{how to} A Temporary Fireplace for Making Maple Syrup

Editor’s Note: Its that time of year again- Maple Sap running! You can do it- go outside & tap your neighborhood maple trees (with permission from your neighbors of course!) Dianna is back with another (helpful) installment in her How To Maple Syrup Series. If you weren’t with us last year this time, Dianna cranked out post after post of helpful knowledge on how to tap your urban/suburban neighborhood maple trees, how to boil it and bottle it. She is back with a DIY Fireplace w/ evaporator for “boiling” the sap in late March.

Here’s her 2011 Posts on the Subject: How to Tap Maple Syrup, {Photo Diary} How to Tap Maple Trees  (helpful photos of tapping in action), {Photo Diary} The Big Boil and Dianna’s recap of the boiling & bottling process. Like she says at the end of this post, “its not rocket science”, so go out and tap some trees (with permission!) Get to it! -Christina

{2011 Sap Buckets}

This weekend we tapped our maple trees.  We could have done it last weekend, or  any time before the end of the month, but this is the time we had free.  There is almost always an early flow of sap for a week or so in February, which we usually ignore, not because there is anything wrong with it, but because we simply haven’t gotten our act together yet.  But this winter the weather has been unusually mild, making us worry that this might be the year when climate change really ruins March syruping.  So on Saturday, my husband Michael and Russell, our syruping partner, went around the block with buckets, spiles and drill, knocking on doors and asking for permission, once again, to hang buckets from our neighbors’ trees in exchange for a share of the syrup.  The person with the best tree sold her house, so we had to go explain ourselves to our new neighbor.

I wrote about tapping our trees last year; this year I want to describe how we build our fireplace.  We won’t actually build it for another week or two so you should check back for a new, updated syruping photo diary specifically aimed at fire place construction at the end of the month or beginning of March if you need more information.

boiling sap

The fireplace is built to accommodate the size of our evaporator, which is 2 feet by 4 feet by 1 foot deep.  We bought our evaporator on ebay several years ago after a friend accidentally backed a truck over our old evaporator.  Real evaporators with baffles are pretty expensive, even on ebay, running around $500 and up, so we bought one that is just an open stainless steel pan with four handles, two on each of the long sides of the evaporator so that two people can lift it off the fire.  Our evaporator cost $125 and should last forever unless we run over it with a truck again.  The point of the baffles is to heat portions of the syrup up more quickly and move it through the pan faster in order to get a lighter, higher grade syrup.  The faster you move your syrup out of the pan, the lighter it is.  Frankly, we don’t care what grade of syrup we make.  B or C is fine for homemade syrup.  So we just dump in 40 or 60 gallons of sap and boil it till it is ready to bring inside and finish on the stove.

our evaporator, lying on its side. Note the handles for moving it off the fire.

Michael has been messing with fireplace design for years.  There are many possibilities, including building a permanent fireplace inside of a sugar shack, but we simply build a temporary cinder block and brick fireplace and take it down every year when the season is over.  We use cinder blocks because Michael is a cinder block hoarder and we had a bunch of them sitting around our basement.  Other kinds of large bricks would do.

We also use a store-bought fire grate to hold our burning wood up off the ground inside of the fireplace.  We bought a new grate this year because the old one was absurdly warped after twenty years of high intensity fires and finally broke into pieces.

pristine fire grate

We store all the fireplace bricks in one pile at the end of our driveway that does not get hit by the snow falling off the roof.  The first year we stored them next to the house and in early March had to chip them out of the ice and snow pile that had buried them all winter. So now we stack the bricks away from the house, place the evaporator upside down on top of them and cover the whole thing with a tarp for eleven months of the year.  The tarp keeps water from entering the stacked bricks and turning them into a giant brick popsicle.

We store the bricks on top of a wooden platform to prevent them from freezing to the ground.

Ideally you would build the fireplace on a flat stretch of dirt, with nothing to burn anywhere in sight, but since we moved to town, we have been building it on our driveway.  The driveway is black top, and therefore susceptible to catching fire or melting, so we put down a double insulating layer of bricks first and build the fireplace on top of that.  The insulation layer is made of a base of 6 x 14 x 4 inch cinder blocks, topped with a second layer of 12 flat, red 8 x 16 x 2 inch bricks.  When the base is constructed it is 32 x 56 x 6 overall, slightly larger than the evaporator.  If you have a flat dirt patch, you can skip this step entirely.

building the walls on top of the base

These are the types of bricks we use for the fireplace itself:  16 – 6 x 16 by 8-inch cinder blocks to form the side walls and part of the back wall of the evaporator, 12 regular red bricks like they use to make traditional brick houses, and 1- 8 x 16 x 2 inch flat red brick.

The most important thing about assembling the fireplace is that it has to be the exact right width to support whatever evaporator you own.   Since our evaporator is two feet wide, the  walls of our fireplace are around 20 inches apart, to hold the evaporator snugly on top of the bricks without letting the fire lick up the outside of the evaporator and burn the syrup.

