Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Fettling: the Joys of Kerosene

Patience is a virtue for any sailor, and thirteen has always been a lucky number for me, so it was no surprise that it took thirteen attempts to get my fabulous, vintage Hillerange kerosene stove working efficiently again. It was more than I had bargained for, but fettling is an art that I have come to appreciate if not fully enjoy, and the journey, though long, was interesting and had many a twist and turn! Here is my story:

Dervish, my Cal 2-29, came with a beautiful, vintage, pressurized kerosene range. I had never used a kerosene stove before, but figured I'd give it a try. All last summer I cooked on it, and grew to love it for its  super-hot regulated flame.  The key to a clean flame with kerosene, is to make sure the fuel is fully vaporized. As a liquid it burns yellow, less hot, and is very dirty; it can leave pots, pans and the cabin top sooty. Kerosene is smelly when in liquid form; the fumes can even make some folks sick. As a gas, it has only a hint of an odor, burns blue hot and leaves nary a trace of soot.  I actually like the smell a bit. It takes me back to another time. I suspect I may have been a mariner in a previous life, but that is another story.  Back to the stove...

Gradually over the year, one burner started to seep from the jet, first leaving the burner wet which caused smoking, and later, entirely filling the spirit cup each day. This was stinky and made my guests complain. Quite honestly it was a major pain in the butt to deal with; I had to pressurize and de-pressurize every time I used the stove, and had to sop up puddles daily. The entire cabin began to have an aroma of ode-to-musty-old-sailboat.

Everybody I know tried to talk me out of saving the old range, but I knew I had a good thing and dedicated myself to fixing it. The more I researched kerosene the more sense it made to me. It is clean, cheap, super hot (equal to propane) and has a very high flashpoint (higher than diesel and just below cooking oil) which makes it safe, unlike propane which can go "bahboom" on you. I vowed to bring my old stove back to her full glory.  Little did I know that the adventure I was setting out on would take six months, cost nearly $300 and require the cooperation of people all over the world.

Locating parts for a pressure kerosene burner is very difficult. They don't manufacture them in the USA and there are no major distributors here either. Eventually, I located a company in the UK that sells spare parts, though no complete burners. Mike the Stove Guy at Base Camp was very helpful, and after a long telephone conversation I ordered a bunch of parts to rebuild my leaky burner, and some extra parts just in case.  Sure, it ran me nearly $100 but that seemed cost effective when weighed against buying a new range and installing it. 

The parts arrived and sat in the box for months. Over and over I looked at all the little bits and pieces until I convinced myself that I could never assemble such a thing. The leak got worse, and eventually I stopped using the stove. Plus I was landlocked after my injury and couldn't get to the boat all winter.  When spring rolled around and I moved aboard, I decided I better just jump in and do it. Nobody was going to do it for me. I found a used book by Ferenc Maté, Shipshape: The Art of Sailboat Maintenance, which has a useful exploded diagram of the kerosene burner assembly.

 (This is a great book, and you should click on the Amazon link right now and buy it! Especially, if you have a kero stove or heater.)  Armed with the diagram, I dove into the project and discovered that some of the new parts were not quite right. 

The old spindle is on the left and new on the right. Notice that the length is different. This caused the hole (at bottom) to not quite reach the knob that it mates to. It also has slightly different threads that make it incompatible with the old needle. I ended up cleaning and sanding the scores out of the old spindle. I installed a fresh graphite packing nut and after several attempts managed to seat it properly. Voila! She burned without leaking. 

For a day!  Then I noticed a flame under the burner where the gas tube attaches. I had caused a stress fracture from all the gripping during the several tries at seating the spindle and aligning the needle cogs.  You can see the flame in the wrong place in the photo below.

At this point I did what anybody would do: I turned to the web. I found an awesome online forum,  Classic Camp Stoves (or CCS) for kerosene enthusiasts and became the darling of the forum for a couple weeks.  I sought to buy a plug for it, figuring that I simply wouldn't use that burner. I really only need two burners. I convinced myself of this. But it turns out the threading is insanely arcane at 37/64ths diameter and 34 threads per inch at a 55˚ pitch. Nobody had a plug for the thing. Nobody! So, being resourceful, I tried putting some JB Weld on the fracture, which stopped the leak--for awhile. On the third use it got too hot and crumbled off. With few options left, I located a shop in Tacoma where they cut the burner apart and silver soldered the bottom for me. 

I now had a plug that would thread properly. I brought it home and put it in. Finally, I thought, I can cook again! Wrong. The old asbestos washer beneath the plug crumbled. Discouraged, but not defeated I sought professional help from the CCS Forum again. Several forum members coached me on what to do to stop the leak. This phase included driving around to auto repair places trying to get head gasket material custom punched to the proper diameter and thickness. A nice mechanic took pity on me and sent me home with a variety of different copper washers. I tried again and again. But still she leaked! More than ever, in fact!

