How to Distill Alcohol, Part 2: How to Make Ethanol

[error]DISCLAIMER: The following is highly dangerous or illegal and it is not recommended to be used under any circumstances, except zombies.[/error]

In Part 1 of this article series, I showed you how to make your still.  In this part, we go over the specfics of how to make actual ethanol, or ethyl alcohol.

Ethanol is most commonly known for being the ingestable alcohol in liquor, but there are plenty of uses for it aside from drinking.  First and foremost, everybody likes alcohol, so if you can make your own, you have a valuable commodity to trade with other people.  Beyond that, it is a disinfectant, an antiseptic, a solvent, it is flammable so it can be used as a fire source or a fuel source, and interestingly enough – it can be used to treat alcohol poisoning from other, more toxic, types of alcohol.


Fundamentally, all that distillation does is seperate the alcohol from everything else.  So in order to distill ethanol, we need to create something that contains ethanol.  You need to create a mash using some sort of starchy substance.  Pretty much any type of grain will do, corn is a good starch source and is probably the most prolific option.  Rice will also work, but may be in short supply.  The fermentation process for distilling alcohol is very similar to that of making beer but has more leeway, since you don’t really care about the flavor that the mash itself develops.

Your first step is to heat up a volume of water at a ratio of 3 liters of water to 1 kilogram of starch source to around 65-70C.  Add your starch source to the water and maintain temperature for around an hour or so.  Larger quantities will take longer to get to temperature and longer to drop temperature, it’s not unheard of for home distillers to let the mash sit for days before proceeding.  What this does is convert the starches in your starch source into fermentable sugars (mono- and disaccharides).  Let it cool to a temperature no greater than 27C (the maximum tolerable temperature for most yeast) then add 0.5kg of yeast per 200 liters of mash.  You can also add table sugar at this time to aid in fermentation, but it isn’t terribly necessary.  Let the mash sit for around 10 days to ferment.  A rough indicator that fermentation is done is when the mash stops bubbling.  Fermentation continues passed this point, but unless you have equipment like a hydrometer available to test the specific gravity of the mash, no bubbles is a good enough indicator.


First, let me clue you in on how dangerous this part of the procedure is.  You are playing with alcohol, a highly flammable substance, over an open flame.  If there is a leak anywhere in your system, it will literally go up in flames.  Which means you could just as easily go up in flames.  Add the fact that you are working with a closed system, you are essentially pressure cooking a flammable substance.  If your system isn’t balanced properly, pressure will build up inside your cooking vessel and eventually cause it to explode.  You are basically standing next to a bomb for several hours, if not days.  Be vigilant or your still could rain fiery death on you at incredible rates of speed.

If you didn’t ferment your mash in your cooking vessel, place it there now.  Bring your mash up to a temperature of around 79C and maintain tht temperature for the remainder of the process.  As described in part 1, you are keeping a temperature that allows the ethanol to vaporize without any of the rest of the mash vaporizing as well (for the most part).  The alcohol vapor then escapes through the condenser and is cooled down to liquid form before exiting into your storage container.  If you intend any of this to be drank, you’ll want to seperate the first few ounces from the rest of it because this first bit generally contains all kinds of impurities and all-around nastiness.

That’s it!  That’s how to make ethanol.  It’s a ridiculously simple method, but incredibly dangerous if you aren’t paying attention.

How to Distill Alcohol, Part 1: How to Make a Still

[error]DISCLAIMER: The following is highly dangerous or illegal and it is not recommended to be used under any circumstances, except zombies.[/error]

Generally, when people think of a still, they think of liquor or moonshine.  While being able to make these items in a post-Apocalyptic world can make things easier for you.  A still can be used to make other products as well (all alcohol related, but more useful than drinking).

Basically, a still is just a sealed cooking vessel with an outlet pipe that allows the alcohol to cool.  Some stills get more elaborate than this, but they all follow a similar premise.

