Hiking in Finland

Climbing, bikepacking, skiing & packrafting in the north

Interview: Fritz Handel From BushBuddy

The next interview is with a person who is maybe not so well known as Henry Shires or Glen Van Peski, but has nevertheless a very interesting story to tell. Fritz Handel is the man behind BushBuddy, and he shares with us how he developed the BushBuddy and how he started his cottage manufacture. Its a very interesting story, with lots of information, so grab a cup of tea and some cookies and enjoy this interview!

Fritz and his wife Clara.

Fritz, since when are you backpacking, and how did you start? How often are you out backpacking nowadays?

As a teenager, during my fathers two week vacations in August, my parents took us children on camping trips using the family station wagon. These trips were a great antidote to my public school experiences. They helped me to understand better what my true needs were, and to recognize the value of simplicity and having less. And that I could satisfy many of my needs more directly by doing things for myself, without needing a "job" working for an employer. I often think that the educational system is intended to prepare us to be wage slaves, why else should it be "compulsory"?

So, education was a bad experience for me. By contrast, there is a great deal more freedom of thought when camping and hiking than almost anywhere else--no T.V. or teachers or other sources of propaganda to interfere with the thought processes. And there is the entire natural world to learn from, along with skills of self sufficiency. So I became in love with the outdoor life, and have enjoyed biking, canoeing and hiking ever since.

Although I usually get out for an hour or two walk every day, the Bushbuddy business now keeps me too busy to go camping for more than a day or two. If the economy doesn’t go into the toilet, I am going to have to deal with this and find someone to help me.

Are you yourself a lightweight/ UL backpacker? If so, what is your typical baseweight?

During my younger years my loads were always heavy, but it was not as hard then to pack them. As I have gotten older I look more and more for ways to lighten my pack but I am not a fanatic about this. Also important to me is that my gear will last a long time, so I try to find a balance between durability and lightness. But always my goal is to not carry more gear than I need to be safe and comfortable.

I grew up reading Horace Kephart, so I come from the old school, I would not be happy camping without a good sized axe in the north counry, and I still like my 6lb. Hudson's Bay wool blanket. These two items alone weigh more than the base weight of many ultra light hikers. So, though my pack is now lighter than it used to be, I'm not what anybody would call an "ultralight" hiker.

I have come to regard my camping gear almost as a part of me, necessary for survival. So I always carry a pack of about 30 pounds, which includes a few days supply of food, even when just going for a short walk when there is no need to carry this much gear. I just enjoy the feeling that my survival doesn't depend on getting anywhere, everything I need is with me. The new product that I most appreciate is sil nylon, it has allowed me to reduce my pack weight more than any other single thing.

The original conical Gypsy stove on the left, and the progression of the design in time, going toward the right. The last stove on the right is the Bushbuddy Ultra - and soon there will be one more.

The BushBuddy is a very popular wood stove, on BPL.com there is already an "BushBuddy Appreciation Society" and also otherwise the demand for this masterpiece seems high. Can you tell a bit more about how you ended up starting your company, and how it developed over the years?

The way that I came to be manufacturing the Bushbuddy began about 10 years ago. Until that time I used only an open campfire, but a friend showed me his Sierra Zip stove, and it worked very well. It uses much less wood than a campfire and was very fast to boil water. And of course, like an open campfire, it does not require packing fuel. I bought one for myself, but found that its biggest shortcoming was dependence on batteries. This will always limit how much you are willing to use the stove, lurking in the back of your mind is a worry that you will run out of charged batteries. Without a good battery to run the fan the stove was next to useless.

So I decided to make a stove to avoid this problem of the batteries. The first Idea was a simple conical stove based on an old Gypsy design used by wandering tinsmiths to heat their soldering iron. It was very similar to the Caldera cone, except that I made it in three sections so that it could nest inside a pot. To use the stove, these sections could be stacked one on top of the other to form the cone, with a slight overlap at each joint.

