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How To Make An Ugly Drum Smoker

Sure, you can go and buy a finished drum smoker from any of the leading brands, but if you’re really into your “Q”, the idea of building your own Drum Smoker might interest you. Plus it gives you the chance to do some customization and put your personal flair to …

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By Eric Campbell

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How To Make an Ugly Drum Smoker
Campbell’s Custom Drum Smoker Build

Sure, you can go and buy a finished drum smoker from any of the leading brands, but if you’re really into your “Q”, the idea of building your own Drum Smoker might interest you. Plus it gives you the chance to do some customization and put your personal flair to a cooker that should outlive you.

This is a fully detailed guide of the latest Drum Smoker that I built. I also utilized some help from an Eastern Canadian Company called R&R Smokers which are a manufacturer of hardware and accessories to aid in custom smoker builds. They make some beautiful parts and offer an ugly drum smoker kit that makes this job much easier.

What Is A Barrell Smoker? Why Would You Want One?

Kamodo grills and other smoker style grills have been a part of grilling history for many years.  Often, when you step foot on your buddies’ deck or patio, you will see one of these styles of grill.  Their premise is simple, use low and slow heat (indirect) heat to cook savory meals, while drinking a beer.  The beer part is always optional, but most BBQ’ers I know take that option.  

It would be hard to argue that Kamado or Pellet style grills are anything less than awesome, and this article isn’t going to do that.  This article is about to introducing a new fan favorite to the grilling game.  As you know,  with every great invention comes adaptations to its original design. 

That’s basically where the phrase, ‘reinventing the wheel’ comes from.  This idiomatic metaphor questions whether duplicating an already successful invention is worth the time and effort.  I’m here to tell you that building your own drum smoker is a wheel worth reinvention and I am going to show you how to do it.

(See a brief history of Kamados and Pellet grills here : Kamado History & History of Pellet Grills and Smokers)

Drum / Barrell Smokers Explained

In this article we will interchange the terms drum smoker and barrel smoker with the understanding that they mean the same thing.  In this case, we are talking about a 55 gallon drum/barrel that I converted into a Drum Smoker.  This process took some time, and is a great project for the DIY’ers and hobbyists out there.  Plus it saves you a little money and looks amazing.  But the question that we all want answered is, why would I build a Barrel Smoker if I already have a BBQ.  The answer to that question comes in two parts:

1. Food Tastes Amazing – Even From A Drum

Vertical Drum smokers are an excellent choice for anyone new to smoking.  They offer an easy way to cook food without too much to worry about.  Even experienced grillers appreciate not having to check the meat frequently while knowing that all the flavors and juices are continually circulating in the grill. 

Drum Smoker Brisket

One of the big perks of a drum smoker is that they often cook a little faster than your average smoker. It does this because the moisture from the meat drips to the heat deflectors and will create a humidity that helps to keep your meat moist while it cooks.  It’s incredible how good your food will be versus your traditional gas grill.  In fact, you will certainly wonder why you didn’t make the switch sooner.

2. They Look Impressive And Are Conversational

Have you ever built your own furniture? Fixed up a car? Upgraded your deck? Basically done anything where someone asks, “Where did you get that?” and you get to say, “I made it, of course.”

Building your own Barrel Smoker is a lot like that. A vertical Barrel Smoker like this one looks like a sideways Traeger, and functions like a kamado style grill. It has a unique look with a proven cooking method. This build not only adds to your repertoire of handyman skills but also rattles your friends who are less proficient with a measuring tape and an impact drill.  If your friends are anything like mine, this is a great thing. Isn’t that right, Curtis?  It’s basically a great way to help show off to your friends.  We could all use a little of that, right?

Should I Just Buy a Drum Smoker? Why Build One?

Buying a drum smoker is certainly an option, but it’s an expensive one. Gateway Drum Smokers is a common and popular American manufacturer that sells premium welded versions of these smokers starting at  $1,199 USD. 

Or you can build your own Ugly Drum Smoker using parts from R&R Smokers for $300-400 USD, but you will need to add on a 7 Gallon Charcoal Basket, find your own barrel and buy some paint.  But, if you have a few hours of time, building your own will save you several hundred dollars.  Not to mention provide you with that sense of superiority over your buddies that we talked about earlier.

