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BBQ isn’t really cooking—it’s a DIY project that ends with eating meat. After a few years of cooking with smoke, I got good at it. Then, after a few more years, I fancied myself a magician, shrouding my cheap cuts of meat in the mystery of secret-recipe dry rubs, brines, sauces, and blends of flavoring woods.
But it wasn’t enough. I wanted to own every step of the process. My landlord said no to raising livestock in the apartment, so that left building the smoker itself to express my rugged individualism. Online research led me to the ugly drum smoker, which rightfully enjoys a cult following.
Using a 55-gallon steel drum and parts found in any decent hardware store, the design produces an exceptional smoker. Building it is like barbecue itself, turning modest ingredients into something truly satisfying.
These Tools Will Help
Plans and Materials
💡 In 1927, the American Engineering Standards Committee standardized the measurement of steel and iron pipe sizes and strengths. This led to the pipe schedule, a scale of 5 to 160. As the number grows, so does a pipe’s wall thickness and ability to withstand internal pressure.
Assemble the Four Air Intakes
Using ¾-inch threaded pipe and fittings, connect the close nipple to the 90-degree elbow and the elbow to the 24-inch-long pipe. Slip a U-bolt and mounting plate over the pipe, then attach the brass ball valve . Hand-tighten the parts . Then clamp the elbow in a vise, and secure the connections with a wrench on the valve’s facets.
Make the Lid
Get all your pieces for the lid handle together . Hand-tighten a ½-inch close nipple into the flange pipe fitting . Align the ½-inch opening of the reducing elbow over the nipple, and turn the elbow onto it. Thread the 6-inch-long piece of ¼-inch pipe into the elbow, and tighten the connection with pliers. Slip the spring handle over the pipe, and thread the cap onto the pipe’s end to hold the handle in place. The entire assembly will be bolted to the lid in a later step.
Construct the Fire Basket
Cut a 12 x 48-inch piece of expanded metal. The best way to do this is to mount the material to plywood with drywall screws, mark the dimensions with a Sharpie, and make your cuts with an angle grinder and cutoff wheel . Then mark the metal lengthwise 2½ inches from the bottom; align the charcoal grate on the mark, and roll the metal into a cylinder .
Where the metal overlaps, secure the cylinder using three ¼-inch stainless steel bolts, washers, and nuts. Use two bolts above the grate and one below it, then space the remaining three bolts evenly around the basket’s circumference (above). Form the handle out of stainless steel wire. Thread one end through the basket and twist the wire back on itself. Take the free end of the wire and do the same at the other side of the basket.
Prep the Barrel
Use a 55-gallon food-grade drum with an open head. (Some drums are treated with epoxy to prevent rust, but meat smoked in such a barrel is toxic.) You can buy a new drum at an industrial-supply store for $150 or less or a used one online for a mere $20. Make sure that the drum and lid are untreated, and buff their insides with a scouring pad or fine sandpaper.
Mark an 11½-inch-diameter circle centered on the lid. Using a step bit, drill eight equally spaced ½-inch holes around the circle. Thread a ¼-inch pipe plug into each hole. Place the handle assembly on the lid. Mark the four bolt locations; drill them with the step bit. Bolt the handle to the lid .
Mark the hole locations for the air intakes, grill supports, and thermometer. Start each hole with a center punch, and bore the 1-inch intake holes with a step bit . Test each one by threading in a ¾-inch close nipple. Using a ¼-inch bit, drill the grill-support holes. The hole size you make for the thermometer depends on the model.
Add the air intakes by placing the close nipple into each hole and rotating the assembly. Align the intakes vertically, mark the U-bolt locations, drill on the marks, and slip a faceplate on either side of the barrel wall. Then tighten the nuts on the U-bolt. Secure the air intakes at the barrel’s base by threading the pipe locknuts onto the close nipples. Create grill supports using the ¼-inch bolts, washers, and nuts. Attach the thermometer with its included nut.
Fire it Up
Before you cook, load the fire basket with untreated charcoal, ignite it (use a coal chimney, not lighter fluid), and attach the lid. Fiddle with the intakes to make sure they’re working, and let the fire burn hot to season the barrel and remove any impurities.
The Delicious Chemistry of Cooking
Smoking takes 3 to 18 hours or more and occurs over indirect heat maxing out at 215 to 250 Fahrenheit. Tough cuts such as beef brisket and pork shoulder make the best barbecue because they contain a lot of collagen protein, which forms the fiber that surrounds the lean muscle.
Over low heat collagen breaks down into gelatin, which is as tender as, well, jello. In lab speak, the collagen converts into hydrogen and hydroxide. This process, which occurs most readily at 140 to 160 Fahrenheit, makes the meat moist.
By contrast, when a tough cut is prepared at high heat (say, in a 450 Fahrenheit oven), the muscle fibers cook through before most of the collagen converts to gelatin. The result is a tougher, drier finished product.
After this dry run, stoke 6 to 12 pounds of charcoal in the fire basket, and add two or three fist-size chunks of flavoring wood, such as cherry, hickory, oak, or maple. Place the basket in the smoker and the grill on its supports. Drop on the lid, and open the intakes.
When the thermometer reads 350 degrees, close all but one valve to reduce the heat. Dial in a temperature from 215 to 250 degrees by adjusting the intakes. Load the grill with meat, and settle in for the long haul with some good company.