Converting A Zippo to Burn Alcohol: Can it be done?

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Matt and I were talking about Zippo lighters a while back. Later on Matt did some research on converting a Zippo to burn isopropyl alcohol. One site suggested it could be done with switching the wick out. Other articles suggested it couldn’t be done. Well Matt wanted to know why exactly if would not work.

Recently we picked up a Zippo at our local hardware store for $10.99. We used 91% isopropyl alcohol. Do not bother trying to use 70% isopropyl because it will not work. You must use the 91%. Everclear at the liquor store would work as well but it is a lot more expensive.

The original Zippo wick was removed using some hemostats. Needle nose pliers will work. In this case the wick was pulled out the top. It would be easier to pull the Zippo wick out from the bottom. To do this you have to take the lighter out of the case and remove the felt bottom like you would do if filling it. Remove all the cotton using pliers or similar. Behind the cotton is the wick and you can remove it from there.

Waxed Hemp Candle Wick Test

The first replacement wick Matt tried was made from the waxed hemp wick we use for making bug candles for the patio. He quickly discovered that the wax kept the alcohol from absorbing so the lighter would not ignite. Perhaps if the wick were just unwaxed hemp, the results would have been better.

Old White Cotton T-Shirt Wick

As a farm wife I love creative uses of white cotton t-shirts once they reach the point where they need retired. Matt and I go through a lot of white cotton shirts working outside.

For the wick, Matt just cut a small strip of cotton and twisted it up to make a wick. It looks really big. You could braid a few thinner pieces together for a wick that doesn’t flop around as much.

This wick seemed to absorb the alcohol a lot better than the waxed hemp wick did! It would light occasionally. We were encouraged by the results but discovered that it only lit once in a while. So if you got it lit and then put it out, it would only light again if you waited a little while. The cotton was not absorbing enough fuel to provide a good ignition rate. The next step was figuring out how to improve the absorption and rate of flow of alcohol so that the ignition rate was more reliable.

Samantha attempting to ignite the Zippo with a cotton wick. The wick was not able to absorb enough alcohol for reliable ignition. The absorption of alcohol was not good enough to keep the cotton wet, so the wick burned up fast when it did occasionally ignite.

Making the wick hole bigger

Matt drilled out the wick hole with 1/8″ drill bit. This allowed for better flow of alcohol into the wick and better ignition rates. The problem is that drilling out the wick hole broke the arm that keeps the Zippo lid closed. There is no way to go back to using a Zippo wick again once you take your conversion this far.

An 1/8″ drill bit did the job.
This is the grommet and lever mechanism that comes out when you drill out the hole. This means your Zippo will not have a mechanism to keep it closed. The lid can just flop around so you either have to keep it upright or you need to use a rubber band or similar to keep it closed when transporting or storing.

So can it work?

Technically, yes, you can convert a Zippo to burn alcohol but the drawbacks of doing this are great enough that we don’t feel it is really worth it unless you have to do it in a survival situation.

You definitely have to flick the lighter rapidly and make sure that the homemade cotton wick is close to the flint and spark. This is where braiding a cotton wick or buying braided cotton wick that is stiffer might help with how many times you have to flick it. It also helps if you give the lighter a bit of a rest between ignitions since this allows for better fuel absorption.

Matthew and Samantha Biggers can be reached at [email protected]

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Updated Mar 23, 2020

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7 Responses to “Converting A Zippo to Burn Alcohol: Can it be done?”

  1. Back in the day when I used a Zippo, alcohol worked fine… no adjusted wick or anything just metho, it just didn’t last as long as lighter fluid though.

    Reply
  2. Interesting

    Reply
  3. If a cotton tee works as a wick, why wouldn’t the original Zippo cotton wick work? I’m confused.

    Reply
  4. what about denatured alcohol?

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  5. Have you tried Coleman fuel?

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    • yes, i have. Coleman fuel or any camping “white” gas will work in a zippo. it is also MUCH cheaper than zippo or ronsonol lighter fluid. the experiment with ethanol was more about seeing if it could be made to work in an emergency than saving money though. the reality is we ruined a perfectly good zippo and hardly got any fire.

  6. On its own, 91% rubbing alcohol burns in a Zippo with a barely-visible blue flame. (But stick the head end of a match in there and you’ll see that it is indeed burning.) Table salt dissolved in the alcohol (1/2 teaspoon to one cup of 91% alcohol) will make the flame visible. It actually equals the performance of Zippo lighter fluid. That’s using a new Zippo lighter and a new wick (i.e. cotton center plus copper strands — asbestos belongs to the WWII era — and 3/4-inch exposed, just as it comes from the factory).

    I’m speculating, but it might have happened Matt began with 70% and it didn’t work. No surprise there. Then he switched 91%. But the wick was still saturated with 70% and the 91% didn’t get a chance to burn because the 70% was ahead of it in the lineup. I’m certain that if he began with 91% (or opened the lighter and let the 70% evaporate for a day or two) it really would work. I just now stood at the workbench and did it myself. No “conversion” is necessary.

    In any event, in the spirit of being helpful to the guy who just needs to start a fire, as it says in my original article (Backdoor Survival: “What You Need to Know About Zippos and Lighter Fuel Alternatives”) you can put a drop or two of just about any flammable liquid (gasoline, lacquer thinner, dry gas, etc.) on the wick of a Zippo, spin the striker wheel, and get 30 seconds of flame. There’s no reason to freeze to death with an empty Zippo in your right hand and a bottle of nail polish remover (acetone) in your left hand.

    Peace out.

    Reply

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