Constructing My Culvert Cooker – Part 1, by J.P.

Introductory Note: Since posting the article on Wood Fired Coffee Roasting (Dec 8-9) a number of you have asked for some directives on building the counter height cooker. Because I love using my cooker, and I can’t think of a more practical piece of outdoor equipment, here goes with my best attempt to guide you through the construction process. I highly recommend putting together the entire outdoor kitchen, but if you are interested in just the culvert cooker then you’ll find that below – Stage II, Culvert Cooker. First, read through the entire article.

If Wikipedia knew about the culvert cooker it would read something like –
“A wood-fired cooking surface, built at counter top height, on an upended length of culvert.”

Why the culvert cooker
* Safety
* Convenience
* Multi-purpose
* Low maintenance

We’ll begin this discussion of the “culvert cooker” by offering four basic rationale for incorporating the cooker into the master plan for your home place, be it a suburban setting or rural retreat. I’ll start with a brief story from my wife’s and my first summer of owning a very basic cabin in the isolated Alaskan wilderness.

SAFETY

Early on we had any number of friends join us for a few days of cleanup, gardening, and guest cabin construction. One evening an industrious dad asked if we’d be interested in having a fire pit for cooking, roasting, and general fires around which we could gather. Soon we had a nice, one foot deep by five-foot wide pit in the ground that worked well for all expressed purposes.

It was one evening, our second season at the lake, when I observed a couple of young children enjoying the fire, along with the adults. Their enjoyment included roasting marshmallows and a game of fast-moving tag. My heart sank as I envisioned either of the children accidentally falling into the center of the pit which was ablaze with more firewood than we really needed. Any form of an accident, a child falling into the pit and an adult going to the rescue, was going to end in disaster. That was the last fire in our fire pit.

CONVENIENCE

The culvert cooker was the brainchild of my brother who loved to cook on outdoor, open fires, but in his final years was unable to get anywhere near the ground for such activities. So he conceived of the culvert cooker, bringing his working surface to a countertop height. The cooker gave him several additional years of joy, sharing with others one of the things he loved to do. ALS took his life just two years ago, and the cooker carries on, extending his joyful legacy.

MULTI-PURPOSE

I’ve given some clues as to various applications of the culvert cooker and now you can run with the concept and develop your own ideas. With the exception of a plywood box smoker that I designed and fitted to the cooker surface, my brother handed me a creative list of a half dozen ways to make good use of his brainchild.

In addition to a grilling surface on a steel grate (hamburgers, kabobs, steaks, etc.), a large grate will give you plenty of room for three to four cast iron frying and cooking pans (think outdoor breakfasts of eggs, potatoes, bacon, coffee, and other side dishes), a variable height cross-bar for hanging one or more dutch ovens for baking or slow cook one pot meals, a rotisserie bar with handle for roasting large pieces of meat, a drying rack for jerky, and don’t forget coffee roasting. You get the idea.

Step back from the cooker, for a moment, look around, and imagine this being a part of an outdoor kitchen, including a refrigerator, stainless steel sink counters, etc.

LOW MAINTENANCE

A Culvert Cooker, built on a solid base, will last indefinitely with virtually no maintenance. My initial experience building the cooker had me eager to get it in use and I ignored the realities of building on the Alaskan tundra. Within a few months the cooker began to lean and we were shimming pans on the grill. I know better than that as I have years of experience as a stonemason. In other words, when it comes to building a solid base, take no shortcuts. The culvert cooker is a heavy unit!

PERSONALIZE THE COOKER AND RELATED PARTS

Here’s some ideas for truly making the cooker resource your own; personalize it according to your needs. While you’ll be able to make adjustments and additions at any point, the most efficient way is to set your course from the start, making certain you’ve included the basic building blocks. Here’s a few ideas:
* Building your homestead or bug-out location from the ground up? Consider spending your first week to 10 days setting up a culvert cooker/outdoor kitchen/eating area and using it as the center of life throughout the other construction phases. And now you’ve got the facility for a lifetime of outdoor cooking and fellowship. Of course you’ll need a roof (see details, in Part 2).

* Fall meat processing and canning center.
* Outdoor dining.
* Coffee Roasting center.
* Gathering place.
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Where should I build my cooker? Two questions: Where do I spend the bulk of my warm weather season, and do I and my family intend to make a major change in location in the near future?
* Mobility the issue? – go with the Solo Stove or other more portable wood burning stove.
* While the Culvert Cooker will work well in an urban or suburban setting, if you can have only one Culvert Cooker, I recommend you set it up in the center of your cabin/alternate location building complex. If located there it could easily become the center of your life. At least for three seasons of the year.
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Strategic Planning

Following is an outline for a full outdoor kitchen. You have the option of going with the culvert cooker only, cooker and deck combination, or the full kitchen. Our project had no plan from the start – just get the cooker operable. After more than four years we now have nearly the full kitchen. It would have been best to start with the full plan, even if it got completed incrementally.

