55-gallon drum smoker

This past fall I took an evening welding class at a local technical school and got very excited about making things out of metal. I already had an old stick welder that I didn’t really know how to use, and I ended up buying a MIG welder–the Hobart Handler 140 from Northern. After making lots of small assemblages out of scrap metal  I managed to build a stool and a couple of plant stands, but I had bigger plans.

There’s something special about creating useful objects. A smoker is a nice combination of supremely useful (preparing sustenance) and slightly frivolous (do you need a smoked pork butt to survive?). There are certainly faster and more efficient ways to cook food, but damn smoked meat is good.

I looked around at commercial smokers and custom hacks and talked to a few connoisseurs, and decided the Weber Smoky Mountain was a good design to start from. It’s simple and effective, and in the end it mostly convinced me that the design need not be complex.

Something appealed to me about using the iconic 55-gallon drum as a building block, so I went out and bought a couple from the local scrap yard. One of them even got immediate use as a beer barrel at Crushtoberfest!

A little sketching on different configurations, and I decided a ‘T’ shape would be simple, stable, and functional, and provide plenty of opportunity to practice the MIG on some thin sheet metal. I laid it out in CAD, which made it easy to generate the intersecting curve between the two barrels.

I printed the curve at full scale and wrapped it onto the barrel, traced the curve, then cut the barrel with a jig saw. The first dry fit was amazingly close (way to go, CAD!) but there was still a lot of grinding here and there to accommodate the ribs in the barrels.

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I measured and marked the door openings on the barrels and cut them out with the jig saw.

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The next step was grinding the paint off. The last thing I wanted was burning paint fumes getting into the food, so every bit of paint needed to go. If I were to do this again I would find another way… sand blasting, chemicals, burning it off, etc… anything but taking it off little by little with an angle grinder. I’ll admit the Gator brand paint & rust remover discs I found at Lowes were very effective (if a bit pricey at 9 bucks a piece). But my shop is now coated with a thin layer of green paint dust, much of which ended up in my nose and likely my lungs.

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On the first day of grinding I wore a respirator and glasses but nothing else. After washing my hair three times in a row to get the paint dust out I learned to don more protection. For the insides of the barrels I also used an LED headlamp.

As the barrels were made of surprisingly thin metal (20 gauge) the door openings needed to be reinforced with some angle and rolled sheet metal strips, which were plug welded from the outside and tacked from the inside.

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The doors also needed reinforcement, in the form of sheet metal ribs tacked onto the undersides.

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I welded small pads onto the barrels and doors for the stainless steel hinges. These pads were ground flat then drilled and tapped.

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After grinding the rest of the paint off I welded the two barrels together. This was a challenge, since the metal was so thin and the fit was far from perfect. To prevent burn-through and warpage I used a “stitching” technique where you put a quick tack weld across the joint, wait a second or less and put another tack next to it, continuing like that for about an inch at a time. Apparently this puts less heat to the metal than a continuous bead, but the end result looks very similar. With a little practice I was even able to bridge relatively large gaps between the barrels with short, controlled beads that build on each other, kind of like ants crossing a stream.

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I shopped around looking for off-the-shelf replacement grates that would work but none of them were big enough for this guy. So I bought about 80 feet of 1/4″ diameter 304 stainless rod (from onlinemetals.com) and cut it to length on the abrasive chop saw. I scored a piece of 1x pine on the table saw at the proper spacing to use as a jig, and clamped the rods down. The MIG would have been perfect for welding the grates, but I would have needed to buy stainless wire and a separate tank of tri-mix gas (65% argon, 33% helium and 2% CO2). The stainless itself was already pushing my budget, so I bought a handful of stainless welding rods and used the arc welder.

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Next I drilled holes for the dampers– two sets of three holes at the top and two sets of four holes the bottom. The top ones were made like typical grill dampers with a round rotating plate. The bottom ones needed to be on a curved surface, so they slide along the surface rather than rotating.

