Building a Great Smoker from a 55 Gallon Drum
Can I interest you in a smoker you can easily build yourself which will be designed well enough to smoke food for upwards of 10 hours without the need for constant maintenance?
For your money, you can't get a better smoker than by building your own Ugly Drum Smoker from a 55 gallon drum.
The UDS is a true set-it-and-forget-it style of smoker built from a 55 gallon drum. It is the same concept behind the Pit Barrel Cooker, our winner for the "Best Smoker Under $500".
Don’t let the odd name turn you away; Ugly Drum Smokers (UDS) are a simple barrel-drum structure with an unrefined appearance. Despite its raw appearance, for those who value function over form, the UDS delivers. Its efficient and produces exceptional BBQ. While it looks like an offset smoker turned upright, it's better than most offset smokers. The UDS' vertical cooking environment allows for efficient heat circulation, similar to a convection oven. This contrasts with offset smokers, which often let heat and smoke pass over the top of the meat, potentially impacting the flavor and BBQ texture. The UDS also much better at maintaining steady temperatures. I find myself using my drum smoker more often than my traditional smokers, mostly because I have two of them, and well, I'm often at camp, and nothing travels better than the UDS.
So let's jump in and show you how you can make your own drum smoker from any 55-gallon drum. This is a great #MeatGeek project with an insatiable drive for DIY tasks. You’ll need some specific tools, but if you're a hardcore DIY-er then you probably already have all the tools you need. Although it might sound complicated, building one of these beasts is actually pretty easy for the average do it yourselfer.
This walkthrough takes you through everything you need and how to assemble your very own UDS. The hardest part of the entire project is acquiring the 55 gallon drum -- even that isn't all that difficult -- more on this in a second.
Method 1: Buying a Drum Ready to Assemble
Should you decide that you like the idea of owning a UDS but don't want to get your hands dirty, there's a kit you can buy from Pit Barrel Cooker Co.
This kit shows up at your door with all the parts ready to be assembled...almost like Ikea furniture – it's okay, we won't tell.
Method 2: Building Your Own from Scratch
Before we get started, there are a lot of different ways to build a UDS. For example, some plans call for a welder, we swapped out that step and went a different route by building a charcoal basket fastened with u-bolts instead of welding it together. You can apply your own DIY-er knowledge and tweak these plans to make a UDS perfect for you.
How to Build A Smoker from a 55 Gallon Drum
In a nutshell, it goes like this… get a 55-gallon drum, then strategically drill a bunch of holes into it. Build a charcoal basket and find a 22-inch grilling grate to place inside. Finally, attach some plumbing valves to work as the air inlets. And voilà you’ve got yourself a one of a kind ugly drum smoker. Insider secret… it’s not ugly at all. When you’re done you’ll see for yourself how awesome it is.
Ugly Drum Smoker Parts
55 Gallon Drum
Look for a new non-lined barrel. While you can use a torch and some elbow grease to remove any possible toxic liners, it's easier to purchase a non-lined barrel. You can find them on eBay or other various online marketplaces. Expect to pay about $75 or less for a new non-lined barrel.
- Charcoal grate
- Steel mesh - around 45 x 9 inches
- Bolts (4" long), washers, nuts and lock nuts - 6 of each
- U-bolts - 2 each
CHARCOAL BASKET: LEGS
Handel & Grill Grate
- Door handle - at least 1 for the lid, but get 2 more to attach to the sides of the barrel for easier handling.
- Standard grill grate 22.5” - get 2 (one for meat, one for a water pan)
All parts are 3/4ths Inch
- 3 Steel pipe nipples
- 3 Steel pipe caps
- 3 Conduit nuts
- 1 Ball valve
BUILDING THE CHARCOL BASKET
NO WELDER, NO PROBLEM
Some of us don't have access to a welder. Others, have no business operating one, myself included (the first basket I welded came out looking like a middle school shop project). I found this method online, and it is by far the easiest way to create a basket. Simple, yet practical. No welding required – it can be completed in under an hour (depending how long you spend on step 1).
Step 1 – Bend Ring
Bend a 45" x 9" sheet of expanded metal around a propane take. The propane tank is ideal, however, it still takes a bit of finesse.
Step 2 – Fasten Ring
Secure the cylinder with two bolts using washers and nuts.
Step 3 – Fasten Legs
Fasten the 4" bolts to the grate as shown.
Step 4 – Fasten Basket
Attached the basket you bended to the charcoal grate using the U-Bolt. Simple.
Drilling & Mounting The Assembly
Now we will prepare the drum for assembly in a few quick steps.
If you don’t already own a step bit, I can recommend this one which will set you back about $10 to $15. You can easily spend $60 on a good titanium bit at your local hardware store, but if you don’t plan on using it on the job site everyday the recommended one is perfectly fine. After all, we’re on a budget here.
The recommended bit goes from ¼ inch to 1 3/8. You’ll use ¼ inch for the holes that hold the cooking grate and handle. 1 inch will be perfect for the exhaust lid holes and the air intake at the bottom.
Drill 8 evenly spaced 1 inch exhaust holes all the way around the lid.
Mount the handle to the lid with four 1/4 inch holes (or however you see fit based on your handle).
Measure about 7 inches from the top of your barrel and drill four 1/4 inch holes evenly spaced around the barrel with your step drill.
