Constructing a 1/2bbl 3 Tier Brewing SystemAll credit to, and ęCopyright 2005 by Scott Kaczorowski
This document is a mixture of entry-level to intermediate information. I won't use the word "advanced" because it ain't so. Most of you will say "I knew that" a lot. But I've tried to be as comprehensive as possible without being too lengthy. The Links page offers many other points of view on how best to make beer from grain.
These first few sections are rather fluffy. Use the Table of Contents above to get to the tastier bits if you'd like.
Somewhere around March of 1996, I finally finished my 3 tier. It was quite an adventure, and I'd like to thank the many who helped. John Palmer and Mike Cullen were particularly helpful. This project would literally not have been possible without either. Also, Dion Hollenbeck was a wealth of hints and suggestions without which I would have made many mistakes. Many of the ideas presented here are his. But unlike John and Mike, his contribution wasn't really vital or anything.
I think I learned a thing or three along the way, and it is my intent here to share what I've learned in an attempt to make things easier for someone else considering a project like this.
My system is based closely on that of John Palmer. I was fortunate to not only have access to his knowledge and experience with building a system like this, but also to actually brew on his system. If you're considering building a system such as this, or any other type for that matter, your first priority is to find a similar system and brew on it. Ask at your next brew club meeting or find the club nearest you and ask them. I promise, the owners of these contraptions are quite proud of them and will invariably be anxious to show them off.
For our purposes, there are three kinds of systems we might build for the brewing of tasty malted beverages:
I chose to build a 3 tier system because I wanted to go as simple as possible, and a RIMS did not fit that bill for me. If you're interested, see the Links page for sources.
One thing I did consider fairly seriously was the construction of a 2 tier system. This (generally) entails the use of a pump to supply the mash tun with hot liquor. (I know of one 2 tier system that pumps from the mash tun to the kettle, thus being only a step away from RIMS.) The big advantage for me would have been that this method keeps the overall height much lower. This would have facilitated both storage and operation for me and was thus a big attraction. However, when I looked into the realistic costs of a pump and high temp tubing, I balked. When I say "realistic costs", I mean for me, but for you, this might be worth looking into. Marty Tippin did a nice job on a 2 tier.
If a 2 tier interests you, but a pump does not (these things really aren't all that scary), you might think about simply ladling the sparge water into the M/L tun with a saucepan.
Yet another idea for a 2 tier without a pump is use only 2 vessels: One for hot liquor and the other for the triple combination of mash tun/lauter tun/kettle. The sweet liquor from the M/L tun is collected in buckets. After the sparge is complete, the M/L tun would be cleaned out, the liquor transferred to the M/L tun-turned-kettle, and on you go. While you would have to be very careful to avoid HSA when transferring the sweet liquor from the buckets to the kettle, this could be a compact and inexpensive system.
I also discounted the use of a Gott or similar cooler for mashing as:
The only advantage I see with using a cooler is its insulative qualities. And this could be a big advantage indeed. If you have the need to do very long unattended rests or brew outside in the winter in Minnesota, then this might be your best option. A 10 gallon Gott could very easily be substituted for the converted keg mash tun in my system. If a cooler sounds like a good idea for a mash/lauter tun, then How to make a mash/lauter tun out of a GOTT cooler is for you.
In my uninsulated keg I find that the temp drops about 1 degree/20 minutes with a ~25lb thick mash and a little more than twice that fast with a mash half that size. I'm guessing here. Normally I check it every 15-30 minutes and don't worry about it much because it's simply not a problem (at least not here in southern California where our weather has been tamed - your temp losses may vary).
To say I'm pleased with my system is vastly understated. Moving out of the kitchen was reason enough. The whole process is much easier and faster. I have more capacity. Most of my brewing equipment is now dedicated and in one place. I finally have enough sparge water. I don't have to go looking for something only to find it needs washing first. Cleanup involves a hose and watering the lawn. It doesn't matter if I spill. It's not a kludge.
I would say you should move out of the kitchen and build and use a system like this if:
Of course, you also need enough room, time, and money. My estimated costs are broken down somewhere far below, but my total costs were about $450. My estimated time I cannot give because this project spanned several months. Obtaining the kegs in particular took a lot of time. I really don't know if it took 50 hours, 100, or more.
