A visit to a new barbershop usually goes one of two ways. Either it's pleasant, because your barber is convivial and chatty, and can somehow talk about baseball or the French New Wave or the lost virtue of the dollar slice with equal degrees of authority and eloquence. Or it's miserable, because your barber has clippers that barely clip and, despite your protestations, no intention of changing the blade on his straight razor—which you just saw him use on the guy before you, whom he nicked—before he scrapes it across the back of your neck.
My most recent visit to a new barbershop, mercifully, resembled more closely the former scenario than the latter. My barber, who we'll call Jeff, had just finished building his own barbecue smoker, something I'd been planning to do for some time but never got around to. While clipping and snipping his way through my as-of-late-thinning head of hair, Jeff asked if I had any interest in barbecue. Of course I do, I said, wondering aloud what kind of a monster wouldn't.
So I asked Jeff how he went about building his own smoker. He told me he'd built his out of an old refrigerator, and that the ribs he smokes are "the best damn ribs" he's ever eaten.
He went on to explain that he found plans to build his barbecue smoker online—there's a glut of forums on the internet dedicated to all things barbecue, many of which offer a profusion of valuable information, despite looking like they'd been designed on GeoCities in 1995 and not updated since.
"Either I pull it off and build a functional barbecue smoker, or I lose an ear."
I left Jeff inspired (and nicely trimmed), ready to make good on my intentions. But that excitement was soon replaced by trepidation bordering on Poe-esque horror. Aside from a Lego pirate ship, I'd never built anything in my life. Power tool skills: zero. Like a visit to a new barbershop, this could go one of two ways: Either I pull it off and build a functional barbecue smoker, or I lose an ear.
The smoker isn't for me. It's for my dad. I originally intended to give it to him for his 60th birthday, which was June of last year. Because I'm lazy and easily distracted, I procrastinated too long and wound up giving him his favorite bottle of bourbon, of which I drank about half. This was going to be my year.
About a decade ago, my father decided he was going to master cooking ribs. Damn the man if he didn't figure it out, because he makes some of the best pork ribs I've ever tasted. But he's only ever cooked them on a propane grill or in a conventional oven, and it was time for him to join the major leagues.
Sure, I could have bought him a generic smoker from the hardware store, which would have required minimal assembly but also sent a clear message: "Dad, you're worth exactly $199.99 and a sweaty afternoon." Just buying the rib master a smoker felt only marginally better than getting another crummy tie or cheap watch he'd never wear.
So I resolved to build one, risk of bloody ears be damned.
How to Hack a Smoker With No Engineering Skills
Several DIY smoker how-tos suggested the same thing my new barber friend had—finding an old refrigerator, stripping it of any potentially hazardous materials, retrofitting it with aluminum or stainless steel panels, and installing shelves or grill grates.
I have some culinary training—I worked as a cook at a pizza joint called Flatbread in Amesbury, MA for a time, and would consider myself an advanced home cook—but I've never spent a second inside a machine shop. The fridge method would require a fair amount of metal cutting and welding, and I've never cut or welded a piece of metal in my life. While I was sure I'd be able to execute a solid paint job, I wasn't confident I'd finish the build-out without losing a finger (or a hand, or an arm).
On top of lacking of fabrication skills, purchasing an old refrigerator (even one that no longer works) is expensive, and I'm broke. An old refrigerator, then, was out of the question.
I began instead to scour Craigslist for antique ice chests, but ran into another roadblock: Antique ice chests, especially those ones in good repair, are also wildly expensive. I was discouraged and by this point convinced that building a barbecue smoker might be an impossibility for a broke dude void of any metal working experience—but then I stumbled on a blueprint to hack one out of a kettle grill.
Composed of materials one can easily find at their local hardware store or on Amazon, and requiring little mechanical skill outside of being able to pull the trigger of an electric drill, this was the barbecue smoker I was actually capable of building.
