Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Wood-Fired Hot Tub

Fifteen years ago, a friend of mine came across a unique item to purchase:  a wood-fired hot tub.  The tub itself was a massive barrel, constructed of giant staves held together with three steel rings.  This monster was four feet tall and five across.  To heat it, it had a strange submersible wood burning stove.  The chimney and combination wood hatch/air intake were the only parts of the heater that stuck above the water line.  It was billed as all natural--a green, or eco-friendly, hot tub.

Ira, my friend, worked for the state and heard through the work grapevine that another state employee had this tub for sale.  The price was right, and Ira had to have it.  So, early one weekend, Ira and I drove over to Lincoln, New Mexico to put the tub in the back of my pickup.  The hot tub was behind the old sheriff’s house in Lincoln, about 50 yards from the jail where, in 1881, Billy the Kid had escaped and shot two deputies during the Lincoln County War.  The sheriff’s house now belonged to the state, and was used as housing for state employees.

That tub was enormous--there was no way in the world we were going to lift it up and put in the back of my truck—where it wouldn’t have fit in any case.  We had to loosen the turnbuckles on the steel bands and remove the staves, move it to the new site, and then reassemble the barrel.  And we had a spot all picked out.  My family owns a tiny little cabin on the side of Sierra Blanca, bordering the White Mountain Wilderness Area.  It’s so remote that you can’t see another home for the forest.  The cabin is a ramshackle little affair that was built by drunks—I know, I was one of them. 
With the help of a large wrench and a ten foot cheater bar, we got those rings off and the staves went SPROING!  For a little while there, we had flying lumber, but eventually, we herded all the pieces and the submersible stove into the back of the truck and we were off to the cabin. 

There is a damn good reason why coopers, or barrel makers, are considered master craftsmen.  Trying to put a barrel back together is like trying to assemble a jig-saw puzzle while inside a rotating clothes dryer--except that the pieces are big enough to hurt you.  Neither Ira nor I had any idea how coopers actually perform this miracle, so we had to invent our own technique.  The damndest thing about this task was that, as near as we could figure it, while we were driving down the road, people had seen us and decided we were gathering barrel staves and had generously donated several extras to our collection.  We had enough wood to build at least one hot tub and still had enough left over to construct a foot bath.  And just as miraculously, our steel bands had shrunk.

A four foot curved barrel stave under enough pressure can smack you into the middle of next week, and figuring out how to put the staves together took a lot of thought, beer, effort, and beer.  In hindsight, it might have made the job a lot easier if we had numbered each stave with a chalk-drawn number.  And an arrow so we could tell which way was up on each stave.   And if we had been really smart, we would have left that damn barrel in Lincoln, where it was resting happily under a tree.

Eventually, using techniques and tools that would have left a real cooper laughing hysterically, we had the barrel together.  The staves were solid, the steel bands so tight you could pluck them like guitar strings.  And as we began to add water, that tub leaked like a congressional committee.  Like a newborn’s diaper.  Like a Polish submarine.  That damn tub threw water out faster than we could put it in.  Ira and I tried everything; we tightened, we wedged, and with the advice of an old mountain carpenter, we added about ten pounds of corn meal.  Supposedly, this would wedge in the cracks and expand.  I have no idea what did it, but eventually we got that tub water-tight.

The weekend was over and Ira had to go back to work, but luckily historians work by a more independent and flexible time schedule (known as rarely).  As Ira drove off, I stayed at the cabin to enjoy that hot tub by myself.  It took a long time (hours) to fill that tub.  The well at that cabin wasn’t designed for producing large volumes of water all at once.  Finally, I looked off the deck towards the tub and saw it was full enough to start a fire in the submersible stove.

Luckily, (really luckily as it turned out), the cabin was well-stocked with wood.  I had a couple of cords of wood ready for winter.  It was the beginning of fall, not nearly cold enough yet for a fire, but I had been gathering and cutting it for weeks.  I dropped a little kindling down that hatch, shoved a few pages of newspaper down the hole and lit it with a match.  It caught and I began shoving ever larger pieces of wood down that hole into a roaring fire.

I pushed a lot of wood down that hole--a hell of a lot of wood!  It seemed like that stove could actually dissolve wood.  A large log would just seem to melt into a large cloud of blue gray smoke.  Maybe it was because that firebox was cold--the water coming out of that mountain well was frigid.  Or maybe you were supposed to burn something other than the soft pine wood of a New Mexico forest.  Maybe you needed hard wood, or charcoal, or pellets of plutonium.  All I know is that I ran back and forth between the wood pile and the not too terribly conveniently located hot tub as I chunked the better part of a cord of wood down the hatch of that submersible stove.  It was quite a while before I could notice much improvement in the water temperature.

This was all hard work in that thin mountain air and I had worked up a sweat carrying wood by this time.  The day was mostly over before I finally decided that the water temperature was up to an acceptable level.  Maybe it wasn’t a hot tub, but it was definitely a more-than-tepid-and-fairly-warm tub.  Close enough!  I ran through the cabin, flinging clothes every which-a-way, grabbed two bottles of beer from the fridge, and headed for that tub, naked as a jay bird.

Ahhh.  The hedonistic pleasure of a solitary skinny dip in a private hot tub in the middle of the forest.  After 40 hours of backbreaking, and fairly dangerous, work, I have to admit that the hot tub wasn’t bad.  There I was, neck deep in warm water, a beer in each hand, and grinning like a moron.  At least until the volunteer fire department showed up.

It seems the smoke had drifted down the mountain for quite a ways.  As it was the wrong time of year for a fire in a fireplace, someone had called it in as a forest fire.  The fire department thought it was hilarious, especially the women of the crew.

I never fired up that hot tub again.  For several years, the tub was mostly used as a bear watering hole.  Eventually, Ira was transferred to Lincoln and was given the old sheriff’s home to live in.  Using a large trailer, and a lot of help, the hot tub moved from my cabin back to the exact same spot under that same tree where Ira and I had first seen it.  As far as I know, it’s still there.


  1. Interesting and funny post you have written here. At least, you simply enjoyed soaking in that hot tub before somebody called in and declared a forest fire. Haha! :)

  2. That's definitely one experience that you'll never forget. After the hard work it took you to install it in your home, it's really a great treat to have a nice relaxing time in your hot tub. Glad you love it even though the fire department had to look in on you! =)


  3. That must have been quite an experience. Haha! I can imagine how tiring it must be to pick up the hot tub, apart and then putting it all back together. There must have been thousands of pieces and you must have had a headache putting them together. I enjoyed reading this post and kudos on succeeding to build that hot tub. 

    Steve Nelson

  4. I am currently looking to build some kind of cheap and basic bathtub at Volcano Base Camp, had experienced a submersible a few years ago in Utah, your experience, whilst it gave me my first chuckles of this early morning in the highlands of Guatemala, made me think that I might be better off heating water from beneath a simple raised bathing vessel, having the ability to bathe will ramp up the Death By Madventure experience, currently I am limited to bucket washes, six months of bucket washes. I am happy to have found your site, I like how you write. Have a good day. Maria