Charcoal Basket
Required Charcoal Basket for Ugly Drum Smokers

Building a 55-Gallon Barrel Smoker – A DIY Journey in Fire and Metal

Planning For Success: Here we detail the things you want/need, and the things you might not think about.

Things you need:

Time

Give yourself a total of 8-10 hours to complete this job. It’s best if you start the burn-in process and painting/prep one day and finish assembly the next day. Paint needs time to dry and you will not have anything to do while you’re waiting for it to dry.

Barrel Burning Process Items

  • 55 – gallon barrel with detachable lid
  • Propane tank and tiger torch
  • Metal meshing, wood teepee or a way to ensure oxygen gets to the bottom of the drum
  • Firewood, matches, accelerant
  • Fire gloves, long stick or pole

Painting Process Items

  • Preferred colors of spray paint and primer
  • Apparatus for hanging BBQ parts (I used my kids bike rack)
  • String, wire and nails to hang pieces for painting
  • Drop cloth, latex gloves, paper towel

Building Process Items

  • Impact drill, cordless drill
  • Wrenches sockets (½”), pliers, hammer, metal drill bits various sizes, metal punch
  • Plumb line, pencil, marker, string or wire for measuring circumference
  • Nuts, bolts, washers (included in Builders Kit)

Things you might forget to do: 

  • Have a clean work space, you will drop the bolts during the install
  • Fill your propane tank for the torch
  • Use spray paint indoors or out of the wind
  • Wear latex gloves when painting
  • Remember how your barrel is orientated when drilling holes.  Identify the front and back.
  • Take your time when installing the hinge on the lid

How To Build a Drum Smoker Instructions

1. Burn In: Create a Fire That Counts

You will need to burn the liner out of the drum.   To do this, make a fire in the barrel and have it burn hot enough to burn off the paint on the outside of the barrel.  The best way to achieve this is to create a way for oxygen to reach the bottom of the barrel so the fire can breathe easily.  Add wood, accelerant, and light it up.  Do not add more wood until the fire is hot and rolling.  As the fire grows, you can use this time to burn the paint off the lid.

Burning In Drum
Get the Fire Hot To Burn Off Paint
Burning Off Lid and Bottom
Tiger Torch to Burn Off Bottom and Lid

The whole process should take about an hour.  Once the barrel is charred, let it sit and cool.  Later , once cooled, you can simply pour the ashes into the garbage.  

Burnt Out Drums
All Paint Burnt off on Mine and Buddies Drums

2. Paint Preparation:   Why It Matters…or Sort of Matters

Once your barrel is empty, you can clean it.  I used an impact drill and a synthetic brush (you can also use a polishing wheel like below on a 5″ grinder) to help clean off the remaining burnt ash and soot.  This is a very quick process, I spent 30 minutes on the two barrels I was working on. 

Polish off rust
Polishing off rust on lid

The reason this is a good idea is because you will be handling this barrel a lot when you are installing your components.  It makes it much cleaner to work with.  Further, use a pressure washer to rinse off both inside and outside the barrel and the lid.  This will leave you with a clean looking surface. You can leave the barrel out in the sun to dry and it will be ready for primer the following day, if not sooner.

Wash Drum
Pressure Washer Drum

3. Painting – General and Barrel

It was interesting how satisfying the painting process turned out to be.  After burning and cleaning, you are left with a rusty looking barrel.  Depending on where you plan to put your new Drum Smoker and if you have anyone else living in your house who has an opinion on how this project will look, the paint is a good process.

I recommend buying some primer and painting on black BBQ paint.  BBQ is high temperature paint and will be able to withstand the heat of your smoker.  I picked a cracked gold/rust color for the remaining parts as an accent color.  In fact, this was suggested to me from a buddy (Blair) because it would hide any imperfections and look sweet.  I was glad I took Blair’s advice on this one.  I was originally planning on blue or silver, but its really up to the builder.  The spray paint I picked had a flat finish.  Some of the Drum smokers you can buy that are pre assembled are painted with a glossy finish.  It’s up to you how you want it to look, but the flat finish was good for me.

Next, use a brush to prime the barrel, lid and external parts.  You do NOT need to paint anything that is going inside the barrel.   Once primed, paint the barrel and lid and let it dry. I recommend painting from top to bottom, this way you can paint the underside of the barrel once the top dries.

