Making a 55 Gallon Steel Drum into a BBQ Smoker

So, you’ve been blessed with a big 55 gallon steel drum? You happen to be somewhat handy? You like BBQ? Me, too! Here’s what I did to turn this unsightly industrial refuse into a BBQ smoker, cheerfully named Big Blue.

UPDATE (May 21, 2013) – I discuss using and did use RustOleum High Heat paint on the inside of the drum. A Commenter very helpfully pointed out today that the paint is not intended for use inside BBQ pits, per the RustOleum website’s FAQ section. The technical data sheet says it has a heat resistance of 1000 degrees Fahrenheit and mine has never gotten half that hot, but they still say that’s not the product’s intended purpose.  So, obviously don’t do that with your smoker. I’m considering making a new one and literally discarding the old hull after removing the hardware. I will post another update as needed. For now, perhaps just cleaning the heck out of the inside and curing it with food-grade oil and smoke is the best route for you.

UPDATE #2 (August 29, 2013) – I made another one.

Quick disclaimer: If your drum contained anything hazardous or you even remotely think it may have contained anything hazardous, DON’T USE IT TO COOK FOOD. Flat out, if you get some barrel that says Chernobyl or Three Mile Island on it or it mentions any type of remote health hazard and you turn it into a smoker and get sick as hell / grow a few more ears, you are at fault. Not me. Read my general Disclaimer. Don’t be stupid.

On to Big Blue:

Unsightly industrial refuse

I made some loose plans for turning this thing into a functional smoker. Plenty of online research into what other people have done went into my planning. No sense re-inventing the wheel, or smoker.

Detailed smoker plans

In essence, the drum needs to be cleaned out, have some strategically-placed holes drilled into it, be painted, and have some stuff bolted/screwed on.

To get started, I constructed the coal basket. I took two pieces of 12″ x 24″ perforated sheet metal and bolted it into a cylinder. This will rest on a Weber grill grate with four 3″ bolts to act as legs.

Coal basket (left) and base (right)

The coal base will allow two important things: the burnt ashes to fall from the active coals, and the air to surround the burning coals. This gives the fire enough oxygen fuel to burn efficiently without being snuffed out. One simply rests on the other in the center of the base of the smoker.

Ready to smoke some meat!

Now that the guts are assembled, time to get to work on the steel drum. You need a special drill bit that can cut through steel. I did some pricing and these things are incredibly expensive, to the tune of $30-$40 and up. I’m told you can get one for less than $20 at Harbor Freight Tools, but they may only withstand a few holes. Luckily, there is a handy guy in the parish who happened to have one for me to borrow.

Specialty tools cost $$$!

The cool thing about this bit is that you can drill any hole between 1/4″ and 3/4″ in increments of 1/16″.

The drum has a 6′ circumference and I want four baffles around the base, meaning the holes will be about 1.5′ apart. With the coal cage being 4″ off the ground, my baffles will be 6″ off the ground. The baffles will be ball valves with 1/2″ holes.

To make my life easy, I am using all 1/4″, full thread, hex screws. With some consistency, drilling holes, using washers & nuts, etc. is straightforward.

In addition to the baffle holes, I want four similarly equidistant 1/4″ holes near the top of the barrel so that I can run some 2″ hex screws into the barrel. These will hold my 22.5″ Weber kettle food grate. I will put these about 6″ down from the lid. This will give me a good amount of vertical space for making bigger food (like a dressed turkey!).

Finally, the 9th hole will be a 1/2″ hole below the 6″ depth of the food grate holes for my thermometer. I am putting it right below the food grate so that I can tell the temperature within the chamber right near the food.

Once all the holes are drilled, I washed the inside with some diluted CRL. Then I added some vegetable oil and lighter fluid. Fire cleans all.


At this point, I’d like to take a moment to add a lawyerly disclaimer. Don’t do this, particularly after drinking beer all day. This is dangerous and the cops / fire department will not be amused.

On the plus side, the fire burned off some arm hair the pesky labels that I could not remove.

After this fiasco cools down, wipe down the inside and outside again. It’s ready to paint.

Clean, but still needs to be sealed

I am painting the inside with a quart of Rustoleum High Heat specialty paint. (Edited May 21, 2013: See UPDATE above… don’t do this!)

Ah, that’s better. First coat of fire paint applied.

The outside will get some regular Rustoleum – my son picked out Royal Blue. In an effort to avoid any Cubs loyalty confusion, I will make a Cardinals stencil out of posterboard and spray paint that design over the blue in another color.

One coat isn’t going to do it…

A second coat of paint is needed to hide the original black undercoat.

Ah, that looks better

I am planning to spray paint on some Cardinal logo decorations from my homemade stencils, or maybe some Billiken stuff in honor of an alma mater.