  1. Put a substance containing alcohol into the vessel.
  2. Heat it up such that the alcohol evaporates, but nothing else does.
  3. Wait for evaporated alcohol to exit vessel via tubing.
  4. Alcohol goes through tube and cools off, trickling into a recepticle for storage.

Cooking Vessel

Keg Still and Copper Condenser

The most important thing to consider when creating your cooking vessel is size.  Remember that you’re going to be cooking off a lot of stuff in order to get a small percentage of final product.  Think of ethanol production: Your typical mash will be between 5% and 10% ABV, so you generally won’t get more than 10% of your original volume as a final volume (depending on your still efficiency).  Basically, the bigger the better.  As far as material goes, anything that can transfer heat is good, copper being one of the best things.  You also want to make sure that as much surface area as possible  is exposed to heat.  The faster to temperature, the faster you’re done.

Condenser Tube/Coil

The condenser coil is what allows the alcohol vapor to cool down and convert back into a liquid before dissipating in the open air.  The thing to consider with your tube or coil is that you need to get the temperature of the contents of the tube down to near room temperature before it leaves the tube.  So you either need an incredibly long tube (which is where a coil comes in handy), or an external means of cooling the alcohol down (e.g. ice, cool water, etc).  Either way, this needs to be considered when scrounging or making your condenser.   As with the cooking vessel, if you have access to a material that easily dissipates heat, use it.

The Procedure

First, put your alcohol bearing material in the cooking vessel.  If you are fermenting something, you might as well do it in this vessel, just make sure you don’t completely close it off or else pressure will build up.  Next, close off the vessel and attach your condenser.  Light a fire underneath the cooking vessel.  Maintain the temperature of your material as close to the boiling point of the type of alcohol you are extracting.  Ethyl alcohol boils at ~80C and methyl alcohol at ~65C.  The amount of alcohol you can distill is completely subjective.  Basically, you’ll start out getting barely a trickle of alcohol out of your condenser, then you get a steady stream of it, then a trickle again.  The trickle at the end will be less concentrated than the rest of your batch, but viable nonetheless.

Found on the Internet: The Open Source Ecology

Have you ever wondered what kind of equipment you might need to start rebuilding civilization after an apocalyptic event?  The Open Source Ecology is a project that is working on creating just that.  The folks at Open Source Ecology are going about designing 50 fundamental machines to sustain a small civilization, and open sourcing the design.  This is really great, not only for when these plans are needed, but it allows other people to look over the plans, build and test the machines, and then improve the design.

Open Source Ecology is a network of farmers, engineers, and supporters that for the last two years has been creating the Global Village Construction Set, an open source, low-cost, high performance technological platform that allows for the easy, DIY fabrication of the 50 different Industrial Machines that it takes to build a sustainable civilization with modern comforts. The GVCS lowers the barriers to entry into farming, building, and manufacturing and can be seen as a life-size lego-like set of modular tools that can create entire economies, whether in rural Missouri, where the project was founded, in urban redevelopment, or in the developing world.

[vimeo 30171620 w=400 h=300]


Open Source Ecology

Found on the Internet: Bear Grylls Survival Academy

Bear Grylls, of Man Vs Wild fame, has opened his own survival school!  It is currently a 6 day course held in the wilds of Scotland.  Classes are limited size and teach you survival techniques like making a fire in the pouring rain, building lifesaving emergency shelters, training in knife skills, foraging for grubs and rodents, remote medical trauma, rappelling, extreme weather survival and white-water river crossings.  Since it was launched in September this year, classes are limited but expanding.  Next year the Academy will start holding classes in Africe and the US as well as offering 3 day courses in addition to the 6 day course.

Bear Grylls Survival Academy

Found on the Internet: T-Shirt Shoes

In the modern world, we don’t need to worry about worn out shoes.  They get too worn out and you just go to a Foot Locker or Walmart and buy a new pair.  But what happens when these stores no longer exist and you have to make your own shoes?  Agy from Green Issues shows us how to make a pair of flip-flops out of old t-shirts.  All you need is a t-shirt, some string, and some glue.  With a little ingenuity, you could probably improve on the design and make full blown shoes!