Follow paint manufacturers directions to ensure you have a quality paint job. Multiple coats may be needed.

4. Painting – External Parts

Find something to hang your parts on so you can spray paint them.  I used my kids’ bike rack and some metal wire and string.  I hung the parts from the bike rack and sprayed them, I let them dry and then added a second coat.  I used one whole can of spray paint. As you are spraying, be sure to spray the underside of each part.  This is most effective on the second coat because if you over sprayed on the first coat and paint starts dripping, you can cover it up with the second spray. 

Lastly, You can spray all or a portion of the external parts, you can choose to paint them all your accent color, or use your original black to help make the parts pop.  It’s up to you.

5. Drilling – The Nuts and Bolts of it All

I started with the lid.  The key to this is to decide how you want it to open and what you want it to look like.  Essentially, find the middle of the lid and drill the handle in. You need to remember that there is a exhaust pipe that will also come out of the lid.  There will also be the original spout hole that is already in the lid. 

If you are interested in symmetry, just take a look and plan it out.  The handle bolts that came with the kit I was using from R&R Smokers were ¼” x ¼”.  Simply mark the hole you plan to drill and fix your handle using the nuts and bolts provided. Use the graphic below as a guide. 

6. Drilling Holes – Plan First, Drill After

The first thing you need to do is find the seam of the barrel.  That is the back of your grill. From there start dividing the barrel into quarters. It is important to mark on the top of the barrel and identify each section, you will use these marks as you create your straight lines down the barrel.

You will need some string, a marker, plum line, and a T-square.  This tutorial from R&R Smokers is extremely helpful in understanding where your lines should go and provides a very effective strategy for drilling your holes. ​​R&R Build Tutorial  Ensure you follow the portion on how to mark your string.  This will streamline your process. 

Once you have your holes marked, just drill them all at the same time. I would then mark your air intake holes, handle holes and axle holes too.  However, if you are a progress based person, going one component at a time will likely be a better option.  

Drum Smoker Plumb Line for Holes
Internal Bolts of Drummer

7. Internal Drum Assembly – The Guts of It

As you can see, there are a lot of bolts sticking inside the barrel.  I will recommend that you have a buddy help you attach the air intake bolts at the bottom of the barrel.  It’s just easier than crawling in and out of the barrel yourself.  Also, be careful with using your impact drill inside the barrel when you are in there, the sound of the vibrations from the metal is deafening.  If you use an impact drill for this, ensure your head is out of the barrel. 

Lastly, cleaning the inside of your barrel before this stage is a great idea.  If you don’t it will be dusty and dirty in the barrel and it will make for an unpleasant work environment. 

8. Air Intake Drilling – Advice to Consider

Drilling holes for the air intake is easy, but you need the right tools.  A 1 ½ metal bit works great, unless you break the bit like I did.  If that’s the case, use the biggest metal drill bit you can find and trace out the size of the pipe and drill out the hole until you get it the correct size.  It’s not pretty, but it works.  From there, you can mark your bolt holes for the air intake pipes with a marker and drill them out.  I recommend you do this before you add your other bolts or components.  In fact, if you are confident in your planning, drill all the holes for the whole project at once and then piece it together from the bottom up.  

Air intake holes should be slightly bigger than the intake pipe.  It’s ideal that these are a snug fit, otherwise you run the risk of heat and smoke leaking out of the space between the pipe and the barrel. Tighten these bolts.  Ensure you know where your axle and wheel will sit before you do this. 

Measure Intake Pipe Size
Intake Pipe Hole Drilled

Attach the feet on the side of the smoker, not the front.  Drill these holes equal distance apart from the bolt line.  3 or 4 inches from the line will work. Remember the back is the seam.  Confirm where you are putting your grill so you orientate your legs, axel and lid hinge in the correct way.  This is personal preference, but I put my axle and wheels on the side closest to the wall the grill is going to be on, and the hinge is on the same side as the wheels.  You can put the lid and wheels any way you like, just make sure you consider how your handles and air intake pipes will be impacted by this.

Pipes Installed

An impact drill with ¼” bit is ideal for this job.  You can use a wrench and back it onto the other side of the barrel to help tighten the nut onto the bolt and washer. Be sure to read the parts list and put the correct length of bolt at the correct level.  These bolts are what hold the heat deflector, firebox and grill in place. Those components rest on these bolts, so be sure to tighten these up.

