How to Build a Smoker? Converting an Old Drum to a Kickass DIY Smoker

September 10, 2023

Building a smoker is no rocket science! Get your hands on a metal barrel that’s free from hazardous substances. Whip out a drill, punch out vent holes, then toss in a charcoal basket down below, ensuring it fits in snugly. Next, plop a cooking grate right on top of the basket and drill a thermometer through the lid to keep tabs on the cooking temperature.

As a die-hard fan of lip-smackin’ smoked treats, I ventured on a quest to uncover the secrets of building my own backyard smoker. I’ll tell you this. You haven’t truly arrived as a pitmaster until you can proudly claim you built your very own “BBQ pit.” So grab your tools, roll up those sleeves, and dive headfirst into the wonderful world of smoker construction. 

how to build a smoker

Safety Precautions

Safety first! Before you bring home a potential drum for your barrel smoker, ensure it’s a food-grade steel drum. We don’t want nasty chemicals or hazardous substances ruining our cold-smoking game. 

Keep an eye out for any labels or markings that say it’s good for storing or handling food or not. Give it a thorough inspection and make sure it’s clean and safe to use. If you couldn’t find any indicating labels, you can try asking a local health department employee to check whether this is safe to use or not. We want our smokes to be delicious, not contaminated. 

And before you start working on the drum, clean it thoroughly with a food-safe cleaner. This can be warm water and a little squirt of dish soap. Take a sponge or cloth and dip it in the soapy water. Scrub away at the inside of the drum until it’s squeaky clean. Once you’ve worked your magic, rinse the drum well to remove any soapy residue. 

And once you’re done building the smoker, you may choose to paint that drum with heat-resistant and food-safe paint. Something like the Rust-Oleum High Heat Spray Paint works for this. This is not just to give your drum smoker some street flair. It will also prevent it from rusting.

Finally, once done and ready for the first recipe, you have to season your new homemade ugly drum smoker!  This helps to eliminate any manufacturing odors and create a non-stick surface. Give the interior surfaces a good coating of non-stick seasoning oil. Add charcoal and wood pellets and fire it up at a moderate temperature for a few hours. Now let me show you the smoker construction procedure!

How to Build a Homemade Smoker From an Ugly Drum?

Want to have your own smoker and start cold-smoking without breaking the bank? Time to give that ugly drum a makeover and turn it into a kickass homemade smoker! Here’s the lowdown on how to make it happen.

Sausages are Smoked on Compact Backyard Grill

Step-by-Step Instructions

Step 1: Raid Your Neighborhood for an Ugly Drum

First, you need to hunt down a steel drum that hasn’t been hanging out with toxic stuff. Start by scoping out your backyard or taking a stroll through the neighborhood. Keep your eyes peeled for those hidden drums lurking behind garages or forgotten in corners.

Check recycling centers or give industrial supply stores a shot. Sometimes, you might just stumble upon the perfect drum in the most unexpected places. Once you find one, ensure all the safety precautions mentioned earlier.  

Step 2: Prep That Drum

Strip that drum down to its bare essentials. Remove any handles that are cramping your style. Don’t remove the lid, though. It will serve as the DIY smoker lid. 

Then, strip it inside out of rust, paint, or oxidation with an angle grinder. Watch the video below to see how it’s done: 

Step 3: Drill in Some Vent Holes 

To keep things smoking just right, it’s time to drill some air vents. Grab a drill with a hole saw attachment. A set like the HYCHIKA product has that. We’ll be creating a series of holes around the drum for air intake. 

Take a half-inch diameter hole saw and position your hand and the drill about 2 to 3 inches at the bottom of the drum.

Start drilling holes around the bottom perimeter of the drum. Space them evenly (about 5 inches apart) to give those hot coals the air they need to work their magic.

Head up to the top of the drum and aim for about 3 to 4 inches from the lid. Take the same half-inch hole saw and drill holes about 5 inches apart along the circumference of the drum near the top. This will ensure enough room for the smoke to make its grand exit. 

We’ll end with the drum cover. Drill eight .25-inch (¼”) holes close to the perimeter of the lid. Remember, air circulation is the name of the game!

Note: The vent hole and spacing instructions I gave assume you’re working with a regular old oil barrel tank. You know, the 55-gallon ones that usually have a diameter of around 22.5 inches. So if you’ve got something smaller, you might need to adjust.  

Step 4: Brick it Up

Grab four equally-sized bricks, preferably the ones molded from clay. Make sure they’re spread out evenly along the inside perimeter of the drum. We want a solid foundation for what’s coming next.

Now, here’s the deal: clay bricks are the way to go. Cement bricks? Nah! They might crack when things get hot and steamy. 

With the bricks in place, we’ve set the stage for our next move – the almighty charcoal basket. For now, take a step back and admire your brickwork. It’s like the foundation of a smoking empire!

Step 5: Bring on the Charcoal Basket

Want something that fits perfectly into your old drum? Go for a charcoal basket like this Kick Ash Charcoal Ash Basket. Or find a grate that fits perfectly inside the drum.

