How to Not Burn Down Your Sugar Shack

by Tig Tillinghast

It was getting to be a bit late in the night on one of those looooong boils last year. Several of us started sniffing the air. Was that something burning? Sometimes a car goes by burning a break pad, skidding around our nasty curve on Tucker Hill Road. It was easy to dismiss the first one or two times; after all, we’re sitting in a sugar shack stoking burning wood all night. But this was different. It smelled… like tar.

[Burning: cherry. Stack temperature: 750 F. Sound: like a jet]

I took a flashlight to the interface between the stack and the roof, and sure enough, I could see a blue smolder smoke seeping out from where the old shingles touched the wood, now hot with eight hours of boiling. A good bit of mayhem ensued right then. The three or four of us ran about using sap, water, a fire extinguisher, snow and everything else that came to hand to cool both that smoldering area and the stack. We opened the evaporator doors to draw the heat out and threw a piece of plywood over the pans so that nothing would drop in as we were attacking the roof.

Long story short, the sugar shack stood, and I had a long night with a lot of unboiled sap to contemplate what went wrong, and how we’d attack the problem the next morning.

What went wrong was that we’d become much more efficient. The same rig never came close to this heat the prior year, but then we’d added a blower, a homemade preheater and a woodshed that provided drier wood. All of those factors significantly increased the heat under the pans, and also through the stack. We were very, very lucky. My policeman friend Wayne, who grew up just down the road, told me the story of when he’d managed to create the same problem decades ago in his grandfather’s old operation. Pretty much the same cause: homemade roof jack without the right clearance between the hot surface and the combustible roof materials. Without any room for error, any subtle changes, such as the species of wood used to fire the evaporator, can put the temperature at the wood above the point of combustion.

Which brings us to the “new” used rig we just installed in the sugar shack that we’ve come to call affectionately “the monster.” It has a stack that is 16 inches wide, and we intend to throw through that the fires of heck. I asked Robert, who’s been dragooned again into helping with the carpentry, just how far away should wood be from a stuck that has running through it the fires of heck. He said, oh, about 18 inches. Lots of brows furrowed in that cold off-season sugar shack that morning. But Robert had a plan. He was going to box the stack in right from the metal of the roof, cutting away large sections of old shingles and roof boards, adding a cement board set of curtains, following the stack down to the evaporator.

Working up in that roof area above the evaporator is one of the prettiest things about sugaring, and that’s saying a lot. The way the cold hard sun penetrates spaces between the dried out wood of the monitor flaps creates a sliver of light, like a sheet that lights up anything in that very, very narrow layer of space. In sugar season, you see an amazing cross section of steam, whirling and dancing, much like cream does when just added to black coffee in a glass mug. This day we witnessed sawdust dance in a nimbus coming down through the empty hole left from the old stack, as we cut around it creating a properly-sized hole for The Monster. I whipped put my phone to take this pretty low-quality shot when I saw it. Beautiful stuff happens whenever we play with that space.

Robert and Mike carefully cut out a square that was a couple three feet to a side, removing only the wood and shingle and leaving the standing seam roof on top untouched. It was an impressive act of carpenter surgery, and a big sign of how much larger our operation will be this coming sap season. When you can actually fit yourself through your stack, you’re going to make some maple syrup. That, or burn down the sugar shack.