THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE STILL - Moonshining as a Fine Art: The Foxfire Americana Library - Foxfire Students

Moonshining as a Fine Art: The Foxfire Americana Library - Foxfire Students (2011)


First find the proper location for the operation. The next step is the construction of the furnace. The following pages include diagrams and photographs of two furnace styles which were extremely popular during the days of Prohibition. Only a few of them are seen today.

The fuel used was almost always a hard wood such as oak or hickory. Ten- and twelve-foot logs would be fed into the bottom of the furnace with their ends sticking out in front. The fire was started, and as the logs burned, they were slowly fed into the furnace. Since the furnace was made to burn wood, the firebox was spacious.

A bedrock platform above the firebox kept the bottom of the still from ever coming in direct contact with the fire. This prevented the contents of the still from burning or becoming scorched. All heating took place around the sides of the still in an area that was completely enclosed except for the flue. The sides of the furnace touched the still at only one point, and that was above the cape at the point where the sides of the furnace tapered in to seal flush against the top half of the still (Illustration 4). This area had to be sealed tightly to prevent heat escaping from below.

The flue was most carefully constructed for maximum draw. One man told us of a furnace he had built in which the draft was so strong that it would “draw out a torch.”

Natural stone was used, chinked with red clay. The first furnace illustrated is the “return” or “blockade” variety (Illustration 5). The second is called the “groundhog” (Illustration 7).

The construction of the actual still was an exacting process. Everything had to fit correctly or the still would leak. A retired practitioner described how the best moonshiners made their forty-five-gallon stills:

Three thin sheets of copper were purchased. The copper had to be absolutely smooth and of good quality. The sheets purchased were approximately thirty inches wide and five feet long. As money was at a premium, every part of the operation had to come out of these three sheets—still, cap, cap arm, slop arm, condenser walls and caps, washers—everything. Planning before cutting, therefore, was essential.

On two sheets of copper, the top and bottom halves of the still were drawn. This was accomplished with the use of a long string which was anchored at a point below the sheet being marked (Illustration 8). A top arc was drawn so as to be tangent with the midpoint of the top edge of the sheet. The lower arc was drawn so as to intersect the bottom edge of the sheet at points ten inches from each bottom corner.

The third sheet was used for the bottom of the still, the arc from which the cap would be made, the cap head, and the slightly tapered rectangles from which the arms would be rolled. When this was finished, any blank areas on the sheets were used for drawing small items such as washers. Then everything was cut out. Holes were also, cut in the cap, and in the bottom half of the still to make room for the arms which would be attached later.

ILLUSTRATION 4 A furnace made of rock and red clay. A fire has been started in the firebox, the cap has been sealed on with rye paste, and the operation is ready to go.

ILLUSTRATION 5 In both of the above diagrams: (1) is the cap, (2) the flue at the front of the still through which hot air from the firebox escapes, (3) the bedrock platform built into the furnace wall on which the still rests. As is shown in Diagram A, the platform is not wide enough to extend all the way to the back of the furnace. A large space is left to allow passage of heat from the firebox around the sides of the still. (4) is the firebox. In earlier days, the ends of hardwood logs were used to start the fire, and as the ends burned away, the portions of the logs that extended outside the furnace were gradually fed in to provide constant heat. The arrows in Diagram A show the direction of the heat as it goes around both sides of the still and out the flue. (5) is the furnace wall. It was usually built of natural stone chinked with red clay which would harden through successive burnings. (6) is the still itself—usually made of copper.

ILLUSTRATION 6 An abandoned furnace. Often the copper cooker (the “pot”) was removed and hidden in a laurel thicket after each run to prevent its being stolen before the operator was ready to make another run.

ILLUSTRATION 7 Diagram A illustrates an interesting variation on furnace design which was once fairly popular. Called the “groundhog” or “hog” still, it was unique in that the still sat directly on the ground, and the furnace of mud, clay, and rocks was built up around it with the flue at the back, (1) is the cap, (2) the still, (3) the firebox. The heat was drawn to the flue (4) and circulated around the still in the space left between the furnace and the copper wall of the still. The arrows show the direction of heat. (5) is the back of the furnace—sometimes this was against a bank, and sometimes the furnace hole was dug directly into a bank. The surrounding earth, in the case of the latter design, was extremely effective insulation. When cleverly built, this furnace could also be much easier to hide than the stone furnace which sat right out in the open in most cases.