We lay down the base bricks on top of the driveway, then build up the long sides of the fireplace, three blocks long by two blocks high.  The front end of the fireplace is left open to add wood to the fire.

building the side walls two blocks high

We construct a chimney on the back end of the fireplace.   In order to make the chimney, we put down two cinder blocks to make the first layer of the back wall, then put two extra cinder blocks behind them, one standing up on its long side and one laid across the top of it on its short side, to be the base of the chimney.  We cap that base with a flat red brick to raise it up slightly.  We leave a gap at the back of our fireplace in our second layer of back wall, then place three stacks of four small bricks each above the flat red brick.  We cantilever out  the center stack (see below, this is hard to describe) to make the interior hole that allows hot air to exit up behind the evaporator.  Those stacks of small bricks become the bottom of the chimney.  We construct the rest of the chimney, 3 blocks high, out of 8 x 12 x 12 flue blocks, available at places like Home Depot or any masonry supply store.

Once the fireplace is constructed we place the fire grate inside its walls, lay the first fire and nestle the evaporator on top of the bricks.  We pour in a few gallons of sap and look to make sure the evaporator is more or less level.  If there are deep parts, we raise up that part of the pan with a shim made from a pebble or piece of brick until the sap is more or less level throughout the pan.  Then we fill the pan with sap and start the fire.

Most of the wood we use for the fire comes from downed trees that Russell finds near his weekend house, other wood we scrounge from around the neighborhood during the course of the year.  When we see people taking out trees, we ask if we can have some of the resulting trash wood. When absolutely necessary, we may buy some wood, but that is a last resort.

Anyway, find a big pan, build yourself a fireplace around it and you are ready to spend the day outside hanging around making maple syrup.  It is not rocket science.


21 Comments Add yours

  1. Chris says:

    Incredible. I’d love to give this a try.

    1. Dianna says:

      You don’t have to start with a set up this big. My friend Joy (see below) made smaller quantities of syrup on a big pot on her gas grill. Work with tools at hand and if it turns out well, keep going. We started with some buckets we bought from a local want ad.

  2. juliecache says:

    I’m also worried about the mild winter weather. we need the freezing temps at night for the pressure it provides the sap to flow up and down the phloem. http://juliecache.com/2012/02/14/upcoming-coupon-exchange-and-the-frugal-tuesday-tip/.html

  3. Joy says:

    Hi Dianna – for those with smaller ambitions we used the side burner of the grill for years with a big pasta pot. Last year we bought a Bayou Boiler, which is like a propane stove on small legs or a turkey fryer and put our big pot on that. I guess we have to do much smaller batches than you but it works.

    1. Dianna says:

      I thought about mentioning other ways of doing this, but I think I briefly touched up your grill method last year. Maybe not? We bought a turkey fryer and have thought about using it to finish our syrup instead of bringing it into the kitchen. It is definitely too small for our entire boil. Last year we made four gallons of syrup. We’ll see about this year.

  4. kate says:

    Hi Dianna…great tutorial. I was just wondering about storing the syrup until you boil. What do you store it in? And where do you store it? Outside? Wow…4 gallons of syrup. That is alot of sap!!! Thanks!

    1. Dianna says:

      We store sap in 30 gallon plastic covered garbage cans (we only use them for sap! Not garbage!) in the shade until we are ready to boil. I think we have 3 of them. We store the sap in the shade of our house, since we want it to stay cold until it is ready to boil. Then after we boil the sap down we hot pack it in jars of different sizes to keep and give away. We buy maple syrup jars instead of using mason jars since it is hard to pour neatly from a mason jar.

  5. gwright says:

    Do you do any kind of processing of the jars? I would think it’d act roughly the same way as honey, since it’s mostly sugar, and you could store it at room temp, but every time I’ve made my own, I just keep the jars in the fridge. Of course, once I opened one, I’d keep it in the fridge, but if I put it into jars while it’s hot, can I store those unopened in the pantry?

    1. Dianna says:

      We hot pack our syrup into clean, scalded, hot bottles using lids that seal as they cool. Store at room temp and refrigerate after opening. You could use mason jars with fresh lids, but we buy syrup bottles because they look better, are smaller and pour better. You could also just keep it in the refrigerator till you use it up, but since we make gallons of it, we hot pack it and store it in the basement until we are ready to use it. I think one of my older posts may have shown pictures of us processing it into bottles; it is referenced at the top of the post. So yes, you can store it in the pantry.

  6. Ruby says:

    This was so cool to read and look at! So clever!

  7. Amy says:

    Wow–you have a much better set up for syrup making than we do. It’s our first year and we’re just trying to use what’s on hand:

    thanks for the info!

    1. Dianna says:

      Yours is a tad crude, but a good beginning! Just be on the look out for other people selling out their equipment. People move, quit hobbies, develop diabetes, die, and sell their evaporators.

  8. Adrienne says:

    I love the design and am trying to better understand the section on building the chimney where you said “we put down two cinder blocks to make the first layer of the back wall”. I don’t think I can see this part in the picture and am trying to figure out how they lie in relation to the walls. Thank you!

    1. Dianna says:

      I am not surprised you can’t understand it, I struggled phrasing it. If you look at the 8th photo down, the one that has the fireplace from the back, you can see that outside of the red brick base there are two cinderblocks at the bottom of the chimney. The bottom one has its solid side facing out, the one on top of it has its “hole side” facing out. They are the base of the chimney and they do not sit on the red firebricks but directly on the driveway. If that doesn’t make sense, let me know and I will try again!

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