Using an Alcohol Stove

By Carolyn Shearlock, copyright 2013 . All rights reserved.

Tips from people who use them

A couple of weeks ago, I got a question from Janice about using an alcohol stove:

We are in the process of purchasing a boat with an alcohol stove. I know nothing about them. I have only had propane. Have you had any experience with this type of stove? I’m curious of its safety and how difficult it is to find alcohol. Also, if there are any difficulties with use. Basically anything you can give me.

Well, I’ve only used one a couple of times, on friends’ boats, and it was over 15 years ago.  So I did what I usually do when I need help answering a question:  I turned first to TBG readers on Facebook.  And they gave me quite a bit of info, which I then supplemented by a few Google searches.

To begin with, most alcohol stoves used on boats are “non-pressurized.”  These don’t have to be primed and are considered far safer than the pressurized type.  The most popular brand for boats is Origo, and they have several models, including some with an oven.

Let’s begin with what other readers said on The Boat Galley’s Facebook page.  I’ve compiled the comments here, editing a bit for clarity:

  • Liz Mehrtens We have an Origo and just love it. Not hard to get alcohol. We like the brand at Lowe’s best. Filling can be tricky but there are several tips online that have proven to make it an easy job.  [Note from Carolyn:  the link Liz gave me was by subscription only, I found the following description to be good and not require a subscription]  See this description on the Aloha Owners site — and you can get the Spill Saver device pretty cheaply on Amazon (US) if it’s not available at an automotive store near you.
  • Gina Smith commented on the fact that alcohol stoves just don’t burn as hot as propane, CNG or kerosene and cooking times will be longer.
  • Chris Link I use my alcohol oven and stove a lot, easy to get denatured alcohol at hardware, paint and boating stores, even readily available in Marsh Harbor, Bahamas.
  • Ritchard Findlay I use my Origo stove all the time. Easy, safe, convenient. I use what we call Methyl Hydrate here in Canada. It’s as Chris says above, available at every hardware store in North America in the paint dept. I pay about $8 a gallon, and that lasts a long time. You can buy stove alcohol at chandleries, but I am really not aware of any true advantage, and it costs 4x as much.

    If the stove doesn’t have them, find some of the neoprene gaskets that seal the top of the fuel canister when not in use. Otherwise the fuel evaporates quickly.

    The most important safety rule is to remove the canisters from the stove to refill.
  • Al Felker We have used these stoves in the past. Do not get the pressurized alcohol version. They have a bad history of clogging/malfunction/flareups.

    Filling the pots is a science. Hold at 45 degree angle while slowly filling pot. When you see fluid at lip, stop filling.

    You can also use HEET® brand Gas-Line Antifreeze & Water Remover as well. We have used it many times and is much cheaper as well.
  • Steven K. Roberts I know in a pinch Everclear works.
  • Alan Heaberlin Everclear is a wonderful substitute for ordinary denatured alcohol. You can drink it in a pinch. When I was a backpacker I would carry a small quantity for mixing with Crystal Light, making a nice evening cocktail as well as making the stove roar!
  • Radar House Walmart used to sell alcohol in their paint dept…….haven’t bought any in a while…..

No one mentioned it on Facebook, but a small minority of people find the smell that alcohol stoves give off when burning really bothers them.

Another important thing to know about alcohol stoves is that there is typically very little color to the flame.  It can be hard to tell when one is lit — or if it goes out accidentally.  A friend of mine burned her hand by not realizing that a burner was lit.

A good safety practice is to remove the fuel canisters and fill them away from the stove area — and be sure to wipe up any spilled alcohol.  If alcohol spills right near the stove, it can be easy to miss it — and then it can light when you’re lighting the stove.  There have been comments about this on my Fire Aboard and Using a Fire Extinguisher articles.

The Origo Operator’s Manual also gives lots of useful information about using an alcohol stove.  You can read it and download it (PDF format) here.

And finally, Good Old Boat has a very comprehensive article on its website, comparing pretty much all the varieties of stove fuels and giving many tips about each.

Got more tips, resources or questions?  Please leave a note in the comments!

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Comments

  1. We only have a 2 burner alcohol stove and a BBQ on our boat and manage cruising the pacific NW for a month at a time. It also works well with my Omnia oven. The smell depends on the brand of alcohol used. We bought some in the San Juan’s last year that was awful. No smell with the Methyl hydrate bought at Canadian Tire. We have the Cookmate brand as the Origo would not fit in our boat and is definitely not as good as Origo we have used in the past

  2. We have a two burner origo and use it all of the time. It is slower to cook than other types of fuel as stated above. One of the main safety advantages of using alcohol is that if there is a fire it can be put out simply using water. This is not true with other types of fuel and is one of the reasons it is so popular on a boat.