Next, the two halves of the still were assembled. If the copper being used was too thick to be pulled around by hand, then it was taken to a place in the woods where people would be unlikely to hear what was going on. A large tree was felled in the bottom of a hollow so that the sounds of the construction would go straight up in the air instead of out all over the countryside. The stump of the tree was rounded out to a smooth, concave surface, and the sheet of copper was placed on top. Next, with a wooden mallet made of dogwood that had been well-seasoned, the copper was beaten until the flat sheet curled around and the two ends touched. One edge was pounded more vigorously than the other so that the sheet would curl unevenly to make the taper. Then holes were punched along the ends of the now-tapered sheet, and brads were inserted to fasten the ends together tightly. The same was done to the other half. Often, to ensure that there would be no leakage at all, these joints would be tin locked.

Now holes were punched along the cape, and the two halves mated and bradded together. The cape edge of the bottom half was crimped slightly so as to fit inside the cape edge of the top half. The arc for the cap was curled in the same manner, and the ends joined as before.

Next the bottom of the still was fastened to the bottom half. (This could also be done before the two halves were mated.) The outside edge of the bottom piece was crimped up so that it would fit outside the wall of the bottom half. The bottom half was set down inside the bottom piece, and the two were fastened together.

The tapered slop arm was now rolled and fastened. Its wide end was crimped up. Then it was fed into the still, narrow end first, and out the hole provided for it earlier. The crimped-up wide end would catch inside the still wall. A washer made of copper slid the length of the arm and fitted snug at the wide end of the arm, but outside the still wall. Holes were punched through and the brads inserted, thus mounting the slop arm firmly to the bottom half of the still. (To taper arm, it was wrapped around tapered wooden pole.)

In like manner, the head of the cap was mounted, the cap arm, and so on until all the parts had been shaped and fastened in their proper places. Then all the joints were sealed with liquid metal so that they would not leak. The still was now ready to carry to the woods and mate with the furnace. The worm was made there by coiling the pipe around a stump, then slipping it off.

The following pages present a portfolio of diagrams which illustrate most of the still varieties we have found. They are arranged in roughly chronological order.

The very first illustration, for example (Illustration 9), shows the simplest still of all, and the oldest of the ones we have seen. This is the variety which produced much of the best moonshine ever made. It was also the most time-consuming of all the operations, and yielded the smallest return for the time involved. All the beer was run through, a stillful at a time, and the results of each run (“singlings”) saved at the other end. When all the beer had been run through once, the still was thoroughly cleaned, and then all the singlings placed into the still at one time. Then the stillful of singlings was run through. The result was the doublings, or good whiskey. It was also called “doubled and twisted” whiskey, the first because it was double strength, and the second, because it twisted slightly as it came out of the worm. Using this rig, a man could get about two gallons of whiskey per bushel of corn, or a final yield of about twelve gallons after proofing.

By way of contrast, there are operations running today which yield as much as three hundred gallons per run—a far cry from the old days.

The two previous stills show what happened as moonshiners got more and more impatient with the slowness of the first operation described. Perhaps the most revolutionary addition was the thump barrel. Steam bubbling up through the fresh beer in this barrel was automatically doubled thus removing forever the necessity of saving the singlings and running them through again to double their strength.

The still in Illustration 19 illustrates effectively what happens as man’s desire for quantity overtakes his desire for quality. The yield from this still is immense; the quality, questionable. A truck radiator serves as the condenser.

The dead man still in Illustration 20 is a purely modern variety with a tremendous yield. The beer, rather than being made in separate boxes, can be made right in the still in this case. Twenty bags of sugar are used. One run can produce forty-five cases. There are six gallons in each case, so the total yield is 270 gallons. Early this year, the whiskey from this still was commanding $30 to $35 a case from the bootlegger’s hauler. If the operator had had to haul it to the bootlegger, he would have added $10 more to the final price of each case.