This stove worked very well, it could boil water as fast as the Sierra stove, about four minutes to boil a liter. In my efforts to compensate for the lack of a fan, I made it a little taller than it really needed to be.

The cone is a good design because of the narrower opening at the top of the stove, which causes all of the hot exhaust gases to be brought into a small area where the heat is concentrated, and the gases are better mixed together, so that combustion is more complete. There was very little smoke when the fire was burning well. This is true also of the commercially made Trail stove and the Caldera wood burning stove. I sold a few crudely constructed stoves locally, assembled with pop rivets, based on this design.

One of the nice things about the Sierra stove was that it would not char the ground below it, which allowed me to use it in places where I couldn't normally make a campfire. For example, one of my favorite places to stop for lunch if the weather is bad is under the shelter of a spruce tree. I started carrying around a stainless steel pie plate as a base to set the stove up on. By putting some dirt in the plate, I was able to use the stove under a spruce tree, making a really cozy little camp. Usually I could also suspend the pot by a string from a branch above the stove, which was much safer and more convenient than putting the pot on top of the stove.

But the big drawback of using the pie plate and dirt was the added weight of the plate, and the difficulty of finding dirt that was not also filled with organic matter, especially in winter. Also, after the fire had burned for some time, the heat traveled through the dirt and the spruce needles below would begin to char and smolder, requiring dousing with water or snow. To overcome these problems, I tried making a platform of stainless steel with fiberglass insulation, which was ridiculously heavy, but it didn't work any better than using dirt. Eventually the heat traveled through the dirt or insulation, the insulation only slowed the rate of heat transfer.

I struggled with this problem for a while. Putting the pie plate on legs is an obvious solution, but another might be to use an active means of cooling the bottom of the stove, such as might be provided by routing the incoming air feeding the fire under the bottom of the stove, so that heat coming from the bottom of the fire would be continuously carried away, preventing it from reaching the ground.

One evening I began to sketch out a new stove design starting from scratch that might do this. The heart of the idea was to place a shallow cone shaped heat shield, with a small central hole to admit air to the fire, below a grate which supported the fire. The conical shape would allow ash to slide down the slope and out the central hole. This hole would be relatively small. limiting how much heat would be radiated toward the ground. The air coming through the central hole would provide only a small amount of cooling of the heat shield, but more cooling might be provided by using a double wall around the firebox, to create a draft that would draw cool air past the bottom surface of the heat shield. A baffle was added to make the incoming cool air pass close to the heat shield. To simplify construction, I decided to make the firebox a simple cylinder shape, but with this double wall around it.

Still in the planning stage, as I was doing all of this "construction" on paper, I then asked myself, "What to do with this hot air coming up through the double wall?" Why not route it into the fire box just above the fire, where it might facilitate more complete combustion? I was aware that some of the newer home heating stoves being manufactured employed "secondary combustion" which worked by doing something similar. This would be simple to accomplish by closing off the top opening between the walls and drilling a ring of holes around the upper inside wall of the firebox. I hoped that the incoming heated air would also help to focus the hot exhaust gases into a smaller area the way the conical stove did. With the addition of a separate low container as a stand to place the stove on, a lighter weight equivalent of the pie plate, to catch the ashes and sparks that fell through the central hole, as well as to spread and diffuse the heat that radiated out of this hole, I hoped that the stove would remain cool enough to place on a bed of spruce needles indefinitely, without igniting them.

Fritz spot-welding.

I built a very simple model to test the idea. My main goal had been to provide cooling to the bottom of the stove to prevent charring the ground, but I was impressed when I observed the plumes of flame directed inward toward the center of the fire, as the secondary combustion process characteristic of this design occurred. As I had hoped, the incoming secondary air formed an invisible curtain that prevented stray wisps of smoke from escaping into the atmosphere, and there was little or no smoke. And as I had hoped, though the bottom of the stand was far too hot to hold in my hands, it remained cool enough to use the stove indefinitely without charring an organic surface below.

