use your chopsticks (or tongs) to remove the wicks. (In the picture, the pot looks empty since the wax melted clear, but I promise it’s in there!)
Turn the stove down down to medium heat (4 or 5).
Set your cotton balls up to the left of the stove and your baking sheet to the right. Using the chopsticks, pick up one cotton piece (half cotton ball) at a time and submerge it in the wax.
Wait a few seconds until the wax has soaked through the cotton, then set the piece on the baking sheet. Continue until you run out of cotton or wax.
When the wax is running low, tip the pot at an angle and rub the cotton over the pot to soak up the last bits of wax, which will be much more of a pain to scrape of when it’s hardened.
When the wax has hardened, bag up the tablets. I marked my ziplocs with the number of tablets in each. Using one for breakfast and one for dinner, 42 will last three weeks. Yes, they’re bulkier than the store-bought tablets, but still pretty light and definitely cheaper!
DIY ESBIT STOVE TUTORIAL
The stove will weigh 3.4 ounces, including the pot.
To build your stove, you will need the following:
- Wire cutters
- 20 oz. tin can (the size canned pineapple rings would come in)
- Can opener that creates a clean finish, not sharp edges (I borrowed from my mom. What kind of 22-year old has one of these?)
- Scrap of wire mesh at least 20″ by 12.5″ (I stole from my dad. See a pattern here?)
If you haven’t already opened the tin can and eaten everything inside (unfortunately I missed out on whatever syrupy pears had been inside my can), then the first steps are to open the can, eat all the food, and wash out the can. It serves as a cooking pot, a bowl, and a storage container for the stove.
Using your wire cutters, snip the wire mesh into three pieces: a 4 inch by 4 inch square, a 4.5 inch by 4.5 inch square, and a 20 inch by 4 inch rectangle. I bent the ends of the rectangle to reduce snagging and to help it hook into place, but if you forego that part you only need a 16 inch-long rectangle. Note that you can change the wire mesh dimensions if you are using a smaller or larger can for a cooking pot/bowl. It is pretty sturdy and should hold up for much larger or heavier pots.
Finally, 3/4 inches from right-hand corner each edge of the 4-by-4 square, snip a line 3/4 inches long.
Then, bend the sides of the square to make a little table for your fuel tablet to sit on.
Place a tablet on the table, then curve the long rectangle into an open-ended cylinder and set it over the table. Place the larger square on top, set your tin can on top of that and there’s your stove!
It is very important to use a firescreen for your stove especially in windy conditions! Because the can sits on top of the flame, you should be able to use the stove in rainy weather, but the firescreen is essential for blocking wind so that your flame is not extinguished.
Materials for the firescreen are very straightforward:
- Aluminum foil
- 2 large paperclips (no plastic coating)
Unroll the cylindrical side to your stove and line it up next to a length of aluminum foil. Your foil should be twice as long, plus ten inches (in my case, 50 inches long). Fold the foil in half length-wise and width-wise for added strength.
Curve the folded foil into a cylinder, overlapping the ends about 1 inch. Where the ends meet, secure it with a paper clip on the top and bottom, and you have a firescreen!
USING YOUR HOMEMADE COOKING SYSTEM
Time to test out your tablets, stove, and firescreen! All you need now is a lighter, water, a spoon, and something to cook (I started with oatmeal).
Find a rock or other flat surface on which to set the tablet table and mesh cylinder. You may need to crack the tablet a little with your fingernail to find a cotton-y piece, then light it on fire.
By the time the fuel tab burns up or possibly sooner, your water should be at a nice boil. Pour the oatmeal in and wait a few minutes, then dig in!
I just couldn’t resist this quick and tacky Photoshop job; the picture of my oatmeal just looked too much like a cereal box photo. Fake, drawn-in strawberries not included.
After enjoying your oatmeal, fake strawberries and all, you may want to clean off your can. Paper towels don’t work, but moss does!
It still won’t be completely clean, though, so pack the mesh into a plastic bag and use a bread clip to close the top. Wrap the windscreen around that.
That’s all there is to it. The whole process only took 2 hours and saved me over $150.
Have your own stove ideas to share? Comment below!
