Latest Video in the series:
Can you guess what year this Hand Warmer sold in Canadian Tire for $1.19?
Back in the days when horses still delivered the milk, my one friend Ron bought this himself when he got a job as a teen in Northern Ontario (Ron is seen in some of the first videos). He showed up with this, and, dismayed when he found it had a new dent he had not seen before, asked me if he should rethink taking it to Antiques Road Show. After a few beers Ron offered to sell it to me for only $700.00, but we we eventually decided I should just rebuild it. After a few more beers, I did, and that was his Christmas present. Ron reports that the new carbon felt and catalyst, along with the deodorizer, has it working better than new, and he no longer wishes to sell it at any price.
Carbon Felt Hand Warmers
In March of 2017 we got the results of testing that was done on the new catalyst pads that we pulled from various Chinese handwarmer heads. The results showed that the catalyst material used is Palladium mixed with Iron at a density of .5-.8% by weight. The use of Palladium and Iron allows the pads to be made for much cheaper cost than the USA made platinum catalyst that is loaded on the saffil substrate at 1% concentration. Palladium has a lower melting point than Platinum. In addition, Platinum is less susceptible to contaminant poisoning, and these two factors should increase the service life of the handwarmer heads that are based on Platinum rather than Palladium.
New for winter 2016-2017, Carbon felt and catalyst rebuild kits.
One of the most often asked questions we've had since doing the above video, is where can I get some catalyst material. That has been a big problem until now, because you'd need to buy enough of it to rebuild thousands of hand warmers. And quite frankly, I don't expect to live that long. Finally we've been able to source some quality (made in the USA) platinum catalyst pads, and I underscore the word 'quality'. Until now, the best I've been able to do, is get replacement heads from China, and tear the material out of them to rebuilt heads from Zippo to Peacock. I noticed that the quality of the material looked rather sketchy. When I looked into it, I learned that a quality platinum catalyst material should contain 1% platinum. But, you can get other transition metal catalysts to use in building a hand warmer head such as iron ($59.00/Ton), vanadium($.02/g), nickel ($.01/g), and palladium ($24.05/g) that are cheaper than platinum at $29.27/g*. So we've send some Chinese catalyst material off to the lab for testing, and will post the results here when they come in. The problem with those is multi factorial. They do not live as long on the substrate material, and the core temperature of 1200 that the platinum can achieve is not realized. (What do you think is in the Chinese catalyst material?)
When we placed some of the new catalyst material into a hand warmer head, and used about 3x as much as was previously packed into the head, it was too hot to touch unless oxygen restricted in a carry pouch. So it would seem, real platinum catalyst does make a difference, and you can fine tune your head to meet your individual needs.
Oh.. BTW, I sometimes get asked why not the electric hand warmers? A: There are 10 million Joules in an ounce of fuel, there are 10 thousand Joules in a AA battery (that weighs .8 of an ounce).
* Spot market prices at time of writing.
New in 2014: Hand Warmers repacked with Carbon Felt
For more on carbon felt see our carbon felt stoves page.
It's amazing how little seat of the pants skills surround liquid fuel hand warmers and their proper use. We use liquid fuel hand warmers similar to the Zippo Hand Warmers every winter because the chemical hand warmers suffer from the same weaknesses as their liquid fuel grandparents (oxygen starvation), while not having the simple strength of more BTU's. Liquid fuel is not only better for warming hands. For example, they are also useful if you want to use a canister stove in winter. If you do not use an inverted stove with pre-heat tube, and keep your canister warm, you're not going to melt snow or cook, and the liquid fuel handwarmer can help.
After using them for a few years, we suspected we could probably lessen our frustrations and improve upon Hakkin's 1923 hand warmer technology that has withstood the test of time by virtue of reincarnation as a 'Zippo'. So we started with the small Chinese catalytic hand warmers as having the greatest potential to address a variety of deployments for SAR Specialists and AT Skiers because they are inexpensive and mass produced. We looked at the potential to improve the ability of these to successfully warm hands, fuel canisters, and preventing water bottles from freezing by lessening their weaknesses, and improving their quality.
