I hate fiddly, and by that I mean I don’t like to have to keep messing with a piece of gear to make it work for my needs. I don’t have a problem spending time with something to learn how to use it and the best way to make it work for my needs, but after the initial learning curve I expect a piece of gear to work without constantly needing my attention or being overly complicated.
My first use of a portable wood stove was in the Forest Service back in the mid-1990s with what I simply knew as a shepherd’s stove. I have since had personal experience with several different sizes of Kifaru stoves, EdT’s cylinder roll up stoves, and a couple of different variants of Evan’s canister stove (http://hillpeoplegear.com/FreeResources/Makeawoodstove/tabid/880/Default.aspx
), not to mention a fair number of woodstoves in houses over the years. At this point I don’t own any stoves. All the stoves mentioned above are owned by others. Evan’s canister stove design was the first stove that I have ever really had any interest in owning for my uses, until now. Kevin at Seek Outside sent us a stove to T&E at the winter rondee, and I have to say I was pleased and impressed with it.
With the knowledge that we were going to be using our 12-man as a communal tent, we asked him to send us one of his extra large stoves (designed to go with his 8man). Evan promptly told me I was in charge of the 12-man and as a result the stove. (The location of the pitch of the 12-man is testament to how much I hate fiddling with stuff. I specifically chose to pitch it in the sun so that we would get plenty of solar gain so I didn’t have to be a stove slave during the daylight hours. Evan has written elsewhere on how that bit us in the butt, and as it turns out totally unnecessary.) The first thing that was striking was the weight of the stove when Evan handed it to me. I shouldn’t have been surprised given it is made out of titanium, but the stove is surprisingly light for the size. Our specific stove weighted in at 2.5lbs with the damper, but without a stove pipe. The next thing that struck me was how well the stove fitted together. I had previously seen one of SOs box stoves, but hadn’t really messed with it so I knew it was well fitted, but it was a pleasant experience to put together a stove and not feel like I needed a third or even fourth hand to get it together. Remember my dislike for fiddly? This thing was really starting to grow on me. However, it wasn’t until I started a fire and started running it that I was sold.
Based on my experience with wood stoves in buildings and my first experience with that shepherd’s stove, especially given that all of the rectangular portable wood stoves I have see and used have basically been the same as the original shepherd’s stove (design, materials, way you put it together, etc…) with minor variations (air tightness, location of vent holes, dimensions), I have an expectation about how a wood stove should work. I expect a stove to get going with minimal fuss with a good fire lay. That means I don’t expect to have be constantly blowing on it to get it burning, then be very careful with the size of wood that I feed it; meaning very very slowly feeding larger sticks and then ¼ or smaller rounds until it is going, and having to repeat those steps at every turn if the stove is slightly neglected. If I do my part and get a good fire lay and then get a fire going I expect the stove to do its part by burning without my constant attention. This stove delivered on that expectation. In fact, I was so impressed that I started pushing the stove to see what it would do. Whole rounds shoved in, shove it full of wood without any thought to a good draw, shove in wet wood, shove in all different sizes of wood, I did it all. It got to the point, that when it needed more wood I would just fill it as full of wood as I could cram it and then close the door and sit back and relax for another hour or two. I also told the guys splitting wood the second day to not worry about splitting the small rounds and only half the larger ones specifically to see if this was an issue. This stove didn’t seem to care it just chugged along. I put this down to the location of the front vent holes which are at the front of the box below the door. The draw of a stove is critical to the operation of a stove and as heat tends to rise the natural pathway of air through a stove is from bottom to top as it gets heated. Therefore a stove that has the holes to high won’t draw as well as a stove that has them low.
At first I was a bit skeptical about the door, which is a slider set in a couple of runners. My suspicion was that it would be easy for me to knock it off one end or the other when I was feeding the stove based on the knowledge that I can be a bit clumsy at times. Luckily, I was right and that is exactly what happened, and I discovered what was one of my favorite features. The door was easily removable and large so when it came time to feed the stove I just pulled the door off, set it aside and shoved wood in the gaping maw of this little critter. When I was done it was a simple matter to slide the door right back on. I typically use leather gloves when working with a wood stove because I have found that my hands aren’t quit as deft as they should be and it is very easy to hit the edge of the door or door itself with the back or side of my hand. This is even easier when the door is on a hinge and wants to swing closed on you. With the door completely out of the way this wasn’t a concern. However, in the interest of fair testing I did grab the two loops to put the door back on a few times and/or open it. I did this with no problem, and found that the door loops where never too hot to touch even when my singed knuckle proved the door was. That being said I still recommend gloves and if you don’t and burn yourself it is on you.
We started the fire on Friday afternoon and ran it until bedtime. I restarted the stove next morning and we ran it continuously until the following morning or approximately 28hrs straight. Both times I started it where almost a non-event. Get a good stove lay, add fire, and then add wood. The second morning I even tried to smother the fire by adding wood once it was going until the box was full and then shutting the door and leaving it alone. Didn’t make a difference in my experience those two days if there was fire and wood it was going to burn. This was possible because of how well and efficiently this stove works. Saturday night I was the first one to wake up, hydration can be a catch 22 on a cold winter night, and decided to see if there was enough of bed of coals, after a full day of burning, to get it going again. I have to admit that the idea of sleeping in a warm tent, even though I wasn’t cold had a bit of an allure, and as it had been 3.5hrs since it was last stoked I did blow on it a bit to get it going. The next time I woke up, got to stay hydrated right, the stove was cranking away. I found out from him the next morning that Jason had been up about an hour earlier and just shoved the box full as he stumbled by in the dark and went back to sleep. After three hours of no attention that was all it took a full box and a bit of time to kick off. Given that knowledge in the morning all I did was shove it full of wood, and then went about my morning and sure enough after a bit of time it was away and going. Finally a wood stove with the size and characteristics that it is entirely feasible to have a stove burning all night if you have the wood and someone wakes up every few hours and can cram it full.
So that is the good, what is the bad? Ironically, all of my complaints, which aren’t really complaints, but rather personal choices, are by trying to cut weight. Kevin sent us the smaller diameter legs, he offers a thicker diameter as an option, as they are the standard size, and while they supported the stove with no issues I personally would have liked something a bit thicker so the stove was a bit more stable. The other issue I had was that I felt like the stove could have benefited from a larger diameter pipe. Although to be fair, this stove was designed size wise to work with SO’s 8 man and not a 12-man and we were really asking the stove to do more than it was designed for. That being said it did just fine, but when the wind was really whipping, I felt like the diameter of the stove pipe was causing it to not exhaust as well as it could. I also noticed at those times that when I opened the door smoke was blowing out of the door. I think what was happening was simply a back draft due to high winds overcoming the mass of the hot air rising. Again, SO offers a larger diameter pipe as an option.
The final piece of information about running this stove is that we found that after 15+ hrs of continuous burning and however many hours the day before the damper got a bit clogged. I banged on the bottom of it with a stick while it and the pipe where raised using a Leatherman SUPER TROOPER EXCALIBER AWESOMENESS 3000, and after that it was up and running again with no problem. Not that it had stopped drawing, but rather it was not drawing as well. Another reason I would opt for the larger diameter pipe.