But since we’re all about getting creative with a homemade smoker, you can fashion yourself a DIY charcoal basket. No need to splurge at the store. We’re making this from scratch!

You can make a charcoal basket from some expanded metal. I know you’ve seen it before and may have it around you. So, craft an expanded metal or anything else that works into a basket. Aim for around 22 inches in diameter or thereabouts. Just so you know, regular steel drums measure around 22.5 inches in diameter. We want a basket that fits in snugly and securely. 

Check out this video to see how to make a DIY charcoal basket for your drum smoker out of expanded metal: 

Once your charcoal basket is ready to roll, place it on top of those trusty bricks in the drum. 

Step 6: Rack It Up

First, grab some stainless steel racks or raid your kitchen for oven grates begging for a new purpose in life. You can even double a stretch of expanded metal and use that as a rack. You want to avoid rusted metals. Clean it up if needed.  

Now, here’s the trick: we want those grates to fit snugly in the drum without any wobbling or sinking shenanigans. Ain’t nobody got time for shaky grates messing with our food.

So, here’s what you have to do: adjust the height of the grates in the cooking chamber to your liking, making sure they’re stable and secure. You can use metal brackets or wire to secure them in place. 

If you’re going for the wire method to secure those cooking grates, I’ve got a little trick for ya. 

Grab your trusty drill and punch two holes at each point where you want to introduce the wires. 

Why two holes, you ask? Well, that’s how we’ll lock in those wires and keep them from slipping and sliding.

Note: Before you get all wire-happy, I need to say the wire method trick works best for a one-rack drum smoker. Nobody has the time to mess around with removing wires and top racks when loading or unloading your food. So, for practicality’s sake, I recommend going for sturdy right-angled metal brackets like the Fatloda Stainless steel brackets. They work like a charm for both single and multilevel rack systems.

Step 7: Get Your Temp on Track

Pick a drill bit of the same size as the thermometer stick. Pick a convenient spot, drill a small hole, and attach a thermometer to your drum. This is so you can keep tabs on that smokin’ hot temperature. 

Something like the PatioGem Grill Temperature Gauge works fine here. 

Here’s the deal: when it comes to multilevel DIY smokers, you know the temp at the top rack will be lower than the bottom one. So, I suggest placing not one but two thermometers for some serious temperature control.

Stick one thermometer at the bottom rack level to monitor the heat down low. Then, pop another thermometer at the top rack level or through the lid to keep an eye on the overall temperature at the top level. This way, you’ll have a clear picture of how the heat’s flowing and make adjustments as needed.

Step 8: Make It Yours (Optional)

Time to add your personal touch! You may want to spray it in and out with paint. You could even slap on and drill in some handles for easy moving and grooving. And if you really want to amp up the game, insulate that drum with high-temperature insulation tape made of aluminum foil. This helps to keep the smoking heat where it belongs! Once you’re done, season the smoker and start smoking. 

You can watch the YouTube video below to see what your ugly drum smoker should be like:

How to Make an Offset Smoker From a Metal Drum? 

An offset smoker is more practical than a barrel smoker for the pitmaster because you can have everything in view. Start by checking out how to find a drum that’s safe to use. Then clean it up. These were mentioned earlier in Steps 1 and 2 of the previous instruction before proceeding. 

Step 1: Grab a Saw and Cut It Up

Take your trusty jigsaw, or reciprocating saw and cut the drum in half. But wait! You’re not slicing everything into two halves

We’re cutting out just the lid of the drum smoker. For illustration’s sake, the video below shows the size and how to cut the lid out: 

Step 2: Add Hinges

Attach two hinges to one side of the drum to hold the two halves you just cut. These hinges will allow you to open and close the lid effortlessly, giving you easy access to your smoking masterpiece. Secure them with screws or bolts for a sturdy setup.

Step 3: Let the Smoke Escape (Don’t Keep It Captive)

Get an exhaust damper at your local hardware store, or order this Stanbroil pellet grill damper. Once your damper is ready, it’s time to make it breathe. Grab your drill and a circular bit (a 3½-inch hole saw attachment). Aim for a big hole on one side of the drum where the air can flow freely. I’m talking about a 3½ inch diameter hole, assuming you got the Stanbroil damper mentioned above. 

But if you got something else and you want to be extra precise, measure the damper’s hole diameter and match it with the right hole saw attachment.

Next up, it’s bolt time! Drill a few small holes to attach the exhaust damper. Once you’re done with that, slap that exhaust over the hole you just drilled and secure it tight with bolts and nuts. Voila! Your damper is ready to breathe and puff.

Now, here comes the fun part. Open it up, close it down, and adjust the damper as needed to control the airflow and regulate the temperature inside your DIY smoker. It’s like being the conductor of a smoke symphony! 

Step 4: Temperature Check, Please!

Install a temperature gauge on a side of the drum. This handy tool will help you monitor the temperature inside the smoking chamber. Drill a hole, insert the temperature gauge, and secure it. Now you’ll have precise control over your smoking game.