I must admit, readers, that at this point I actually shed a few tears of frustration. I am not naturally inclined to fix things. I am, and always have been, more of a thinker than tinkerer. I whined a bit about my failures on the forum, and "Kerophile" took pity on me and sent me custom washers in two different thicknesses. These were hand fabricated in the northern most tip of Scotland and came in the mail about a month later!   Kerophile is a dear old Scot who is available to help silly sailors like me with our stove troubles. I didn't know if the washers would solve my problem, but regardless of that, I needed the encouragement and the support he offered. It felt good just to have somebody say my stove was worth saving, and that under no circumstance should I switch to propane. Ah, the connections one can make on the interwebs!

Meanwhile, I was on a mad search for a completely new burner. There had to be one out there somewhere and by God, I was going to find it. I haven't been called a "Research Queen" for nothing, so find one, I did with a tip from another forum member. Southern Lamp and Supply sells Hipolyto burners which are made in Portugal and completely compatible with my original Patria burners (also made in Portugal). I tried to order three (you know, just in case!) but they could only get one for me. Evidently, even the Portuguese had run out!  As far as I know Southern Lamp will be able to get more of these burners in the future, so if you are looking for one, give them a call.

I also got a hold of A and H Camp Stoves in California. It took several calls and emails to get a response; they are a small outfit, but they found one dusty old Patria burner on their back shelf. It was missing a few parts so they hadn't sold it. I bought it from them and waited for the mailman. I also spent an afternoon talking with various Amish men. Each thought another guy might have a burner somewhere. The Amish use kerosene almost exclusively and although very friendly, they are sometimes difficult to reach given that most do not use telephones. I had some delightful chats with various chaps, but nonetheless, the Amish whirlwind did not yield any regulated burners. 

A couple of weeks later my first new burner arrived from Portugal via North Carolina. I didn't waste time, but immediately tried to install it along with a new washer/gasket. All went well, except that once I had it tightened down, it was not aligned with the control knob. Now, I know better than to over-tighten things, but it only needed about 1/8th of a turn. I held on with pliers and wrenched that baby hard!  Something gave.  Oh, shit! I bent the feed tube (if only I had used vice grips for a better hold!) and fractured it.  I had the new burner, but the feed tube was now cracked and gushing kerosene. (It was later pointed out to me that I had forgotten to put the spirit cup on, evident in the photo below. Doh!)

Once again, I cried. I know most people get mad and swear at these moments, but I cry. Guess that is just my way. 

But would I give up? Hell, no!  When I set my mind to something, I do it. One way or another. So, I cleaned up the stinky mess and posted on the CSS forum again.  This time, Dale, a sweet and helpful sailor up in Chimicum, offered to solder my feed tube for me if I brought the stove to him. I did. Shawn helped me wrestle it out of the boat and off we went up the Olympic Peninsula. It was a beautiful day and I felt enthusiastic. Finally, my stove would be working, and I could move beyond the raw food diet I had been forced to live on. I think it was around this time, I dubbed the stove, "Faith."

Dale was wonderful and spent four hours teaching me everything about kerosene burners and the finer details of maintenance. In the end, he soldered the tube up and after testing it with soapy water and an air compressor, sent us on our way. 

When we got  back to the boat, Shawn lifted Faith aboard for me and we fired her up. Guess what? Kerosene penetrates like nothing you have ever seen. So, yes, you guessed it. It leaked through the solder. Okay, this time I didn't cry, but rather uttered some choice expletives. But give up? Hell, no!  

Three more days of calling radiator shops and refrigeration repair places. Nobody would touch it.  Finally, I removed the copper tubing assembly and drove to the biggest machining, fabrication and welding outfit I could find, Mega Machine. I walked in there and told the receptionist that I was not leaving until I either had the thing repaired or the name of somebody who could do it. She called up Larry from the shop, who told me they didn't do that type of work there. I said I knew this, but surely there was an employee or somebody that someone knew who could do this work for me. I repeated my intention of staying right there in that office until I had a lead. I would not take "no" for an answer. Larry, scratched his head for a moment, then told me to look up Bert at Inlet Connections. I threatened to return if Bert couldn't do the job; I was not going to let Larry off the hook. He appeared annoyed, but secretly I think he was a little turned on by firm resolve.  