As I experimented over the next few months, I found that the flames were sootier if there was too much primary air entering the fire, and that limiting the primary air resulted in a cleaner fire. However, if the primary air supply was restriced too much the firebox would slowly fill with unburned charcoal. It was important to have enough primary air to burn the charcoal as fast as it was produced, but not so much that the fire burned hot and sooty. I also varied the size and number of the secondary air holes until I found what I felt created the cleanest burning fire. During these experiments it never even occurred to me that I might completely fill the firebox with wood and light it on the top, in an "inverted down draft" mode, (which is a misleading term, because the double negative really means that the fire is naturally convecting). I learned of this concept later, after my brother sent me some information about Garlington's experimental stove.

I knew I had stumbled onto a winner here, but as a handyman in a remote community, my income was not high. Patenting the design was out of the question, and even the cost of a patent search was more than I wanted to spend. And if successful in getting a patent, there would be an ongoing need to defend the patent in court if anyone tried to infringe on it. None of this appealed to me.

Quite a few years ago I had read an interview in Popular Science magazine with a very successful inventor, in which he said that the best way to make money with an invention was to produce the invention yourself. I have sold many heaters and camp stoves made from old oil drums over the years, so I had some experience working with metal, as well as a fairly well equipped shop for metal working, including a 6" Atlas lathe and a drill press. I also had a homemade bandsaw mill that I could use to make wooden boxes for shipping the stoves, saving the expense of cardboard boxes. I decided to just go ahead and begin manufacturing the stove, Once the stove was on the market, the concept would become public domain and no one could then get a patent on it and prevent me from manufacturing the stove. Also, importantly, the stove was small and light enough to sell by mail. I knew that mass producing the stove would be essential if I was going to be able to produce it at a reasonable price and still earn a good wage. There was not enough demand in our small community of Iskut to justify the effort of making the special tools and forms needed to produce the stove efficiently.

Before I could begin manufacturing the stove though, I had one further hurdle to clear. Up to now all of my experimental stoves had been made by using pop rivets and bent tabs of metal. Stainless steel rivets cost 12 cents apiece, and required drilling holes for the rivets, a time consuming, expensive, and limiting way to assemble a stove. Looking at possibly buying a spot welder, I read in the catalog that the transformer in the spot welder produced only 1 1/2 volts, but at very high amperage. Because we live off grid, we have a 24 volt bank of used nicad batteries made up of 19 individual 1.2 volt cells of 200 amp hour capacity connected in series. Most of the year they are charged by a set of solar panels, and provide our lighting and modest electrical needs. I had a some spare cells that were not being used. Might it be possible to build a spot welder that used a low voltage battery made of these cells as the source of current, instead of a transformer?

I found that two cells in series produced enough voltage and amperage to make a few weak welds, connecting more pairs of two cells (in series) into parallel with this first pair yielded more amperage, and made better welds. The welder that I use to make all of the Bushbuddy stoves today is powered by a small battery bank made up of four parallel groups of two cells in series, producing only a little more than 3 volts when fully charged, but running at about 2.4 to 2.6 volts most of the time.

This is where Fritz tries out different stove designs. The hood is ventilated by a 4" diameter stove pipe based on Kifaru's design.

My first home made spot welder did not have replaceable tips. Because the tips of the spot welder will wear and mushroom with many thousands of welds made, I made an improved one with replaceable tips made of pure copper rod about 1/4" in diameter, filed to a point about 1/8" in diameter. I may upgrade these tips using a harder alloy in the future, but pure copper works very well, even though it is soft and mushrooms with use. There are approximately 210 spot welds holding the Bushbuddy Ultra together, and about 150 welds for the regular model.

After I made the spot welder, I located a source of stainless steel that was .018" thick, the thinnest that I could find, and began to make the "Gypsy Stove", as I called the new design, after the inspirational cone design used by Gypsies. It weighed 22 ounces, no one could call it flimsy!

