My DIY Barrel Steamer

My growing collection of barrels has gotten me acquainted with all kinds of various tools, treatments and techniques. One of the most useful, nearly indispensable, is the barrel steamer. Of course, I had to make my own, as the ones wineries use cost thousands of dollars. While I’m sure those professional models are well worth their cost if you have thousands of barrels, there are certainly cheaper options for the rest of us.

I’ve seen a couple DIY steamer designs out there using pressure cookers and propane tanks, and while I’m sure they work great, I think i’ve found a simpler option. One day, roaming the local thrift store, I found an electric wallpaper steamer for a mere $10. Figuring I had little to lose, I bought it and managed to convert it into a workable steamer later that afternoon. It’s maybe one of the simplest DIY jobs I’ve ever done.

There are probably many of these steamers on the market. I didn’t shop around, as mine was so cheap. I assume they all make steam, which makes them all pretty equal in that regard. I’d look for one with a large reservoir. Mine is around 1 gallon and it will run for 90 minutes without needing to be refilled.

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How to build the steamer

Here’s a basic parts list, your model may vary, so keep that in mind:

  • 2 ft or so length of 1/2 copper pipe
  • 1/2″ stainless tee
  • 1/2″ shark-bite to 1/2″ npt  pipe fitting
  • 1/2″ npt to 1/4″ npt pipe fitting
  • 1/2″ npt to 3/8″ barb fitting*
  • 1/2″ hose clamp
  • Un-drilled 1/4″ silicon stopper
  • Some kind of wooden handle
  • Teflon tape

*My version uses a quick disconnect, which is great but not necessary

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The basic principle here is really simple, the tee needs to have a steam in, and steam out, and some way to hold it without burning yourself. The way I have them arranged works very well for me. Here’s how to put it together…

  1. Teflon tape all the threaded parts, except the 1/4″ handle thread
  2. Plug the 1/2″ end of the 1/2″ npt to 1/4″ npt pipe fitting with the 1/4″ stopper*
  3. Screw all the threaded parts in place using my image as a guide
  4. Make sure your copper pipe is sized right for you barrel. I sized mine so it just touched the opposite side of the barrel when inserted
  5. Hammer one end of the copper pipe just until it’s flat. This will help build up steam pressure in the pipe
  6. Drill 6 or 8 small holes (1/16″ or so) spaced out along the pipe, facing in different directions. Be sure not to place the holes too close to the handle
  7. Once your pipe is ready, insert it into the shark-bite fitting.
  8. I had a handle laying around that threaded onto the 1/4″ fitting. Use whatever you can find. A drilled length of dowel would be great
  9. Pull the wallpaper steamer attachment off the end of it’s hose
  10. Slip the 1/2″ hose clamp over the end of the hose
  11. Inset the 3/8″ barb into the steamer hose, and tighten the hose clamp over it

* You could plug this however you see fit really.

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You should now have your barrel steamer ready.

How to use the steamer

Barrel steaming has a couple purposes:

  1. Helping to clean a barrel
  2. Killing a lot of the yeast and bacteria in a barrel
  3. Helping to neutralize the barrel by removing wine from the wood
  4. Determining if a barrel will hold liquid

This is how I use the steamer in my barrel preparation process. Your barrel should be as clean as you can get it with water rinses. First go through the procedure of swelling the barrel. I prefer the French method of putting hot water on the heads and waiting for the leaks to subside.

Once you are ready, stand the empty barrel on one of it’s heads, lay the steamer across the top, fill the reservoir with water, and fire it up. Once you start seeing steam (15 min or so), insert the steamer wand into the barrel, wrapping a towel or something around the pipe so it fits snugly in the bung-hole, and set a timer for 20-30 minutes. Be careful the wand will be extremely hot.

When your timer goes off, pull the steamer wand out and quickly insert a solid stopper in the bung-hole of the barrel. The steamer can be moved to another barrel, or just put somewhere safe to cool down. Set the timer for 20-30 minutes again.

After the timer goes off, pull the bung from the barrel. With any luck you will hear the wonderful “shing” sound of a vacuum being broken. This means your barrel is sealed and ready to be filled. First however, roll it over and dump out the wine that the vacuum has helped pull from the wood. If your barrel is anything like mine, there will be a surprising amount of dark burgundy liquid, and probably some tartarate crystals. Rinse the barrel with cold water, and prepare it to fill.

If you did not hear the vacuum sound, your barrel probably has a leak. Sad to say, the solution is outside the the scope of the post, but luckily not far off.

Hope this was useful. Happy Steaming!

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