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December 18, 2015

How to Build a Copper Still

How to Build a Copper Still

This article describes the process of building an all-purpose copper still. If you have some fabrication experience, you can make your own parts use the following instructions as a guide for assembly.  If you aren’t an experienced fabricator or don’t have the mathematical skills needed to design and make still parts from scratch, don’t worry, we have done all of the hard work for you. We offer 100% copper, machine cut parts kits. They come in three sizes: 1 gallon, 5 gallon, and 10 gallon.

The Importance of Distillation in a Survival Situation

Distillation equipment is an important piece of survival gear. Simple, small-scale distillation equipment can be used to manufacture valuable survival commodities such as purified water, distilled spirits, fuel alcohol, and antiseptic. In addition to potentially saving your life in an SHTF event, these items could also be used to trade for other goods and services.

Background - Still Design

The design described in this article is referred to as “hybrid column still.” It’s a basic pot still that also includes a column, which may be filled with packing material to induce natural reflux. This design allows for greater efficiency and versatility than a dedicated pot or column still. As such, this particular still can be used to make distilled water, Bourbon, fuel alcohol, and even antiseptic.

Completed 5 gallon copper still

Safety Equipment and Tools:

You’ll need a few basic tools and materials in order to build a copper still:  hammer, plumbing torch, pliers, small clamps, sandpaper, lead free solder, water soluble flux, work gloves, safety glasses, and a VOC mask. A vice would be handy but is not necessary.

Wear the safety glasses the entire time you’re working, make sure to wear the gloves when handling material or using the torch, and wear the mask when soldering. Always work in a well ventilated space.

Step 1: Boiler Assembly

The boiler is a rectangular piece of copper with “tabs” cut into one of the long ends. Clawhammer Supply kits are pre-cut and the boiler already includes tabs.  If you’re fabricating your own parts, use tin snips to cut small “triangles” into one of the long edges of the copper. Use a wire brush or sandpaper to rough up one side of the tabs. Then, bend the tabs toward the main section of the boiler at a right angle to the main section of the boiler, using a pair of pliers. The tabs form a ledge for the boiler bottom.

Once the tabs have been cut and bent, roll the sheet into a cylinder by bending the copper so that the short ends of the rectangle overlap one another. The tabs should face towards the center. Lap the copper by about half an inch. Once the boiler has been rolled into a cylinder, use sandpaper or a wire brush to rough up the areas where the copper will overlap and then secure the lap with locking pliers. This will make it easier to fill the seam with solder later.

If you’re fabricating your own parts out of raw copper, drill rivet holes through both pieces of the lap using a standard cordless drill. If you’re supplying your own still parts, you’ll need to acquire some solid copper rivets. Brake rivets work great for this and can be picked up at most fastener stores. Clawhammer kits include the rivets and the boiler comes with pre-drilled rivet holes.

Install rivets one by one. Place them into the rivet holes (they should fit snugly) and position a hard object under the rivet (anvil, hammer, etc.). Hammer the rivet until it is secure. Do not smash the rivet flat. Hit the rivet until it expands just enough to hold the boiler lap together. Follow the same process for the remaining rivets.

Rivet and solder copper still boiler

Once rivets have been installed, the boiler likely won’t be perfectly round. It will probably look more like an oval. This is normal and actually makes solder easier to apply because gaps in the lap will be smaller. You’ll round the boiler after soldering, which we’ll describe next.

Before soldering the boiler seam, apply water soluble flux to the joint. After the flux has been applied, use a standard propane plumbing torch and seal the entire seam of the boiler, as well as the rivet penetrations, using standard lead free plumbing solder.

When soldering, always follow this rule: slow and low. In other words, if you have an adjustable torch, dial the heat back to medium low. Also, apply heat sparingly and remove the torch from the copper as soon as the solder starts to melt. Excessive heating will cause soot to form on the copper, preventing solder from sticking.

Once the boiler seam and rivet penetrations have been soldered, use your hands to round out the boiler, making it as perfectly round as you can. Once the boiler is round, you’re ready to install the boiler bottom, which is simply a circular piece of sheet copper that is small enough to fit into the boiler, but big enough to fit snugly.

Use a wire brush or sandpaper to rough up the outer half an inch of the circular bottom, as well as the top of the tabs (if you haven’t already done so). Apply flux to both of these areas, then, drop the round bottom into the boiler, making sure it fits snugly, sitting on top of the tabs. Once the boiler bottom piece has been seated into the boiler, apply additional flux to the top of the circular piece and the adjacent boiler wall – this is an important step. 