Soon after I started selling them, my brother, who had a computer (I did not have one at that time, which was about the end of 2001) discovered a similar stove called the "Bushbuddy" being sold on the internet, also made of stainless steel, which was being manufactured by a professor of economics at Portland State University named John Hall. John apparently had a patent on his design, which used a double wall around the firebox and a secondary combustion process similar to my own design. My brother suggested that I ought to buy one of his stoves to see if I might be infringing on his patent.

I did, and I was dismayed to find that he did indeed have a patent on this feature. I contacted John by snail mail and asked him if I might pay him a royalty to produce my own version of the stove. He generously agreed to allow me to produce the Gypsy Stove with no need to pay royalties unless I started making thousands of them. He also suggested that the name "Gypsy Stove" might not be a good choice from a marketing point of view because Gypsies are not favorably regarded in many countries where they live because of a reputation for thievery. He suggested a possible name of "Trekstov". This is how the "Trekstov" was born.

Although there were other products that used the word "Trek" in some way in their trademark, I felt that "Trekstov" was sufficiently unique that I would be able to secure it as my trademark within Canada, and I applied to the Canadian Intellectual Property Office for this trademark. I began selling the Trekstov in 2002. Like John's three sizes of Bushbuddy stoves, my stove was a little too heavy to be really practical for most backpackers. The Trekstov did, however, get a favorable review by the gear editor at Backpacker magazine in 2003, where they characterized it as "Light on the Long Haul".

In anticipation of the review in Backpacker magazine, and expecting a flood of orders, I over produced the Trekstov. That didn't materialize. After an initial flurry of orders, for the next three three years I was happy if I sold one stove a week, two stoves was a very good week. So I had a lot of time to experiment on ways to improve the stove.

One day my brother sent me some information from the internet about a novel roll up stove pipe made of .004" thick stainless steel that Kifaru was selling for use with their stoves. I contacted Patrick Smith and asked who his supplier was. From Brown Metals in California I purchased some thinner gauges of stainless steel.

Now using thinner stainless steel, I continued to build experimental stoves, improving the design. When I finally realized how much heat was being radiated out through the central 1 1/2" diameter primary air inlet, I placed an ashpan with 3/4" high sides below the grate to block this radiant heat. The primary air was routed up under the center of the ashpan, and then up around it's sides, before finally entering the fire from below the grate. This change improved the cooling of the base so much that it was now possible to hold the stove in my bare hands while it was still burning. The grate was changed to 1/2" stainless steel mesh, which did not clog with ash as easily as the Trekstov's drilled plate, and was lighter. And the charcoal burned away more completely. The metal bracket on the side of the Trekstov was eliminated, because there was now no need to use a pot gripper to shake the stove to clear ash from the grate. This allowed the stove to nest inside a smaller pot. The diameter of the stove was reduced slightly to reduce weight. The pot support section was changed to have air inlet holes, which provided better air flow to the flames. Most important of all, by using thinner stainless steel.and a slightly smaller diameter, the weight of the stove was reduced to 12 ounces, just over half of what the Trekstov had weighed. But the stove still sat on a separate base section in use.

John Hall stopped making and selling his stoves. He made a good income as a professor, and lost interest in the stove business. None of the large outdoor equipment retailers that he contacted with his idea thought it had any potential, the concensus was that people preferred the cleanliness and convenience of liquid fueled stoves.

Eventually most of the old Trekstov inventory was sold, and I introduced the new version of the stove. With all of these improvements, sales bagan to increase. Soon after I introduced the new stove, the Trademark office refused my appplication. I had calculated wrong, the Trek Bicycle Corporation had successfully opposed my trademark application. Again John Hall came to my rescue. He had trademarked the name Bushbuddy in the US, and said that I was welcome to use the name, he would not oppose me. I renamed the stove "Bushbuddy", and applied for this trademark. (In 2008 I was granted the Bushbuddy trademark in Canada.)