I headed downtown to Inlet Connection to talk to Bert. I found him in his shop and explained my  dilemma. He told me he had silver soldered custom artsy sprinkler heads with dragonfly wings and layered flower petals. He made custom fixtures for the State Capitol building. I knew right away, Bert was my guy. Soldering stoves was not something they do at the radiator repair shop, but he was willing to do it "on the side" for me when he could find the time. I left the burner assembly in his care and hoped he wouldn't take too long. The very next day he called me. It was done. All he needed was for me to pick up a fifth of Crown Royal Reserve. I did. And for that bottle of whiskey I got my fuel tube repaired. Now that is the way the deals should work!

Back on Dervish, Shawn and I installed the thing and managed to get the burner on, aligned and tightened just right with a combination of new washers from Scotland and the thin asbestos ones that came from Portugal. The trick is to use enough washer material to get the burner to tighten down AND line up with the knob assembly. To do this you have to experiment a bit with different combinations of washers. I fired it up , and oh baby baby, she burned. No leaks.  But the next morning as I tried to boil water for coffee, something was still wrong. The flame puffed and fluttered and then went out with a huge plume of black smoke. What!?  

Turns out I was out of kerosene, so the final chapter of this story involves researching the best fuel to burn in good old, Faith.  In hardware stores you will pay up to $12/gallon for K1 grade kerosene. But did you know that jets use kerosene as fuel? They do. Airports have huge tanks of what they call Jet-A fuel which they sell for around $5/gallon. This is basically the same as K1 but a bit more refined. If you ask them for the sump fuel (the stuff they drain off regularly to check for contaminants) they will give you an even better discount. I got a gallon for $3 and was told I could get all I want at that price. And let me tell you, the stuff burns hot, clean, bright, and almost without any odor. I love love love it. I still haven't used the oven, but the burner in it works. I need to buy a thermometer and figure out a way to keep the temperature more or less stable. I'll be sure to post my experiences with baking in Faith as I gain them.

So, there you have it!  My fabulous fettling ordeal and the grand success at the end of the story. In truth, my stove is still not 100%; I now have another burner that is a little seepy (probably from all the tweaking and stress of disassembling and reassembling).  But I can fix it. I know I can!  I have the parts, I have the knowledge, and I am developing the patience. Fettling isn't for the weak willed, but then, neither is sailing.  

Feel free to contact me if you need encouragement with your old kerosene stove. I just might be able to help.


Anonymous said...

Wow, what a story. My question, where do you get your kerosene? We have a heater on board that the previous owner used kero, but he was land based. We are boat based and have found it difficult, nearly impossible, to find shoreside. So with out a car to go get it we will switch to diesel for the heater.

3brainer said...

Herb n Laura,
You will find diesel a bit dirtier and not quite as hot, but it should work in your heater. K1 kerosene can be found in most any hardware store and sometimes in marine stores, but the best thing is to purchase some from a airport if possible. I would think it should be worth it to bus or taxi to a hardware store for a couple of gallons. Where exactly are you? Thanks for reading my lengthy saga.

Anonymous said...

of course the heater vents outside unlike your stove. So diesel will do. In the hardware stores and such kero goes for 7+ a gal, but have gotten it for 4 or less a farm supplies or a garage once in Bremerton, so much hassle and we are giving up our wheels soon. We are in Anacortes for the next 48 hours then north.

be looking for you.

3brainer said...

There is an airport in outside Anacortes where I bet they sell Jet-A. I plan on buying a few extra gallons before leaving Oly. Good for you for giving up the wheels! Hope to see you on the Salish Sea.

Seven C's said...

Great job, Sky! I'm so glad you persevered with the stove - I loved that stove even as fickle as it could be at times. So much nicer than alcohol and propane (although propane is "easier" in that all you have to do is turn the knob and light it), I still like the kero stove much better.
So much nicer than the old enamel (older than the kero stove you have now) alcohol Hillerrange that was originally in Dervish.
Great Job!

3brainer said...

Thanks, Tim! Do you know the year of the stove? Where did you get it? As to ease of lighting, well, I am really getting used to the pre-heating ritual. I have a little shampoo squeeze bottle that I use to fill the spirit-cup. Once it has burned off the burner lights with a roaring blue flame every time. Did you ever use the oven? If so, how did you regulate the temperature?

Personally, I wouldn't own an alcohol stove; they are not hot enough for me. And that invisible flame seems a little dangerous. Safety first!

matt said...

Hey, nice saga!

So I need some help, maybe you can help.

First, it's impossible to find stove like yours, and I'm really searching for one. They say it's possible to convert SOME alcohol stoves to kero, but you need to find the right kind. So it's find a kero stove (impossible?), or find one to convert (next to impossible?).

What I'd really like to do is really look at a stove running kero, to get a good idea of what the systems look like to gauge the possibility of conversion on other stoves.

I'm in olympia, actually. Would you be willing to show me the ropes? email: chewie (at) resist.ca