December 9, 2011


Greetings QUE-BELIEVERS! I offer up to you the first of my ongoing series of articles about the greatest cooking device this side of the Ronco Research and Development Lab—THE UGLY DRUM SMOKER (UDS).
The UDS is a vertical smoker that works on the same principles that Pappy described in his article detailing vertical smoker theory. I have made close to 10 of these contraptions and have found what does and doesn’t work for my liking. Everything I learned initially about the UDS can be traced back to the largest forum thread in the history of the free world located on the BBQ Brethren site. You want to talk about a wealth of knowledge! Engineers, machinists, scientists and Q-nuts have racked up nearly 9000 posts on there since 2007! I read the first 6000 2 summers ago. Now I change diapers!

Why should you choose to make or buy a UDS? Check this out:
  1. Price—pound for pound the cheapest smoker out there IF you make your own. I’m taking orders if you want-$150 WITHOUT DELIVERY
  2. Efficiency—because of the design and the thickness of the metal, the UDS will blaze for hours and very little charcoal. A 10 lbs. bag of charcoal can easily get upwards of 12 hours at smoking temps!!!
  3. Ease of use—once you figure out your barrel, it truly is a set it and forget it machine.
  4. Volume—currently I run 2 cooking grates and a round lid on top. That is space for 8 racks of ribs laid out FLAT! It is almost impossible to fill that damn thing. The Fish borrowed it once and had 40lbs of chicken legs in it at once!!! Unreal! I’ve done a beer can TURKEY in it before with room to space. Plus—mine has room for another grate too!
  5. Moisture and Flavor—a UDS does not use a water or drip pan so that dripping from the meat hit the coals, vaporize and give the meat a true open pit flavor. This also keeps the moisture in the barrel very high so meat tends to not dry out and needs little spritzing.
  6. Cook Time—because of the design of the machine, food is cooked a bit more directly than on most smokers. This speeds up the cook time so you aren’t outside all day!

Though it can be made with any size steel drum, the basic/traditional model is based on a 55 gallon drum. Intake holes are drilled in the bottom of the barrel with some type of exhaust vent on the lid. An elevated fire box in placed at the bottom of the barrel and a least one grate/rack is placed at the top for the meat. That’s really the basic unit.
Barrels can be found though all sorts of resources. My first UDS and the one I still use today at home and in competitions came free via an ice cream supply company in Valley Cottage, NY. I was a rookie and had no idea what I was looking for other than a food grade barrel. Unfortunately I made the biggest rookie mistake possible and procured a drum with the dreaded “red liner” inside. AVOID THIS!

The liner is a protective layer to prevent the steel of the drum from reacting with whatever food/chemical is inside. It must be removed or particles from it will flake off due to the heat from your cook and end up in your food! You can burn it, sand blast it or grind it off by hand but it isn’t easy and takes forever. NEVER AGAIN!!! Now I purchase completely clean, reconditioned barrels down to the bare metal from a recycling facility in Newburg, NY. So worth the half hour drive and the $20 price tag! I still burn out the barrels by making a massive bonfire but that is only because I’m a pyromaniac and have problems!

The fire box is probably the hardest part of the entire build. Theoretically, you could just dump the coals/wood right into the bottom of the barrel but your fire would suffer from poor air circulation and would get snuffed out by the ash prematurely. Oh, yeah—and your barrel would be trashed and rust out much quicker.
Most people make their box out of a small 18” coal grate off of a Webber kettle grill. You wrap expanded metal, chicken wire or basic sheet metal with tons of holes drilled in around the grate to form a cylinder with the grate at the bottom. It is best to elevate the box a few inches off the bottom so I used 4 long bolts through the crates. Most also put a handle at the top of the box to allow ease of movement into/out of the drum. I used an old wire hanger.

The top of the drum is much easier. Why the 55 gallon drum is perfect for the UDS is because the dimensions of the drum fit most 22.5” grates exactly. I buy the Weber replacement grates but any 22.5” will work. You suspend the grate off of 3 or 4 bolts you drill through the sides of the drum. If your barrel comes with a removable lid then you are in business. Remove the bung hole plug for the exhaust or drill it in yourself, a 2” hole will do fine. You can also use the top or bottom of a donor kettle grill as a lid but you will have to make modifications to it, more than likely by beating the shit out of it with a hammer like I did for my first. My new and improved lid is so complex it will get its own article later.

Temperature inside the smoker is controlled by opening or closing the intake holes at the bottom. The more open, the more air is drawn in and the high the temps. A simple way to do this is to cover the holes with pizza magnets and remove as necessary. I have gotten my barrel to almost 500 degrees but can make it sit anywhere between 225 and 300 that I choose. Most of the time my cooks go off at about at about 255-266 degrees—perfect for what I do!

That should give you an idea of the basics behind the machine. I highly encourage anyone interested to scan through the Brethren UDS forum. Next time I will get into modifications to the basic design.

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