Solder circular bottom inside copper still boiler

In order for the bottom piece to seal properly insert a heavy object onto the boiler bottom which will hold the boiler bottom tight against the tabs of the boiler. When soldering the bottom, work the torch from the outside of the boiler while applying solder to the inside of the boiler.  

Apply gentle heat to the outside

Step 2: Vapor Cone

Once the boiler bottom has been soldered to the boiler, it is time to move onto the vapor cone. The cone is a “C” shaped piece of copper when flat. As with the boiler, use your hands to bend the vapor cone so that the ends of the “c” overlap each other by about half an inch. Use sandpaper or a wire brush. After the rivets have been installed, solder the seam from inside making a strong clean joint. Once the vapor cone has been soldered work it by hand and get it as round a possible.

Form, rivet, and solder copper vapor cone

The easiest way to join the vapor cone to the boiler is to place the vapor cone on a table, upside down (large opening up). Turn the boiler upside down and place the open end into the large opening of the boiler. Once the boiler is placed into the vapor cone, add weight to the boiler bottom (which is now on the top) so it will sit tight into the vapor cone. An anvil, cinder block, or even a 5 pound weight from a weight bench works great for this.  Apply flux and solder the joint.

Turn entire unit upside down to solder vapor cone to boiler

Step 3: Collar

Now that the vapor cone has been attached to the boiler, it is time to attach a collar to the inside of the small end of the vapor cone. The collar is simply a half an inch wide strip of copper. Form the collar so it fits inside of the vapor cone and solder it into the vapor cone. The collar is used to create a tight seal between the boiler and the column. 

Solder the collar inside the top of the vapor cone

Step 4: Cap Skirt and Cap Plate

The cap skit is a slightly tapered piece of copper that attaches to the bottom of the column assembly, allowing it to fit snugly down into the collar on the vapor cone. Shape, rivet, and solder just like you did to the rest of the pieces.

Shape, rivet, and solder the cap plate

Once formed, it gets permanently soldered to a cap plate, which is a slightly thicker (15 gauge) copper donut. The donut fits into the larger end of the tapered cap skirt. Note: The cap skirt and collar do NOT get soldered together. This allows the still to be “opened” for filling.

Solder the "donut" inside of the large end of cap skirt.

Step 5: Column and Condenser

Column and condenser parts are the easiest part of the assembly process.  Simply slide a 1 ½” column pipe into the cap plate and solder it into place.

Solder column into cap plate opening

Atop the column will be a 1 ½” x ½” reducer, and two 90 degree street elbows. Below the second street elbow, an inline condenser should be installed which is comprised of two ¾” x ½” x ½” tee’s , a piece of ¾” pipe that joins the tees, and a ½” pipe that runs all the way through the tees and inside of the ¾” connector.Note: the stops inside of the ½” tee openings need to be drilled out so a ½” pipe can run all the way through (the Clawhammer kit comes with pre-drilled tees).

T's are drilled out so drip tube can run all the way through, as shown in this picture.

After column is attached to the cap plate and the condenser is built, solder the two together.

Install a 45 degree elbow at the bottom of the ½” tubing and attach a drip arm to that. Make sure it’s long enough to run all the way to your collection vessel, which should be located several feet away from the still. To assemble simply clean and apply flux to each part, then solder.

Check out our copper stills

All of the parts shown here can be manufactured by hand. However, parts for 1, 5, and 10 gallon stills are also available for purchase on our site.

  • I used wright’s copper cream to clean my finished still. This stuff is magical! Available at Walmart or amazon.

    Posted by Steve on April 23, 2016
  • I live in North Carolina is there any way to get anyway to buy your products

    Posted by Roger on March 21, 2016
  • I want to picture of collar be for it is braded and soidered

    Posted by REdbud on March 19, 2016

    Posted by Rob Rosales on March 14, 2016

    Posted by Rob Rosales on March 14, 2016
  • Hi, how y’all doin. I’ve been watching your YouTube videos and read the articles on building a 5 gallon still. It all seems simple enough to build and all, but I’m not quite sure how to run the condenser? I do recall that in the assembly that it’s a tube within a tube. So all that needs to be done is to run a cooling water line from bottom to top inlet and outlets? I’m thinking that I can run a small recirculating pump in a separate container of cold water the use as my cooling “tower” supply? I’m also thinking that I might have just answered my own question?

    Posted by PEte on January 08, 2016
  • ok..ITS put together…now what???? I cant find any pictures or instructions…where does the required additional copper pipe go and water hose? how do i get shine out of this or even get it in there? this was for Christmas and for fun but we are stumped now….

    Posted by Gretchen on December 27, 2015
  • what are the expected output amounts for the one and five gal. stills?

    Posted by edwin lyon on December 25, 2015

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