Your selection of burners should be of primary concern. The type of burner you select will determine how you will proceed with construction of your system. This is a decision that should not be made by the uninformed. Ask around. Ask others what they like and, much more importantly, what they don't like. I've not tried to keep up on current burner technology, and I'll bet there's some good ones out there. You may want to use monster burners for your hot liquor tank and kettle, but having used several different systems, I recommend a lowish BTU burner for at least the mash tun. Adjustability is key.
The burners I use are the Superb model 16-20E (now called the "Professional" model?) These burners are "only" 36K BTU, but I do not find them lacking. Superb can be reached at:
(Note: It appears that Superb burners are no longer available direct from the factory. The best catalog price found so far on these is $79. This is a little pricey for these burners, especially since pretty good substitutes can be had for about $50. What a shame...) See the Links page for sources).
The reason for my selection of the Superb burners is due in large part to my experience with these burners in John's system. Among other things, we took a 24lb mash up 13 degrees F in about 8 minutes using John's Superbs. Seemed to me that that was fast enough and gentle enough; there was no scorching of the mash. I've used Cataclysmic Cookers on friends' systems, and I find their benefits to be few and their disadvantages to be, if not legion, then several. However, sometimes I yearn for hot liquor a little quicker, but only when lack of planning on my part means an emergency on my part
The Superbs work very well for me in my specific application. They are low profile, they have a very stable stance, they have built-in protection from the wind, they are infinitely adjustable, they love to go car camping, they hold a keg very well, and they're reasonably priced if you order direct (Which, apparently, is no longer possible. So, nevermind.)
Some quick performance measurements/estimates. Hopefully this will give you an idea of how a given burner might perform. Remember, these numbers are for a 36K burner.
I generally apply heat to the kettle after collecting 2 quarts of runoff. I routinely collect 13.5 gallons for a 12 gallon batch and will achieve boiling 15 minutes after I'm finished with the sparge. This to me is an acceptable lag time and while a jet burner will certainly let you boil basically whenever you want, I find the Superb's other merits to be more important than being able to scorch wort or mash at will.
For sparge water, the Superbs will raise 7 gallons of water from 65F to 170F in 30 minutes. Or 12 gallons of water from 65F to 170F in 50 minutes. No, I don't have Sparge Water On Demand, but once you know your system and what its foibles are, a little forethought is not an issue.
Another good choice in burners might be the Metal Fusion (Kamp Kooker) ring burners. There are many flavors of these. One version of these burners comes in a box-like stand made from angle iron. This stand has the approximate geometry and dimensions of the Superb (but is not enclosed) and also provides good stability for a keg. It provides higher BTUs than the Superb, has good adjustability, is inexpensive, and is widely available. This is the burner Dion uses for his kettle.
Regardless of the make or model I believe that adjustability is the single most important factor when selecting a burner for the mash/lauter tun or the kettle. Far more important even than overall BTUs, though I also think that 36K is about as low as one should go.
These are my opinions and should be viewed with suspicion. Do some research for yourself.
I have no commercial interest whatsoever in Superb. I am simply very happy with their burners and find them superior to the jet-style burners. I have even less commercial interest in Metal Fusion because I've only seen them in use.
My procedure is broken down into two sections: Keg Construction and Supporting Structure. Keg construction is presented first, and while there is no real preference to order of construction, it might be a good idea to have your kegs and burners ready before you start on the framework to hold them. This would (obviously) allow you to base measurements not on anticipated dimensions but on the actual dimensions of the keg/burner combos you have in hand.
My kegs use copper manifolds rather than false bottoms. Other than having actually seen one, I have no experience with false bottoms. In fact, it may be the case that keg construction to allow for the installation of a false bottom may differ from what I've described here. If you lean towards a false bottom rather than a manifold, try to find someone who actually knows because I'm frankly baffled by the things.I'll interject some religion here and say that I have trouble understanding the claimed usefulness of false bottoms in a homebrewing environment. Sure, they have much more open area than a manifold, but given the attendant dead space, I really can't see the advantage except for possibly in the mash tun of a RIMS system, or maybe in a cooler M/L tun kind of situation. Well...OK...maybe the kettle, too...
