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Sunday, February 8, 2009

Riverwalker's Gear - The Smoker Barrel

I guess by way of introduction, I should tell you that Riverwalker is my father-in-law. I can’t even begin to tell you what a blessing that is. That man can fix anything, except dinner. That is what Mrs. Riverwalker does best. That woman can cook! It is amazing to me that RW is so skinny, considering the amount of food that he eats.

About 18 months ago I built my own smoker for less than $100. For about the last six months, Riverwalker has been trying to get me to type something up about how it was done, the materials list, procedure, and that kind of thing. I have a three-year-old. Scheduling time to type doesn’t really work out for me so well. RW and Mrs. RW are at the house as I type this and entertaining their grandson (Baby RW?), so I have a few minutes.

First things first…this smoker is NOT fancy. Your friends will not likely be impressed until they taste the food that comes off of it. It isn’t (necessarily) pretty. Its job is to cook and to cook well. There is no welding…all you need is a screwdriver, a pair of pliers, and a drill and some bits. If you had nothing but a hammer, a nail, and some desire, you could build this thing. Rocket science it is not.

It would be foolish to start any project without a list of materials that you will need to get the project done. Here is your parts list for this smoker. Don’t be discouraged by the fact that there aren’t a lot of expensive parts. If you want an expensive smoker, check out the Lange, the Spicewine, or any of a dozen other brands. All make good BBQ, but this is a WHOLE lot cheaper (in all actuality, I will buy a smoker from one of the listed companies when funds permit. If you are in the market, you can’t go wrong with either).


One 55 gallon steel drum (new or food grade preferred)

Two 22.5 inch Weber replacement grates (stick with the Weber brand, despite the fact that they are more expensive, they will save you money in the long run. Don’t ask. And you don’t need the kind where one side opens to add more charcoal.)

One 14 inch charcoal grate. This can be Weber or any other brand. I got one at Academy Sports for about 5 bucks. You may want to pick up a 16 inch one for an option to be explained later.

¾ inch expanded metal. You will want 18-24 inches tall by 48 inches (14 inch charcoal grate) to 52 (16 inch grate). These measurements will allow for overlap to allow the bolts to hold the expanded metal together.

Six 2 ½ inch bolts, and 12 matching nuts.

Four refrigerator magnets. Yes, you read that right. Get some of the bigger ones (business card size). It doesn’t matter who they are advertising. They will work the same.

One thermometer-they are sold at sporting goods stores in the BBQ section. They have a screw on them that allows them to be mounted to a BBQ pit. About $15.

One barn door or gate handle, whatever fits your hand; and four screws/bolts that will go through the holes in the handle.

At some point, you (or your significant other) will want this thing to be less ugly, so consider some spray paint, in your choice of colors. Team colors are good, especially if you are tailgating at a game somewhere. I used high-heat manifold paint (available at auto parts stores) on mine, but I have been told that standard spray paints work fine for the relatively low temperatures that smoking requires. The standard paints come in a greater variety of colors and are cheaper. You can decide if repainting once a year (or even less frequently) is worth it to you in exchange for the greater variety of colors.

Barrel Selection

If you are fortunate enough to have a large selection of barrels, you get to be somewhat selective in what barrel you choose. Ideally, you will get a barrel with a flat lid and no open holes. If you get one with a bung hole, you will be fine as long as the hole is plugged. Inward sloped sides? A good thing as long as the grates will fit into it. This will allow the use of a Weber kettle lid for the top.

Burn Out

First, let’s assume that you have found a food grade or new barrel. DO NOT use an old oil or gas barrel. Your food will never taste right if you do.

For those of you that that didn’t find a new barrel, there is some preparation that needs to be done. This part is easy, and a lot of fun. Build a fire. A BIG fire, in your barrel. Wait, the pyro in me is getting ahead of things.

First, you need to drill some holes for air intake. Drill four, one inch holes in the drum two inches from the bottom. To put it another way, measure up two inches from the BOTTOM of your drum. Mark that spot. Drill a one inch hole there. Do three more of those for a total of four holes.

NOW we get to burn some stuff! Old pallets, tree trimmings, leaves, whatever you have. Set it ablaze in your barrel. Lots and lots of FIRE! The goal here is to burn off the lining in food grade barrels. It is either a tan or a reddish-brown, and we want it gone. If the paint on the outside of the barrel is burning off, you are on the right track.

Once the fire department leaves and your neighbors are calmed down (for you city dwellers), hit the inside of the barrel with a pear burner to get any last bits of lining. You can also use a grinder with a wire wheel for this.

I may have made this sound like a bigger deal than it is. The reality is that if you live in a subdivision, and you do this with even a little bit of deference to your neighbors, there will be nothing for them to complain about. If they come over to ask what all of the smoke is about, tell them you will let them taste the BBQ once the pit is done. You may get some strange looks early on, but they will be converts later. Trust me on this.