ILLUSTRATION 9 Above: (1) the still (the furnace, bedrock platform, firebox and still cap will be recognized from a previous diagram). (2) the cap arm. This copper pipe (often four inches in diameter, but sometimes tapered from six inches at the cap end to four or less at the other) conveys the steam from the still to the copper worm. (3) the worm. This pipe is about three-quarters of an inch to an inch in diameter, and is coiled tightly to get maximum length of pipe into minimum space. The steam condenses into liquid in the worm. Sometimes the worm is simply fixed in midair, and the steam cooled by a water jacket which surrounds the pipe and into which fresh, cold water is continually fed, but more often the worm is fixed inside a water tank of some sort—in this case a fifty gallon barrel (4)—through which cold water is constantly circulated. (5) the end of the worm. The alcohol which flows out here is usually strained through hickory coals to remove the fusel oils (barda grease)—thus the funnel above the jug in the diagram at the end of the worm. (6) the pipe, or trough from the cold water source—usually a mountain stream. (7) the slop arm. The spent beer is drained out this copper pipe (which passes directly through the furnace wall) after each run. (8) the plug stick. This is usually a hickory or oak limb with a wad of rags attached firmly to the end to keep the beer from draining out during a run. (9) the container for the slop (spent beer).

ILLUSTRATION 10 Mickey Justice holds a section of a wooden water trough found at the site of one of the earliest and most famous stills in Rabun County. The trough carried fresh water from a spring far up the hill to the still’s condenser.

ILLUSTRATION 11 Refined to the ultimate, this version—Diagram A—of the Blockade Still works as follows: The steam (arrows) from the beer boiling in the still (1) moves into the cap (2), through the cap arm (3), and into the dry or “relay” barrel (5). Beer which bubbles over or “pukes” into the relay barrel is returned to the still via the relay arm (4). From this barrel (usually a fifty-gallon one which is mounted so that it slants slightly back toward the still), the steam moves into the long thump rod (6) which carries it into the bottom of the fifty-gallon thump barrel (7) and releases it to bubble up through the fresh beer, which was placed there earlier via inlet (8)—now closed to keep the steam enclosed in the system. The beer in this barrel is drained after each run and replaced with fresh beer before the next. Picked up again at the top by the short thump rod (9), the steam moves into the heater box or “pre-heater” (10) which is also filled with fresh beer. Here the steam is not set loose, however, but is forced through a double-walled ring (11) that stands about nine inches high, is thirty-four to forty inches in diameter, and mounted so that it stands about a half inch off the floor of the heater box. The top and bottom of the ring are sealed so that the steam cannot escape. Heat from the steam is transferred to this cool, fresh beer thus heating it to make it ready for the next run when it will be transferred into the drained still via a wooden trough connecting the two (not shown here). The steam then moves via another connecting rod (12) into the flake stand (13) and into the condenser (15)—in this case another double-walled ring, higher and narrower than the previous one. The steam is condensed in this ring by the cold water flowing into the flake stand from (14) and exiting by outlet (18). As the steam is condensed into alcohol, it flows through a strainer and funnel (16) into the container (17).
The still from which this diagram was drawn was a “fifty-gallon rig.” The still and all three barrels each had a fifty-gallon capacity. The heater box was twenty-eight inches long, twenty-eight inches wide, and stood twenty-four inches high. The relay barrel and the heater box were both tilted slightly in the direction of the still-cooker for proper drainage.
Diagram B shows the heater box from the top, sliced in half. The dots represent beer; the steam is represented by arrows. Diagram C shows the flake stand from the top. In this case the condenser was held in place in the center of the barrel by twigs (23) which were cut green, then bent and wedged against its sides. The dots represent water.
At the end of each run, the plug stick (20) is pushed in, thus releasing the slop or “pot-tail” which flows through the tilted slop arm (21) and trough (22) into a bucket. The spent beer from the thump barrel (faints) is also drained and replaced. The plug stick is replaced, the cap removed, the still filled with hot beer from the heater box, the cap is replaced, the heater box is filled with fresh cold beer again, and the process is begun all over.


ILLUSTRATION 13 The still shown here is another of the highly refined Blockade variety. In this case, however, rather than being stretched out for convenience of illustration, the diagram’s shapes match those of Illustration 12 so that you can decipher the photograph itself.
It is basically the same as the previous operation, but in this case it is possible to see the trough which connects the heater box with the still. Part (8) is hinged to part (9), and when the operator is ready to move the beer, he takes the cap off the still, swings (8) down so that it is in line with its lower half, pulls the gate up via the gate handle (10), and lets the beer flow.
In the diagram, the log supports which hold up various parts of the operation and which can be seen in the photograph, are not shown as they would create too much confusion. Instead, they are indicated by dotted lines in those places where they pass in front of a portion of the still.
The flake stand, in this case, holds not the condenser which was used in the still on the previous pages, but a radiator from a Chevrolet truck. The radiator is just as effective a condenser but often not quite as healthy.
The numbers on the diagram refer to the following parts of the still shown:

