How to build a copper pot still

Written by will charpentier
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How to build a copper pot still
The basic still. (Illustrations by the author)

In the hills of Tennessee, they call it "'shine" or "buck." In parts of southern Kentucky, it's known as "hooch," and when it was made in the engine room of a ship during World War II, the practitioners of the art of illicit distilling called it "torpedo juice." All of it can lift your scalp and make you feel as if your face just does not fit on your head. No matter what it's called, the best of it had a common origin: the pot full of bubbling mash and the coiled copper tubing of the copper pot still.

Skill level:
Easy

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Things you need

  • A copper pot, the larger the better
  • Concrete blocks
  • Sheet copper, from which to cut the "cone"
  • China marker
  • Metal shears
  • Rivets
  • Rivet tool
  • An assistant
  • 1.2 cm (1/2 inch) copper tubing, 7.5 m (25 foot) roll
  • Soldering gun
  • Roll of silver core solder (not lead core)

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Instructions

  1. 1

    Set the copper pot atop the concrete blocks to allow room to build a fire below the pot.

    How to build a copper pot still
    Make room under the copper pot for a fire
  2. 2

    Make the funnel for the top of the still. Cut the copper sheet with the metal shears, to form an interrupted torus (a shape like a doughnut, with a bite taken out of it). The circumference of the torus should be 1.2 times the circumference of the top of the copper pot; the hole at the centre of the torus should be 1.2 cm (1/2 inch) in diameter. Mark the metal with the china marker to indicate where you will cut the circular form from the copper sheet and the 1.2 cm (1/2 inch) hole in the centre of the circle. Create the torus by cutting from the edge of the circular piece of metal to the centre of the circle, where the 1.2 cm (1/2 inch) hole is marked; then, make a second cut toward the centre, from a point on the circumference of the circle to the centre of the circle. The distance on the circumference of circle between the first and second cuts should equal 20 per cent of the circumference of the top of the pot. For example, if the pot has a circumference of 90 cm (36 inches) the second cut should be 18 cm (7.2 inches) along the circumference of the circle from the first cut. Cut the 1.2 cm (1/2 inch) hole in the centre to complete the interrupted torus. Bring the two edges together, and use the rivet gun to secure the edges together with rivets, to form the funnel.

    How to build a copper pot still
    Cutting the copper sheet to form the funnel
  3. 3

    Extend the roll of copper tubing. Hand the end on the outer edge of the roll, to your assistant and instruct him to hold it. Take the end of the copper tubing that is nearest the centre of the roll in hand, and pull until you are 2.4 to 3 m (8 to 10 feet) from your assistant. This will stretch the tubing out without kinking it, and it will contract back toward your assistant slightly when released. Repeat this stretching until the roll of copper tubing resembles a spiral 1.8 to 2.4 m (6 to 8 feet) long.

  4. 4

    Solder the funnel to one end of the copper tubing using the soldering gun and the silver solder. Do not, under any circumstances, use lead core solder. This will contaminate any product you make in the still with lead, rendering it unfit for human consumption.

    How to build a copper pot still
    The funnel soldered to the copper tubing
  5. 5

    Set the funnel and spiralled tubing on top of the copper pot, but do not permanently attach the funnel, as you will have to remove the funnel to put the necessary ingredients into the pot to be cooked. The still is now ready to be "filled and fired." As the ingredients cook, they will give off lighter chemicals, in the form of steam, which will concentrate at the funnel and in the tube, condensing into a liquid as it contacts the cooler surfaces of the tube. The finished product will drip from the end of the tube and should be collected in an appropriate container and set aside for ageing.

    How to build a copper pot still
    The collection process

Tips and warnings

  • The historically correct container for the collection of the condensate from the copper pot still is a Mason jar.
  • Take care when working with cut metal, metal shears or any tool, including the soldering gun.
  • Remember that there are certain legalities involved in making some taxable products using the copper pot still and certain restrictions on the quantities of those products that an individual can make.

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