Once this puppy dries on the outside, it’s time to screw on all of the hardware. Having consistently bought 1/4″ hardware, this is a simple process that takes mere minutes.

Smoker guts inserted…

Thermometer bolted on… needed a washer on the inside to make it snug

Four ball valves to serve as air baffles near the base… each also needed a washer for snugness

Can’t go wrong with a Weber kettle BBQ tool rack

Drop in a hinged 22.5″ grill grate, and put on an old 22.5″ Weber kettle lid, and you’re done!

Voila! Smoker is complete; Big Blue is born. Time to get some rub paste on 11 lbs of brisket for the family gathering tomorrow. Dinner is at 3pm, so I need to get up at 7am. (Pics to follow)

I’m inspired by Ernie Hudson in Ghostbusters: “We have the tools; We have the talent!”

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31 thoughts on “Making a 55 Gallon Steel Drum into a BBQ Smoker

  1. Larry says:

    Nice job. As a lifelong Cubs fan, I could have done without the bashing, but I understand. I’ll be making a steel drum BBQ pit soon. Mine is going to lay flat, as opposed to your design, but I like your ideas. Thanks.

  2. simpsonbbq says:

    Larry, that was meant for my die-hard Cubs fan father. We love the Cubs here in STL… good for at least 15 wins per year.

  3. Frank says:

    Can I use an oil drum to make the pit?

  4. simpsonbbq says:

    Like… one that had crude oil in it? I wouldn’t recommend anything that had toxins. The answer may be yes, structurally, but it could be risky from a health point of view.

  5. ivanmor says:

    Hey there!

    When u did your burn, did all the outer paint come off? I have a new unused drum, bare inside and black paint outside, I am thinking I need to remove this… also the outside paint on yours, was it high heat paint or was that only inside? Why paint the inside, does it make it easier to clean?

    Thanks a million!


  6. simpsonbbq says:

    Ivan, I painted the inside with high heat black Rustoleum and the outside with regular metal-cover Rustoleum. Why paint the inside? I wanted a clean, new finish that was basically what I would get from a new BBQ pit. Although I was sure it was clean and safe, I still wanted to encapsulate the old interior and coating, and get a nice new durable finish at the same time.

  7. Alex says:

    Hey man. Nice rig. Just wondering how the paint on the exterior held up to the heat. Looking at doing something similar, but spraying it on. Hate to have it just burn off though. Do the small ball valves work well enough to control temps?

  8. Rick O'L says:

    Painting the inside is a bad, bad idea. High heat Rustoleum is an exterior paint. If the paint is overheated, the chemicals in it have to go somewhere…. your food.

    I’ve had a 55 gallon smoker for 30 years, and have found that smoke cooking will naturally “cure” the interior. And as far as rust is concerned, it’s not an issue.

  9. Rick O'L says:

    Here’s link to the Rustoleum site FAQ regarding not using the paint on interior surfaces.

    PS I think your basket device to hold the coals is excellent. For all these years I’ve been using an old steel grill frame placed on four bricks.

  10. simpsonbbq says:

    Wow thanks for the comment. I’ve emailed Rustoleum for input on this. In the meantime, I’ll edit the blog post to reflect this information.

  11. Rick O'L says:

    One other thing I do with my 55… I use three wooden 4X4s along the edges to keep the rig off of the ground. I think it is safer on concrete (which can explode if accidentally overheated), and the wood is easier on the paint. Bricks are a good alternative.

  12. simpsonbbq says:

    I keep mine on a paver brick patio that’s on a layer of sand, which itself is over a base of gravel and soil.

  13. Rick O'L says:

    Even better.

  14. Dumi says:


    Im looking into making a smoker using the drum. Can i get the blueprints for it? Never had smoke bbq before and i am really excited and keen to try it. From South Africa

  15. Mitch says:

    I’ve made 2 of these so far and I have 3 more in the works for friends. Design slightly different, but all you need to do on the inside is either wipe it down with a heavy coat of cooking oil or spray an entire small can of Pam cooking spray all over the inside walls and then cure it by filling your basket with charcoal and wood chunks and let ‘er burn…you just burned all the paint off the inside, don’t repaint it.

  16. Mitch says:


    Click to access UDSsmokerplans.pdf

    try these plans. I used a similar plan, but I added a cooking rack 2 inches from top, the second cooking rack 7 inches below that and I also added a rack halfway between the botton rack and the fire basket in case I use a difuser plate for indirect cooking
    This is just a starting pont. Most builders that venture down this path usually add their own changes to just about any plans.
    Good luck. You’ll love the end result.