The next development in the Bushbuddy saga came when Ryan Jordan at BackpackingLight purchased one of the new Bushbuddy stoves. He was impressed enough with the secondary combustion to ask me if I could make him a 6 ounce version of the stove. How could I reduce the weight? The obvious place to save a lot of weight, and a lot of work too, and potential problems of fit, would be to eliminate the base that the firebox sat on. By rearranging the internal construction of the stove to allow eliminating the base section, and by using even thinner metal for most of the stove, I was able to achieve this goal. Soon afterward, just before his upcoming Arctic 1000 trip in 2006, he asked me if I could make an even smaller stove that would fit inside his Snow Peak .9L titanium pot. I built for Ryan what turned out to be the prototype for the Bushbuddy Ultra.
As they say, "the rest is history". Ryan ordered a hundred Bushbuddy Ultra stoves from me, and popularized the stove. I discontinued the larger model Bushbuddy, and started making a new "redesigned regular model" that was the same size as the Ultra.

John Hall let his patent protection expire. It turns out you have to keep giving money to the patent office to maintain patent protection. He might have kept up his patent protection, but I think that he generously chose to let the idea go into the public domain. I am pleased to use the Bushbuddy name, John played a big part in my own success and I hope he takes some satisfaction that the Bushbuddy concept lives on.

Can you tell a bit about how long it takes you to make a BushBuddy, and how many you're making per year?

I do not make the stoves one at a time, but in batches of 24. Per stove, it works out to about 2 hours each. Last year I sold a total of 860 stoves.

What is the most sold BushBuddy - the normal version or the Ultra version? Where do your customer come from?

I have not counted the actual number of each model that I have sold, but my impression is that it is about equal. Thanks to the reach of the internet, customers come from all over the world. I have even sold two stoves to people at McMurdo base in Antarctica, as unlikely as that might seem. But mostly it is the more advanced countries that buy the stove.

What do you think of the Bushcooker wood stove, and other wood stove designs out there? Do you maybe even own some of them?

I have mentioned the Trail stove and the Caldera cone. I do not own either of these stoves, but I think both are good stoves for wood burning, though with the drawback of charring the ground. I have not used the Bushcooker, but it appears to be very similar to the Bushbuddy. I did notice on the Outdoor Station video with Bob Cartwright that the internal construction of the Bushcooker is different, there is no ashpan below the grate. The primary air comes in through holes around the side of the lower part of the firebox wall, below the grate. This would make the stove easier to manufacture, eliminating the need to make the ashpan, and potentially lighter. There would be less shielding of the bottom of the stove from the radiant heat of the fire with this design, but that may not be as important to many people as making a good, useful stove available at a lower price.

How easy, or difficult, is it to compete versus the mass market manufacturers, like Trangia, MSR and Primus? Have they maybe already tried to approach you and buy the company/ product/ patents?

Because I am only one worker in a small home business, I do not need to sell a large number of stoves to make a living. Last year was the first year that I sold so many stoves. I think there will always be a niche for the worker at home who can provide unique products that the large manufacturers are not interested in making because they need a very large market. By selling direct, I can make a better wage without making the selling price too high than I could by selling through a retailer. Every extra mouth along the way needs to be fed, so it is more efficient to feed lower on the food chain. The internet has really created a revolution that is only beginning to be felt. Today it is much easier to sell directly to the customer than it used to be, and there is an opportunity for many more people to create a cottage industry. Working at home could become much more common.

I expect that there will be other companies making similar stoves, but that is a good thing, maybe some day I will be able to go camping again.

No companies have approached me about buying my company. I have no patents, so there is really nothing to buy, anyone can just as well just start building similar stoves.

Once more back to gear: Can we expect in the next years new innovations from you? Different designs, even lighter or something completely new?