The first improvement: all traditional hand warmers whether it be Zippo, Peacock, or Jon-e use cotton batting as the fill material. The burning point of that is 255 C, whereas Carbon Felt is 1200 C:
Note the burnt cotton in the picture. This is a common sight. You'll also see the same burn area pattern on the cotton batting that is used in hand warmer reservoirs in the video below. That burnt area presents an obstruction to the movement of the fuel vapors from the reservoir to the catalyst. So, the hand warmer catalyst is deprived, and performance suffers accordingly (which is why this bear lost his paws to frost bite). Apart from performance, safety concerns regarding the potential of flammable cotton material to catch you unawares when you have no wieners or marshmallows, and become your next unintended campfire, can be improved upon these days as well. Additional benefits are seen with regards to wicking, odor filtering, absorption ability, weight, and heat resistance. All of this is possible by adopting newer space age synthetic material blends, such as those based on Mesophase Pitch or Polyacrylonitrile fibers.
We have found a viable source of carbon felt to use for reservoir material replacement, and have started to replace the cotton batting in the Chinese hand warmers with a laminar insertion of tri folded carbon fiber batting material made from 90% Polyacrylonitrile and 10% petroleum pitch. The result is a noticeable improvement in hand warmer performance: the units burn up to 25% hotter, and last longer because they absorb and retain more fuel. Another plus: the ability to use cheaper naphtha gas instead of Ronson fuel because the carbon felt is a better wick. And a big plus: odor emission characteristics. As you know, carbon is commonly used as a filter material. While the hand warmers are still not odor free, there is a significant improvement in the smell the hand warmer that uses carbon felt emanates as compared to the cotton filled hand warmers. Add a few drops of deodorizer to standard coleman camping fuel, and the unit is then virtually odor free.
There is one important principle about understanding how hand warmers work that will greatly help in using them properly and avoiding damaging them. The misconception is that the hand warmer is 'burning' the fuel vapor. It does nothing of the sort. The platinum that is embedded in the head of the hand warmer acts as a catalyst to convert the vapor that is coming out of the reservoir into formaldehyde. The oxidization reaction that results creates a lot of heat. Jeff Hanna, one of North America's pre-eminent wilderness fly fishing guides, told us that hand warmers are much easier to start if the unit is pre warmed with a hot air gun. We tried, and discovered why he is one of the best in the business: he was right on the mark. So that is why when we are in the field and cannot find a current bush to plug our hair dryer into, we've started to prewarm the shoulders of the unit before trying to activate the catalyst.
There is a video that sums up general properties of the Chinese handwarmers in general here. They are now making a version of the smaller hand warmer with more holes for better O2 combustion. There is also a round one that fits the bottom of the smallest butane canisters perfectly.
No Bluetooth, or Bluefinger. OK, so granted that due to lack of BT 4.0 connectivity, these probably will not appeal to consumers who must have the latest iPhone 6 with an HDR imaging chip in it. But each model of Hand Warmer is otherwise iPhone 6 compatible (with Android soon to come), and comes with one catalyst head, and the form factor suits a different purpose. If you want to warm your hands and canisters in very cold temperatures, get the round one. If you just want to warm hands (or iPhone) on long and cold days, use the Zippo copy. If you want to warm small spaces such as inside clothing, you are a gram weeny, and the temperatures are warmer than -10, then the small one may suffice for both hands and canisters. Ideally, each person would have 2 snorkels, and 2 of the small, and 2 of the larger, in their AT Ski Quiver.
