If you ask people what is homesteading you will get as many different answers as the number of people you ask, but one thing you are likely to hear from most of them will have something to do with recycle and reuse. We certainly find that to be a big part of our lifestyle as we transition to increased self-sufficiency, so when my friend mentioned that he had seen an instructable to create your own paper pulp fire brick or log, I decided for the minimal cost of the materials, it was worth giving it a shot. This is not a difficult project but there is a small learning curve (that resulted in me wearing a lot of paper pulp).
What you will need:
- Two 5 gallon buckets
- A drill
- A 1/4″ drill bit
- An old saw blade
- A 2′ piece of 5/8″ all-thread rod
- 2 each of nuts, washers, and lock washers to fit the all thread rod
Before we go any further I want to mention that I do not believe the all thread rod and saw blade are a necessity, but more on that in a bit. I bought my two 5 gallon buckets a Lowe’s for less than $5 for both (I did not get a lid but I would recommend getting one. You will not need two lids).
The first thing you will need to do to create your paper pulp fire brick is to turn one of the buckets into a giant strainer. To do that you will need to drill a bunch of holes. I may or may not be a mild perfectionist with some slight OCD leanings so just randomly drilling holes does not sit well with me so I used a carpenter’s square to create a grid work around the bucket and drilled my holes at all the intersections. To create my grid work I turned the bucket upside down and rested the carpenter’s square on the lip of the bucket. This gave me a line to draw from the bottom edge of the bucket all the way to 2″ below the bottom edge of the lip. It also allowed me to create evenly spaced circumferential lines from 2″ from the bottom edge of the lip to the bottom of the bucket. Everywhere the vertical and horizontal, circumferential lines crossed I drilled a 1/4″ hole.
For the bottom of the bucket I created a pie cross section grid work. Near the center of the bottom of the bucket, drilling at every intersection would leave a weak spot so I only drilled at every other intersection for the innermost rings, then drilled at every intersection for the remaining rings.
With all the holes drilled, the work of creating the buckets is done. The strainer bucket will nest inside the second bucket.
Fill it with water and place your random paper products in the water to soak. You will need to allow the paper products to soak for approximately 24 hours.
The original recommended method of shredding the paper.
To finish creating your paper fire log you will need to shred the soggy paper. This is where the saw blade and all thread rod come into play (I will explain how to get around using this in a moment). I placed a nut, lock washer, and fender washer on the all thread rod, placed the saw blade on the rod, and then placed another washer, lock washer, and nut to hold the saw blade in place. This “blender” works well but it has some drawbacks:
- It could be dangerous (you have a saw blade spinning on the end of a rod from a drill)
- The blade could potentially come off
- The blade hits the sides of the bucket and gouges the plastic
- It can be awkward to control
- It can make a huge mess as it starts to create a whirlpool in the bucket slinging water and paper pulp over the sides. This is how I ended up wearing a LOT of paper pulp on my legs, boots, and even some on my face. While it is good for creating comedy for those around you, it is a bit of a pain to clean up.
I can not over-emphasize the danger factor of this method (which is the original method recommended according to my friend). It would be easy to lose control of the blade and end up badly hurt.
Alternative shredding method.
As a result of the safety factor I believe I have a solution. If you have a paper shredder you could simply shred the paper before putting it in the water bucket. You would then follow the same directions, allowing the paper to soak.
What to do with the soaked paper.
Now that the shredded paper has set in the water for 24 hrs (or you have soaked the paper and then shredded it) you simply need to drain the water off. Lift the strainer bucket out of the holding bucket and allow the water to drain out. Once the water draining slows, set the strainer bucket somewhere that it will be ok to make a mess and place the holding bucket full of water on top of the wet paper pulp. This will allow the pulp to compress. I left mine to compress for another 24 hrs and, to create a tighter compression, I placed a second full 5 gallon bucket of water on top of the first. This means that you have approximately 80 lbs of pressure compressing the pulp. Some of the pulp may squeeze out of the holes but pulp loss should be fairly minimal.
Now that the pulp is compressed.
Locate a good place to allow the brick to dry. A sunny location is best as it will allow the brick to dry better. Temperature and ambient humidity will affect the drying time of the bricks. Once they are dried they should be solid enough to easily move and stack in a dry location to be burned in your fireplace to supplement your wood burning.
A few tips I have learned.
- When making my first brick I loaded the bucket with far to much paper. I left stacks of paper bunched together so when it came time to shred and blend the paper the blade would catch on clumps to heavy to shred. It caused the blade to be harder to control and I did not get a good shredding which is vital for bonding to the other pulp and for burn time. I had to remove a lot of the paper until I was able to get a good pulp mass. My first brick ended up being nearly 6″ thick. It is going to take a long time in our current weather for that brick to dry out. I was able to make 3 additional bricks at 2-1/2″ to 3″ thick. They are far more manageable and will be ready before the first brick.
- On the first 2 bricks I made I simply applied the water filled buckets to the mass to compress it. This caused some loss of pulp around the rim of the strainer bucket as it was pushed up the sides and the drain holes became clogged with pulp which inhibited drainage. This left my first two bricks with a high water content, which again, will take much longer to dry out. To help with this, on my next brick I found that working the pulp some with my hands and running my hands around the sides of the bucket resulted in less pulp loss, more water removed, and a lower water level in the brick. It kept pulp out of the drain holes and by working the pulp with my hands more water drained out. When I compressed the pulp I had no pulp loss around the rim of the bucket and minimal through the drain holes. It did mean getting a little dirty, but at that point I had gotten dirty every time so what was a little pulp on my arms.
- I will again emphasize that the spinning blade of pulp death can be very dangerous if not handled carefully. As a result I believe that pre-shredding the paper before soaking it will work just as well and will be far safer. I would recommend that you still get your hands in the water and pulp, even if pre-shredded, for the same reasons as above. As soon as we can afford a paper shredder I will be changing to this method.
All-in-all this is a great alternative to wasting paper. Depending on how many bricks you make throughout the year to set aside for the winter it could reduce your wood burning quite a bit and it is less wasteful than just throwing it away. If you are composting your shredded paper than you may not have enough for this project (we found that we have more than enough to fill the bucket and any paper that we need to dispose of while we are making a brick goes into the compost). This works out well to give us a good balance of paper recycling uses. I can’t wait for my first brick to dry, or cure if you will, enough to give it a try. Burn time claims from the original article my friend referenced were pretty high but if I get even half the amount of burn time out of the bricks that were claimed than I will be happy and consider this experiment a great success. Let me know if you have done this before or if you try it. I would love to hear about your experiences. Have a great day and God bless!
Edit: There is a follow up post that details the dry time and burn time I experienced with my first paper pulp fire brick. You can read it here: Paper Pulp Fire Brick Update: Is it worth it?