Kerosene (Paraffin) Cooker

Back in the day, many offshore voyaging pioneers like the Pyes, Smeatons, and Hiscocks cooked on Primus stoves: Peculiar machines that relied on hand pumped air pressure to force kerosene (paraffin) into a burner that was preheated with metholated spirit (industrial alcohol). Tales abounded of flare-ups, singed eyebrows and sea-cooks totally traumatized by the unpredictable behaviour of these machines.

Polaris, the sailboat we looked after for a month in Greenland, is fitted with a three burner kerosene stove from Switzerland-based Bertschi. The fundamental technology is the same as the Primus, but the pressure is provided by an electric pump (with manual backup) and the burners preheated by electric elements (you could still use alcohol if these failed). However, even with this automation, cooking on this machine requires strong nerves, chanting incantations in an obscure Swiss mountain dialect, and the sacrifice of small animals.

The stove does include a small oven, but this requires substantial reconfiguration of the stove to use and there is no grill. Other problems are the smell of burning kerosene, which can turn even the strongest stomach, particularly at sea, and the risk of some quite spectacular, but probably not actually dangerous, flare-ups if the burner is not heated enough before turning on the valve.

When you add to all that the difficulty of controlling the temperature of the elements and the truly eye-popping cost of the machine, you could be forgiven for wondering what the point of going this route is? Well, kerosene has three big advantages over propane as a cooking fuel:

  1. Its vapors will not pool in the bilge waiting to blow you to kingdom come the way propane can.
  2. Kerosene can be procured almost anywhere, albeit in varying qualities, with none of the problems of different valve standards that can make getting a propane cylinder filled difficult or impossible, even where that fuel is available. You can even, at a pinch, use aviation jet fuel in a kerosene stove.
  3. A kerosene tank, like the one on Polaris that takes up no more space than two 20-pound propane bottles, can hold enough fuel for at least a year of cooking.

Will we be fitting Morgan’s Cloud with a Swiss kerosene stove? No, but we can see the point, given the mission that Polaris was built for.

By the way, as we discovered when I was cooking Christmas dinner, an incompletely combusting kerosene burner can produce carbon monoxide just the same as a poorly adjusted propane stove. All boats should be fitted with a CO detector like both Polaris and Morgan’s Cloud are.

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Meet the Author

John

John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

19 comments … add one
  • Dick Dec 19, 2009, 3:52 pm

    I would like to nominate CNG stoves/ovens as a good alternative to both kero and propane. Having survived a blowup and burnup on a 75′ ketch as we were leaving New York Harbor for the Med in the late ’60’s due to propane lying in the bilge and the genset lighting it off, CNG that is lighter than air seems to work well. Outside the US it is reasonably easy to obtain also.

  • Denis Dec 19, 2009, 3:53 pm

    I fail to see why people continue to use cookers using any fuel other than that which is normally on board the boat in large quantities, diesel. My diesel cooker works well, is controllable and gives no smell. The fuel will not explode and there is enough on board to cook the largest turkey. Unfortunately, the oven is not large enough to take an ox, otherwise there is enough fuel to cook that! The only downside, apart from the cost that seems to apply to the kerosene cooker described in your article, is that it needs at least 12v to start.

    • MarinaOnMaui Nov 28, 2012, 1:07 am

      I have had much experience with kerosene. It doesn’t necessarily need 12V but can be primed using a little alcohol. Works reliably once you know how much is needed, is cheap and isn’t dangerous like propane. I grew up on boats and fuel settling in the bilges has always been a rallying cry, which is why I don’t understand why all these modern boats have propane. The convenience isn’t worth it and the cost and bother of filling outside the US is a problem too. I’ve been looking for a boat for over a year, and have resigned myself to the fact that they all have propane now. I will re-fit with one of these Kero stoves when I find the right boat, which is why I have this site bookmarked in my Favorites!

  • John Dec 20, 2009, 3:34 pm

    Diesel cookers sound interesting, although the only ones I have ever seen were huge, smelly, heavy, and temperamental. That may have changed.

    CNG seemed like it would become the fuel of choice on boats at one point in the eighties but has faded out since. The big drawback with it is that it packs a lot less energy per pound than propane. Also, the bottles are relatively big and heavy because CNG must be stored at very high pressure to remain a liquid. I’m interested that you would say that it is generally available outside of the USA. My understanding, admittedly based on hearsay, is the exact opposite.

    While we see the benefits of other fuels for cooking and, as any regular reader of this site knows, we are very concerned about the explosion danger inherent in propane, we can’t see changing from that fuel on Morgan’s Cloud, if for no other reason than the instant and controllable heat ability of a propane cooker. By contrast, as we understand it, all of the liquid fuels, kerosene (paraffin), diesel and alcohol (don’t go there) require a preheat cycle that unacceptably interrupts, at least to us, the rhythm and timing of cooking. But then we are big time food lovers that like to cook quite complicated multi-item meals, often with sauces as well. Doing a John-make-fire act complete with preheating and flare-ups for the three rings and the oven required in the middle of making my pork chops with sherry apricot sauce recipe, would be a sure route to tears!