I suggest you do things in the following order:
All three of my kegs were purchased at junk yards in the Santa Ana, CA area. It's not tough to find 1/2bbl Sankey kegs at junkyards, but it is very difficult to find nice ones. Generally kegs that can be found in scrapyards are pretty beat up. This is not simply a cosmetic problem as if the bottom skirt of the keg has suffered much abuse, your kegs will not sit solidly on your burner, no matter what type you use. Find some likely scrapyards and visit them every Friday at lunch until you find kegs that are acceptable. You might want to take your burner along to see how they fit together and/or to get an idea of what modifications to the burner might be necessary (welding tabs on to hold the keg, etc.)
An alternative to scrapyards is Sabco (see Links). They sell both ready-to-go converted kettles and new/reconditioned kegs ready to be converted by you. The prices are actually pretty reasonable.
Begin this part of your adventure by bleeding all pressure out of the keg. Lay the keg on its side so that the dip tube inside the keg is in air/gas and not in any beer that might remain. Smother the valve in the top of the (Sankey) keg with a rag. Insert a screwdriver through the rag and depress the ball in the valve. Any beer remaining in the keg wants out, but laying the keg on its side will hopefully preclude a high pressure stream of beer from exiting the valve. Regardless, keep the rag in place until all pressure is relieved. Wear eye protection and do this outside and well away from anything that can't take direct exposure to beer.
You can remove the valve if you want to at this point. Make sure all pressure has escaped. Using a small screwdriver and a pair of needlenose pliers (I'll betcha there's a real tool for this), remove the retaining ring at the top of the valve body. If there's still pressure in the keg, this next part could be bad for you. So check again because you're probably drinking homebrew even though you're about to handle powertools, aren't you? Well don't. So, with the split ring out, use the pliers to turn the valve body...uh...one way or the other. The whole thing should come out rather easily.
Once pressure is bled off, draw a line to guide your cut. If you have a lid from an old kettle or the like, try to make your hole of a size to accomodate this lid. 11" or 12" diameter is about as large a hole as you can make in the top of a Sankey. Draw this line using a permanent marker by tracing around something bowl-shaped of the correct size, or make a compass by looping string around the valve body and using that as a radius for your pen. Once your line is drawn, remove the blade from your cutting tool and place it on the line as if you were cutting. This is to insure that your tool fits (doesn't hit the side) and you can actually make the cut you've drawn.
The top may be cut out using a great big nasty reciprocating saw such as a Sawzall, or a jig saw may be used. I recommend the former, but then my neighbor is a general contractor who loans his tools to neighbors. The metal used to make the sides and top of a Sankey keg is not very thick at all, and I have no doubt that a jig saw will work (and in fact I know of more than one person who has done this successfully). If using a Sawzall, get the bi-metal blades of 18tpi. Get the short blades unless you know what you're doing. Also, do not get blades finer than 18tpi because they will only cut slower. The edges will need to be dressed in any case, and so cutting faster is cutting better. In case it's not obvious, you want to cut inside the handles so that you retain them (ie, cut the top out rather than off).
Now drill two or more 3/8" holes in the top of the keg close together. The holes should be parallel to and about an inch or so inside of the line you've drawn. Position the holes with the idea of being able to swoop down to your guide line. A Sawzall blade is very wide and is decidely unmanuverable and you will need to make a very gradual cut down to the line, so keep this in mind. Drill enough holes or bang them open with a cold chisel so that you can insert your blade of whatever stripe it may be. Now add water through this hole (or through the hole left by removing the valve) until the keg is about 1/3 full. The extra weight makes the keg more stable and also dampens the noise while cutting. Even with the keg weighted down, it will still walk on you while cutting and so it is nice to have one of your more courageous friends give you a hand.
Wear eye and hearing protection!!! Yeahyeahyeah, you're not a child, and if you have a Sawzall you probably know how to use it, but this is important. Do not futz around while cutting stainless steel. The Sawzall in particular is quite an impressive and frightening tool. Respect it. Also, hearing protection is no more optional than eye protection. I once sat in a speaker enclosure at a Robin Trower concert and that had nothing on taking a Sawzall to a Sankey.