  3. Gloria Rooney says:

    I am not a fan of alcohol stoves, having had them, as well as propane which I have now. Although the fire is easily doused, you can easily set a fire that is almost invisible to you with alcohol and also tend to be more complacent with that over other fuels. If you stay with one, I wish you the patience of Job, since it will take a long time to get water to boil. It is a choice, but I do not personally like it and I know of several others who converted to propane after using boat alcohol stoves.

    • We live on our sail boat full time and have used the Origo alcohol stove and oven without any problems. I never had problems getting water to boil unless the canister was nearly empty. We sold our beautiful Taylor kerosene for the Origo due to a lung problem that I have. No problems with odor and we store a year worth on our 34′ where 2 propane tanks should go. To fill, we use my pyrex 4 cup measuring bowl and a large funnel. Hope this has been helpful.

  4. Loved my Origo! “New” boat has propane, and I’m not so sure I like that.

  5. I think alcohol stove is safer than propane one!

  6. Origio (non-pressurized) when left for a time, can dry out. Not a biggie. An alcohol fire can be extinguished with water when it is POURED, not splashed. Splashing can scatter burning alcohol. Alcohol & water quickly mix, hence out mit the fire. Kerosene, LPG, CNG fires need an extinguisher. I’ve a pressurized alcohol stove for 15 years, summer cruising use. No problems. To use one, the remotely located tank containing alcohol gets pressurized – I use a bicycle pump. Then the burner is opened slightly as if being turned on. Watch it, as liquid alcohol is fed into the burner, usually there’s a gurguleing sound. It then will be expelled from the burner, and drip into a cup/plate below the burner. The cup/plate is part of the burner assembly. Turn off the burner to stop the feeding of liquid alcohol once a very small puddle is in the cup. Light the cupped liquid and watch the resultant flame – it will burn a few inches above the burner. Let the flame burn down, a few minutes- it is heating the burner – and before it has burned out, slowly open the burner. It will hiss as the pressurized liquid alcohol from the tank hits the hot burner. This effectively turns the liquid to a gas by heating it. The gasified alcohol is what burns to heat your pots/food. If the burner flares, orange/red, as it is turned on, rather than looking like a gas stoves burner’s blue flames, it has not been heated enough. Turn off the burner, and let the cupped liquid burn more. Open the burner again but if it flares again, it has not heated enough so you may have to start over. Once there are small, mostly blue flames coming from the multiple holes of the burner when opened, it is ready to use and any cupped liquid will slowly burn away as you’re using the burner. Should you turn off the burner, it can be re-lit while it is still hot, but not once it has cooled. Simply repeat the heating process.
    Hint (cheap me), I put a pot of water onto the burner while the cupped alcohol is burning 1) to heat it (for dish washing) while also heating the burner, and 2) to have water at the ready, should I need to douse, by pouring, onto any excessive initial heating (burning) alcohol. In 15 years, this was needed but once as I was distracted and did not notice that my cup runneth over (the burner heating phase). The same procedure is used when working with a kerosene (pressurized) stove. Drip, ignite, heat burner, turn on. Remember to keep the tank pressurized, using a few pumps from the bike pump (some tanks have a self contained pump -its maintenance is another story).

  7. I bought my stove used and it was missing the gaskets which cover the alcohol canisters. I found that rubber sink stoppers work well and cost a little over $1. Look for one without a gripper-tab which can prevent a good seal.

    Also, I have read that the cheapest place to buy fuel is at the Dollar Store where it is sold as fondue fuel.

  8. Just wondering if anyone has any tips on avoiding the black soot on your pots and pans from the alcohol stoves? I have been trying to research this but haven’t found any answers. I love our stove but I hate when everything gets black. Thanks in advance!

    • I’ve an ancient (1968) pressurized alcohol stove and I’ve not any soot problem, so this does not answer your question. I do have a problem from my diesel engine’s exhaust which coats my boat’s transom with soot. A squirt of Tide cloths washing detergent on a rag cleans off the soot. Not a solution but it might clean your pots/pans easily.

    • I asked your question on The Boat Galley’s Facebook page and any responses will be imported here :) -Carolyn

    • Soot is a product (along with carbon monoxide) of incomplete combustion. That can be the result of poorly designed burners but is more likely to be dirty burners. Disassemble everything and clean thoroughly with a good solvent. Try again.

      Once you have soot on your pots the only thing that has worked for me is detergent and bronze wool. Don’t use steel wool or any of the store bought soap soaked variants.

  9. The only “trick” I know is from wood fires with Scouts . . . wiping the outside of the pan with dish soap before putting it on the fire. But that just makes it a little easier to clean, doesn’t really avoid the problem.