1) the furnace

2) the still

3) the cap

4) the cap arm

5) the relay arm

6) the relay, or dry barrel

7) the long thump rod—its connection with (15) is hidden

8) top half of trough from heater

9) bottom half of trough

10) handle for heater box gate

11) heater box

12) copper connecting rod

13) flake stand—water filled

14) outlet from condensing unit

15) thumper, or thump barrel

16) bucket for slop, or “pot-tail”

17) slop trough

18) slop arm from still

19) handle of plug stick

ILLUSTRATION 14 The beer in this cooker is being heated prior to sealing on the cap. The swab stick resting in the cooker is used to stir the beer while it is heating to keep it from sticking to the sides and burning. Both this and the next three photographs were all taken at the same operation.

ILLUSTRATION 15 The thump barrel and heater box. The drain pipe, when lowered, carries warm, fresh beer from the heater box to the cooker, the top of which is visible in the foreground.

ILLUSTRATION 16 The heater box from the other side, showing the connection between the heater box and the condenser which is mounted in the metal drum.

ILLUSTRATION 17 The whole operation from the heater box, condenser end. The wooden barrels on the right are rilled with fermenting mash. The furnace is hidden behind the heater box. The plastic gallon milk jar in the foreground is often used in place of glass jars for the finished product.

ILLUSTRATION 18 This page reveals a heater box and a thump barrel in more detail. The barrel in the foreground of the photograph is the thumper. The pipe extending in the foreground is the long thump rod coming from the cap of the still. (This particular still did not have a dry or relay barrel). The large wooden box behind the thumper is the heater box. Arrow 1 points to the outlet which is blocked by the gate behind it. Arrow 2 points to the handle of this gate. Arrow 3 points to the wooden trough which is mounted into place when the operator is ready to transfer his preheated beer to the still for a new run. In the background, behind the thump barrel (bearing the number 4) can be seen the corner of the flake stand.

ILLUSTRATION 19 (1) is the cap—usually a fifty-gallon barrel. (2) is a huge barrel (the still) which sits right on the ground. It has, in this case, a capacity of five hundred gallons. The sides are made of huge sheets of aluminum or copper, and both the top and bottom are made of plywood. There are three 2 by 4 supports inside the walls of the still which help support its great size (6). (3) is the firebox. The source of heat, in this case, is a huge gas burner mounted so that the flames point toward the still. Heat is drawn in, around the lower walls of the still, and out the flue (4). (5) is the furnace which in this case is a double row of concrete blocks sealed over (dotted line) with clay, or some other form of tight insulation. Space, of course, is left between the inside wall of the blocks and the outside bottom wall of the still for the passage of heat.
The cap arm connects to a large thump barrel which connects directly with the flake stand. There was no heater box in this particular model.
It is possible, by the way, to use a fifty-gallon barrel as the housing for the gas jets (3). It would be turned on its side with its end toward the still, and sealed to the concrete-block wall of the furnace with the insulating rocks, mud, and concrete.
Those who use them say that the groundhog stills are much hotter than the other varieties, and thus make better stills.

ILLUSTRATION 20 These diagrams illustrate perhaps the simplest still of them all—the “dead man” or “flat.” In all cases (Diagrams A and B) : (1) is the cap, (2) the still itself—a rectangular box, (3) the bottom of the box (the diagonally shaded area), (4) the firebox or source of heat, and (5) the flue.
There are several differences between them, however, that make them interesting. In A, the cap is a twenty-five-gallon barrel, and in B, a fifty-gallon one. The firebox in A is simply a channel cut into the earth. The still sits on the ground directly over this channel. A hole is left at the back to serve as the flue. In B, however, two 7 inch pipes sit inside the still box, surrounded by beer, with their ends protruding out both ends of the box. A long gas line is fed into each of these pipes, and its top surface is perforated in the manner of gas burners on stoves. This design supplies heat directly to the beer thus making a faster operation.
In A, the still stands two feet high, and six to eight feet long. A thin sheet of copper lines the outside of the bottom, and rises up two to three inches all around the sides. The rest of the box is made of wood. In B, the box is made of two 4-foot-square wooden boxes. They are mounted side to side, and the common wall is removed leaving a box four feet high, four feet wide, and eight feet long. The bottom is lined with copper as before.
Diagram A at the bottom shows how concrete blocks could be used in lieu of digging a trench in the ground. The dotted lines represent the insulation (mud, rocks, cement, etc.).