Begin your cut and start toward your guide line at a shallow angle. You don't want to come at the line too steeply and have to correct. I had Commander Honeybunch apply oil repeatedly to the cut the first time I did this. This yielded the following benefits: It filled the garage with oily smoke, it polluted the inside of the keg, it ate away my guide line, and it provided cooling and lubrication to the work for about 3 to 7 femtoseconds before it burned away.
Perhaps counterintuitively, you don't want to cut slow. If you cut hesitantly, you will burn both your blade and your work. Try to get a feel for it on your way down to the guide line. When in doubt, back the blade up, turn the saw off, don't have a homebrew, and think about it. I've done many of these for friends and myself and I try to cut about as fast as the tool will allow. Once you get the hang of it, you will need 2 to 3 Sawzall blades per keg.
When you've come most of the way around, the section you're cutting out will start to vibrate alarmingly. Not only is this unsettling, but it will physically interfere with your ability to continue cutting. I generally try to duct tape the thing down, and while this works OK, the edges are wickedly sharp and will continue to vibrate slightly thus cutting through the tape in short order. The other strategy is to cut back up away from your line and remove most of the piece thereby leaving a smaller piece to be cut out. The drawback to this is that it requires more cutting.
Once you've got the top cut out, chuck an aluminum oxide (grinding) bit in your drill motor and dress the edges. The one I use is about 2 inches long and cone-shaped. Finish up with emery paper. Do a good enough job on this that you can run your fingers around the edge while exerting a goodly amount of pressure. Keep in mind that you'll be reaching inside these things frequently for stirring, cleaning, etc. and you want them to be as unsharp as possible. Clean the inside and outside using a Scotch Brite pad and some Kleen King or Bar Keeper's Friend abrasive cleaner.
Unless you actually enjoy siphoning, you'll need a way to drain the vessels. This is generally done by drilling a hole as low as possible in the side of the vessel, installing some sort of fitting in that hole, and then hooking up various and sundry to said fitting-in-the-hole.
Some of the obvious choices are:
I use number 3. Some folks recommend number 2. Dion, and others who've taken their precious time to convince me that they know what they're talking about, strongly suggest that all welded fittings be couplings rather than the pipe nipples I used. Couplings will not protrude into the keg, thus allowing the maximum amount of leeway to do anything you want. I've never really understood this because it's just an extra fitting in the middle. In other words, you have to hang a pipe nipple or something with male threads off each side to hook up to the thing. A coupling is a good choice for things like thermometers, sight tubes, etc.
Number 1 is problematic. Although some swear by it because it can be broken down for cleaning, no scale from welding, etc. its disadvantages can be formidable. For example, what sort of gasket do you use that is both heat resistant and gives a good seal on a cylindrical vessel? I can think of a few (teflon is rumored to work), but I can't think of where I might find such a thing. Not to say that this is impossible, just that it can be difficult.
I recommend drilling your own holes for nipples and/or couplings, but only if you have the proper tools. A good-quality twist bit or hole saw may be used. If you're not set up, have the folks doing the welding do the drilling for you. Be sure to give them detailed written instructions and mark and label the desired locations of things on the outside of the keg with a permanent marker (the marks will not interfere with the integrity of the weld and any remaining will scrub off easily with a Scotch Brite later).
Harlan Bauer had this to say about drilling stainless in HBD V2 #0039:
"The cobalt drill bit is a waste of money IMHO. Here's what I've done in my 3-tier
If you have any further questions, please feel free to e-mail me. Just remember the carpenter's adage: Measure twice, cut once."
If you have the equipment and knowledge to do this yourself, congratulations, you have a useful skill! Join a brewclub and do as many welding favors as you can for others before you die. If not, get out the Yellow Pages or ask folks for a recommendation. You want a TIG job and not a MIG job. I have two friends who used MIG, and if sheer ugliness is not enough, the highly oxidized weld this gives not only begs to rust on you, but also can make it very difficult to get a liquid tight weld. The advantage of MIG is that it's cheap and more widely available. But you don't want that. You also don't want your top cut out with a torch of any description (plasma included). This can spray the inside of your keg with bits of molten metal which might (Note the new wording. Many people have told me a plasma torch worked fine for them. My expert source says "don't do it", so that's still my official stance, but you can do what you want. Sounds like fun if nothing else.) cause you no end of problems. I got my welds done the TIG way for $5 apiece.