Step 5: Make Your Smoker Stand Tall!

Alright, it’s time to give your DIY smoker the support it deserves! 

You can find pre-made legs at your local hardware store. Or, if you’re feeling extra crafty, you can even fashion your own legs out of metal rods or pipes.

Once you have them, it’s time to get them attached. Flip that drum over and position the legs evenly around the bottom. Ensure they’re spread into an X shape to provide stable support.

To fasten, use a welder, screws, bolts, or whatever you’ve got on hand to attach the legs to the bottom of the drum securely. You don’t want any wobbly business when you’re cookin’ up a storm!

Give those legs a little shake to ensure they’re sturdy and can handle the weight. 

Grilling Chicken Legs

And there you have it! Your DIY smoker now stands tall, lifted off the ground by those sturdy legs.

If you feel like jazzing up the outside, spray the entire smoker inside and out, including the legs with food-safe paint. Remember, I mentioned it in Step 8 of the previous process for the barrel drum smoker. 

That’s how to build an offset drum smoker if you’re a starter. But if you need a guide to visualize the process, check out the YouTube video in Step 1.  

Other Methods to Make a Smoker

If the metal drum isn’t your style or you’re looking for some smaller alternative options, check out these cool options:

Propane Tank Offset Smoker 

Ever thought of turning a propane tank into a badass offset smoker? Check it out:

  1. First, get rid of any gas leftovers. Open up the valve, and let it all escape. 
  2. Grab a metal-cutting beast like a reciprocating saw or angle grinder. Slice one-third part of the DIY smoker. 
  3. Stick some adjustable vents or dampers near the bottom opening. 
  4. Build your racks and a firebox. 
  5. Give it a comfy spot with metal grates or custom-sized racks. 
  6. Attach a temp gauge on the lid to keep tabs on the cooking temperature. Don’t skimp on the essentials!
  7. Put some handles on that tank for easy handling. 
  8. Before firing up your new smoker, make sure you clean, paint, and season the smoker following the instructions in the Safety Precautions section. 

Check out the video below if you need a more detailed guide: 

Trash Can Cold Smoker

Can you believe it? You can transform a simple trash can into a wicked cold smoker using a hot plate. 

  1. Get yourself a metal trash can. Give the inside of the trash can a good cleaning. Scrub it with warm soapy water, rinse, and let it dry completely.
  2. Then grab an electric drill with a circular bit. 
  3. Bore a hole about 6 inches from the bottom. 
  4. Next, plop a hot plate at the bottom of the can and thread its cord through that hole. 
  5. To keep things steady, place the hot plate over 3 to 4 bricks.
  6. If you’re feeling fancy, give the outside of the can a makeover with paint. 
  7. To prevent sticking and add flavor, coat the inside walls of the can with a thin layer of high-smoke point oil.
  8. Now it’s time for the fun part. Place a pie plate on the hot plate and load it with soaked wood chips. Make sure you’ve soaked those chips overnight to infuse that smoky flavor.
  9. Place a metal grate on the plate with wood chips. Seal up the lid, plug in the hot plate, and let it smoke for about 45 minutes. The can might get hot, but it’ll take some time for the inside to heat up. Remember, this is a cold smoker, so we’re just getting those wood chips to burn and release their magic. And finally, this cold smoker is for preserved cuts like salted, cured, or fermented meats.

You can build on the whole procedure I showed you by watching the YouTube video below. But note that this one doesn’t involve the use of a hot plate: 

File Cabinet Smoker (Smoking Meats, Office-Style!)

Who would’ve thought a boring filing cabinet could moonlight as a legit DIY smoker? It’ll definitely turn heads and make your buddies go, “Whoa, dude, you’re smoking meat in an office cabinet? That’s wild!” Here’s the low-down:

  1. Start by cleaning an unpainted filing cabinet and removing any dust or debris. 
  2. Rip out those drawers. 
  3. Then add a hot plate at the bottom shelf. 
  4. Now, place a pie plate with wood chips on the hot plate and add cooking grates at different levels. 
  5. Paint the cabinet smoker if you’re feeling fancy.
  6. Before your first smoke session, season the inside as I showed you earlier. 

Meanwhile, if you don’t have a hot plate, check this video below to see how you could make a file cabinet smoker without one: 


To wrap up, making your own DIY smoker is an excellent way to level up your grilling skills without breaking the bank. Whether you’re turning an old oil drum, repurposing a propane tank, or getting creative with a metal trash can, the possibilities are endless. Clean it up, tweak it, and add those vents, racks, and temperature gauges like a boss.

Each step gets you closer to the ultimate smoking machine. Just remember to play it safe and pay attention to the details. So grab your gear, get your hands dirty, and have a fun DIYing and smoking time!

By Kristy J. Norton
I'm Kristy – a chef and connoisseur of all things BBQ! You can find me either in my kitchen (or someone else's) or at a big outdoor barbecue surrounded by friends and family. In both my professional and personal life I’ve picked up more than a few tips and tricks for turning out delicious food. I consider it a privilege to share it with others!
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