Long Bolt Orientation
Note: Long bolts act as holders for grill grate, deflector etc.

You are building a UDS, not performing surgery.  Close is good enough. A square like this and a plum line will ensure your lines are straight.  It is important to have straight lines, the bolts will stand out, if they are off center, people will notice. 

9. Hinge and Wheel Installation

The axle is attached to the bottom of the barrel by two large bolts.  Once your legs are on, you can figure out where the best place is to attach your axle.  I found that this is easiest by eyeballing it from a distance and seeing what looks good, then ensure there is a good pivot point so you can tilt and move the barrel when you need to.  Have an eye for the air intake, ensure the wheels don’t run on the intake pipe. Figure B below is a good guide.

Good Example of where wheels should be in proximity to intake pipe.

The hinge is a whole other thing.  Upon reflection, I should have taken more time on this when I installed it.  This hinge is a basic metal hinge, with very little forgiveness if you drill bad holes.

If I was to do this again.  I would ensure the lid would close flush every time.  This was not the case when I first installed it.  To solve my problem, I added spacers to pull the hinge away from the barrel which allowed the lid to close properly. This was a good idea.  I am also considering attaching a latch to the lid so I can firmly seal the barrel.

Spacers helped ensure the lid closes properly.  However, you still need to push it down tight when you are grilling.  You will notice that smoke leaks out of the edges if you forget to close the lid fully.

Cost/Benefit Analysis

Cost

This grill took me about 10 hours to make.  This time was split over several days throughout the summer.  The estimated final cost is around $400 USD.  The largest expense was the hardware, the barrel was free and I bought the spray paint.  I already had tools for the job.  If you don’t have the tools or supplies, go buy them.  Use this Corb Lund song as inspiration Tool for the Job (Hard on Equipment) 

You will also need to buy a grill grate for the Barrel Smoker. I recommend you buy two.  If you do, you can have dual layer cooking.  Further, I added a bottle opener that I had lying around and just painted it and bolted it to the barrel.  

Benefit

I have been able to show off my new grill to my friends and it’s a great conversation starter on the back deck.  Now I have a second grill to support my grilling habit, so that’s good too.   A big benefit is that I have a barrel smoker now and  I can chose different ways to cook ribs, brisket and chicken.  This smoker is not meant for searing things like steak.  But it certainly could if you took the heat deflector out. 

Further, it gave me something to talk about on episode #164 of the BBQ and Baseball podcast that we were recently featured on . Check out that podcast Here.

How Does Drum Smoker Food Taste?

 For my first cook on this grill I chose to smoke a brisket and it was awesome.  It was about -20 degrees Celsius when I started the cook and I knew that the barrel would not be able to manage that temp without significant heat loss.  But, I wanted to try it, so I filled the fire basket as full as possible and I was able to heat up the smoker to 225-250 degree F for 6 hours.  At this time I had to fire up my Primo XL to finish the job.  But I will say that the brisket came out incredibly moist and tender.  I will attribute this to the barrel smoker, when opening it, you can see the moisture that stays in this grill. 

Trying a long brisket cook in the winter means I will need to fill that fire box up at least twice, maybe more. In reality I wouldn’t try a cook like this on such a cold day, but I wanted to try the new build and I had a more heat efficient back up plan ready to go.

Overall Experience

Building your own barrel smoker is not a difficult task.  The most challenging thing about it is collecting all the supplies.  I would consider this project to be pretty basic; a general handyman level of difficulty.  If you know how to use a wrench, measuring tape and can read instructions, you will be fine.  

What Made Us Angry…..

Putting the bolts into the sides of the barrel, then having to crawl into the barrel to fasten the intake pips and the axle.  I can’t believe I didn’t think about that as I was building this smoker.  Getting your body poked by metal bolts as you try to fasten wheels to the bottom of your barrel is a good way to learn that you don’t know everything.

In The End…

If this is a project you are thinking about.  Buy the right products and set aside an afternoon to burn out the barrel, an evening to clean it and paint it, and another afternoon to put it all together.  If you have all the tools you need and all your supplies ready to go, this is a really enjoyable and fun project to do.

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