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1/23/12

The Fire Can

A fire can, ready to light.
If you've read a wilderness survival manual or two, you've probably seen the fire can. Also known as the buddy burner, they've been around for decades. Bit o' cardboard, cut into strips, rolled up, put into a can and then covered with wax.

Wax from four tea lights ready to pour.
I wanted to see how well the fire can worked, so I made on up. Your parts list is simple--a can of some kind, cardboard cut into strips and then wax. I melted down tea lights because I have a bunch of 'em on hand--cheap 100 packs from Ikea--but you can certainly use whatever wax you've got lying around or buy some bulk candle wax at a craft store.

Cut out cardboard strips around the same height as the top of the can. Roll 'em up and put them in the can.

Melt the wax down--a double-boiler is going to be the safest and fastest.You're not supposed to melt wax over an open flame due to fire risk. I just put a nesting GSI cup in a pot of boiling water. Melts down in a couple minutes, easy stuff. Then I Poured the tealight wax over the cardboard and let it cool and firm up.



Next comes the fun part - fire. The fire can is NOT going to be lit with a ferro rod alone--you'll need some actual flame to get this started. A lighter will take 10-20 seconds or so of direct contact to really get it going. I settled for a bit of cotton ball lit with a ferro rod. That got it burning, and the flames gradually spread from the center of the roll on outward towards the edges.


The fire can puts out quite a bit of heat and a pretty good sized flame. It's certainly something that you could cook with - a fire can plus a vented #10 can would make a good hobo cook set. The can was outside with a 5-10 mph breeze and burned well, not threatening to burn or snuff out prematurely. Total burn time was 75 minutes, with the flame only noticeably shrinking towards the end.

A couple thoughts. I think the can that I used was too tall--the fire cans in the survival books I've seen are usually based off of a shoe polish tin or a small tuna can. The top of the cardboard roll is really what burns, so in this particular can, the lower 1/2 to 2/3 of the roll was useless. Shorter cans would seem to be better. I would also want to explore what adding more wax would do--this particular can probably did not have quite enough wax for its size.

Were I to pack these for a survival kit, I would make sure to include a candle wick in the build process or a bit of some kind of tinder on top. Something to ensure that you could light it when the chips were down.

While the fire can is worth a try, it's a bit of a niche piece of equipment. The fire can is not going to burn all night, so in a cold weather survival scenario, you're going to need to build a real fire at some point anyways. That relegates the fire can to a cooking role, where I would prefer a soda can stove or gel fuel can like a Sterno, or just cooking over a fire.

In most survival scenarios, I would prefer the tea lights over the fire can, too. Tealights burn for around 4 hours a piece and can be used for warming or starting a real fire.

That said, the fire can is not without its uses. In an urban environment or in a hide site, you may not be able have a full-fledged fire, and if you had no other stove options and a surplus of wax, this might just be the ticket. Or perhaps in a rain/winter scenario where you could not get a fire going otherwise due to dampness, lack of tinder, etc. A burnin' fire can should be enough to get a fire going most anywhere.

Fun little project that only costs you some wax and time. Certainly worth knowing how to do even if you never need it.

22 comments :

  1. When I was a Scout... Many years ago, we made those Fire Cans as well... We always used a bit of yarn to make a wick... The trick to the Fire Can is making sure your wax goes into the holes of the corrugated cardboard. If you use a dog food can or a tuna can you can normally find a plastic lid that snaps on, in case the wax melts while in your pack. You can also bend a some clothes hangers to make a pot rest over your Fire Can...

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    1. I have made these using parafin wax, and they work great. I was looking for a way to make a similar item without having to pack out the empty tuna cans. I mixed parafin wax with wood chips and poured into an empty egg carton. Have not tried any of my dozen egg burners yet.

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    2. The biggest trick to making a Fire can is to leave the can sitting on a warm surface. By doing this you can get the wax to soak into the cardboard. The Fire can need's to have a reservoir for the wax to sit in. the bigger the can the larger the reservoir can be. Also you really need to remember to keep the top of the can so that you have a way to put the Fire can out. You can also use Muslin cloth instead of cardboard as the filling in the Fire can. The cloth is better at absorbing the wax and is also easier to light as I said the larger the can the better. If the can hold more wax, the longer it will last. Also the type of wax used is also important as well. It’s best to use a wax that is slow burning.

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  2. Thanks for the easy directions and also to skinxbones for addt'l info.

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  3. Those IKEA tea-lights are one of the best survival gear deals around, especially if you want to start a fire on damp ground. If you use those ubiquitous little "plastic 3x4 inch fishing tackle boxes with fixed dividers" in your carry gear, cut the paraffin candle to almost-fit an opening or 2, and 'squish' the aluminum cup to fit the candle. It can serve as "tinder" for a fire or as a light-source.

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    1. Wyzyrd -

      Tealights are a great deal and full of uses - definitely under rated!

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  4. I build these in a similar fashion. I have found that old crayons and candles that no long have a wick work great for the wax. After I finish putting the wax into the cardboard, I put a layer of dryer lint on the top and then cover with wax. It works well with the fero rod and adds to the burn length and intensity. After they burn down some I just add more layers of waxed cardboard and fill the can back up.