Before committing your pipe nipples (or couplings) to the welder, take them to the hardware store and buy your fittings and tubing for your manifolds. This allows you to actually mate all the parts that will hang off the pipe nipple (ball valve, compression fittings, tubing, etc.) and is invaluable when rooting through bins for parts.
When placing anything that will protrude from the outside of the keg, consider the intended placement with respect to the drain holes in the bottom skirt of the keg. Heat will come through these holes and heat up anything immediately above them so it's a good idea to keep ball valves, thermometers, sight glasses, etc. away from these heat sources (see also Things to Think About below).
Another thing you might look for is to have both sides of the weld purged with Argon during welding. Normally, a welder will only purge the side of the work that is being welded (the outside, in our case). The wall of a Sankey keg is thin, and when welded on the outside, it will heat up enough to oxidize slightly on the inside. This oxidation is bad as it destroys the metal's protective oxide covering and will allow rust to form. If the inside of the work is purged along with the outside, this oxidation will not occur and the threat of beer-toy-ruining rust will be lessened. In my case, it was very difficult to find a welder that would do this. The one I did find did beautiful work, but he wanted $100 to do 5 welds this way and I couldn't justify that expense.
At the time of welding, install all fittings you think you might need. Couplings for thermometers, sight glasses, etc. for fixtures you might not yet have can be sealed with a stainless steel plug (or left undrilled) until you've saved up enough allowance to buy the thermometers or whatever to go in them. The advantage of this is that it allows all welding to be done at the same time and will save some time and a few bucks. Believe me, you'll climb up on that ladder only once to stick your thermometer (and arm!) in the HL tank, so at least consider a coupling for a thermometer there.
Always allow stainless steel to sit in a dry place for a few days to a week or so after cutting, drilling, or welding (ie, after damaging the protective oxide coating). This allows the metal to rebuild this coating ("repassivate") and thus to become "stainless" again.
Stainless steel should be cleaned with a non-metal scouring pad (eg, Scotch Brite) and a cleaner intended for stainless steel. Kleen King and Bar Keeper's Friend are two such products. These products contain oxalic acid which helps in removing rust and free iron. A metal cleaning pad such as steel wool, S.O.S., etc. can embed bits of itself in your SS thus acting as nucleation sites for rust.
Here's a list of things you'll need to do your keg conversion My Way.
I'm not sure what the actual, practical differences are between false bottoms and manifolds, having never used the former. However, manifolds can be made easily and cheaply, and (admittedly after a little tweaking) I have no complaints regarding their functionality.
So, once welding is complete, you'll need to build manifolds for each keg. Prior to the welding, you should have visited your nearest Home Improvement Mega Hellhole and purchased the appropriate size ball valves, compression fittings, and copper tubing. Don't confuse tubing (soft, bendable, comes in a coil) with pipe (hard, doesn't lend itself to bending, comes in straight lengths).
Pick your brass fittings to fit your pipe nipple, then pick your tubing to fit your, uh, fittings. It's a good idea to take one of your pipe nipples (Or coupling, or bulkhead fitting, or whatever you're using. You get the idea.) for a visit to the plumbing section so that you can ensure that everything plays nice together.
Whilst there pick up some Teflon tape (useful for fittings that will be installed and removed each brew session), a tubing cutter (a hacksaw works, but you'll be doing a lot of trimming), and a hacksaw or Dremel tool (for cutting slots). The Dremel tool, having a much higher niftiness factor, is obviously the better choice. And besides, you already have a hacksaw.
Hot Liquor Tank
For the hot liquor tank, you'll need about 6 inches of tubing and a single compression fitting to connect it to the pipe nipple. Put a slight bend at one end of your tubing so that, when connected to the pipe nipple, the tubing dips down as far as possible into the center of your keg.
