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How to Build Your Own Smoker From a 55 Gallon Drum Part II

How to Build Your Own Smoker From a 55 Gallon Drum Part II
ProfessorSalt.com

Last time, we discussed the 55 gallon drum itself and some sources to buy one to build your Ugly Drum Smoker, or UDS. Finding a suitable drum takes some thought and perhaps a bit of driving around.

This week, we'll talk about the next challenge: building a basket to hold your charcoal and wood chunks.  If you can weld, or know someone who does, you can build a welded basket. It not, take the no-weld option below. I'm lucky enough to have some friendly sheet metal fabricators at my workplace (thanks, Dwayne!), so I'll show you his expert handiwork on my basket.

I should also mention the greatest source for tips and tricks for building a UDS: the discussion forum of Bbq-Brethren.com, a free community where I hang out under the nym Professor Salt. Register a username, introduce yourself in the Cattle Call forum, then read through this 500+ page monster thread about UDS builds. Scores of users have posted photos of their drums, some super-basic like mine, others much more complex. You'll find some great ideas to lift and use for your own project.

Parts required:

  • One charcoal grate from 22.5" Weber kettle grill. The grate itself is 18.5" in diameter
  • Expanded metal, 8" x roughly 44" sheet
  • Four 5/16" x 18 tpi bolts, 5" long, stainless steel
  • Twelve 5/16" x 18 tpi nut, stainless steel
  • Twelve 5/16" fender washers, stainless steel
  • One 12" length of 3/4" threaded black steel pipe
  • One coupling fitting for 3/4" threaded pipe, black steel
  • One aluminum pizza pan, 20" diameter, either flat or with a 2" lip.


It's worth noting that I'm using no galvanized hardware on the firebox. Though I'm still researching the science behind it, the internet hive mind says that zinc coated hardware shouldn't be burned in the presence of food. I'm more concerned about the long-term rust-resistance, so I chose the more expensive and harder-to-find stainless steel hardware. You'll find a wide selection of stainless steel hardware at boating supply stores like West Marine, and at Ace Hardware's Westcliff Plaza and their other beach-adjacent locations.

I chose to make a round basket made from expanded metal and a charcoal grate from a 22.5" Weber kettle grill. Its 18.5" diameter is just the right size to fit past the hardware we're going to put in and drop easily to the bottom of the drum.

Welded version of a basket, with 3/4" threaded pipe handle
Welded version of a basket, with 3/4" threaded pipe handle
ProfessorSalt.com

The fire basket should hold enough charcoal to last throughout a long cooking session. A large brisket can take 12 hours or more. My basket is 8' high x 18.5" in diameter, and it will hold enough charcoal briquettes for a long burn.

You should also have a handle on your basket so it's easy to lift and lower. Some people forgo a handle, and just extend the height of the expanded metal hoop. Others form a handle by bending a wire coat hanger into a half-circle and looping both ends to the expanded metal. Mine is made from a 12" length of 3/4" black iron pipe. It threads into a female pipe fitting that's welded to the grate.

No-weld option with bolted-together expanded metal
No-weld option with bolted-together expanded metal
Another no-weld example using a round piece of expanded metal as the base
Another no-weld example using a round piece of expanded metal as the base

If you don't know anyone who can weld for you, here's how to make a no-weld option. You can form the expanded metal into a hoop by rolling it around an empty propane tank. It won't be a perfect hoop, but it will take on enough of a hoop shape that you can finish the job by bolting the loose ends together. Then twist stainless steel wire to secure the expanded metal to the charcoal grate. Bbq-brethren member enasnidx says, "I just twisted two pieces [of wire] together by clamping it in a vice on one end and a drill on the other to try to give it strength."
 
Your basket should be raised so that ashes can fall away without choking your fire. The five inch long bolts I use as legs are as long as you'll need. Use the fender washers and nuts to secure the bolts to your grate.

I use a 20" pizza pan to catch the ashes. You don't absolutely need one, but then you'll have to scoop out the ashes some other way. If you can find a pizza pan with a 2" lip, it's less messy to lift the ashes out of your drum. Find the pizza pan at restaurant supply shops like 2000 Plus or Chef's Toys in Fountain Valley.

Closeup of the welded pipe fitting that secures the handle
Closeup of the welded pipe fitting that secures the handle
ProfessorSalt.com
Drill some holes in your ash pan
Drill some holes in your ash pan
ProfessorSalt.com
Place your bolts through the ash pan...
Place your bolts through the ash pan...
ProfessorSalt.com
And tighten the nuts securely. A lipped 20" pizza pan will make ash removal less messy.
And tighten the nuts securely. A lipped 20" pizza pan will make ash removal less messy.
ProfessorSalt.com

Next time: We drill out vent holes and put some food grates inside this drum!

The author is an award-winning BBQ Pitmaster and teaches Smoking 101 classes. Details on professorsalt.com

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