Many people have asked that I make a titanium version of the stove, and I am planning to do this. It should weigh about 3 1/2 ounces. When it is available I will announce this on my website.

Further into the future I would like to offer also a model that incorporates a small thermoelectric generator that would enable batteries to be charged for use in a flashlight, or for the ever growing number of electronic gadgets. This would not add much weight and would provide a reliable source of charging when there is little sun, maybe even making it unnecessary to carry extra batteries or a solar panel.

Some of the tools used to make the BushBuddy.

If there is a thermoelectric generator in the stove, the option of a small motor to run a fan becomes possible. By creating some turbulence in the exhaust gases, it would be possible to reduce or nearly eliminate soot getting on the pot. The fan would not need to be used, but it could be a useful option.

I would also like to offer a larger version of the stove for use in winter or for larger groups. I have not finalized the design of this larger stove, there is much more heat produced and cooling the bottom of the stove is a more difficult problem.

What is your own favorite stove, backpack and shelter? Did you maybe even DIY?

Of course, my own favorite stove is the Bushbuddy Ultra. I use a home made packboard with a frame made from the tempered aluminum spar from a discarded helicopter blade. After a good big spruce tree, a homemade sil-nylon tarp is my favorite shelter.

What was your last longer backpacking trip? Are you trying to get lighter and lighter still, or did you already reach your perfect setup?

My last trip was two years ago, I am now just too busy to get away from home for very long. As for having found my perfect setup, have you ever met anyone who has done this? As Horace Kephart said about the possibility that someone might some day invent the perfect kit, "Our greatest pleasure in life would be swept away". Of course I am interested in improving my kit, that will never go away!

Do you think ultralight backpacking wood stoves will become more popular and break into the mass market, or will it continue to be something for a small group of people?

I think that we are going to see some very difficult times in the near future. Most of the people of the world still use wood for cooking, because it is the least expensive fuel, and because it is renewable and people can gather wood for themselves. I think more people will be cooking with wood out of neccessity.

For hikers, a woodburning stove is environmentally sound because it reduces the use of fossil fuels. And damage to the environment is minimal, a few twigs can be gathered over many miles of trail with really no impact, except for areas of extremely high human traffic. And who wants to travel where there are so many people? And of course, wood fires are fun!

Glen Van Peski of Gossamer Gear told about the yearly "Brain Trust" hike of some North American cottage manufacturers, are you usually also taking part in it or are you too busy running the company? Are you otherwise in touch with any of the other cottage manufacturers, like Trail Designs and Four Dog Stoves, and talking about developments and the like?

Even if I was not so busy, I would rather communicate with other cottage manufactures by phone and email than to travel. If I go "out" for even a short time I am always so glad to come back to this wilderness where we live. There is no place that I would rather be.

I have not been in touch until recently with any other cottage manufacturers besides Patrick Smith. Don Kevilus at Four Dog stoves recently bought a Bushbuddy Ultra stove from me, and gave me some good contact information for buying titanium. I am also now in contact with DJ Leavitt at Titanium Goat.

Fritz, I thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. Is there something you would like to add?

I hope that more people will be encouraged by this story to start their own home business. It has been a very positive experience for me. For anyone thinking of doing this, I think the most important thing is to have other sources of income during the beginning years. Also, you do not want to borrow money and have the pressure of needing to sell your product so that you can repay creditors. My advice is to be patient and finance the growth of your business from profits, not from borrowed money. If the business doesn't grow, then there are no profits, which prevents you from investing money in a bad idea. Borrowed money is often wasted, and there are few things more discouraging than paying for a dead horse. I also think that people generally make better spending decisions after they have earned the money than they do before they have earned it. This is partly because they will have had more time to think about the purchase, but also because they fully appreciate the effort that it took to earn the money. And, as it becomes clearer every day, fractional reserve banking is the biggest scam of all time, so don't participate in your own enslavement. Thank you Hendrik for the opportunity to answer your questions.