You won't be able to bend it right at the end with a spring bender, so you'll have to bend a little further up and then trim some. This arrangement allows me to nearly siphon my HL tank dry, leaving less than a cup of liquid in the vessel.
For the mash tun, things are not quite so simple. You'll need a single compression fitting and one T (3-way) compression fitting.
The bend from the pipe nipple to the ring is pushing the limits of a hand bender, but it is possible. The manifold itself is 8"x6", and was also a little tough to make with the hand bender. Construct this so that the ring sits down in the very bottom of the tun.
For the kettle, you need something similar to that for the mash tun, but the ring needs to be larger. I had the most trouble with this manifold and it is now in Version 3.1 (no relation). The latest incarnation used a ball-lock Cornelius keg as a form, and so is about 10" in diameter. It sits about 2 inches above the very bottom of the keg lest it suck up and/or become clogged with spooge. If your manifold sits right down in the bottom of your kettle (ala the mash tun) and you get anything even resembling a hot break (and you will), your runoff from the kettle will stick. Trust me, I know - I still have a copper racking cane made under duress to remind me. I have had success with using whole hops to filter the break material.
Once your mash tun and kettle manifolds are constructed, cut slots in the bottom of the rings to filter That Which Is Suitable for Fermentation from the icky stuff. A hacksaw can be used for this purpose, but is a bit of a chore, especially if you don't have a bench vise (Be careful, tubing is very soft.) The Way to do this is to use a Dremel tool with abrasive cutting disks. In any case, cut your slots no further apart than 1/4" and realistically, you probably can't cut them too close together. Your level of automation will probably determine how many cuts you make. Keep the cuts on the bottom and cut about 1/3 of the way through the tubing.
A small amount of lead is added to brass to make it easier to machine, and this can be removed from the surface of your fittings by soaking the brass in a 2:1 mixture of white vinegar and hydrogen peroxide. Soak until the brass takes on the appearance of dull gold (5 to 15 minutes). If the solution starts to turn green, replace it. This process is probably not necessary, but it makes me feel better and it makes the brass look really nifty. (Source: John Palmer.)
Here's my shopping list for manifolds, should you decide to go that route.
Use some teflon tape when installing your ball valves and manifolds. This will make them easier to get on, easier to get off, and will make a better seal. Always use Teflon for SS-to-SS connections as these seem to be prone to galling (the metal binding to itself under the pressure of torque when seating).
For hoses I use 3/8"x3/8" male hose barbs. These are screwed into my ball valves, and vinyl tubing is stuck on to the barb end. The vinyl tubing (standard homebrew store variety) just isn't the best stuff for the job. It is cheap and readily available, but it gets soft at 170F. As far as taste and smell are concerned, I've not had any noticeable problems, but it tends to kink when it gets hot. Note that I don't use a sparge arm. Frankly, the purpose of these things escapes me. I simply lay the end of the hose from the HL tank below the level of mash water in the M/L tun and on top of the grain bed.
Stainless steel should be cleaned with a non-metal scouring pad (eg, Scotch Brite) and a cleaner intended for stainless steel. Kleen King and Bar Keeper's Helper are two such products. These products contain oxalic acid which helps in removing and inhibiting rust. A metal cleaning pad such as steel wool, S.O.S., etc. can embed bits of itself in your SS thus acting as nucleation sites for rust which cannot be a good thing.
The first step is to get a plan. Here's mine:
End and Top Views
Available for your pleasure are the files for the side view and end/top views in QuickCAD format. These two files are also available in AutoCAD format. The QuickCAD symbol library (keg, burner, ball valve) I created for this project can also be had.
Right click on the desired link and select "Save Link As..." or similar.
Construction is pretty simple. The 4x4s have dadoes to accept the 2x4s and a single carriage bolt is used at each intersection. 2x4s could easily be substituted for the 4x4s to save weight and a little money. This would also be the best way to make the project much simpler.
While a 2x4 will provide more than enough strength, I used 4x4s for all vertical members for basically one reason: To allow the use of dadoes to provide rigidity and more strength than a lap joint with two or more carriage bolts or a bracket of some sort. This allows me to use only one carriage bolt per joint and still have a very stable platform. The resulting structure is big and clumsy, and while carriage bolts are cheap and there's no need to skimp on their use, the use of 4x4s and a single carriage bolt per joint hopefully makes it a little more easily broken down should this become necessary. If you think this is pretty thin reasoning, you're probably right. But then, I got to make a lot more sawdust this way.
