8 Ways to Turn Tin Cans into a Kitchen

Hobos Mastered the Craft of Tin Can Cookery and You Can Too.

It’s one thing to forage in the wilderness for wild foods, but cooking them in a way we’re accustomed to can be a challenge.  Fortunately, there are some old lessons we can learn from some early travelers known as the Hobos. 

Hobos were men who traveled from place to place without a home looking for day-work and living one day at a time.  They often slept far afield, and any meal was an improvised affair that was typically prepared in a very creative assortment of well-crafted tin cans.

You’ll need some tools to make some of these pans and utensils, but once you understand the concept you can get creative and improvise just about anything.  On a fundamental level, you’re working with sheet metal to construct a functional item. 

Basic Tools for Tin Can Craftsmanship

tin can utensils – basic tools

1. Leather Gloves

Sheet metal edges are sharp and tin cans will present many sharp edges as you cut, bend and handle them.  Make sure they’re thick, heavy-duty leather gloves.

2. Tin Snips

Think of them as scissors on steroids.  A good pair of tin snips will make short work or any cuts you need to make through the seams and across ridges you’ll find on any tin can.

3. Channel Lock Pliers

Channel locks will let you grip cans with awkward shapes, curves, rims and edges.  They’ll also make it easier to reach over an edge or crease as you work.

4. Needle Nose Pliers

Another tool that can allow you to make precision bends, seams and curves as you slowly craft your cans into the shape you need to form.

5. Vise Grip Pliers

Great for holding parts and pieces in place while you continue to work.  Also allow you to grip a can or piece for longer durations without undue strain.

6. Church Key Can Opener

They used to be indispensable for punching a triangular hole into the top of beer cans and are used to punch vent holes and other holes to improve or change the functionality of a can.

Tin Can Sources

tin can utensils – basic cans

Tin cans come in a variety of shapes and sizes.  On a fundamental level they contain things like soup, vegetables, coffee and just about anything else we eat.  If you happen to have some #10 cans that are a common size for long-term food storage, you have an excellent resource for tin can creativity.  The size of the can is the biggest differentiator.  Also, a good dose of common sense.

1. Common Sense Cup

tin can utensils – drinking cup

Let’s start simply.  No assembly required.  It may seem laughable, but it beats drinking water out of your cupped hands.  It also helps for just ladling water into a larger container.  It’s easy to take something as simple as a cup for granted… until you need one and don’t have it.

2. Common Sense Sauce Pan

tin can utensils – common sense sauce-pan

If you leave the lid on a tin can still attached at a hinge, you have the ability to grab the attached lid and move it into or out or a fire or move it around a fire to higher or lower heat.  Folding over the edges on the lid helps to protect your hands from sharp edges.  You may need to insulate your fingers with a cloth, piece of birchbark or gloves for handling the lid/handle but we do that in the kitchen all the time.  Well, maybe not with birchbark.

3. Hobo Stove

tin can utensils – Hobo stove

Okay.  Let’s get fancy and put that church key to good use.  The Hobo stove starts with a coffee can.  You could also use a large soup can, but a large coffee can will support something rare and exotic like a regular frying pan.  We’ll also cover how to make a frying pan from a tin can, but for now we’ll stick with a cast iron fryer.

The coffee can is not cut in any way except for well-placed holes cut by the church key.  The top of the can is open and the bottom still in place. A small fire is started in the can with the open end up.  The vents in the coffee can created by the church key allow for air to rise from the bottom vents and exhaust at the top.  More holes at the bottom and fewer at the top increases the air circulation, and actually creates convection causing the hot air-flow to rise to the top of the can and heat the bottom of the frying pan.

4. Hobo Stove Toaster

tin can utensils – Hobo toaster

In this instance, the Hobo Stove is turned upside down with the open end down.  A small fire is started on the ground, and the can placed over the fire.  Even without a frying pan, the Hobo stove toaster could still serve to make a meal.  Especially a Hobo breakfast special.  The “Egg in a Hole.” 

A hole was cut in a slice of bread and an egg dropped into the hole.  A piece of fat was sometimes used to grease the top of the can to help brown the bread and fry the egg, but Hobo’s weren’t fussy and would fry it straight if they had too.  They were pretty straight forward when it came to naming things too.  Leave it to a Hobo to drop an egg into a hole and call it an “Egg in a Hole.”

The Hobo stove toaster delivered all of the characteristics of a frying pan or griddle and the hot, metal surface alone served to cook everything from fish to vegetables and the precious and occasional piece of squirrel or rabbit.

5. Utensils

Who needs a fork when a couple of pointy sticks held together can do?  Who needs a spoon when you can sip out of a can?  Who needs a knife… oh wait… everyone needs a knife and if there’s one thing a piece of sheet metal can provide, it’s a sharp edge.

tin can utensils – knife blade

Usually, the seam edge of the can remains at the fat end of the knife so gripping it by hand is less of a threat to the thumb or fingers.  The size of the blade depends on the size of the cut, and a split in the edge of a branch could be used to hold the knife with a bit of twine tied around the split end to hold it in place.  This design is as old as tools, and pieces of flint in this shape have been found in archeological digs hundreds of thousands of years old. 

In the photo above the curved cut was made along the ridges of the can which actually created a serrated edge.  This makes it not only good for cutting food, but rope, cloth, leather and anything else that would succumb to the saw-edge of serration.

6. Hobo Lamp

tin can utensils – candle lantern

A well-placed cut in the side of a can could easily make a sconce for a candle from a simple soup can.  The top of the can could get hot from the flame, but the base of the can is always cool and makes it easy to carry the candle from place to place in a small camp.  Better yet, the sconce protects the candle from the wind and the shiny interior helps to reflect more light from the candle.  Multiple tin cans cut this way could light an entire area effectively.  Depending of course on how many candles are available.

7. Tin Can Frying Pan

Any #10 sized can or coffee can is an easy choice for a tin can frying pan.  Most of the top of the can is cut away but a section is left intact.  This intact section is then curved around a short section of a branch to form a handle.  The wooden handle makes it easy to grab the pan and take it off the fire, move it around and even flip a flapjack.  If you don’t have the time nor inclination to fuss with the cutting and bending for the handle, you can always move the tin can frying pan around with a stick or use a stick to toss it off the fire after you’re done cooking. 

8. Tin Can Double Boiler

Okay, this is a little over the top but if you ever need a double boiler in the wild you can make one out of two tins cans.  You need a large can and a smaller can.  Four equally spaced cuts are made down the side of the smaller can about halfway to the bottom and the cut sections are bent out at a 45-degree angle to the can. 

The smaller can is then placed over the larger can which is partially filled with water touching the bottom of the smaller can.  The boiling water in contact with the bottom of the smaller can will deliver the gentle heat you need to melt chocolate or caramels or anything else calling for a double boiler.  Why in the world you would need to do this in the wilderness is something to ponder but now you have the knowledge… just in case.

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