T-shirt slippers via [Green Issues]

How to Make Lye

For many people, Fight Club was their first introduction to lye.  Beyond those people many more people still are unaware of the variety of uses that lye has, and how useful it is in the PAW.  It is used to produce soap and bio-diesel, it is used to cure food and can be used as a heavy-duty cleaner.  It is one of those things that is vital to your post-apocalyptic needs.  Lye is an alkali that can be retrieved from the ashes of hardwood (such as ash, beech, birch, oak, etc.), so making lye is as simple as drawing it out of some ashes.

At this point it should be noted that lye is extremely caustic and can cause painful and lasting damage should you get any on your skin.  If you are exposed to a chemical burn from lye, immediately rinse the exposed area under water for 15 minutes (don’t listen to Tyler Durden, that guy isn’t real and he wants to blow things up) and then tend to the wound normally to prevent infection.

  1. First, you need to have a vessel in which to store your ashes.  A barrel is a good choice, but you can use anything.
  2. Drill a hole near the bottom of the barrel and fit it with some kind of cork.
  3. Next, you need to build a basic filtration system at the bottom of the barrel, start out with  small rocks and then cover those with a thick layer of grass.  This will filter the ash and let your final product run clear.
  4. Fill your barrel with ash from hardwood.  You can simply keep all the ash from any camp fires or cooking fires you have and periodically add it into the barrel (provided they are wood fires).
  5. Once you have enough ash in the barrel (your preference), you need to add water (the softeer the better) to your barrel to let the ash soak.  Uncork the drain hole, pour water into the barrel until it starts to come out of the drain hole, then plug the drain hole again.
  6. Let the ash soak for around three days (or until a potato floats enough that a 1-inch diameter circle is above the water) and then drain the barrel into the containers you wish to store your lye in.

If you want to run a continual system, just continue to add ash and drain off the lye and add water about once a week.

This process will give you lye that is properly strong enough to make soap.  If you need a stronger solution of lye, you can boil it down.  If you need a weaker solution, add a bit of water.

Author’s Note – For as long as I’ve known how to do this, I’ve known about the potato trick (this is actually how American colonists determined the strength of lye) but I’ve never known why that determined the lye strength.  Can anyone explain why?  +100 Internet points to the person that does!

Found on the Internet: The 45 Day Emergency Candle

A Crisco Candle
This candle will last you a month and a half!

Keeping a flame going can be difficult sometimes, and candles can sometimes be hard to come by!  Coley Hudgins shows us that if you have a tub of Crisco (or any type of shortening really) you can easily make a long-lasting candle.  A big can of Crisco (as shown above) can be left lit 8 hours a day and will last for 45 days.  Just insert a piece of string into the center of your shortening and light the type – Instant Candle!

Emergency 45 day candle from Crisco [via The Resilient Family]

TV Review: Falling Skies

Being that this show has just starting airing its second season this week, I felt it appropriate to write my thoughts on the show.

Falling Skies is a TNT series following a band of survivors fighting against an alien invasion of hexapedal aliens, known as “skitters”, and their superior technology.  The main character is a college history professor turned soldier named Tom Mason (played by Noah Wyle), who lives with a group of civilians (including his 2 sons) and militia members and  obsesses over finding his 3rd son, who was taken by the aliens.

First off, one of my favorite things about this show is that it starts off well after the invasion occurred.  So you start with the aftermath and get to piece together what actually happened during the initial invasion over time.  It makes the show less rushed and allows it to paint it’s own background in a more elegant manner.

