How To Build A Meat Smoker

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Retail smokers are expensive. The cheap ones are about $75 and the expensive ones are typically several hundred dollars. Building your own backyard smoker is an easy project to get completed in a couple of hours. It can actually be pretty inexpensive too- about $40 if you’re willing to do a little shopping online.

The Difference Between Smoking Vs. Grilling

Smoking meat is different from grilling or BBQing. Smoking is done at a lower temperature, for a longer period of time, and infuses the meat with a smoky flavor, and tenderizes it during the process.

Start With A Galvanized Trashcan

There are two ways to go with the new smoker. A compact smoker can be built from a 10 gallon trashcan or a larger one with a 20 gallon trashcan. If space is at a premium the smaller version should work well. It is well suited to a smaller deck or balcony. If using it on a deck, place a couple of bricks underneath for insulation and fire prevention. Cooking a 17-inch ring into the balcony is a sure way of pissing off the landlord. Let’s keep it safe.

Meat Smoker Hardware

Galvanized trashcan: with minimum effort, I found the 10 gallon size for $3.79 and the 20 gallon size can for $11.65. Compare that with the whopping retail price of $24.99 for a 31 gallon can at the local home center.

Grill grate: Measure the inside diameter of the trashcan you have purchased and select a grill grate that will fit inside. Weber sell replacement grill grates and charcoal grates in the following sizes: 21.5, 17.5, 17, and 13.5 inches. A word of caution is due. Take your tape measure with you to the home center. The Webber 22.5 inch grill is actually 21.5 inches wide. So, measure the grill grate before buying.

Electric hot plate: Buy the cheapest single burner hot plate available. All it is going to do is heat up inside the trashcan. The one I chose was a SACE single burner at $8.18 from an online merchant.

Hardware: Buy 3 steel “L” brackets 1.5 or 2 inches wide. The smoker will also need 6 machine screws and nuts for attaching the brackets to the side of the trashcan. The “L” brackets will already be drilled for the screws. Measure to see what size works best. It will be close to #10 x 24 x 1/2” long.

Smoker box: These sell for about $12, but you make your own by using a scrap of tinfoil to make a smoker pouch for the wood chips.

Temperature gauge: Brinkman make an inexpensive one at about $3.

Assembling The Smoker

Drill 3 holes in the side of the trashcan to support the grill grate. Position the holes about 12 inches up from the bottom and equally spaced around the circumference of the trashcan. A good trick for finding the correct placement is to take a length of string, stretch it around the can, cut it and then fold it into thirds. Measure this length with a tape measure and use that measurement to locate the holes. Mark the locations with a permanent marker, center-punch the locations, and then drill the holes.

Drill a 1-1/2 or 2 inch hole near the bottom of the can for the hotplate electrical cord to pass through.

Drill 3 air holes 2 inches up from the bottom of the can. A ¼-inch drill bit works fine for this. Drill another 3 holes in the lid for the smoke to escape.

Drill a final small hole for the thermometer to fit inside the smoker. This can be near the top or in the top lid.

Place the hotplate in the trash can. Place the smoker box, or foil pouch, on top with the soaked wood chips. Set the grill grate in place. Pass the wire and electrical plug outside the can and plug in to an extension cord. We are ready to smoke!

Smoking The Meat

Test heat the smoker by setting the temperature adjustment on the hot plate. Most smoke masters want to smoke at 220 to 240 degrees. Adjust the hot plate to maintain that temperature. If the temperature is too hot, consider drilling several more air holes in the sides and top of the smoker to let more heat escape.

Soak the wood chips for at least an hour before smoking. To make a foil pouch, cut off a piece of foil 18 x 18 inches, add 1 or 2 cups of pre-soaked wood chips and fold all four edges over and seal. Use a pencil to poke several holes in the top for smoke to escape. Place the pouch on top of the hot plate. Plug in the hot plate and wait for the temperature to reach 225 degrees. Then, add the meat, close the lid, and let the smoking begin.

Several Final Tips

Cooking times and temperatures will be affected by weather, altitude, and humidity. So, realizing that, there are a couple of approximate temperatures and times for smoking to get started.

  • Beef brisket: will be best cooked at 225 degrees, for 1.5 hr./lb.
  • Pork butt: will be best cooked at 225 degrees, for 1.5 hr./lb.
  • Whole chicken: will be best cooked at 250 degrees, for 4 hr.
  • Chicken thighs: will be best cooked at 250 degrees, for 1.5 hr.
  • Baby back ribs: cook at 225-250 degrees, for 5 hr.

Invest in a good meat thermometer. The better digital ones have a flat wire the will fit under the lid of the trash can and can be used while smoking. This works better than lifting the lid to check the meat temperature, which also lets the smoke and the heat escape. Keep the lid closed when smoking if possible.

Some smoke masters like to use a container of water, or fruit juice, or beer inside the smoker. The added steam helps moisten and tenderize the meat. Make an inexpensive water container out of an old coffee can by cutting down the side to about 4 to 6 inches high and add an inch of water for every hour of smoke time.

Last Updated: June 28, 2012
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About Bill Washburn William "Bill" Washburn has a BA in advertising from the Art Center College of Design and has taught at the University of Southern California and Northrup University. Writing from a well-connected studio in the rural foothills of the west coast, he is a frequent speaker at local art associations and has published numerous articles discussing periods of art history and the fundamentals of drawing and painting. William is a master gardener who grows his own culinary herbs, organic heirloom vegetables and a variety of fruits. He writes frequently about his gardening experiences on his website Pioneer Dad. He is an accomplished advertising writer, fine art painter, and art director with more than 20 years' experience. 

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