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You cannot really maintain any degree of precision in an unheated workshop when it’s 20 degrees out. Your fingers turn blue and, in time, you can no longer think straight. What should be fun soon becomes work. To make my shop a truly year-round space required a little heat.

The capacity to detect clutter and filth seems to be genetically absent in many human males. It is akin to a physical disability and not something to be ridiculed by those not so encumbered. As an example, my wife is viscerally offended by the presence of dust on the furniture. By contrast, I cannot even see it. In spaces that belong to me, like my workshop, this disability borders upon a public health menace. After a busy summer in the workshop, wood scraps and sawdust literally blanket my workspace to a depth of several inches, and up to a foot in places. Fortunately, there is an engineering solution to every problem. In this case, the key to both frozen fingers and chronic clutter is a home-built woodstove.

The pieces could be manufactured by a true handyman, but a reasonably priced prefab kit like the one from Vogelzang takes a lot of the heavy lifting out of the project. The Vogelzang kit consists of an iron door assembly, a flue attachment and a pair of cast iron legs. The flue uses standard stove pipe available from most proper hardware stores.

The beating heart of the stove is a surplus oil drum. The Vogelzang kit can be used on both the 30- and 55-gallon versions. There is an additional accessory kit available that stacks a pair of drums for more efficient heat extraction. I opted to use a single, large drum that a local petroleum company willingly parted with for a paltry $15.

Vogelzang Stove Kit
The Vogelzang wood stove helps you convert a surplus oil drum into a function-
ing stove. Stove pipe is
available at most well-stocked hardware stores.

The Build

The Vogelzang kit comes with templates, and construction is painless. Mark off the areas to be cut with a permanent marker and start pilot holes with an electric drill. Do the cutting with a jigsaw and a metal cutting blade. This is easier to do than to describe. The door and flue attach with sheet metal screws. I put the legs up on concrete blocks for improved air circulation and to minimize the risk of setting fire to my shop. A handy fire extinguisher is a necessary bit of kit.

There is an art to the stove pipe. It may seem obvious, but the pipe must always angle up so that the smoke can rise through it. Elbows and fittings are unique to the geometry of the individual application. Seal everything with high-temperature RTV sealant. A tall stack lets the stove draw better, and the top must be capped with a screen cap unless you want to share your shop with every bug and critter in the neighborhood and have hot sparks landing on your roof. Fill the bottom of the stove with gravel. This serves to stabilize everything and acts as a heat sink to retain heat after the fire burns down. Add a store-bought fireplace grate to support the wood or weld your own out of rebar. 

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Test Drive

Set the fire with wood scraps around a fistful of sawdust mixed with a few dabs of Vaseline. Pre-heat the flue with a twisted piece of newspaper you light with a match or lighter. After a minute of letting the flue heat up, your fire will come to life once you touch the “Vaselined” sawdust with what’s left of your burning piece of newspaper. 

The stove is amenable to fires of varying sizes to suit the ambient temperature. An oscillating fan set to blow across the stove body will warm the entire shop in a matter of minutes even in the coldest weather.

fire extinguisher
A handy fire extinguisher is a critical piece of kit. A moment’s inattention on a cold morning could burn down the shop or worse.

Operational Hazards

The flue valve is a “damper” and it is also used to control the fire. A fire’s intensity is a balance of how much air is let in, versus how easy it is for the exhaust gasses to escape up the stack. That said, critters will find a way into the stove pipe despite your best efforts. It is a bit disheartening to stoke that first smoky winter fire and be greeted by the frenetic scrambling of a squirrel or similar rodent in the stove pipe. The moral—always close the flue when the stove is not in use. 

The bottom external elbow of the stove pipe inevitably collects moisture and rusts to nothing after about three years. Expect this and replace it promptly, or you’ll once again sign the deed to the shop over to the local woodland creatures.

When stoking the stove with sawdust, the entire affair can conflagrate and burp sufficiently enough to blow coals and embers out the open stove door and across the shop. If you haphazardly maintain your wood scrap stash outside the front of the device, you can easily burn down your shop.

The fire’s unique sounds and soothing warmth mesmerized our ancestors from the beginning of time, and they are comparably intoxicating even in the Information Age. Toward the end of the summer, my wood scraps approach critical mass and begin to impede my maneuverability. By the end of the winter, my last scraps go into the stove and I sweep the place up in anticipation of the next season. Keeping my shop warm through the winter costs me exactly nothing.

When aggressively stoked, the stove roars like a jet turbine and puts out an enormous amount of heat. I have developed a near-spiritual attachment to my recycled stove and would categorize it as, hands-down, the most indispensable component of my workshop. The archaic ambience touches a primordial chord and makes wintertime in the shop more catharsis than chore. Its bucolic appearance and repurposed nature also perfectly fit my personality and the personality of the shop itself. Neither of us are really great shakes to gaze upon, but we are imminently functional, elegantly efficient, remarkably productive and inexpensive to operate. For more information, call 616-396-1911 or visit vogelzang.com.   

This article originally published in AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN®  2014-#158 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN®  magazine are available here

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