Secondly, it shows a perspective that is rarely given in world-important TV shows and movies like this.  Usually in the story of an alien invasion, you’re following the President of the US or some super-genius satellite technician and a cocky combat pilot as they perform super-heroic feats that ultimately save the world.  Not so in this show.  You follow a family and the group they travel with as they eek out a meager existence while desperately avoiding detection (and eventually death or enslavement) by the aliens.  We get to see spans of time where everyday is a struggle by itself and the demoralizing desperation that accompanies not having enough food or medicine or a warm place to sleep at night.  All of this bleakness is offset by the occasional small victory (like defeating one, solitary alien), but you understand why, to them, it feels like they just won the war.  I found myself cheering and fist pumping at these little victories on several occasions.

There was only one thing that really bothered me in the first season and they alleviated my concerns within 2 or 3 episodes so well that I was excited about the characters discovering the same discrepancy.  It actually made me more invested in the show, to find out the answer to my question.

Overall, this is a very good show and worth your time.

How to Make Mortar

Mortar is, quite literally, the building block of society.  It is the material used to bind construction materials together and fill the gaps between them.  From building a brick wall to a building, you’ll need to know how to make some form of mortar to make a reasonably sturdy structure.

It has been used since ancient times by civilized people to build buildings and walls and more.  If ancient people can make mortar, why can’t you?

Clay Mortar

In ancient times, the Babylonians used a mortar based of mud and clay.  Just get some clay mud that is wet enough to be a thick paste.  If it isn’t that malleable, add water.  If it’s too thin, add more clay or dirt to thicken it up.  This isn’t a very sturdy mortar and you can expect it not to last all that long, but it will do in a pinch and last long enough.  The key benefit of clay mortar is that clay and dirt are more abundant than any other resource for making mortar.

Gypsum Mortar

The Ancient Egyptians made mortar from gypsum and sand.  If you’ve ever worked with plaster of Paris (gypsum plaster), you’ll know that gypsum is makes a soft material, but when added with sand becomes a little more sturdy.  To make gypsum mortar, mix gypsum powder with water to make a slurry and add sand until it forms a thick paste.

Lime Mortar

Limestone is a clear rock mineral that can also be found in hardware/home improvement stores, but it can also be found in rock quarries as well.  To make the mortar, you will need to bake the limestone.  It will expand and turn white.  Even though you can make lime mortar without this step, it is very important to include it.  The reason being that untreated lime mortar is susceptible to water and can collapse.  Whereas, when treated in a kiln the lime becomes “hydraulic” and is much more resistant to the weather. 

After you let it cool off, add water to it.  The solid stones will collapse and hiss, this is normal.  Stir it to make an opaque slurry.  Add sand until it makes a thick paste.

Cement Mortar

This is the most abundant mortar in modern times.  You can find quick set cement in any hardware or home improvement store near you.  If you can’t find any (it’s likely someone else had this idea and looted it all after TEOTWAWKI.  If you’re lucky enough to have cement on hand, mix according to the instructions on the bag.

How to Build an Oven

In the P.A.W., it would be nice to be able to make a nice loaf of bread or even just cook something without using a campfire and risking burning your food all the time.  This isn’t as far-fetched of an idea as you may think.  In fact, you could build an oven to use while you’re travelling if you have the time.

The basic premise of cooking in a conventional oven is cooking by convection.  When you bake a loaf of bread in a modern conventional oven, the heating elements in the oven heat the air closest to the flames, causing it to rise, moving the colder air near the flames and repeating the process until the air inside the oven is a relatively uniform temperature.  You then place the bread dough in the heated air of the oven.  The heated air transfers its heat into the dough, causing the temperature of the dough to rise to roughly the same temperature as the air around it.  At this temperature, the ingredients in the dough cook and eventually you have bread.

Earth Oven

The easiest and quickest oven you can build is an earth oven.  You don’t need anything too special or permanent to build it – just some mud and a fire.  The basic concept of an earth oven is that you are creating an enclosed space that holds the heated air required to oven cook anything.