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It doesn’t take a whole Esbit tablet to boil 1 cup of water for oatmeal in the morning. Nor should one try to bring water to a boil (assuming it’s filtered) to make hot drinks. Therefore, 2 Esbits a day is over estimating and unfinished tablets can be restarted later (sit them on a small piece of foil when cooking). Also, they can be had for far less than the $7.50 per pack you quoted. I’d like to go strictly Esbit on my AT thru next year but supply uncertainty along the trail is pushing me towards a simple Fancy Feast alcohol stove, which I’ve been successfully testing…cleaner too. I’m definitely carrying 2 to 4 Esbits as back up or fire starters though. Kudos on the ingenuity though…good luck!
Just successfully boiled water with this method! The first attempt was tried with two cups of water and one cotton ball. The water reached 156* but the top screen half fell into the cylinder:/ The second attempt was using two cotton balls and 1 cup water. This was fun to make, but think I’m going to try out the homemade alcohol stove before committing to this one;) I will take a bag of the cotton ball fire starters along with us on our SOBO thru-hike. Thanks for the article!
$7.50 for 12 is $.63 each, not $1.60. URSilly where are you finding Nesbit fuel for much less? The lowest I could find was on Amazon for $6.99.
Great article! I enjoy reading articles from people who get creative. Gear is too expensive to not consider a DIY alternative.
I have crafted a “tarp tent” from regular 3mm plastic sheet. It functions the same, weighs about the same, and is ultimately as durable as a very expensive Cuben Fiber tarp-tent at about 1/100th the cost. My tent has survived wind gusts to 50mph. Most nights it’s just the bug screen and ground cloth. The rain-fly, bug netting, and the floor combined weighs 15oz.
The cuben fiber products are great when they are new, but months of shoving them in and out of a backpack break the fibers down and leaking occurs. With my cheap plastic tarp, I can replace it in minutes from a local hardware store at a real-fractional price. I’ve also made sand-anchors, a rain skirt, rain-poncho, and tall gaitors from 3mil plastic.
Thanks again, I will be making my fuel following your method!
I tried an experiment utilizing screw top tins. 1oz and 2oz. I used cotton pads and crisco and bees wax, equal parts. I also used a thin strip of corrugated cardboard. I layered 4 layers of cotton pads (round) alternating with the melted crisco and wax drizzled over each pad soaking it. Then I rolled the thin strip of corrugated cardboard and set it in the tin. Drizzled more mixture filling in the spaces with the melted mixture. Lastly lay another cotton pad on top and drizzle more melted mixture but leave a couple spots uncovered. The 2oz size tin burned well and boiled water and continued simmering until I blew it out and replaced the cap at 38.5 minutes. It can be used again. Haven’t burned to the end but I thought 38+ minutes was great. It weighed 2.5 oz with the lid. I did not use a pocket stove as I didn’t have one but I used a rib rack with a normal heavy based pot and was able to get the heat I needed. I also did this in my kitchen without a lot of smoking. In a pocket stove scenario and a light weight camp pot you will utilize even less time cooking or boiling. In the 1oz tin I used 2 cotton pads and soaked them then the corrugated cardboard scroll and again filled in with mixture. Lastly lay another cotton pad and drizzle with mixture again leaving a couple small spots uncovered to assist with lighting. The 1 oz tin finished weighed 1 1/8 oz.
Number One: Don’t EVER heat wax on a stove burner! It is way too easy to get to the flash point and have a real disaster in the kitchen. Use a double boiler, even if it is just a small pot or can inside a larger pot with an inch or two of water in it. This effectively limits the wax temp to 212F (or less, depending on altitude).
Number Two: I am not fond of the plastic liner or heavy metals in the solder joints of many cans, so I would recommend a cheap stainless cup. Sure, it’s $5 and a little heavier, but it’s real easy to wipe out (wider and less deep), includes a handle, and provides fewer toxic materials.
Nonetheless, an interesting option to the commercial stuff. I have used an Esbit on and off for 40 (yeah, I know) years, and I really don’t like the odor and taste. Even if it’s not my daily stove, it’s still a good backup. I use wax concoctions for emergency fire starting, but not cooking. Don’t think I could survive a hiking trip heating one cup of water at a time for oatmeal. How do you get enough calories?
What is the cylindrical mess needed for? Thanks!