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In both cases the moving damper is retained by screws, so I drilled holes and tacked some steel nuts behind them.

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I then drilled a series of holes to allow the smoke and heat into the top barrel. My step drill bit did an amazing job, but the cordless drill still went through two fully charged batteries getting the job done.

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Next I tacked on some small support tabs for the grates and six small sections of square tube as feet.

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After a thorough deburring, wire-brushing and degreasing with alcohol, I set about applying a high-temperature grill paint. There are several available but Rustoleum High Heat Brush On was a) available at Lowes and b) didn’t require curing at a high temperature like most of the products I found online. Unfortunately it only comes in black, which is actually slightly brownish. They recommend only applying one coat, which I agree with after trying to touch up a few spots after drying, resulting in some weird gloss differences. I then tried the spray can version of the same paint, but found it to be flat finish (vs. the brush-on which is satin). The lesson here is get it right with the first coat because you really can’t go back and hit it again.

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While the paint was drying (24 hrs… it’s oil-based) I fabricated some handles out of a 1″ maple dowel. I don’t have a wood lathe but the metal lathe did the job. A few coats of Polycrylic and they’re ready to assemble.

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The smoker can be used in one of two different ways– with charcoal in an expanded metal basket or with wood on a traditional fireplace grate. I suppose I could retrofit some gas burners or even electric heating elements, but that’s a project for another day.

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And last, final assembly. I bought a 3″ smoker/grill thermometer online, and used some nickel-plated chain for the lid stays. I also fabricated a sheet metal “drip tray” to cover the holes under the food and deflect some of the heat.

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I figured my brother-in-law Pete would make much better use of this than me, so we gave it to him for Christmas. Here he is opening it…

Pete getting his present

 

79 Responses to “55-gallon drum smoker”

  1. james writes:

    you have just made my smoker when can i get it great job

  2. Frank writes:

    Id like to copy your design. Anyway I could purchase the CAD drawing in full size? I dont have accsess to such things and would be more than happy to pay for your time. Thanks.
    fgreen14@excite.com

  3. john writes:

    Hello recently i got the itch to build a smoker out of two 55 gallon drums. I did a little research before jumping into the project and stumbled across your site!!! Love the design and really want to do something similare,have a shop to do everything but the cad thing is wear i have a problem any wat to purchase the cad drawing in full size!!! thanks

  4. Rene writes:

    By far the best drum smoker ever

  5. Chris writes:

    Hey broseph…great job on the double barrel…I built one four years ago with the same basic concept but mine looked like frankenstine compared to yours. I cant weld so I used self tapping sheet metal screws. It looked like a beast…shoot me an email you gotta see it!

  6. Gary writes:

    That is a great looking smoker there!!! very cool design!! i have to make one now!!

  7. Gary writes:

    i made my own uds and now i have to have one of these, Thanks for the great blog!!!

  8. Paul writes:

    This seems like the best cross between a UDS (upright for fuel efficiency) and the “Big Baby” style double barrell smoker (large cooking area). The biggest complaint I’ve seen for over/under DBS’s is that you need to add fuel every hour or so.

    I know nothing about CAD but will probably learn enough to use the JPG you’ve posted here. Thanks for posting your work.

  9. Andy writes:

    Blackshirts Smoker is now complete. Check it out on my Husker tailgate blog: http://huskertailgating.wordpress.com/

  10. Rob writes:

    Just wondering if you found any chemical that will help strip off the beige paint on the inside of the barrels. I used an antique furniture stripper for the outside and it worked amazingly, but it did absolutely nothing for the inside.I also tried burning it off with a plumbers torch and that was useless too. I am really trying to avoid grinding the inside.

  11. joel writes:

    Hi Rob– Sorry, I did the grinding thing. I wanted to stay away from chemicals, but I think burning would help. The torch might not be enough, can you start a fire in it, hobo-style? I’m sure that would do it eventually.