You’ll place the nuts and bolts in these holes to support the grilling grate.
Air Intake Valve/Holes
Drill three 1 inch holes evenly spaced, about 3 inches off the bottom. Two of these holes will hold the capped ¾ inch steel nipples and the third hole will hold the ball valve.
Optional - Create an additional area for increased functionally features
If you have a second grill grate you can work it into the bottom part of the barrel to provide a place for searing, dropping in a heat diffuser, water pan, drip pan, etc.
To add the second grate you'll be repeating the same steps you just completed in step 4. Measure 12 to 14 inches from the bottom and drill four 1/4 inch holes all the way around.
You want to make sure this second grate will sit above the charcoal basket you made. Double check the height before you start drilling these holes.
If you don't already own a leave-in thermometer check out our reviews for the latest Wi-Fi temp readers. Alternatively, you can install a traditional analog gauge by simply drilling a hole into the barrel. I recommend passing on the standard gauges you'll find at a local store; they're never accurate. Go with the Tel-Tru BBQ Thermometer if installing an analog gauge -- temperature matters -- especially when smoking meat for 8+ hours.
Depending on your DIY-er drive, and how much beer you have left, you can paint your barrel before completing the final assembly. Make sure to use paint that is rated for 500+ degrees. You can even find paint specifically made for barbecues. Feel free to have fun with pimping your UDS and making it totally your own custom creation.
Optional: Season your new UDS smoker
It’s always a good idea to season your new grill. To do this load your newly created charcoal basket (it should hold almost a full 20lbs bag of charcoal) with charcoal mixed with a few wood chunks for flavor. Leave a little room on top because we’ll be adding hot coals to the top.
Load your chimney with about a dozen or two coals. Once there hot drop them on top of the charcoal basket that you loaded with coal and wood chunks.
Open all of the vents and put the lid on.
Now, for this seasoning you’ll want to cook something with a lot of fat (bacon, breakfast sausage, chorizo, etc.). Add the meat to the center of the grate.
Next, have fun discovering how your new UDS will keep the perfect temperature. Play around with the air intake regulator and the valve caps; covering and uncovering these capped ends with a magnet. If you have the charcoal going property you should be around a perfect 250°F. The best part of an Ugly Drum Smoker is you should remain at 250°F for upwards of 10 hours. The seasoning process should be completed after two hours, then, you’re ready for your first smoke!
Using your uds
BASICS TIPS FOR SMOKING W/AN UGLY DRUM SMOKER
As you know smokers are not grills. Don’t exceed 300 degrees F – smokers are ideal at lower temperatures. Any higher will result in scorching. You should also be aware that when you open the lid to the smoker, you should keep the exposure to the air as brief as possible, as too much oxygen may ignite at grease buildup that’s on the sides of the grill, so be sure to give it a thorough cleaning after each time.
Ugly Drum Smoker best Practice Tips
Lighting the UDS
There are a few different ways to light your UDS. If you’re inexperienced, it’s a good idea to wait at least one hour if not two for the temperature stabilize after ignition before you place meat inside. One method is simply using coals. Fill the basket nearly the top with charcoals, but don’t use any kind of self-lighting fire briquettes, because they contain petroleum and fluid that will give your meat an odd flower.
The most efficient way to ignite a UDS is to use a chimney lighter.
Some people prefer to use a fire starter cube instead of a chimney. Once your coals are lit up, all you need to do is add some wood chunks and wait a while for the temperature to stabilize.
Preparing to smoke
It’s important to control the temperature carefully and not let too much oxygen in. Depending on the model of the UDS, there are either a pair of ball valves or a sliding vent door, which you can open or close depending on whether you want to raise or lower the temperature.
When you first start adjusting the temperature using the vents, the charcoal will emit a thick white smoke. Wait for this to settle down before adding the meat! This can take about thirty minutes or longer. The ideal smoke has a thin, bluish appearance.
Once the white smoke disappears, open the lid and place your meat on the grates. At first you'll want to monitor the temperature to be sure it doesn't exceed the ideal smoking temperature of 225°F to 240°F.
After smoking, it’s important that you clean it out.
This technique is called “seasoning” a smoker and is designed to burn away any leftover oils, grime, or other materials. Take either vegetable oil or a cooking spray and apply it all over the inside of the drum. Light it up as usual and let it burn around 250°F for a few hours while the flames purify the inside. It’s advised to add some bacon to the grates to give the smoker a naturally delicious aroma and keep the air inside clean and smoky.
Once you’re all done either seasoning or just smoking, it’s important to carefully shut down the UDS. When it’s time to shut it down, all you have to do is close all the vents and wrap the chimney in heavy-duty aluminum foil. This will prevent air from flowing back in and fueling the fire, which will eventually extinguish itself due to a lack of exposure to oxygen. It’s pretty simple.
Just make sure that the next time you go to start up your smoker, you shake out any ashes from the coal basket and add fresh coals to the top of it.
So those are the basics of handling a smoker, but what’s the best technique for heating and smoking a proper rib? Of course, every rib smoking expert will have a slightly different technique that they prefer, but there is one method that is a tried-and-true favorite by beginners and experts alike. Read on for some instructions for this easy-to-manage smoking technique.