Kelly Kettle review / first impressions

I had been intrigued by the Kelly Kettle / Ghillie Kettle a long time, as I had been by rocket stoves and all other sorts of camping / survival gear and fire-related things. (The Kelly and Ghillie are pretty much the same thing, but the KK is a US company, the GK version is a UK company, with slightly different options and variations, such as KK has stainless steel, GK is Aluminum only). It’s a small, simple, wood-burning “debris and twig” system designed to boil water quickly on little fuel, and also do general cooking/heating. The bottom line on that claim to fame: It does boil water very well on little fuel, even poor quality/wet fuel, and is OK as a general twig stove for GP cooking.

Details below.

I picked one up a while back, and finally got around to testing it. I decided to just use it on the back deck, using the grill as a convenient and non-flammable “base” upon which to set it. The specific item I bought was the Stainless Steel ‘Base Camp’ Kettle (54 fl.oz) – Basic Kit, with the Hobo Stove, which I bought direct from the company. I had a minor issue with the order; more on that issue and the customer service experience below.

If you want pics of the KK “in action,” their website has a load of them.

The well-known hobo stove has a thousand “traditional” variations, usually made from used tin cans. They are small, give you a contained space that acts as a chimney to make for a hotter fire and less smoke under less-than-ideal conditions, and a place to set a small pot or pan to cook with. Any prepper, boy scout, survivalist, or would-be soldier has made some  version as a kid because simple project + fire = fun. Cheap and easy, useful too.

The idea behind the “Rocket Stove” is that the chimney effect will draw air through much faster, and by having a relatively small lower air intake hole the rising hot air will make a draft that sort of “blows on the base” to increased the burn-rate/temperature of the fire, resulting in more complete combustion, less smoke, and a faster boil/cook time. The “water jacket” design of the Kelly Kettle means that it makes a tall chimney ALL of which wraps around the firebox, creating a stronger draft with a whole lot of surface area. It also acts to block the wind and keep the heat from just blowing away before it reaches the pot (been there, had that problem); it’s strange to have a blazing fire that barely radiates heat, except very close to the base, and a foot away up at the top. You could, if there is no dry fuel at all, also use a standard gas, propane, butane, or other stove under it, and it will heat the water very fast for the same reason.

The base of the system provides a good wind-break, so you load it with the appropriate tinder/small twigs/ shavings / fire-starting material you have, set the filled kettle on top, and light it up. Depending on ground conditions you could use the new model Pot Support underneath it to lower the chance of fire escaping or to increase stability. I’ve been able to start it with a single match every single time so far.

When I lit it off, it started “drawing” almost instantly. From that point it was less than 10 minutes to a boil every time so far when I am using good dry wood; boiling 1.6 liters of water isn’t nothing. Crap/wet wood takes longer (shocker). Now for most people out in the woods, you are not likely to actually need that much boiling water… but mix it with a gallon of icy cold lake water, and you have about 1.3 gal of pleasantly warm water to wash things, or whatever. Plenty for tea for 4 people, washing, filling a hot water bottle before turning in, or anything else you can imagine. And heating that much, that fast, take a surprisingly small amount of fuel.

Downsides to the system:

  1. Because of the water-jacket/chimney design it is a little awkward getting the kettle off the fire when it starts boiling; if you simply lift the handle you hand would go directly over the VERY HOT chimney flames and you’d burn yourself, so you MUST use two hands on the side-wires for the handle, held at right angles to the kettle. This isn’t difficult, just awkward.
  2. If you’d dropped any larger sticks or pieces down from the top, when you lift off the kettle they splay out, and you will not be able to put the kettle back on until it burns down or you rearrange them into a teepee. [As an aside, a pair of metal tongs to handle the small bits of flaming wood, or maneuver the hobo stove or base or pot rest around, is VERY useful; will be an essential part of this kit for me.]
  3. If you fill it, when it gets to boiling hard it’ll bubble out and over and down the side… into the flared base with the fire in it. Comment about this below in “Overflow.”
  4. The web site says if you boil it dry than it might get too hot and ruin it (but doesn’t say exactly how), and adding water while it’s on is awkward.
  5. There isn’t any “proper” way to adjust the airflow to “turn it down” if it’s boiling hard and you don’t / can’t take the kettle off right away; you have to partially cover the top (not easy), or block the air intake at the bottom (imprecise). One mod I’d recommend to the company is a simple sliding shutter across the base hole.

The Pot Support that sits atop the chimney so you can pot a pan or pot atop it works… OK, I guess. It is simple enough, and the “new design” can be used as a base OK, but because it’s not flat it doesn’t work well with any random-sized pot or pan you might have to place on the heat. I tried a small cast-iron pan to fry an egg, and it sort of fit, but a couple of mm larger and it would have been at an angle no matter what I did. It also “sorta” fits the pan and pot that came with the kit. And “sorta” fits the base. For something that appears to have a complicated, purposeful cutout shape, I can’t figure out what most of the notches / cutout shapes are supposed to fit. The old model looks like (just looking at the pics online) it would work as a top potholder better, but can’t be a base support. Oh, well.