Traditional Butterfly: (Zippo Copy) with Carbon Felt, 10x7x1.5 cm, 110 grams (commonly 16-21 hrs burn time on 28ml fuel),
Round Butterfly (perfect fit for warming 211g canisters), packed with Carbon Felt, 96 grams, 8.5x2 cm, (commonly 14 hours burn time on 25ml fuel): (Not available 2017-2018)
Mini: Although often mistaken for an iPhone (I often talk on it when in public places because I can't afford an iPhone), this is the small hand warmer, packed with carbon felt 30 grams 5x7x1.25 cm, (commonly 6 hours burn time on 15ml fuel): $19.95 USD:
With full oxygenation and no ambient heat loss factors, you can expect the surface temperature of these hand warmers to typically reach just over 50C for the small units and 45C for the larger ones when the outside temperature is around 0 (sitting inside on a counter with no conductive, convective, or radiative processes, we had one of the small ones burn for 6 hours on 30ml of fuel and reach 70C at one point! It quickly cooled to 40C when moved outside with about 0C ambient air temps). However holding them in a cold wind, or a pocket, or cold hands, will quickly lower the surface temperature typically by 10 - 20C or more due to either the strangulation of the oxygen supply, or the transfer of energy through conductive, convective, or radiative processes that you are facilitating by the way you are using it, or what you have it covered in.
Hand warmer use tips:
• You'll get roughly 1 hour of burn time per 2ml of fuel. Actual time will vary depending on how much oxygen is available, and how often you cool the unit (quick heat loss slows fuel evaporation and the corresponding fuel consumption).
• You can use naphtha (white gas or "camping fuel") in these. This makes them much more economical to run that using lighter fluid.
• Use only the proper measured amount of fuel, overfilling is dangerous and will cause the unit to flame, as well it will stink due to the spilled naphtha.
• Do not soak catalyst head with fluid in order to speed activating the head, (you no longer have a catalyst if you burn off all the platinum!).
• You'll note that some videos claim the jet style flame will damage the catalyst head. This is only true if you do it wrong - in as much that it is easier to burn the fine catalyst material with a jet flame than a soft flame. If lighting with a turbo flame, hold it about 3-4mm from the head and move it around the head until you see embers glowing (if lighting it when it is very cold, observe the tip below about preheating the shoulders of the case below the area of the head first). Do not touch the head other than just 'kissing' it for a few milliseconds a couple of times as you are moving the flame around it (you want to avoid burning off your catalyst material). Alternatively, when using a candle style 'soft flame', if you understand you are just trying to heat the catalyst enough so that it will react with the fuel vapor and thus initiate your exothermic reaction (and not start combustion), it makes it easier to be patient in trying to get your catalyst head out of its dormant state. Personally, our preference is to start or restart the catalyst with the jet (or 'turbo' if you will) flame method by preheating the shoulders and then 'kissing' the catalyst head. It is quick, works better in the wind, and allows for more precise flame application to the target areas.
• When placing in a confined space such as pocket or glove be aware that constricted airflow will diminish heat output or extinguish it completely.
• If you want to keep you handwarmer in a confined area with limit oxygen supply, you may need to use a snorkel (see sidebar). You need to do some DIY with our flexible snorkels and adapt it to suit your particular application. One initial mod is to drill numerous small air portals in the collector and dispersion ends to allow for greater oxygenation of the hand warmer. The flexible tubing can be shaped so the nose faces into the wind while sticking out of a pocket, sleeve, glove, pack, canister cozy, etc. Use you creative genius to come up with a snorkel deployment that works best for your circumstances.
• If your hand warmer does go into cardiac arrest, lay it on a flat hard surface that has good air circulation and is away from open flames, and remove the cap. Use CAB (circulation, airway, breathing) to diagnose the reason. If it has not run out of fuel, and the embers do not glow when you breath on them, then your blocked airway is the most probably cause. Unlike CPR, you do not need to tilt (or even remove) the head. Instead, commence one person CHR (Catalyst Head Resuscitation): restart it quickly by using your portable TED (Turbo flamE Device AKA 'lighter'), or the soft flame method as outlined above, along with appropriate warm rescue breaths (to increase O2), so that you do not burn the catalyst (see our lighters page for more information and recommended TED's). (Do not use the rescue breaths if you have been participating in the consumption of the Everclear you carry for your alcohol stove, and do not call for help until you see the first signs of frostbite on your fingers. Feel for heat on your cheek, or ear if you can't feel your fingers anymore). Continue CHR until you see signs of life, you are too exhausted, frustrated, or a rescue helicopter arrives on scene with a new handwarmer. When it does regain vital signs, note that you'll need to adjust the way you were carrying it to ensure you do not block the airway again.
