Boiling on a Budget: Homemade Evaporators
Story and Photos by Brett R. McLeod
TRICKS of the trade
Growing up in New England, we measured the success of a
sugaring season not just in terms of gallons produced, but also
in dollars saved. Wearing the moniker “sugarbush hacks,” my
friends and I scrounged barns, dumpsters, and auctions for
materials that could be repurposed in our low-budget sugaring
With recent advancements in sugaring technology, and a
plethora of specialized equipment, it’s good to be reminded
that the basic process is still nothing more than condensing sap
through evaporation. For those with just a few backyard taps, a
propane turkey fryer will suffice as a starting point. However, as
the sap works its way into the sugarmaker’s veins, the number of
taps is likely to multiply, calling for a larger and somewhat more
Homemade evaporators, or “sugaring rigs,” can be permanent
structures, or temporary ones that are rebuilt each season. A
simple, temporary evaporator can be made from stacked cinder
blocks and old hotel catering pans. To begin, select a site that
is well-drained and free of fire hazards. Since the ground will
thaw underneath the evaporator blocks, it’s best to have a gravel
base to discourage the cinder blocks from shifting. The size of
the arch should match the size of your pans. The height of the
arch should be either two or three blocks high. Taller than three
blocks and the arch becomes unstable; lower than two and you
don’t have enough room to build a hot fire. At the rear of the arch
you can use half-blocks to construct a flue (top photo), or simply
leave a hole at the back for the smoke to exit.
With the arch portion of the evaporator complete, it’s time
to add the evaporation pans. The deep-dish stainless steel pans
you see in the middle photo can each hold about five gallons of
sap, and can be used in-line, so that as the sap is boiled down
it’s simply ladled from the rear pan to the front finishing pan.
Restaurant auctions or a call to your local catering outfit will
usually yield inexpensive used pans.
If you’d prefer to make a more permanent sugaring rig, you
can line the arch with firebrick for insulation. Beyond cinder
blocks, a variety of materials can be used for constructing a low-budget arch, including old metal drums, water pressure tanks,
oil tanks, or even stones – as demonstrated by this Ontario sugaring rig (bottom photo) that doubles as a summer barbecue.
Brett R. McLeod is an associate professor of forestry and natural resources at Paul
Smith’s College and the author of The Woodland Homestead: How to Make Your Land
More Productive and Live More Self-Sufficiently in the Woods (Storey Publishing, 2015).
From top: Make sure your evaporator is built on level ground for both stability and even
sap depth in the pans. This three-pan setup boils about 3. 5 gallons per hour. By swapping
sugaring pans for a grill, this homemade stone evaporator sees year-round use.