Once you have made the decision to construct a culvert cooker, and especially if you intend to go with a full outdoor kitchen, begin making your list and gathering materials. I have found that I can build what I’d consider non-essential projects for less than half the cost of new materials if I take the time to shop Craigslist, construction sites, Lowe’s and other big box store cull racks, or just let the word out on what you’re looking for.

Site Planning

Before you begin building, set a couple of lawn chairs in the general area of where your cooker and surrounds are going to get located. Spend an hour with your co-decision maker looking over the site, move your chairs around, set your 55 gallon barrel in all possible places you could locate your cooker, and if you have a picnic table, “try it on” for size.

Keep in mind the culvert cooker will be nearly immovable, once you’ve completed it, so get it right the first time. You will want to be sure there is room for a couple of people to move freely around the entire perimeter of the cooker.

Finally, decide on the things you want to include in your outdoor kitchen, lay it out, measuring length by width (in two foot increments). A good usable size, if you want the full kitchen, would be 12’ x 24’. Adjust that by two feet in either direction to fit your needs. A part of your consideration might be the lumber you have on hand. Stake the perimeter and run string between your stakes, squaring it up before you finish.

Note: Not being a professional carpenter I’ll avoid going into detail on all the steps of wood construction. If you are an inexperienced builder, don’t hesitate to get into this project, but two good options are, get a book on general carpentry, or better yet, enlist the help of a friend who has carpentry experience. This is not rocket science, but an experienced helper/coach will save you time and money.

Stage I. Site Preparation (one Day)

As site preparation goes, I don’t think there is anything better than to pray over your entire project prior to getting started – the materials, your equipment, unforeseen challenges, the weather, safety for everyone involved, and wisdom as you make decisions throughout the project. God desires to partner with us in every part of our life, and in reality, there is nothing of value we can do without Him.

Next, level the entire area and spread with 2 – 4 inches of gravel or beach rock. A level working surface is essential. Keep a 2’ and 4’ level close by. Also, a transit if you are including more than the cooker in your plan. If you choose not to include a deck then the gravel bed will suffice for a working/walking surface.

Minimum space (square footage), for planning:
* Culvert cooker only 8’x8’ (64 sf)
* Picnic Table 8’ x 12’ (96 sf)
* Outdoor Kitchen (fridge, sink and counters, cupboards), 6’ x 16’ (96 sf)
* Extra seating, counters, shelving, 6’ x 12’ (72 sf)
* Possible dimension for full kitchen – 12’ x 24’, or 14’ x 22’

Stage II. Culvert Cooker

Materials List:
* 3’ diameter x 42” long Corrugated Culvert (Actual dimensions can vary somewhat to suit your needs, but I’d recommend this to be your minimum size.)
* Beach or pit run gravel to fill culvert to within 6” of top of culvert. (clean rock, used brick or cement blocks can be used as fill for bottom portion of the culvert) Note: dirt will settle over time and is therefore less than ideal.
* Top 6” cutoff of 55 gal barrel (be sure to include the top heavier rim of barrel to avoid sharp edges at the top)
* Stanchion material: steel rod, pipe, or angle steel for two 7’ stanchions, plus one 42” length for movable cross-member between stanchions.
* 14 – 16 horseshoes, open hooks, or 2×2 inch steel angles
* 4 large Eye Bolts big enough to accept your stanchion material.
* 2 – 4 Steel S-hooks for hanging dutch ovens to cross member (find at butcher supply)
* Steel grate, at least 3’ x 3’. 4’ x 3’ is better.

Build Base for Cooker (One Day) – Material options for base of cooker: 4” Solid Cement Blocks laid on side, 3 – 8’ RR Ties, 6×6 timbers, or 6’ x 6’ x 4” poured concrete. If the ground is at all unstable then reinforced poured concrete is recom- . mended. A concrete base should sit an extra day before building the cooker. Dig base or forms into the ground so the finished base is at or below ground level. If you are going with a deck then the deck should rest on finished concrete.

Assemble cooker (One Day)

– Build Stanchions – may need to take materials to a welder, or plan materials that will allow you to bolt the crossmember brackets to the stanchions. Or, maybe you are a welder!
– Set culvert on end, on base, and carefully level in all directions.
– Locate stanchions and install eye-bolts in the sides of the culvert. Set stanchions aside.
– Fill Culvert with gravel to within 6” of the top. Tamp as you fill to reduce settling. Level gravel and set 6” top ring of 55 gal barrel in center of the culvert.
* Fill space between inner ring and top of culvert with beach rock or gravel.
* Install Stanchions

Editor’s Note: Lest there be any howls of derision from readers about the perils of galvanized steel in contact with flames giving off toxic gasses, rest assured that J.P.’s  design has a layer of insulating rocks between the very hot inner brazier and the outer (relatively cool) galvanized steel enclosure.

(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)

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