• Like your first romance, another factor that can halt your catalyst is a sudden cold insult, however this time it will have been convective, radiative , or conductive in nature. Setting the hand warmer onto something that is so cold it sucks the heat out of it, or subjecting it to a very cold wind are just a couple of examples of events that might shut it down because it lowers the temperature below that which can support the continuation of the exothermic process. When this occurs, you will probably find it very difficult to get it going again by directly heating the immediate vicinity of the catalyst head as outlined above because the body of the hand warmer is so cold there is no more vaporisation of the fuel. To get it going again, first caress the shoulders of the reservoir half of the case on both sides below the catalyst with the tongue of your lighter (this is where the turbo flame comes in handy). This fulfills two goals: it starts the fuel in the reservoir vaporizing and moving into the head again, and it heats the skeleton of the head which in turn supports resumption of the catalysis. After you have heated the shoulders of the reservoir, it should be easy to get the catalyst activated again with a quick application of your lighter flame.
• To recharge the hand warmer with fuel, dispose of the cheap plastic 'mini watering can' that usually comes with the warmer, and use a small squeeze bottle with irrigation tip that has graduated markings. You can carry that same bottle with you in the field for quick refills as well. Fill with the recommended measured amount of naphtha. appropriate for your model, and then squeeze the fuel from it directly into the hand warmer reservoir. This method of expelling fuel from a bottle under pressure into a thirsty reservoir is much faster, and results in less spillage or overflowed fuel which can be hazardous, particularly if you try to light the device immediately after filling.
Above: These Hand Warmers have had a grommet added, and the catalyst heads cemented on. They are being refilled using gravity.
• To achieve filling your butane lighter with winter butane gas mix, use a canister fill adapter to refill your butane lighter with winter blend butane from your stove canisters and do not refill your lighter with standard n-butane.
• Winter stove operation: Do not use for canister warming until you are familiar with all the safety precautions of rewarming and use of winter mix (butane/isobutane/propane) stove canisters. (While canisters should never be heated past 50C maximum, I draw the line below 40. As a rule of thumb remember this: at 40C items are uncomfortably hot to hold but you can do it, 50C is the point where items have progressed to the point where they have become too hot to hold in your hand).
• Expect the hand warmer to go out subsequent to being placed into direct contact with a cold canister. Restart it, let it build some heat, then place on canister again. Repeat this process as necessary. This will warm the canister. Another technique is to use one of the neoprene canister cozies and enclose both hand warmer and canister in it in such as way that there is still oxygen available to the hand warmer by leaving it partially unzipped or making a snorkel from a large diameter straw (such as those available in Asian markets for bubble drinks), and there is a insulating layer between them such as a carbon felt pad (see right sidebar). In this way the hand warmer can gradually heat the ambient air around the canister without experiencing a cold shock that will remove so much heat through conduction that it goes out.
• If the hand warmer's top caps become loose and fall off easily, they can be tightened by squeezing them together in the middle until you achieve the desired tighter fit.
An opinionated last word: each type of handwarmer has advantages and disadvantages. The con of the liquid fuel handwarmers is the scent of naphtha. fuel, and their temperamental nature of going out if cooled too rapidly. You can diminish some of the frustration by understanding how they work, which leads to facilitating your ability to keep them operating properly when you are in the field. Another item that will also help a lot in this regard is a good lighter, so be sure to check out our lighters page. The biggest advantage of the liquid fuel handwarmers is their heat output, which is significantly more than the other types of warmers. This is why this style still is the preferred model for many in the mountaineering community.