All lumber was cut to length using a table saw. I used a carbide blade to cut reliefs for the dadoes. The dadoes were roughed out with a chisel, and then, lacking a proper dado cutter, I used a moulding cutter (aka Whirling Blade of Death and Disfigurement) to finish the dadoes.
Each half of the framework (front and back) was laid out on the driveway and assembled. I used a square to get each joint as square as possible when tightening the bolt, and much to my surprise, the resulting completed halves came out essentially square. When both were complete, they were forced to stand up and joined together against their will: Two cross members, the exact placement of which is not critical, were used only at the tall end (HL tank end).
Next, three 20"x22" rectangles were cut from 3/4" plywood to serve as platforms for the burners. These were attached to the framework using 1.5" #8 woodscrews. A screw setter is a worthy investment for this task. I used a lot of screws because I wanted the platforms to contribute to the structural integrity of the framework, but I didn't want to use glue. Once assembled, I used a router to knock the corners off all the outside edges of the beast. This is most obvious in the plywood platforms in the figure above.
Next, I disassembled the framework and gave everthing two coats of polyurethane. When dry, I reassembled. I highly recommend taking the time to do this as it allows one to hose the entire thing off at the end of the day.
Other features that may not be apparent are casters, unfinished 3/4" plywood pads to sit under the burners to protect the platforms, and the cabinet made from the space under the hot liquor tank.
Unless you want to fix your system in place, casters just make life easier. And do not skimp on casters. I was told this and ignored it and again, you must trust me: Do not buy cheap casters. Expect to spend ~$15 apiece or don't bother. I also cut 14"x14" pieces of plywood for the burners to rest on. While the Superbs don't put out a lot of heat downwards, they do let enough stray that they scorch what they're sitting on. These pads simply save my (nice, laboriously polyurethaned) platforms from becoming scratched, burned, and unsightly. The cabinet was added well after the framework had been built and used. I dreaded making the half dozen or so trips from the backyard to the garage and back to gather my aeration system, tools, tubing, etc. and so I made the cabinet. This has proved to be a worthwhile upgrade.
Here's another shopping list list for the support structure.
When I began this project, I had intended to keep track of all my costs, right down to the wood screws. If this had actually happened, I would present that information here. Instead, I'll provide estimates:
You could probably make the platforms a little smaller if space is an issue. 18" wide by 20" deep would reduce the length by 6" and would probably still remain fairly stable.
Watch your pipes! When calculating heights, don't forget that one keg has to drain into the next. That is, measure with respect to the expected location of the outlet rather than some other point on the keg. Sorry Marty, but I think you went a little higher than you needed to.
On the other hand, if you are using a sparge arm in your M/L tun, you may have to place your HL tank a little higher to get enough flow to get the arm to spin.
Similarly, if you are using a counter-flow chiller, and depending on the type, your kettle may have to come up a little higher than mine to give it more operating room.
Try to keep your overall height as low as possible for stability and storage. Base the height of your drain in the kettle on the tallest primary fermentation vessel you plan to use. This is a 7.5 gallon carboy in my case. Base the rest of your system from there.
When mounting things that will protrude from the outside of your keg, think about where they will be in relation to where the heat will be spilling from under your keg. If adding couplings for thermometers (as can be seen on my HL tank and mash tun in the photograph of my system but not in the CAD drawings) and using the Superb burners, weld the coupling at a 45 degree angle to your pipe nipple. This will place your relatively delicate thermometer over a corner of the burner and thus be spared exposure to hot flue gasses to some extent.
Also, when mounting a thermometer, place it low on the keg. The higher it is placed on the keg, the more stuff you will need in the keg to get the temperature to register.
My ball valves (teflon seats) are mounted directly to the pipe nipples. They get quite hot during use, plenty hot enough that I'm sure they are sanitized thoroughly, and yet they're holding up fine.