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  5. "the fire is not to be lit with a ferro rod along"

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  6. Wow, this takes me back! We made these as a class project when I was in 4th grade. (Probably would never be allowed in schools these days!) We placed a large coffee can turned upside down over the flame source and cooked our hot dogs right on the bottom of the coffee can. If I remember right, I think we poked some holes in the coffee can so the flame source could get enough oxygen to keep burning. I never thought of this as something to keep around for emergency preparedness, but after stumbling on your site this morning, I think I'm going to finally get my emergency kit together!

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  7. I read a tip in Field and Stream a few years ago where you soak a roll of toilet paper in kerosene or lighter fluid inside of a coffee can. Let it dry and put your lid on it.

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  8. In Girl Scouts we took a coffee can, filled it with toilet paper and soaked it with rubbing alcohol. I do remember that I had to unroll the toilet paper a bit to get it to fit in the can and then stuff the inside of the roll with the toilet paper I had unrolled. Then, we put the plastic lid on it. I don't recall it drying out all the way. When we were ready to cook, we put a larger can over the top (as a previous person mentioned) with punched can opener holes all the way around the bottom. It looked like a design with all of the triangles. We each cooked our food individually so we all maintained and used our own burners. A small mess kit frying pan and other items worked great right on the top. The larger can was used over and over again and the burning can would eventually get sooty enough that I would want to start over with a clean one.

    In survival situations like hurricanes, I think this would work well for cooking meals. In hot temperatures or urban situations, you may not want to create an entire fire to cook with.

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  9. AnonymousJune 16, 2012

    I have been experimenting with adding wood ashes to parafin to expand the burning time, and it seems to work if you don't go overboard with the ashes. I also put a cardboard wick in the middle of the wrap before I put it into the can, and filling the voids between the cardboard does expand the burning time. I have made a few of these fire cans that have burned for several hours with the cardboard wrap, What I'm trying for is longer burning time so I could use these fire cans in the woodsman wood stove in an emergency, when it's too cold and snow is too deep to go out to the wood pile at night if the power goes off! I'm sure four of five of these cans in the wood stove, could keep the house warm enough to keep the pipes from freezing until morning! I've tried saw dust and parafin, but only got a couple hours burning time, not near enough to keep a pot of beans cooking all day! Also with a couple horse shoes cut them to where two shoes make a circle, weld them together, and then weld the 4 left over pieces to the circle as legs, this make a good pot cooker, that a tuna can will just slip under for the heat source. Have also use the girl scout cooker as mentioned above, works great, but keep a second coffee can handy without vent holes to smother out the toilet paper, when done cooking. save for next time! Just add a litle more rubbing alcohol! ~JM

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  10. for $5 you could get a Sterno folding stove from Wallmart. Tried it with my can fits just fine

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  11. I think this is a good idea , my grandsons will love this

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  12. We save lint from the dryer as a wonderful and light-weight fire starter. With your can and lint shoved down into it to start your flame, you don't have to spend any extra money!

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  13. Add a cotton ball to the top and cover with wax. 'Fluff' the cotton up and hit with sparks. Instant light...

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  14. I have a few of these in my BOB, because they're easy to make and practically free. I made a hobo stove out of a #10 can, and I carry a large tomato can to use as a pot. The nice thing is they all nest together, so in the space of a single #10 can I also carry my "pot", three fire cans, and a can of Sterno.

    I burn a lot of candles, so getting scrap wax is no issue for me, but you can often get wax super cheap at a thrift store. They'll sell old candles for pennies, and it's a lot cheaper than buying bulk wax. Hope this helps someone.

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    1. I also keep a #10 can as a stove and these which I always called buddy burners. I also keep the lid to the can to use for controlling the amount of flame wanted. My multi-tool pliers is used as a handle for the lid. Card board boxes can be found for free I have found the tins among other trash near rivers.. tuna & other meat cans as well as cat & dog food short tins like these, plus you can reuse them. I also look for wax pennies on the dollar at thrift stores and yard sales. With cost in the pennies why buy Sterno.. If you have bees you have wax also.

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  15. We used to make these as kids as part of scout training and camp counselor training. The "fire can" as you call it was used in conjunction with a large coffee can for a cooking surface. We used to make scrambled eggs and bacon, pancakes, hamburgers, etc. on them. The HOW TO: take a washed, empty large coffee can (save the plastic lid). Take a can opener, the kind that makes a triangle shape hole in a can, and punch several holes on the SIDES of the can near the bottom. This provides a vent for the fire. Then using tin snips make two cuts in the top rim of the can about 4" apart, wide enough to slide in your "fire can". The cuts need to be about 3" long. Then fold that little flap of tin can up and out of the way. And your done. The fire can gets lit, and the coffee can gets put on top of the burning fire can. The original bottom of the coffee can provides the cooking surface. Piece of cake! So, why did you keep the plastic lid? Because when you are preparing this cook stove you will probably be at home with running water and soap. So, wash the cooking surface off and dry it and then put the plastic lid on it to keep it clean.

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  16. I made one of these a few years back by melting down old crayons that my kids had wore down and broke. I melted them down in a double boiler and fished out the paper wrappers. The only thing I noticed about these fire cans was that the adhesive in the cardboard makes the wax splatters as it burns.

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    1. Probably due to the crayons, not the cardboard. Have not had splattering in the ones I have made with real wax.

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