    One alternative that does look interesting, is that of induction and convection electric cooking. Steve and Linda Dashew have been experimenting with this technology and have found that it is so efficient that using it with battery power, through an inverter, is practical. Of course they have huge battery banks on their boats. We have not got into the details of what minimum battery bank and generation capacity is required to make this practical, but it does bear further study.

    • Terje M Dec 15, 2014, 10:58 am

      John,

      I had made up my mind to retrofit a diesel cooker and diesel hob from Wallas. Their 87D Diesel Hob/Oven with an air heater lid looks good. This would improve safety on-board by removing gas, it would act like a good cabin heater and simplify the energy on-board since everything is going on diesel.

      http://www.wallas-uk.com/diesel-hobs-ovens/87d-diesel-hob-and-oven

      Sadly, it was not too happed.

      For a diesel hob and cooker you will need two exhaust systems, they cannot share the same exhaust due to the risk of back filling. Transom exhaust is best, a transom exhaust is limited to maximum 4 meter hose. So if you cooker is more than four meter from the transom you got a problem.

      Walla’s got a deck exhaust. The chimney is about 15 cm high. Keep in might you will need two this will really obstruct the sheets and robe work on-deck. Even if I found a place for it I think it would be just a question of time before a sheet goes around the exhaust. By taking in the sheet, you will quickly damage the chimney.

      Then the hull fitting! That would work, until someone want a cup of tea when sailing on port tack! The hull exhaust can only be submersed for maximum 5 seconds.

      Therefore no diesel cooker! I am back to the drawing board to find a replacement cooker.

      • John Dec 16, 2014, 9:57 am

        Hi Terje,

        Yes, that seems to be the problem with pretty much all the alternatives to propane: they sound good in theory, but when it really comes down to it, the details like those you mention make them impractical.

        Having said that, please keep us informed as you continue your search. No one would be happier than me to see a really practical alternative to propane.

  • Marina Batham Dec 27, 2011, 8:39 pm

    Aloha John, I ‘m interested in the company that built that fine looking kerosene stove you have pictured in this article? They are really hard to find, so if you have any tips on getting one, I’d love to know! Mahalo, Marina

    • Colin Dec 28, 2011, 9:54 am

      Hi Marina

      As luck would have it I was recently looking for a replacement heater for our yacht, and came across Bertschi. They have a website at http://www.bertschi-petrol.ch complete with English translation.

      But I’d agree with everything John says re kerosene as a cooking medium – smell, flare -ups etc. – having owned a boat with a kerosene cooker in the past, albeit it one less sophisticated than the Bertshci range.

      Best wishes

      Colin

  • brian Mar 15, 2012, 10:21 pm

    I had a diesel/kerosene stove on myboats for the 18 years I was cruising around the world. Here my opinion. it burns hotter than propane and one can tune the heat yust fine. preheating must be done the way it has to be done easy clean no problem there are no flare ups at all if you preheat every time with out inventing shortcuts. Maintenance needs to be done as systematically as on your engine . It gives you peace of mind knoving that there is no propane in the bilges . When I was too lazy to clean the burners every two months I would be forced to use the second burner that was standing by. I never ran out of fuel. Never did a taxi refuse to transport me to the propane fill station. And my burners never smelld bad never black smoke no dirty ceiling. Now the disadvantage . the only draw back that diesel/ kerosene stoves have, by the way , pressurized diesel and pressurized kerosene burn in the same stove with the same burners they just need different jets to carburate and diesel needs a little more preheating with the same alkohol. I had a small propane burner in my stoves for quick coffees at anchor but diesel/kerosene for cooking. By the way , I used to coock three times a day very extensivly, no cans, at anchor at sea and also during feavy weather. Propane in heavy weather is useless on a sailboat. It will go out and keep on flowing unburnt. I mean in real heavy weather. U sailed through hurricane Lili and hurricane gilbert , sailing not anchord as we had no cans we had to cook. No nasty smell, we felt safe and the world was a fine place with full stomachs. brian

    • Jack Nov 27, 2012, 10:01 pm

      Brian:
      What was the brand of stove that you used? Was it small enough for a narrow 38′ sailboat? What type of venting was needed? Was it gimbaled? I want to replace our old CNG stove before we begin passage making and like the density of liquid fuels.
      Thanks
      Jack

  • Saptieu Sarr Oct 19, 2013, 11:27 pm

    just want to know if it is possible to get this type of kerosene cookers

    • Sverre Oct 21, 2013, 9:12 am

      Hi Saptieu,
      The basic version of this type of stove can be bought from http://www.pelam.de. More elaborate kerosene stoves ready for installation on boats can be found at http://www.toplicht.de. I’m sure there are other suppliers as well, the two mentioned are the ones I know of, have dealt with and can recommend. Both have English versions of their websites.

      Should you get yourself one of these stoves it would be a good idea to get the full range of spares and tools for it as well. And if you’re not familiar with using these things, be prepared to spend some time getting it right as well as the odd burn and zinged eyebrow! Once you’ve tamed the dragon you’ll either love it or loathe it.