Because dirt/mud is exceptional at holding, we’ll use mud to build the shell of our oven.  We use mud because it is malleable until it drys, at which time it will hold its shape.  The first thing we need to do though, is find a way to make our oven space hollow.  The easiest way to do this is to use wet sand.  We can shape the wet sand into whatever form we want and the mud won’t destroy that shape, and dry sand is just as easy to remove from our oven as wet sand would be.  So we first make a mold for our hollow space, then we coat the mold with several inches of mud.  The thicker the mud walls, the more heat it will retain for longer.  Let the mud dry into a hardened mound, then cut an opening into one side of the mound all the way to the sand/molding material.  Dig out all of the sand/molding material and you now have an oven!  Build a fire inside the oven to heat the walls of the oven.  Once your oven is to temperature and the outside of the oven is hot to the touch, put out your fire and remove all of the fire material from the inside of the oven.  Place your food inside the oven and cover the hole up to avoid letting any heat escape.  Eventually, your food will be cooked.

Pompeii Oven

The Pompeii oven is a precursor to the modern brick oven, commonly used in pizzerias.  The Pompeii oven works on the same principles as an earth oven, and is actually the evolutionary successor to the earth oven, but it is more permanent and used with the fire still inside the oven while cooking.

For convenience, a Pompeii oven is built at around waist height or higher (because who really wants to crouch all the time while they are cooking?).  This is best acheived by building a dais out of brick or stone or some other material that is fire proof and resistant to age and the elements.

Then you want to build a slab that the oven will be built onto.  You might be fancy/lucky enough to have concrete and rebar to make this slab from, otherwise go for a material that is fire proof and resistant to age and the elements.

When considering bricks or brick material for building your oven, there are two factors to consider:

  1. Can the material withstand high temperatures? (refraction)
  2. How well can it reflect heat? (conductivity)

Ideally, you want a high refraction, low conductivity material because it won’t be destroyed by the heat of the oven and it will reflect heat given off by the fire efficiently.  Firebricks (bricks made of a type of clay composed of high levels of alumina and silica) are the ideal material, but ceramic and clay will work just as well.

Lay out a pattern of bricks on your slab for the floor of your oven.  Most people use an offset pattern for the floor because it prevents a seam in the floor which can cause your food to snag when putting it in or taking it out of your oven.  Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how you lay them out as long as they are tightly lined up with each other to prevent heat leakage.

To form the dome of the oven, you can either build it free standing, or over a wet sand mold as with the earth oven.  Building the dome free standing, you will lay the bricks one layer at a time and let the mortar dry before moving on, occassionally adding a wedge between rows of bricks to account for curvature.  Don’t forget to leave space for an opening!

If you don’t have access to modern mortar, you can use clay, mud, pitch (tar), or you can make your own.  Essentially, you just need something that will bind to your bricks to make a solid structure.

When building the door and door frame for the oven, you want to ensure that your door is at least slightly bigger than the opening in the oven.  This will ensure that the door doesn’t swing into the oven and, when closed, forms a seal to heat and moisture leakage from inside the oven.  Don’t make it an airtight seal.  An airtight seal will cause what is known as backdraft: The flame will go down as it burns through the existing oxygen, then when you open the door the onslaught of fresh oxygen causes the fire to roar back up, potentially exploding out the opening of the oven and burning you.  The door itself can be made from whatever you can manage: a hunk of scrap metal, dried mud, a rock, an old oven door, etc.

It is also a good idea to build a chimney into the door frame so that smoke and hot air have an escape path that isn’t your face.  _Don’t put a chimney into the oven itself!_  This fundamentally defeats the functionality of the oven.

After your oven is built, you need to purge it of any excess moisture.  This curing process ensures that your oven doesn’t crack when in regular use.  To do this, build a small fire for 6 hours each day for 5 days.  Start at 300F and increase by 50F each day.  If you can’t accurately guage temperature, just build a small fire and increase the size each day for 5 days.

Once you’re ready to actually start cooking with your oven, start you’re fire near the front of the oven and once it gets going, push it off to one side or the back and let the oven heat until the outside is hot to the touch.  Then cook to your hearts content!