A Windscreen to DIY For
By Tamia Nelson
May 6, 2014
The wind is with us always, or so it seems. Paddlers know this better than most people. And it can be mighty welcome at times. Who would say no to a cooling breeze on a scorching hot beach or rail against a following wind on a long lake crossing? But the Old Woman remains the camp cook's Enemy Number One. Even gentle breezes make your stove's burner flutter and gutter. They also leach heat from your billy. The bottom line? Dinner takes longer to cook, and you use more fuel in the process.
Which is where windscreens come into the picture.
I broached this windy theme last month in "Breaking Good," when I outlined a few of the more common expedients for sheltering stoves (and fires) from errant breezes and howling gales. But I ended that article on a teasing note, promising that a future column would describe "a carry‑along windscreen that you can make at home in minutes."
Well, the future is now, and I'm delivering on my promise:
A Perfect Portable Windscreen
Hillwalkers, climbers, and paddlers don wind shells when a chill breeze starts to bite. Campers put up tarps to create oases of relative calm on windy days. So it should come as no surprise that your stove can benefit from a fabric shell of its own. A fabric windscreen has a lot going for it, after all: It's light. It packs small. It can be pitched to meet varying conditions. And it works.
I can't claim credit for the idea. That belongs to Colin Fletcher, the justly celebrated gyrovague whose far from pedestrian writing career was cut short by an errant motorist. (That's irony for you.) Farwell saw a picture of Fletcher's "cloth windscreen" in a first edition copy of the Complete Walker, and then and there he wanted one. Since he couldn't find any offered for sale, however, he made his own, using skills he'd developed sewing chevrons on a Service A uniform that he seldom had occasion to wear. You can see his handiwork in the photo below. It's a bit faded after forty‑odd years of hard use — so is Farwell, come to that — but it can still break the wind, as the photo of it with a Trangia Mini cooker demonstrates.
Farwell made his windscreen from urethane‑coated nylon taffeta, and used long, galvanized steel bicycle spokes for the legs. The urethane coating hasn't weathered the passage of the years too well, though, and what remains now smells like strong cheese. In fact, the odor is so pungent that I've started to wonder if a hungry bear might find the windscreen alluring. The upshot? Late this winter, as the strengthening sun began to set the waters free, I undertook to fashion a replacement. As you will soon see, it wasn't hard. And if I can do it, …
Anyone Can Make a Fabric Windscreen
To begin with, you don't have to be an expert with needle and thread. I'm certainly not. And the job won't take long. I finished inside an hour, and that included the time I spent setting up photos to illustrate this column. The bill of materials is short, too: fabric, four supports, and thread.
Almost any fabric will do. I used what I had in my repair sundries box, …
… where I found a large piece of orange ripstop nylon. I've no idea when I got it, but it's pretty lightweight — sleeping‑bag weight or just a bit heavier.
The supports came next. We have hundreds of bicycle spokes on hand, but spokes have gotten pretty pricey. Plus, all of ours are destined to be laced on rims. And anyway, we wanted something a little less supple. After weighing the options, I concluded that knitting needles would fit the bill, and I found just what I was looking for (single‑point 14‑inch US 5) on the shelf of a nearby Walmart. I'd have preferred to buy them at the local knitting shop, but that shop is now a bar. Or is it a scented candle and shisha emporium? Or a body art atelier? It changes hands with every season, and I can't keep up. Still, whatever might be on offer this week at the shop's old address, the stock in trade won't include knitting needles. Of that I can be sure.
The thread came last: standard‑weight poly‑cotton. This decision was easy. I used the thread I already had on the bobbin of my Brother sewing machine — one of the best tools this reluctant seamstress has ever acquired. Here it is, being kept under close observation by my ever‑watchful assistant:
All was now in readiness. I'd decided to make the new windscreen taller than Farwell's old campaigner, in order to give better protection for large pots on a Svea 123. The new windscreen would also be a bit less wide. That was Hobson's choice, I'm afraid. It was dictated by the length of fabric I had to work with. I thought it would still be wide enough, however.