  17. Mitch says:

    The reason I added a top cooking rack is because I use the dome lid from a Weber Kettle BBQ for my UDS lid. Just make sure your steel drum measures 22.5″ across the top. If it measures 23-23 1/4″, the lid won’t fit and modifying the lid usually means the seal won’t be as desireable as you’d like and need for the smoking function. In case you can’t find the right size drum, just use the lid and ring that come with the drum and smoke on the second rack and use the top rack for grilling. Possibilities are almost endless.
    Good luck,,,,

  18. Deacon Day says:

    eh! i’m just about to make one of these (or more). but i’m making it Jamaican Drum Pan style. laid on it’s side, and cut in half. throw a hinge on it and set a rack inside. these things are all over the Caribbean.
    From Halifax, NS

  19. Newbie here!!! I Bought three barrels that where used to store honey before processing. It as a food grade brown coating on in side. Do I need to burn that off or can I just season it and then start using it?

  20. Rinaldo says:

    Hi there. I also just found a drum that contained syrup…brown epoxy liner inside as well. Has anyone attempted to high speed wire brush this stuff off. I feel better removing it then burning it off and leaving a toxic residue on the interior of the drum. Any thoughts anyone?

  21. Todd says:

    Nice job. I am just finishing up my smoker/ bbq.
    It has on drum up right and the second one laying flat on top. Also has a custom charcoal screen ash catcher and side shelf. You can us it for a smoker or just a bbq.
    Yours is a simple uds design that works well.

  22. Michael says:

    Burn the barrel with cardboard and stoke the fire with a leaf blower. Leave the lid 3/4 of the way on and rotate the lid to cook off the lid too. Don’t paint the inside. Season the steel like you would with cast iron cookware.

  23. […] Simpson BBQ – Making a 55 Gallon Steel Drum Into A BBQ Smoker […]

  24. Carl says:

    Hello, that is a great idea with the coal basket, i think i will use that idea, but i noticed that you didn’t cut a opening at the bottom to add more coal or to stir up the hot coal to radiate more heat if you were BBQing for a few hours, and the heat start to drop. does that ever happen to you? By the way, i’m a Baseball fan and like all teams for the most part but i am a lifetime Dodger fan.

  25. simpsonbbq says:

    I use a hinged 22″ Weber grate in the UDS, so I can open it up on either side of the grate and chuck in more coals and/or wood. It’s simple, though it would be handy to have a side door on it like a Weber Smokey Mountain.

  26. N. Woods says:

    I received two barrels for free, I think they were used at a car dealer for brake cleaner. Do you think if I can get the lid off that I could just burn any contaminants out? I was thinking I should give it a good wash with the hose first and dump it, then fill it the barrel full (to prevent any possibly flammable materials from catching) and then grind the lid off as the barrels are sealed. And then finish it with a good hot wood burn.

    Any thoughts or tips would be appreciated!

  27. Mikey8567 says:

    If you want to be safe with the inside just take the barrel to a paint shop (one who as a sand blaster) and have the inside sand blasted! Then take vegetable oil and coat the inside of it completely and then using a small fire (really small, only need it for the heat) allow the oil to bake into the bare steel. Doing it like this will protect the metal and also provide a non toxic coating inside the smoker. Very much like what you do to age a cast iron pan!

  28. Matt Brown says:

    Thanks for taking the time to break things down. Bravo, but I’m still tossing around vertical or horizontal. I’m looking for versatility with my grill. Thinking about attached smoker boxes. As well as possible toss in propane option for some quick grilling? How well does your vertical style preform? For instance, amount of food you can cook at once (lbs.) ? Also, the amount of time it takes to actually cook the meat through? Because I was thinking with a horizontal smoker with an attached smoke box. You could build a very hot fire without having to worry about your meat burning. And, extra dampers (possibly a fan of sorts) to circulate the heat and smoke out of the grill to keep the moist , fall off the bone consistency every grill master is looking for under the lid. Do you have any suggestions or anything you wished you would have done with your grill? Before I start cutting into my barrel.

  29. Christian Berg says:

    Had a question I have A barrel I just picked up it had nothing but coconut oil and still has some in it but it is painted inside is it safe ????

  30. simpsonbbq says:

    There’s no way to say if something is “safe” or not. I have gotten my last couple barrels from an organic soap place that used the drum once for vegetable oil. I fire it out with some wood and the residual oil in it, and then that’s it for the insides. I don’t paint it or clean it or anything else, and I feel safe eating food out of those. Hope that answers your question.

  31. Ang says:

    I have a big event coming up and have food grade barrels I want to use for deep frying. Has anyone used drums for deep frying? Do u thinks it’s safe? If I burn the inside will my oil taste different? Any ideas?

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