Project: Ugly Drum Smoker (holiday blog bonus edition)

d.a. writes: I've been waiting for Spouse to write an article on how he made this amazing smoker. He finally did. Consider this a holiday gift to all of you, our half-dozen readers who make the time to grace this humble blog. Thank you!

Spouse writes:

Pic: racks of ribs
We have had a side firebox smoker that I have written about before. I have stopped using it for smoking except for Thanksgiving when there just isn’t enough room in my new smoker for two turkeys, a prime rib, and three racks of ribs. That is right: new smoker. I got tired of the side firebox because it used a lot of wood and needed to be watched constantly to keep the temperature right. I did a lot “research” (a.k.a. clicking links on the web that were sometimes tangentially related to what I was looking for). I stumbled upon a pre-made big drum smoker that looked right. It used very little wood, kept an even temperature and had great reviews. The price was a bit more than I wanted to spend but d.a. approved it, figuring she could not afford to buy any more ladders after my last repair of the side firebox smokers. [If you can’t make the connection then you must be new here.]

I did some more clicking, err... research and found this: the mother of all Ugly Drum Smoker threads. Ugly drum smokers are the DIY version of the Big Drum Smoker I posted above. The thread has been actively open for 4 years and there are thousands of posts. I read the whole thing over several weeks. I decided that this is what I wanted to do. In fact, I have done it three times, with the first two being given as gifts to family and friends. I love this smoker. Although the temperature inside is 225℉, the outside is not nearly as hot as the old side firebox. I have asbestos hands due to childhood labor issues (thanks Dad), and can move the grill even while it is running.

It makes good smoke on just a small amount of wood and does it for a long time. I can get 12 hours of smoking with just the initial load of wood (actually, the only load because I have never needed to smoke anything longer than 10 hours). I'll smoke two or three different things during the day. The first three hours I will smoke 5 to 10 lbs of beef teriyaki jerky. The next 6 hours are for three racks of baby back ribs. And if I time it right, I can put on chicken for dinner.

You can read the thread to get your own ideas but after the three different builds I have refined what works well for me. 
pic: firebox

  • Take a 55-gallon food-grade steel drum - thoroughly cleaned using fire inside the barrel (a big fire), then steel discs and wire brushes.
  • Build a firebox – something that holds the wood while still allowing air to circulate. Here is my current one made out of expanded steel and a Weber grill grate, bolted to an aluminum pan that catches the ash.
  • Drill holes in the bottom to allow air into the smoker. Since all but one of these is closed after the smoker comes up to temp, I use press-in caps that fit the holes, but some people use flexible refrigerator magnets to cover the holes as needed.
  • I also have a valve installed in one of the holes to regulate the air. You can see it at the bottom of the smoker below.

I also drill holes – lots of holes. You need holes for the screws that hold the grates, holes for the temperature gauge, holes for handles, holes in the lid to let the smoke out, etc. I found that a stepped drill bit was the best way to drill different sized holes in the thin metal walls of the barrel. I used to think these kinds of bits were a toy but they really work for this application.

pic: completed smoker
It just so happens that a Weber kettle grate fits perfectly inside the barrel, and if you have a full size weber kettle barbecue you might also find that that the lid fits your barrel (but your mileage may vary as it depends on the barrel you use). I use either the original lid to the barrel or a commercial wok I got at a restaurant supply store for $25.

The things to remember if you decide to do something crazy like this:

1. Wear the appropriate safety gear. I have been to the hospital several times in my life because I thought that safety goggles weren’t fashion-forward for the tragically (un)hip youngster I was. There are dangerous things involved with this project:
  • Fire (a big one and possibly lots of little ones)
  • Flying hot metal bits
  • Power tools with sharp things attached
  • And in our case – hormonal geese (which should always be treated with caution and a good pair of heavy welding gloves.)

2. Keep the distance from the food and the fire at least 24 inches. My firebox is a little tall so I actually have the grates within an inch of the lip of the barrel and have to use the domed lid.

pic: wok lid with holes
3. Clean the barrel very well. A lot of food grade barrels have a phenolic coating that has to be removed to prevent bad things getting into your food. You might be able to get a new steel barrel without any coating. If you have a local source that is what I would recommend. It takes a lot of work to prepare a 25-dollar used barrel and it might be worth the extra 40 for a new one.

4. Do not use galvanized metal in any of your internal fittings. Galvanized metal starts to off-gas once it reached 400℉. I use black iron or stainless steel in all the fittings.

5. Do some research: there are lots of web pages that show you how to make a ugly drum smoker for anyone at any skill level. Go learn from their mistakes and figure out ways to make new ones.  d.a. says I am the king of finding new mistakes. Did ya hear that? I am the KING…wait a minute. 

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