Review of an Inexpensive Wood-Cooking Method

Objective

Cook fried eggs using a Weber charcoal chimney and firewood sized for the Sputnik Wood Cook Stove. Compare the cost, utility, and fuel consumption of the Weber chimney to the Sputnik.

Weber Charcoal Chimney, about $20 US

Procedure

I started out with three sets of fuel (see below): a handful of dry twigs (center pile), a handful of seasoned, finely-split (1″ max. diam.) poplar sticks (right pile), and a couple of handfuls of larger-split sticks of seasoned beech (left pile). The fire was started with a hexamine fire starter cube (white cube in center of photo):

Place the twigs in the bottom of the chimney:

Add the split sticks to the chimney, making sure to intersperse the poplar with the beech (the small fraction of poplar sticks were to insure rapid ignition, and the beech sticks provided the long-term fuel for the fire). The chimney is tightly packed with wood pieces:

To insure a level cooking surface, make sure no sticks extend significantly above the top of the chimney:

Light the fire starter cube on  a non-combustible surface:

Place the chimney directly over the fire starter:

Once the fire is mature, place two split sticks horizontally across the top of the chimney:

Place the frying pan over the chimney:

Cook some eggs:

Results

The fire ignited very well with no hesitation. However, there were several issues worth pointing out. First, and until the fire is mature, the chimney generates a significant amount of smoke – even more than an open campfire:

The volume of smoke was sufficient to “flag” the camp area for a considerable distance, indicating pretty clearly to would-be SHTF bad guys where they might steal food and fuel. From a safety standpoint, this was not ideal:

Get out of there, Maggie! That’s too much smoke!(cough, cough…) Smoke is visible over a wide area around my camp site.

The chimney lives up to its name. During the pyrolysis stage – where the wood was generating large quantities of wood gas – the flames were nearly 4 feet high. I had to release the tarp and pull it aside to  keep it from being destroyed.

Four foot “jet” of combusting wood gas. I was not thrilled about having to take down my tarp.
At least it was not raining…

I had to wait about 25 minutes for the wood gas to cook off and for the fire to reach a useful, mature stage:

One load of fuel gave me about 20 minutes of cook time. This was sufficient to cook the eggs and heat about a pint of dish-washing water to boiling. The two horizontal sticks that I used for pot support held up OK:

Conclusions

Strictly from the standpoint of generating heat to cook food, the charcoal chimney is perfect! It is economical, lightweight, durable, and readily available at big box stores or online. The chimney easily beats an open campfire for fuel efficiency and cooking convenience. The handle on the side of the chimney is very useful and makes it possible to relocate the fire or discard it if it should become necessary.

However, there are some significant drawbacks to using a charcoal chimney for wood-fueled cooking.

1). Smoky! During the initial combustion stage, smoke rolls out of the charcoal chimney. The charcoal chimney definitely fails to stack up well against the Sputnik stove in this respect. The Sputnik is effectively smokeless at all stages of fire maturity. At the mature combustion stage, the smoke generation from the charcoal chimney is less than an open fire, but it cannot be described as “smokeless”.
2). It was frustrating that I could not position the charcoal chimney beneath the tarp canopy. Had the weather been bad, this would have been a serious issue. The Sputnik is superior since it has a stove pipe for exhausting the combustion gases. By adding an inexpensive 3″ adjustable elbow to the stove pipe like the one shown below ($4 at most home stores) , you can redirect the Sputnik’s exhaust gases past the edge of your tarp while the stove remains under the tarp.

3" Alu Adj Duct Elbow
An adjustable elbow can be used with the Sputnik stove pipe to direct combustion gases away from a tarp cover while the stove itself remains under the tarp.
3). Fuel efficiency for the charcoal chimney was definitely less than for the Sputnik. The fire burned for about 25 minutes before it reached a usable state. The flames were 4 feet high during the initial stage of combustion, making cooking dangerous at worst and very inconvenient at best. During this time, the fire generated a significant amount of heat, but this heat was not useful for cooking. It was simply wasted.
4).  The two horizontal sticks used for pot support eventually burned through and failed. It would be better to use a pair of 8-inch-long 1/2″ threaded rods, etc.
 5). Even at the mature combustion stage, the temperature above the charcoal chimney was actually too hot for typical cooking, and there was no way to control the combustion rate. With the Sputnik, the air flow can be adjusted by changing the position of the fire box door. Further, with the Sputnik, one can reposition the cooking vessel on the cook-top to adjust the amount of heat transferred to the cooking vessel.
 6).  POT SOOT! After cooking over the charcoal chimney, the bottom of the frying pan was covered in carbon. No matter how careful you are, this stuff gets everywhere. It is also tenacious as hell, which greatly increases cleanup time and effort. The absence of pot soot gives the Sputnik a huge advantage over the charcoal chimney.
 7). The fire can be relocated (carefully), but no matter where you put it, the chimney and its fire have to be at ground level. The Sputnik is superior in this respect. It can be placed on a picnic table, stump, tailgate, etc. Not only does this facilitate cooking (you don’t have to stoop to reach the cooking vessel), it also puts the generated heat at “body” level rather than at “foot” level. In cold weather, this is a significant factor in maintaining a comfortable core body temperature.

 

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