So Let’s Build this Dude…

Construction is not complicated. Let’s not make this into something that it doesn’t need to be. Get a pair of pliers, a screwdriver, and a drill and some drill bits. You are now ready to build yourself a smoker.

I would really like to try to make this more complicated so that I seem smarter, but it just isn’t possible. This is as simple and as basic as you can find.

The Basics

FIRST….and most important…no galvanized materials allowed in the cooker. They put off toxic fumes that will come back to haunt you.

Ok, that about covers the basics…here we go…

The Charcoal Basket

Take your expanded metal and wrap it around your 14”or 16” charcoal basket. Want to make it a little easier? If you have a bottle of propane for a gas grill, wrap it around that. It will give it a pretty good shape to start with. Put a short (1”) bolt through the expanded metal at the top and bottom to hold it together. Put them about two inches from the top and bottom of the expanded metal. Add the two of the same sized bolts equidistant from the first bolt (put three bolts the same distance apart around the outside). These three bolts will be where the charcoal grate rests, so try to spread them out evenly. If you want to add a fourth bolt, feel free to do so. This is your smoker. It should look something like

The Cooking Grates

Measure up 25 inches from the BOTTOM of the barrel. This is where your first cooking grate will go. Put three bolts around the barrel, spread out pretty evenly. I used to do four bolts (8 when I used small grates). What I found was that if you are off even a little bit on one of the four bolts, your grate will be uneven. Three bolts will always have a stable (even if not level) cooking surface. Throw a 20 pound brisket on a grate and let me know how important stability is (again, don’t ask how I know).

For the second grate, measure up 31 inches from the BOTTOM of the barrel. This will give you six inches between cooking grates, and roughly three inches from the flat top of the barrel; more than enough room for a slab of ribs or two.

The Top

The top is, coincidentally enough, the most important part of the cooker. This is where the ventilation tales place. For those who are new to BBQ, this is the most important part of the deal. No matter what cooker you are using, all of the exhaust vents should be wide open. Always. Every cook. The temperature control for your cook is determined by air inflow, or how much air is coming in the bottom (in our case) of the cooker. Limit the oxygen, limit the temperature. This will be discussed in greater detail later, but for now, know this. Your pristine lid needs a minimum of eight 1/2 inch holes drilled in it. If you have had one too many and they get a little big, no problem. Too much exhaust is always better than too little.

If you get nothing else from this article, tale this: YOU CAN NEVER HAVE TOO MUCH EXHAUST. You can have too little air intake, you can have too little exhaust, but you can never have too much exhaust. Okay, you CAN, but it is hard to do.

There It Is

Now you have it. The basic BBQ pit. You will find that it cooks different than your regular BBQ pit. It cooks a lot faster than you are probably used to. A pit I built for a friend went almost 20 hours on 12 pounds of charcoal. He cooked a brisket, then chicken, then ribs and sausage on a single load of coals.

Want to Know More?

Want to dress your cooker up? Like a couple of good recipes? Brisket? Ribs? Want to do it easy instead of how you always heard it has to be done? Stay tuned…the father-in-law is putting me to work.

OK…so RW pointed out I overlooked a couple of things while typing this post.

Here we go….

The temp gauge, or thermometer, needs to go one inch below the lower grate. A hole is drilled for the probe and it should bolt right up. Measure up 24” from the BOTTOM of the barrel for the location of the hole for your temp gauge.

When starting the fire in the BBQ pit, use a pear burner or a small charcoal chimney. Start a few coals on one side of the basket, and let the fire expand from there. It will draw what air it needs from the bottom of the pit and go from there.

Remember the magnets that I mentioned a while back? Too much air intake will cause your fire to burn hot. Use the magnets to cover the openings at the lower end of the smoker. In reality, you will probably only need one of these open while you are cooking, but opening more than one will allow you to bring the temperature up faster. The magnets allow for fine tuning. If you need one fully open and another half open to maintain temperature, then you can do that. If windy conditions call for the opening or closing of certain holes to control temps, you have that option available to you. Temperature control becomes a matter of weather conditions. Need more heat? Open the intakes. Too hot? Close some intakes. This is not complicated. It just takes a little fine tuning depending upon conditions. I don’t want to give you the idea that it will require the same attention that a stick burner needs. Once you cook on this once or twice, it’s a set it and forget it cooker.

Not sure this will work? Ask these guys; the Jack is an Invitational BBQ Event. These guys won first place in brisket cooking on a barrel smoker. Must be embarrassing to have a $20,000 smoker and lose to guys cooking in trash cans!

More photos later. STXcue.
Staying above the smoke line!


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