The operation of a steamer still similar to the one in Illustration 21 was described thus by one operator:

“It takes four men—a chief, a helper-pumper, and two haulers. We make our beer in six 4’ by 8’ boxes, and use two thousand pounds of sugar for every load. If we don’t get twelve cases out of every box, something’s wrong. And that’s only seventy-two cases a day. That’s not bad, but when I was running eight boxes I got ninety-six cases a day. And sometimes I could sell it for $60 a case. Not now. Price goes up and down—it depends.

“We use what we call ‘mule feed’ for malt, and we add beading oil to make it bead good. We use a radiator out of a Dodge truck in th’ flake stand, cleaned out good, of course.

“I just want to move th’stuff out—get it to th’ bootlegger quick as it’s made. That’s why I use haulers. I admit it’s not good liquor. It’ll give you a headache. But it won’t hurt you. I’ve drunk it myself before.”

Several things make a steamer still difficult. One is the amount of beer that must be on hand to begin with. From each 190 gallons in the Hodges Barrel, the yield will be approximately seven cases. Thus, in order to run off the ninety or more cases that can be run in a day, the main barrel has to be emptied and refilled about ten times. One man we talked to accomplished this with a pump and hose apparatus that he had rigged up. Contrast this with the old method of dipping the beer into the still with five gallon buckets and one can see how much things have changed. It still takes time, however, to prepare the beer. Thus a still like this one must lie unused for days at a time waiting for the beer to be ready to run.

Sugar presents another problem. Since anything over a hundred pounds must be signed for, sugar has to be bootlegged just like the whiskey.

In addition, the very size of the operation makes it more dangerous to run. Every effort is made to minimize the risk. One man, for example, told us that he never uses pegs in the outlet holes of his barrels. He has converted everything to valves. The reason: “Men who use pegs get in th’habit of hitting them three times whenever they’re putting them back in th’ holes. They hit that peg soft th’ first time, a little harder th’ next time, and on th’ third time they really whack it. You can hear those three licks on th’ thumper peg for miles.

ILLUSTRATION 21 The Steamer: (1) is a spare tank for pre-heating water. Pipes (2) extend from the top of the furnace (6) into the bottom of the water tank, and as they get hot, so does the water. (5) is the main water tank. The coke burning furnace, which has a smoke stack (4), heats the water in (5) to the boiling point, producing the necessary steam. When this tank is empty, it is refilled with the pre-heated water through a valved pipe (3), and the spare water tank is refilled with cold water.
Steam from the main water tank, which is made of one and a third 50-gallon metal drums welded together, moves directly into a long thump rod, and via it into the bottom of a huge thump barrel (8) which is filled with 190 gallons of fresh beer at the beginning of the run. The barrel is a wooden Hodges Barrel with a 220 gallon capacity. From here the steam moves into a recharger or relay barrel of fifty-gallon capacity (9) which can return “puke” to (8); then it goes into a dry barrel (10), and from there into another thump barrel (12) through another long thump rod (11). This barrel holds fifty gallons of fresh beer. From there the steam moves into a large heater box (13) which has the same function as those we have already seen, returning pre-heated beer to (8) through a valved line (17). The flake stand (14) is again, in this case, a large truck radiator. (15) is the filtering or straining barrel which is the repository for the final product. (16) is the water source for the flake stand. One informant told us that he could run ninety cases per day on a rig like this one.


Once two men were fixing a leak in th’ side of their still. One of th’ men was inside th’ still, crouched down, giving support from th’ inside; th’ other was outside with a hammer pounding away at th’ patch he was adding. Suddenly th’ man on th’ outside saw th’ law headed straight for him. Without a word to his partner inside th’ still, he turned and fled into th’ woods.

Th’ federal man came up to th’ still. Unaware that anyone was inside it, he took th’ pick with which he demolished stills and gave it a terrible whack, piercing the side. “Now you’ve ruined it,” th’ man on th’ inside screamed in anger.