      Regards, Sverre

  • Don Bland Nov 3, 2013, 3:27 am

    Well, mates; I reckon I can hear Mr.& Mrs. Hiscock nodding venerated approval from where ever they are, eh? any good sailor ‘as learnt patience is a priority, so learn to operate the beast, cook & keep comfortable at sea, o an with all due respect, I not speaking of gourmet dock dinner parties, jus good food at sea!
    Ciao all, an fair winds,eh?

  • Don Bland Nov 3, 2013, 3:43 am

    y’no , Im realizing no one mentioned these are gimbled and one can cook at well over 25degree heel, they have pot holders, and another thing , they can bring up the ships hot water tank to ready for a nice little shower after supper! Whats not to love about euro engineering, ! When it get cold your ship is warm and your belly full too!

  • Nick Trevethan Nov 26, 2013, 5:17 am

    I refuse to have gas aboard. A gas leak caused a boat in South Dock marina in London to explode, while we moored there in about 2004. The occupant died. We heard the explosion through the hull, transmitted via the water as well as through the air. It was awful.

    We lived aboard a 44 foot ketch for five years, that I fitted with a kerosene stove by Optimus, of indeterminant age. I reckon it was at least 20 years old when I bought it used. I reconditioned the burners and bought a pair of spares.

    First time out lighting with meths was a little hairy – I tried it dockside rather than in the boat and was meet with a foot long column of yellow flame.

    However, an old salt I know suggested using a blow lamp to preheat the burner. After that lighting was never a problem. If you did try to light a little too early, you just turn off the kerosene and give it a bit more of a blast with the torch. We cooked daily with it and loved it. It was especially good for Asian food – stir fry etc – the flame was roaring hot – like a proper wok burner, when running at full chat.

    On one occasion while on a low simmer, the flame died. No explosive gas build up, just a light film of kerosene around the cooker, which wiped up quicky.

    Of course having a propane torch does carry its own risks, but many boats carry one anyway. We kept ours in resealable bag in locker outside, and would drain overboard in case of a leak. We changed the canister every two months, whether it was empty or not as a safety precaution.
    In port, in summer, we’d just put the bluetorch outside on the deck through the kitchen hatch.

    We also learned to light with meths, as an emergency, but we saves the meth for lighting the Dickinson Diesel cabin heater – a little spirit in the burner with a few drops of oil was a far better means to pre heat that than messing about with tissue paper!

  • Bill Attwood Dec 17, 2014, 4:49 am

    Hi Everyone.
    I have installed a Refleks diesel heater and a second-hand Taylors 028 paraffin stove on our Rustler 36. The Refleks has been a great success, but the Taylors needed some work on it before becoming an equal success. I replaced the Taylors burners (one 2- and one 4-leg) with new burners from Toplicht, the Hanse No. 1, manufactured in Hamburg. These burners have been an absolute eye-opener and I would recommend without reservation. Easy to light using meths, easy to fit, and now being fitted as standard by Taylors. My wife is also delighted with the ease and performance of the Taylors stove, and neither of us can understand the negative comments about flare-ups, soot etc. We use meths as the pre-heating medium, although we have tried a small gas torch. The meths works well so the torch has been consigned to the toolbox. The benefits of paraffin as fuel have mostly been listed above, but I would add the ease, compared to gas, of obtaining fuel anywhere in the world.
    There is another paraffin stove from the Optimus (I believe the 144W), which has the tank integrated in the cooker itself, no longer made, but sometimes available second-hand. The manufacturer of the Hanse No. 1 burner, Chr. Weimeister, is developing a similar type of cooker, although I don´t know long long the development will last. Friends of ours have one of these Optimus cookers on their boat and are very happy with it. The skipper is an enthusiastic and talented cook. The drawback is that the tank is relatively small, the advantage is that it doesn´t require the fitting and sealing of numerous pipe joints that the Taylors requires.
    If anyone would like follow-up information on where to buy or the “issues” involved in the installation of the Refleks or Taylors, email me on “sy.kinsa@gmail.com”.
    Seasonal best wishes!
    Bill Attwood

    • Marina Batham Dec 17, 2014, 6:16 pm

      Aloha Bill,

      We also had a Kero stove that had it’s own tank. We filled it every so often, but considering how much we cooked ( a lot) it was little bother. The tank filler was in the front at the bottom and was simple to fill with a funnel. Thanks for the info about Taylor.

      Mele Kalikimaka from Maui!
      Marina Batham

  • John Pedersen Jul 2, 2015, 3:14 am

    Considering the danger of propane collecting in the bilge, I see no mention of using a gas alarm. I have one – it uses very little power and is left on all the time. It is extremely sensitive. The only downside is that it is so sensitive and not just to propane, I have had the alarm go off when some onions got a little past their best and when some bugger farted too close to the thing!

    • John Jul 2, 2015, 9:01 am

      Hi John,

      We have lots of posts on Propane safety, just put “Propane” in the search box at the top of the sidebars and you will get a list of them. Also we have another one in the works.

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