Awww geeze, not another blog!

Welcome to A Fine Blade!

This blog will focus one of my lifelong passions and one of man's most basic tools - the knife!

As time and events permit we'll tiptoe into other territory where we can use the knife as a metaphor in discussions about current events and have a little politically incorrect fun.

Because you see, knives rank just below guns as the most politically incorrect subject on the web today.

Guns & Knives = Bad. Gay Marriage & Recreational Drug Use = Good

We'll see if we can't have some fun with that.

So stay tuned, and welcome aboard!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

What The H...?

Lately I've been eager to get a new camp stove.  Now, I'm neither a backpacker or a car camper.  My wilderness camping days are all but over - 23 years in the Army pretty much beats the 'camping bug' out of you.  However, I do very much enjoy being in the outdoors, hiking, fishing and just spending a day getting away from it all.  Part of that enjoyment comes in just sitting quietly, heating up a cup of coffee or a small lunch and enjoying the surroundings.

Of course to do all that heatin' and cookin' you need a stove.  Not a monstrous Coleman 3-burner, but a simple lightweight single burner unit that can be easily carried in a day pack.

I've owned or used almost a dozen small camping stoves over the years, everything from Sterno stoves to an uber-lighweight-yet-powerful-enough-to-melt-pig-iron MSR, and lots in-between.  But I've always had a weakness for the classic all brass Swedish camp stoves, the types made by Optimus and Primus.

These stoves received a broad introduction to American hikers through the writings of the dean of American backpacking Colin Fletcher and his classic book 'The Complete Walker'.  Fletcher waxed poetic about his little Swedish Svea 123, almost like he was describing an old friend.  He discussed the ritual of getting it primed and running, how the roar of the burner was a reassuring sound after a long hike in cold, damp terrain, how it was beautifully simple and a wonder to behold and how its utter reliability and ruggedness made up for its extra weight and bulk.

An Optimus Svea 123 at full roar!

As a kid Fletcher's works captivated me.  Not just 'The Complete Walker' but his epic 'The Man Who Walked Through Time' about hiking the length of the Grand Canyon in the early 60s.  In fact, I credit that last book for spurring me on to study geology in college.  Alas, dramatic vistas are few and far between in northwestern Ohio (one of the flattest places on earth - literally).  I had to contend myself with day hikes along the Maumee River or out to the many regional parks in our area.  To capture something of Fletcher's experience I went out and bought myself a Swedish backpacking stove.  I couldn't find one of his beloved Svea 123s but I did manage to locate a Optimus 80 at one of the local sporting goods stores.  I was delighted to have it.  It was a real.  Swedish.  Stove!  It exhibited all the fine qualities that Fletcher talked about - it was messy to prime, dangerous to pre-heat and while running roared like a jet engine.  But man, it gave off heat!  I loved it!

A 1950's vintage Optimus 80.
 Mine was considerably newer, but not much changed.

I used my Optimus stove right up through 1990 when, after taking it with me when my unit deployed for Desert Shield/Storm, the US Customs goons forced me to leave it behind in Saudi Arabia.  Only official issue gear that had contained gasoline was allowed to be brought back.  I was forced to give the old gal a burial somewhere just west of Dammam on the Arabian coast.  An ignoble end for a noble stove that had given great service around the world.  After that my focus shifted and I found myself buying a series of rather pedestrian single burner stoves, most of them Coleman.  They worked, but none of them had the grace, simplicity and personality of my old Optimus 80.  I always had it in the back of my mind that someday I would replace the Optimus with an identical model.

Fast forward about 22 years to today.  I recently got re-bitten by the Swedish stove bug.  I blame this damned website.  I decided it was time to go get myself a new Optimus 80.  Hah!  Little did I know that things had changed a bit in the Swedish stove industry.  Many - most - of the old shiny brass models were gone, done in by a raft of competitors that catered to the uber-lightweight adventure crowd with their feather light, whisper quiet titanium stoves that can burn everything from cow farts to bunker oil with CO2 emissions in the negative numbers.  Who wants a smoky, sputtering brass anachronism that was first produced when Henry Ford was in knickers when you can have something so Green that even the grizzly bears applaud (just before they eat you).

Only one classic brass stove survives - the Svea 123.  But alas, the realities of modern production economics have caught up with even that fine holdover.  It is no longer manufactured by stoic Swedes lovingly hand fitting each part while dreaming of lutfisk and reindeer, but by faceless hordes working somewhere west of Seattle.  I fear that there are no more classic Swedish stoves made in Sweden.

Still I had to push forward.  Dammit, I wanted a classic Swedish stove, even one that wasn't made in Sweden!  As always Amazon was ready and willing to entertain my desires.  Three days after I placed the order the stove was sitting in my car port.

The word on the various outdoor oriented forums is that these new 'eastern-made' stoves are good performers, perhaps every bit as good as the originals.  My experience with China made goods is that as long as proper quality control is exercised the Chinese can make some excellent products.  Think Apple iPads.  In fact, I've commented in this blog about the outstanding quality of some Chinese made knives.  It all comes down to production standards and quality control, and the Chinese have proven themselves more than capable of cranking out good products.  With this in mind I had high hopes for this 'Swedish' stove.

It certainly looks good, with 'Sweden' (not, you will note, 'Made in Sweden') and 'Svea 123' roll-marked on the shiny brass tank in pseudo hand engraved style.  The burner tube is just a little cockeyed but I've seen that on other Swedish stoves.  Firing up one of these little wonders is like riding a bike.  You never forget but if you haven't done it in a while you can be a little wobbly.  Dribble a little gas in the priming bowl, light it up and let it heat up the burner tube.  Once the burner tube is warmed up open the valve to let out some fuel, light it off and wait for the jet of flame to settle down into a nice, rolling roar.  Easy.

As this little stove was roaring away I noticed a ring of red material where the burner tube enters the fuel tank.  It looks like pipe dope or sealant.  It may have been put there to ensure a tight seal of the burner tube into the tank.  What was disconcerting, however, was that this red material was actually bubbling under the heat generated by the burner tube!  At first I thought the bubbling might be vaporized gas escaping from the fuel tank, setting the stage for a potentially dramatic stove flare-up (a gentle term for a fireball).  I shut the stove down and after it cooled I didn't detect any gas odor coming from around the sealant, but it was still a concern.

See that red stuff?  It was actually bubbling while the stove was running!

I posted my observation and concerns out on several camping and stove collecting forums and the general consensus is that nobody's ever seen this issue before.  Or at least nobody has ever noticed it.  Most feel that the original Swedish stoves didn't use a sealing compound.  The tapered brass fitting where the burner tube enters the gas tank provides a good enough seal.  So what's with the red stuff?  What the hell's going on with this stove?

I've got an information request submitted with Optimus.  Until I hear something back this thing will sit idle.  If Optimus' reply isn't some version of "Don't worry, that's just  how we build 'em these days.  It's safe to operate" then this stove goes back to Amazon and I start haunting eBay.

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