The supply list is remarkably short:
- 1 Weber Smokey Joe 14-inch Charcoal Grill
- 1 14-inch Weber grill grate (it comes with the grill)
- 1 32-quart stockpot (I used one made by a brand called Imusa, though any cheap one will do)
- 1 Old Smokey 2 1/2 inch BBQ probe thermometer
- Painter's tape
- Matte black, heat-resistant spray paint (I used Rustoleum, which is heat resistant up to 1,200 degrees—if your smoker gets up to 1,200 degrees, you have bigger issues than the paint you chose)
- An electric drill
There was one tiny obstacle: I'd ordered all of the parts to my father's address because he has a lot more work space than I do in my small city apartment. As each new package arrived on his doorstep, he'd send me some version of the same text: "What is this, and is it staying here?" "Oh, it's nothing. Yeah, I'll bring it back with me this weekend," I'd assure him. It never feels good to lie to the old man, but it was good impetus to get started.
All this will run you about $100, guilt about telling lies not included, and the build-out is relatively simple, using the grill as a heat source and the stockpot as the smoking chamber. I started by drilling about 30 dime-sized holes in the bottom of the stockpot. (I did this on my father's porch, using my feet as a vice grip, but there's probably a better method here.) Then I drilled four more holes (1/4 inch), about four inches down from the rim and spaced evenly around the diameter.
For decoration, I taped horizontal stripes around the stockpot to resemble the old-timey hockey jerseys my dad loves, then spray-painted it with matte black heat-resistant paint. You can use any color spray paint here, but I recommend matte black because matte black is badass. Less negotiable is that the paint has to be heat-resistant up to 1,200°F for safety, otherwise it'll crack, peel, and release fumes.
Once the paint dried, I screwed four 1/8-inch stainless steel screws into the holes I'd drilled in the side of the pot. So far, so good; no bodily harm. The steels have to be stainless, not galvanized, since no one wants Metal Fume Fever—a real thing, not a glam rock song, and by all accounts quite unpleasant.
These screws hold the 14-inch grate you drop in the pot, sturdy enough to bear the weight of the most beefy briskets. Then comes a fifth hole, a 1/4-inch this time, halfway down the stockpot, for the probe thermometer to poke in. Make sure the hole you drill is centered; otherwise you'll have an asymmetrical barbecue smoker. You don't want this. Your smoker is a reflection of your personality, and you are an aesthete.
I was ready to smoke, and it was time to play with fire. I lit some high-end charcoal briquettes (just kidding, I used regular old Kingsford) in a chimney starter (you're looking for white-hot coals here) and dumped it into the lower half of the Smokey Joe. (I inadvertently dropped one of the coals onto my sneaker, and as a result my Nikes are no longer fresh. Do not do this if you want your Nikes to remain fresh.)
I let the temperature come up before adding wood to the coals. (Note: What you're cooking will dictate what kind of wood you'll need. I lost my barbecue smoker virginity to a brisket, so I used hickory.)
After hours of standing in the sun and ripping through a half dozen or so pilsners, and after telling my father that the smoker was something I'd built for myself, and that yes, I was going to bring it back to the city with me that weekend and get the monster out of my family's hair, it was time to see if the thing I made actually functioned as it should: Was I about to serve my family an undercooked hunk of fatty beef, an overcooked slab of boot leather, or the best damn brisket they've ever eaten?
Mercifully it was the latter, with no serious injury to my body or mind. The bark was that perfect shade of dark brownish-black, peppery and smoky, and my knife barely registered carving through the meat. I served the first slice to my father on—what else—a styrofoam plate.
"Happy 61st birthday, dad. Oh—and that smoker is yours now."
The word "awestruck" is overused these days, but I have no other word to describe my dad's face. Partly because he remembers the lazy 10-year-old me who wouldn't make his own bed, let alone build a barbecue smoker relatively scratch.
But it was also the smoker itself. Not an ugly tie, not a cheap watch. A thing I made with my own two hands that in turn makes great smoked meat.
Cooking a good brisket is always a life goal in and of itself. But it can't compare to building a brisket machine. And as long as the thing holds itself together—which, considering I cobbled it together, isn't necessarily a guarantee—my dad can reap the rewards of those goals for a long time to come.