Ugly Drum Smoker

In 2013, I built an Ugly Drum Smoker for backyard barbeque adventures. For several years I had been using a terra cotta flower pot smoker (inspired by Alton Brown), but I wanted to move up to a larger capacity smoker.

An Ugly Drum Smoker is a smoker built from a standard 55 gallon steel drum. The drum stands upright, with a charcoal fire at the bottom and a grill for food about 2 feet above the fire. The airflow to the charcoal is restricted, allowing the fire to burn low and slow for many hours. It’s cheap, easy to build, easy to use, and makes delicious barbeque.

Everything I learned about Ugly Drum Smokers came from two forums:

Getting the Drum

The first step was to find a 55 gallon steel drum. The traditional ways to do this are to look on Craigslist or snoop around an abandoned pesticide warehouse. However, I was looking for something a little less carcinogenic, so I took the luxury option: buying a brand new drum from the factory.

ENCO Industries in Plaistow, NH sold me a drum for a very reasonable price. It turns out that a 55 gallon drum does fit in the back of a GTI.

You have some options to choose from when purchasing a steel drum. “Open head” means that the lid of the drum comes off, which is convenient, otherwise you have to do some cutting. You actually do not want a “food grade” drum, because that means the interior is lined with plastic: getting rid of this lining has to be done with a grinding tool or with fire, and is a big pain either way.

Cleaning it Out

A plain steel drum is painted on the outside and coated with a “rust inhibitor” on the inside. The rust inhibitor is probably something like industrial grade PAM, but I didn’t know what it was for sure and didn’t want to take chances, so I scrubbed it off. Acetone softened it and emery cloth removed it. Some sort of sand blaster would have been nice for this step. I also could have tried burning it off by building a nice roaring fire in the barrel, but I live two blocks away from a fire station and a jail and I don’t want to visit either of them.

It’s easy to recognize when the rust inhibitor has been removed, because the bare steel develops flash rust very quickly. I brushed the inside with food-grade flaxseed oil and built a hot charcoal fire. This is similar to “seasoning” a cast iron pan – the heat polymerizes the oil and forms a protective layer. The advantage of flaxseed oil is that it has a very low polymerization temperature, but any food oil would probably work.

Making some Holes

Once the drum was prepared, adding the rest of the hardware was easy.

  • Three air holes near the bottom: two with pipe nipples, and one with a riser pipe and a control valve.
  • Two handles for transportation.
  • Three bolts to hold up a grill for the food.
  • A long meat thermometer (originally intended for turkey fryers) installed underneath the grill.

Controlling the fire is done by choking off the airflow through the three air holes. At the beginning, all three holes are open; once fire gets going, one or two of the pipe nipples are capped and the valve is used for fine control.

Fire Cage

The charcoal sits in a fire cage at the bottom of the drum. Allowing airflow under the charcoal makes the fire better behaved, and having it in a removable cage makes cleanup easy. The sides of the cage are expanded metal; the forums suggest getting a welding shop to put it together for you, but I made do with copper pipe straps and some rivets. The rest of the cage is made from an aluminum pizza pan, a circular charcoal grate, and some nuts and bolts. There’s also a steel rod across the top of the cage, secured with some steel wire, which is used to pick up the cage assembly.

Domed Lid

Two feet of separation between the fire and the food is the magic number; unfortunately, this doesn’t leave a lot of room up top if you’re doing a big pork shoulder or something similar. I ended up getting the cheapest 22” kettle grill I could find and cannibalizing the domed lid. The lid was just a little too small to sit on top of the drum, so I bent out the rim of the lid with pliers, hammered it flat until it fit, and spray-painted it black again where the enameled paint came off. The seal still wasn’t very good, so I made a gasket out of woodstove gasket material (Rutland Grapho-Glas rope and Permatex 81160 Silicone Gasket as an adhesive).

Putting it to Use

After all that work it’s time for some smoking! Here is the “before” picture – a beef brisket with mustard rub and some injected beef broth.

Here’s how that brisket looks after 16 hours of slow smoking. It was delicious.