How to Light Your Penny Stove – 4 Steps to Cheap, Instant Heat

Penny stoves make budget camping comfortable. For little more than the cost of a bottle of fuel and the time it takes to find two used soda cans, you can have an instant source of heat – useful for cooking, sterilizing water and warmth.

Penny stoves are constructed using the bottom ends of two soda cans, slotted together to provide an enclosed container. One end of the container is pierced to allow the fumes to escape from the container, with a slightly larger hole in the center of the same end, which is used for filling the container with fuel. A penny is placed on this hole after the fuel has been added to the penny stove, thus regulating the pressure, and giving us the name: Penny Stove.

Although simple in principle, penny stoves can be quite difficult to light for the inexperienced user. Follow these steps to instantly light your penny stove every time:

  1. Use the correct fuel: Denatured alcohol – the technical name – is the optimal fuel for your penny stove. The term “denatured” means that the alcohol has been poisoned, both to avoid liquor taxes/duties (thus keeping the costs down), and to prevent people from drinking it. Denatured alcohol burns cleanly and gives off a strong vapor. It is also less prone to explosive combustion (unlike petroleum). You can find denatured alcohol almost anywhere: in your supermarket, local hardware store, convenience store or service station.
  2. Space the burner holes correctly: The size and frequency of the burner holes in your penny stove will dictate the ease with which you can light it, along with the size of the flame (and thus amount of heat it will give off), and the amount of time the fuel will last. There is no hard and fast rule for how many holes you should have in your penny stove, though the more holes you have, the finer – and hotter – the jets of vapor will be. Your burner holes should be no larger than a thumbtack, to allow for the maximum amount of pressure to build up in the stove as the fumes escape to be lit.
  3. Protect the flame from wind: Lighting the penny stove outside without a wind guard is difficult in all but the stillest conditions. Set up a physical block around the stove to prevent any turbulence from affecting the stove, or your ignition flame (match, lighter etc). Be aware that in daylight the flame from the stove will be almost invisible, so you may have a lit stove without realizing it. To create an affordable and portable wind break, nest your stove in an old tin that is slightly larger and higher than the stoves dimensions. This will also aid in…
  4. Priming the stove: Although denatured alcohol gives off a large amount of fumes, it can be very difficult to light. To aid in lighting the stove, you will need to prime it, using a small amount of your fuel around the base of the stove, external to it. If you have used the tin from step 3, pour a small amount of fuel – you could almost just wipe it on – and place the stove back into the tin. Light the fuel in the tin (not the stove). Shortly you will hear the fuel in the penny stove begin to sizzle and boil. This increases the amount of fumes it gives off, and the flames from the priming fuel – if you measure it correctly – will expire just as they have the height to ignite the fumes from the top of the can.

Above all though, practice! If you plan on using your penny stove for an upcoming camping trip, be sure to practice lighting and cooking with it now as much as possible before you leave.