The “Hobo Stove” accessory is also… OK. The firebox suffers from the same problem that all such items have, being so small that you are not going to get a lot of heat out of it, and there isn’t a lot of room to have a fire in part and drying wood in part. I was thinking that an accessory that some something like a large covered “bunt pan” to provide a firewood drying “kiln” with a central chimney to provide draft would be good. It is sturdy enough, and the stainless steel won’t rust, so that’s good. Haven’t done a lot with it beyond some basic burn tests, fry an egg, and roast some bits  of stew meat on a metal skewer over it, but being sturdy and stable means that if you have some (small) wood and can get a decent little fire going (or use the remains of your kettle boiling wood) then it’ll heat a small pot or pan, but not as much as something like a Coleman gas stove (obviously). A single serving of meat-on-a-skewer, maybe two, can be done.

The small size takes some getting used to. As a practical matter, you mostly can’t use things much larger than the diameter of the base of your thumb, and 4-5″ long. If you get it going with some junk wood, then use charcoal to grill a little, the small size means you use very little of it, much less than you’d use in a regular small grill. So as a “home emergency kit” piece it’s nice.

Because it is so mall, the field-collected wood it can use will all be small, easily child-collectable. The hobo stove doesn’t have the height of the chimney, so they have to be cut even smaller. But, with some wood well dried around the base earlier, it does, minimally, get the job done.

The “poor fuel” test: Set up the stove, get it going with good, dry wood, then start feeding in much more typical wet branches broken up into small pieces to answer the question: can it extract enough energy from sodden fuel to dry out the next piece and warm some water? Yes, it does. It smokes and steams a lot more, and it’s best with lots of very small things, and you’ll be feeding it constantly, and may need to blow on it a bit if you drop too much in and it slows the draw enough it starts to cool, but you can boil water with mostly total crap wood for fuel. Using poor fuel with just the hobo stove results in a lot of smoke, and a seriously creosote-covered pan bottom when trying to cook over it because of the low heat, incomplete combustion, and relatively cold pan so close. However, cleanup with alcohol (I used “isopropyl” or “rubbing alcohol,” I think some places call it “methylated spirits”) and a paper towel took it right off. But even under these less-than-perfect conditions, it generated enough heat to get the water to a simmer with just the hobo stove and a pot on a 40-degree day.

Adjusting heat: Once it’s boiling, you may still want to cook on top of it, but don’t want it at a hard boil and blasting heat high. For a brief slow-down, simply setting a pan flat on top cuts the airflow so it slows down quite a bit; obviously you need to do this when the Pot Support is not on top of it. For a more variable adjustment, I found that pushing some sticks into the base air intake hole to narrow it worked pretty well, but it’s not a “fast” adjustment like the control knob on a gas stove. How many sticks are needed depends on size, etc., and you just have to sort of play with it.

Overflow: A full kettle hits a hard boil very suddenly and fast. I found that when you think it’s getting close you can just hold a pot under the fill-spout, rather than waiting for the whistling bung, and the first moments of the hard rolling boil will spit a fair bit of water out. Don’t stand directly in front of it, and hold the pot from the side, and you can catch two or three cups of near-boiling water before the level lowers to where the rolling boil can simply vent steam and not blast water out. Use that for your first tea brew-up, put it in the oatmeal pot, or whatever. You can then adjust fuel or airflow, or make ready to remove the whole kettle at your convenience if needed.

Customer Service issue: I bought it directly from the Kelly Kettle website, not a reseller. The box arrived promptly at a reasonable price, and the packaging was good. The kit was in the box, but not the hobo stove. Huh. Strange, the box was large enough for it… I called them up, got to a real person fairly quickly, and explained the problem. He said “yup, that’s a problem,” and promptly sent out the hobo stove, which arrived a couple of days later in good order. So, which a botched order isn’t a good thing, a quick, painless, and satisfactory resolution via customer service is.

General thoughts: The things in the kit and kettle do generally nest together pretty well when packed for travel or storage. Alcohol for cleanup works well. The pot and pan in the cooking kit are small and simple, but fairly useable for very very basic cooking. A small pair of normal stainless steel kitchen tongs are very helpful. Dry fuel to start it is almost a must, but just about anything can be used in a pinch once it’s going. In a grid-down home emergency situation, using this with charcoal would be very fuel-efficient and smokeless, an excellent backup system. Its strength is heating water; it’s not primarily GP cooker. I can think of a half-dozen attachments or mods that might be good and useful. I’d bet a lot of people in Europe, particularly Ukraine, wish they had one of these right now.

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