  10. Try baking soda and peroxide paste.

  11. I use marine grade alcohol in my Origo and have never had a problem.

    • Same here with my Origo once I switched to the right alcohol

    • have an origo also and use denatured alcohol i but at lowes and never have a problem. some alcohols are certainly better than others. is it a pressurized stove?

    • No…my Origo is not pressurized. I started out my sailing journeys using an Optimus pressurized stove. I sort of became an expert on them. One year…I started a cruise using hardware store alcohol and it wouldn’t even vaporize. I had to wait a couple of days to get to a Marine store. I learned my lesson. The extra cost of marine alcohol is well worth it. Burns hotter also.

  12. One way to look at it is this, instead of seeing it as s problem, consider that the darker surface will heat more quickly, which will make them more efficient.
    Or scrub them shiny, your call. Just trying to save you a bit of fuel & a lot of elbow grease. ;-)

  13. The soot is coming from incomplete combustion of the alcohol. This could come from the fuel being used or from restricted jets on the burner. Try changing fuel or cleaning the burner jets. If the problem is from burning bad fuel, the jets on the burner may be dirty (sooted up) too.

    If you are using denatured ethanol (like you should be using) you can test your fuel by burning a small amount in a dish and see if any residue is left behind. Some brands (and even some batches) are better than others.

    • Thanks for the info. We bought our fuel from our local Marine store and then checked with another Marine store and they sold the same kind so I’m assuming we have proper marine fuel. I will double check our supply though just to make sure. We won’t be boating until the spring but we’ll refer back to this info and see if it helps.

    • Clean the burners and that should solve your problem.

  14. A quick test to see if it is the stove is to buy a small bottle of Everclear and try using that as fuel. If you still have a soot problem, clean the burner jets. You can get creative on how you use the rest of the Everclear.

  15. We love our Origo stove, but have found that the percentage of additives in our Denatured Alcohol fuel vary by brand – one company even changed their formula to increase their additives! (We use Kleen Strip SLX) I researched the MSDS on a list of brands and here is the result:
    2015 Denatured Alcohol (Stove Fuel) comparison:
    material safety data sheet (MSDS)
    PERCENT ETHYL ALCOHOL (HIGHER IS BETTER) / PRICE PER GALLON
    ACE: 43%
    CROWN: 20%
    EVERCLEAR: 95% / $75
    KLEEN STRIP SLX: 45% / $18
    KLEAN STRIP GREEN: 85% / $28 ($7 per qt)
    JASCO: 43% / $16
    SEAFIT (West Marine): $18
    SUNNYSIDE 834G1: 43% / $15 (formula used to be 85%)
    CAPTAIN PHAB MARINE ALCOHOL: 90% / $24US (Buy in Canada)

  16. Back in my girl scout days, we put liquid dish soap on the bottom not to prevent them from getting black but to make them easy to wash it off. Not sure if it works on alcohol stoves!

  17. I agree with Allan Cobb – here is what I posted on The Boat Galley:

    Soot is a product (along with carbon monoxide) of incomplete combustion. That can be the result of poorly designed burners but is more likely to be dirty burners. Disassemble everything and clean thoroughly with a good solvent. Try again.

    Once you have soot on your pots the only thing that has worked for me is detergent and bronze wool. Don’t use stell wool or any of the store bought soap soaked variants.

    • Ok thanks for the info. As indicated in my reply to Allan I am pretty sure we are using the right fuel as we buy it from our local marine store. But we will clean it and try again.

  18. I had this problem with my propane stove and once I cleaned the burners and components thoroughly, all good, no soot!

  19. Metal Wax??

  20. Barkeepers Friend??

  21. An old camping trick is to rub with dish detergent before usinf on campfire. Not sure if safe on her stove.

  22. coat the bottom of the pans with soap. . .

  23. Dish soap on the bottom and it cleans up nicely after

  24. I use steel wool and spar cream when I get a little black on the pots comes right off

  25. Steel wool pot scourer

  26. Thanks for all your comments everyone! We will try cleaning the burners as indicated by some of the members below. We buy our fuel from our local marine store so I am pretty sure we have the correct type. Also, I can always get the soot off the pans it’s just a pain because the black sometimes transfers to other areas of the boat when I start cleaning it off.

  27. Carolyn, you took the works right out of my mouth…or fingers..as the case may be…was also going to suggest soap from scouting days. Worth a try…it may work. For tough cleanups, cream of tartar works well as does the commercial product Dawn Power Scrubber.

  28. The problem might be the brand of alcohol you use, we buy ours at ACE. My pots are only have a smudge of black

  29. Try Mr. Clean Buddy magic eraser. I was able to clean pots, pans and the oven too.

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