I have been a BBQ Judge with the Florida BBQ Association since 2010. I have seen two trends in the cookers being used: Pellet Grills and Drum Smokers. Currently the top teams are using both to a great degree. So I decided to build one. I completed it "all in" for around $200. Costs would increase by 50 to 75$ if you got a new drum, but it would be ready to drill and contaminant free. However, do not buy sight unseen as even new drums often have liners of some sort to prevent rust.
The post is really a compilation of stuff I learned by watching about a dozen videos. I picked up tricks for several of them and learned some things not to do. You can learn in about twenty minutes what took me several hours. As good a primer as any is the blog I have linked below. I actually found this after I completed my build but think it is a great summary of a UDS build. I did deviate from it some and explain those differences.
This link is a great "how to" post written by John Thomas of the Grilling 24X7 blog. I did some things a little different but his "plan" will yield excellent results and it saved some typing (I can't type btw). One major departure I made was to buy my charcoal basket. I found my basket and other options on ebay ($45 + SH). Buying saves time and I feel is a better product. But many, many people use the method depicted John's blog and there are videos out there that demonstrate the build. If you can weld, then build your own.
I also configured my drum to "hang" meats. I found a nice set of adjustable bars designed to be mounted inside the drum. You could use steel rebar rods but you have to drill holes and I did not want additional holes. Make sure you leave enough room above the bars for the lid to close.
Other differences - I added an exhaust to lid (instead of cutting eight holes); two handles; temp port; and temp gauge.
Get a good Unibit (step bit) or set and make sure you can drill a 1" hole. That is the largest size you should need. I used regular metal drill bits for smaller holes.
Finding your drum - I got mine from a local brewery. Apple juice concentrate (to make cider) from China was shipped (bagged) in the drum. It did have a rust inhibitor liner that I had to burn out. Breweries and food processors are good sources because the drum contents were not toxic or flammable.
Get the weed burner (propane torch) - It makes for an easier burnout and for lighting the charcoal for cooks. (Harbor Freight has a $20 version.) So it is not a one and done tool purchase. I found that burning off the exterior paint also burned out the inside simultaneously. I then did a burn out with about four fire logs to remove residues. I was careful and mine seems to have warped slightly but not a problem. Also, I saved the lid clamp to get as airtight as possible when needed. Like at the end of cook to save unused charcoal.
Caution: be very careful with the lid so as not to warp.
Drill the holes between the torch and "fire" burnouts. The holes help vent the fire. I sanded lightly before drilling holes to make the drum cleaner to work with. After drilling the holes, I did the final "fire" burnout. I then did final sanding wiped clean with damp rags.
Air intakes - I used two, both with 3/4" ball valves. I think you can save money and go with one valve like in John's blog. Three intakes will help get fires up to temp faster, but I plan to add a temp controller and you really only need one intake in that case. But having extra intakes can come in handy. Go with three because it is better to have them and not need them than to need and not have.
Exhaust vent - I used a flat rotary style vent (ebay) that required four one inch exhaust holes and 1 for the mounting bolt. Use whatever you like, but I STRONGLY recommend an exhaust system that can be closed. This allows you to bring temps down if needed and extinguish the fire at the end of the cook to preserve unused fuel.
Temperature probe port - This is optional, but I feel necessary. I used a NM/SE connector designed for water-tight UF wire connections. I am finding it too small but this will depend on your probes. (Update: after some fiddling, I have fitted three probes through the connector). UPDATE 2: added a Weber thermometer port. requires a 1.25 inch hole. part#85037. OR You can simply cut a hole and use a fridge magnet to cover hole when not in use. Weber makes a replacement temp port that can be used. I am using my new Thermoworks Smoke and Smoke Gateway so I really need a good port. The Smoke Gateway is awesome and I was able to monitor a cook while at my son's track meet. Plus you get a record of your cook.
Temperature Gauge - There are quite a few options out there. You just drill the correct size hole, thread into hole and secure with nut. I would go with a shorter stem.
Lid and handles - I used garage door handles that are about $3 each. I substituted shorter hardware. I have ordered a "rope hook" to attach under the lid with the handle bolt for a lid hook.
Grill grate levels - This seems to be the most frequent question on the web. I went with 7 and 13 inches from top. I decided on this because the pork butts I had on hand were about five inches thick. I will likely only cook on one at a time but use the lower one for heat deflector or water pan or high heat cooks.
For painting, I went with the grill paint. You can likely get by with two cans but I used three. I bought a six pack on Amazon and that left three over for another build. I think this paint likely goes further than some of the glossier paints. Not sure but I know its way cheaper. It is very flat, but easier to get a smooth finish than with gloss in my opinion. I am not a great painter, if you are you may want to try a fancier finish.
Make a template or two - You will need to mark the quarter way points on your drum for the grill grate bolts as well as centering the handles. Use painter's tape or adding tape or anything you can wrap around the drum. Use the drum seam as a reference point. Cut the "tape" from the drum, fold in half, fold in half again to create a 1/4 circumference template. Use this to mark four reference marks on the top of your drum. Mark down to the heights you want your grates. Use two opposing marks to center your handles. I located the drum seam to near the back of the smoker.
UDS Parts List
There are pictures of these parts in the video above.
- (1) 55 gallon drum with removable Lid
- (3) 3/4" steel pipe nipples
- (3) 3/4" conduit nuts
- (2) 3/4" steel caps
- (1) 3/4" ball valve
- (8) Bolts, washer, nuts for the grill grate holders
- (3) Garage door handles
- (6) shorter bolts, washers, nuts for the handles
- (1) rope hook to mount under lid to use as lid hanger
- (1) hardware for temp port (optional), fridge magnet can work.
- (1) Threaded, dial style BBQ thermometer (optional, but u should)
- (1) Charcoal basket - I bought mine. Look for the DIY videos
Tools and stuff:
So if you have read this far, I bet you have all the tools except for maybe the weed burner and unibit. But just to show what you need at a minimum:
- Weed burner (propane torch)
- Unibit (step bit) capable of 1 inch hole. Hole saws dull quickly.
- Adjustable wrench
- Screw driver if your hardware calls for it
- Painter's tape
- Adding Machine tape (optional, you can fabricate a substitute)
- Saw horses or portable workbench will really save your back