  12. Jesse writes:

    Nice work! I too have been looking for a design for a new grill since I am graduating from a Traeger. I am wondering what some of you would would think about adding a lower grate in the upper barrel so that you could also use it for some really hot direct heat, needed in order to cook steaks.

    Well, this is what I’m going to try. I will be adding a side door in the upper barrel to access the upper coal rack off to one side.

    Thanks for the inspiration to build the perfect smoker/grill combo!

  13. Jesse writes:

    PS: I think I’m going to finding a way to adapt these cast iron grill plates.
    http://www.amazon.com/dp/B002C0FCHW/ref=asc_df_B002C0FCHW1274886?smid=A3P0CTEF6GR03R&tag=dealtmp352443-20&linkCode=asn&creative=395129&creativeASIN=B002C0FCHW
    They won’t quite fit the entire depth of the barrel, but hey, a 17″ X 31″ cast iron cooking surface for less money than the raw materials for building the stainless grates. I don’t have the ability to weld stainless either…

  14. joel writes:

    Hey Jesse- Good call on the grates. I’m happy with my custom stainless ones but it was a lot of effort that could have been worked around. If you acquire the means to weld stainless in the future you could always retrofit them.

    Good luck, post some photos!

  15. joe writes:

    Just something you might want to try… At the welding school I attend we make smokers out of old high pressure tanks, drums and sometimes kegs to make extra money to by welding supplies. (also good fabrication practice) We usually just load up the smoker with a ton of charcoal or wood and get it as hot as we can. Burns the paint right off, no grinding or chemicals (except the burning paint I guess, lol).

  16. Anonymous writes:

    WOW

  17. Frank writes:

    NO MORE OVEN JERKIE FOR ME! Burning paint=bad….we did something like that in our electronics class, and I ended up passing out from the fumes and smoke….if you do it, do it outside…

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  19. PETER , FL writes:

    DUDE I GOTTA SAY I AM REALLYYYY IMPRESSED! VERYY NICE WORK!!

  20. Duncan, NZ writes:

    Fantastic, myself and the boys cant wait to give it a go!!

  21. Phil writes:

    awesomeness.
    I am scamming some free smoke oil barrels left over from the Air Show and plan to start working on the smoker this weekend. Thanks for putting this up here.
    Phil
    Jax, FL

  22. Jim Walter writes:

    Do you have a materials list for this smoker. I am building this in 2 or 3 weeks and would like to get my materials together so I can have it done in about 1 weekend.

  23. joel writes:

    Hi Jim,

    Check here: http://jmillerid.com/wordpress/2010/02/55-gallon-drum-smoker-part-deux/

    Good luck!

  24. Leo writes:

    Im new to welding and I just happen to have 2 55gal drums on hand. I have chosen your project as my first hands on project! Before I move on to my 6 1/2′ long 25″ in diameter butane tank that I’ll be putting on a trailor hitch!

  25. tristan writes:

    great read.

    here is mine.

    http://www.antilag.com/forums/showthread.php?t=43384

    you will unfortunately have to sign up…….but its worth it.

  26. Rob writes:

    Joel,

    Great job – my son and I are trying to duplicate your effort and we have one question.

    How did you fabricate the curved pieces that fit along the curved edges of the doors?

    Not the flat pieces on the curved part of the barrel – those curve in the thin direction of the metal and I can see how to curve those myself. But the pieces on the doors curve in the thick direction – either you have one heck of a rolling machine or you cut those from sheet stock?

    Let me know!

  27. joel writes:

    Hi Rob,

    Thanks! Yes the curved ribs on the doors were cut from sheet metal. I took a class at the local tech school that provided all the metal and tools… a great way to gain access to expensive metalworking equipment, not to mention learning to weld!

    Good luck!
    Joel

  28. Ryan writes:

    Joel,
    Your smoker rocks! I found your site last week and now picked up 2 55 gallon drums. I have a friend that will be doing the welding for me. Thanks for the idea and Ill keep you posted on the progress.

    Ryan

  29. joel writes:

    Thanks Ryan– share some photos when you’re done!