Consider using 1/2" fittings instead of the 3/8" I used. In my experience, 1/2" fittings, couplings, unions, etc. are more readily available in 1/2" than 3/8".
Consider cutting a piece out of the bottom skirt of your keg to allow flue gasses to escape. Do this on the "back side" of the keg to direct gasses away from the front. Be careful not to nick the bottom bowl of the keg and do not cut any more than about 1/5 the circumference of the keg or it will fall off your burner. Drilling many holes in one area of the skirt might be easier and prove almost as effective. Be warned that the metal used to make up the top and bottom skirts is about 3 times thicker than than used for the top, bottom, and sides. If you don't do something like this (and you certainly don't have to), your flame tends to dance around a little bit and the heat escapes from all around the keg. This can heat up the ball valve on the keg, etc. Directing most of the waste heat to the rear is a good thing.
McMaster-Carr is a great resource for parts (if you or someone you know can order from them) for this project as is PlumbingSupply.com. Stainless steel fittings can not be found at my, and probably your, local Home Improvement Hut.
When purchasing SS parts, look for type 316L, 304L, 321, 347, 316, and 304 in that order (Source: John Palmer).
Dion is adamant about using a coupling mounted on the outside of the keg to accept the pipe nipple and ball valve rather than a welded pipe nipple. His reasoning is that this leaves the fitting flush with the inside of the keg (whereas a pipe nipple protrudes) and this allows the over-zealous homebrewer to base all the internal plumbing from the wall of the keg rather than an inch or so into it which thus limits your choices a little. If you want to be like Dion ("I wanna be I wanna be I wanna be like..."), consider this.
Don't install any fittings just above one of the drain holes in the bottom skirt of the keg. Escaping flue gasses will fry it/melt it/ make it too hot to touch. An offending drain hole can be welded shut if necessary.
Get a pair of cheap rubber boots for washing up. If nothing else, you can pretend you're Mr. Gumby. Hullo!
It's really nice to have a set of tools just for brewing. I keep an 8" adjustable wrench, some Channel Locks, and the two kinds of screw drivers in the cabinet of my system. No matter how careful you are, the tools are going to get wet. Sears' Worst are good enough here.
Make a device for measuring the amount of liquid in the keg. This can be made from the dip tube from the keg, a piece of oak, or the like. Add 3 or so gallons of carefully-measured water to the keg. Put your measuring stick in and mark the level. Then continue to add water a gallon at a time and mark each level. Measure all the way up to 15 gallons (Don't ever plan on maxing your system out? You're kidding yourself.) Another (and probably better) way to do this is to mark at, say, three gallons, then add 12 gallons of water and mark at 15 gallons. Measure the distance between the two marks, divide by 12, and interpolate the distance for each level between the two.
It's really really nice to have a lid. Strive to cut your top both neatly and of the proper size to accomodate an existing lid. I use the lids from two of my old 3.5 gallon SS kettles.
This document and all drawings and photographs in it are Copyright 1997 by Scott Kaczorowski. They are reproduced here for private use and with full credit to the author.
I don't pretend that what I've presented here can make millions in the right hands. However, it is mine and I've spent considerable time on it. I hope that this information has been of help to you or someone you know, and it may be freely copied, distributed, and used for non-commercial purposes provided you don't charge a nickel. Not for your time, not for your incidental costs, not for the media on which it resides.
This material may not be committed to electronic media for sale at any price. There is absolutely no such thing as a magnanimous company of any size, regardless of what Guy "If We Insult Them They'll Switch to Macs" Kawasaki would have you believe. It is my contention that those who collect information from the Internet and package it in any way for sale are violating the spirit of "charging a reasonable sum for the cost of time and materials only" because this can never be the case when a for-profit company does anything but go home at the end of the day.
If you, the reader, decide to tackle this project as detailed above, please be careful. I assume you understand the basic construction concepts and will take the appropriate precautions to insure the safety of yourself and also of others who might be present when things get thick. I have intended to relate only what I have done and how I accomplished it. This is in no way a recommendation for following my procedures and I deny any and all responsibility should these procedures not yield what you intended or should you cause injury to yourself or someone else. Again, please be careful, and don't do anything you're not sure of.
Some related links.