The actual assembly took only a few minutes. A step‑by‑step guide follows:
- Start by cutting fabric to the size dictated by your stove and pots, allowing generous borders for hemming along all edges. (I added an inch each way. I figured that would be allowance enough, and it was. Just. An inch all round would be better.) NB: Because my ripstop nylon was fairly thin, not to say gossamer, I doubled the fabric before cutting. Had I chosen a heavier material, this wouldn't have been necessary.
- If you've opted for a synthetic fabric, heat‑seal any cut edges to prevent them from fraying later on. I used the flame from a butane lighter. Exercise care while doing this — molten nylon can produce painful burns — and be sure to work in a well‑ventilated place.
- Next, hem the long edges. I simply made a half‑inch fold, then folded it over on itself before sewing through the four thicknesses of (doubled) material, a less than ideal solution. (The resulting quarter‑inch‑wide hem left the cut edge exposed.) A more sophisticated seamstress would employ a plain hem. This requires only three thicknesses of fabric, and it conceals the cut edge within the hem.
- Now hem the ends. When you're done, all four edges will be neatly finished.
- Lastly, fold over the ends to make tunnels for the outer supports, securing each tunnel with a double line of stitches. Be sure the tunnels are big enough for your supports before you start stitching. (It would be better to integrate the tunnels with the end hems, of course. And I'll do that the next time.)
- Stand back and admire your handiwork.
The photos below illustrate these steps:
And this enlargement gives you a closer look at the two windscreens, old and new:
Perhaps you're wondering why I didn't sew tunnels for the two central supports. The explanation is straightforward: The remaining supports don't require tunnels. In fact, it's easier to get a taut pitch if you can place the intermediate supports exactly where you need them. That will become clear as soon as you start …
Using a Fabric Windscreen
My new windscreen was first put to the test in early April, when bare, thawed ground was in short supply. But I found an open patch on a wind‑scoured hill overlooking The River. The frost was still in the soil, though, so my knitting needle supports got a rigorous test. And I'm happy to say they passed with flying colors, as this photo shows:
The wind was blowing half a gale, too. Ideal test conditions. When I prepared to fire up, however, I realized that I'd left the Trangia burner on the shelf back home. (What was that you said? "Be prepared"? Good advice. I must remember it.) No matter. I used my wetted finger as a test probe to determine whether or not the windscreen did its job. It did. All was calm within the half‑circle behind the fabric shield.
Are you wondering how to get a taut pitch, first time and every time? Here is the secret: Begin by selecting a level spot, free of fire hazards. Place your stove, but do not light it. Yet. Now …
- Position your windscreen between the stove and the wind. (You needed me to tell you that, didn't you? Sure you did.) Drive the end supports into the ground.
- Next, plant the third support to begin forming a half‑circle around your stove.
- Complete the job by placing the fourth support. Then tweak the support geometry as necessary, taking pains to minimize the gap between windscreen and ground while you're at it.
Finally, having made sure that the windscreen is properly placed and suitably taut, and that all four supports are securely bedded, light your stove. The photos below illustrate the setup. As you can see, the job is as easy as ABC. (Photo A shows you just how windy it was on the day I conducted the new windscreen's preliminary trial.)
And notwithstanding my signal failure to bring the Trangia burner, the trial was a success. The knitting needle supports penetrated the half‑frozen ground easily, and they withstood the buffeting of a Force 7 near gale without bending. More important still, my moistened finger confirmed that the area within the charmed half‑circle was indeed an oasis of calm. Even dry grass stems fell languidly to earth when I released them over the empty burner support, nestled in the lee of the windscreen. That's not bad for a couple of ounces of fabric and aluminum, wouldn't you agree?
Last month I described a number of ways to protect stoves and fires from the heat‑sapping wind. But every one of these expedients left something to be desired. So this time around, I've shown you how to make a light, efficient fabric windscreen. I've never seen one for sale, but when it's dead easy to assemble a windscreen to DIY for, why should you do without? Your meals will cook faster, and you'll use less fuel, into the bargain. What's not to like about that?
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