The Drum Smoker How-To Guide (From the Build to the Cook)


Drum Smokers, also known as Ugly Drum Smokers (UDS) are an affordable and effective meat smoker popular with beginners and pros. There’s something cool about taking an old 55-gallon drum and turning it into one of the best charcoal smokers around. I wanted to find out all there is to know about Ugly Drum Smokers from the build to the cook. 

This brisket injection marinade is the secret used in competitions and made by a World Barbecue champion.

What is a UDS?

A UDS is a homemade drum smoker used primarily for smoking meat. Drum smokers are cheap, easy to make, and are very effective which is why they are so popular. To convert a 55-gallon steel drum into a UDS, all you need are a few basic parts from the hardware store and you have yourself a quality smoker. If you don’t want to source all the materials yourself, an easier option is to buy a UDS kit with all the parts in one package. UDS kits make life much easier, because all you is find a drum and put it together. There are also a few companies that manufacture brand new drum smokers that are completely fitted. 

Are Drum Smokers Any Good?

In terms of performance, a drum smoker can match it with any of the more expensive smokers on the market. Drum smokers are extremely popular because they are so well insulated. The thick steel allows a UDS to hold in the heat and keep the cold out. A drum smoker is also very well sealed, so you don’t get unwanted airflow that will mess with your temperatures. Drum smokers are so effective, most people struggle to keep the temperatures down. 

One of the most important features of a quality smoker is the insulation. A good smoker should have a thick steel and have no leaks to keep heat in and cold air out. Many smokers on the market are constructed with thin metal and are full of leaks, which make them a nightmare to control. A poorly insulated smoker will also burn through a tonne of fuel. 

Have you tried injecting brisket? All you need is one of these Simple Meat Injectors.

How Do Drum Smokers Work?

Ugly Drums use charcoal as a fuel source and wood chunks to add smoke flavor. A typical drum will have a fire basket that sits at the bottom of the drum. The fire basket holds charcoal and chunks of wood that will smolder during the cook and provide the meat with a consistent flow of smoke. 

An intake vent (usually a ball valve) controls the temperature of a drum smoker and is normally situated on the lower part of the drum, and the top of the drum should have a smokestack (chimney) to eliminate unwanted gases. Most drum smokers will have an upper and a lower cooking grate that can hold a lot of meat, and a removable lid. 

All smokers need a thermometer otherwise you are cooking blind. When building a UDS, you can either insert a built-in thermometer or use a wireless remote thermometer. If you want to learn about meat thermometers, check out my Beginner’s Guide To Meat Thermometers. In this article, I will provide you with all the information you need about meat thermometers and I show you the best and most affordable thermometers on the market. 

Where to Get an Ugly Drum Smoker

The internet is full of UDS do-it-yourself guides with instructions on how to build a drum smoker with materials from your local hardware store. If you don’t want to build your own UDS, there are companies like Gateway and Hunsaker that specialize in new drum smokers already assembled.

How to Make a Smoker with a 55-Gallon Drum

The first step is to find a 55-gallon drum in your area, and you can find bargains if you hunt around. Online marketplaces such as Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace is a good place to start. The drum should be unlined and food-grade. If you’re buying a refurbished drum, make sure it was used in food service or contained non-toxic substances. If you smoke meat with a drum that was used to store chemicals, this may affect the taste of the meat and potentially harm you and your family. When making enquires, find out what they stored in the drum, and if they can’t tell you, don’t buy it. 

How Much Does it Cost To Build a UDS?

You can build a basic drum smoker for about $110 – $140 if you source the materials yourself. Another option is to buy a drum yourself, then purchase a DIY kit. You should be able to find a food-grade steel drum in your local area. Once you have a drum, you can find all the other parts at a hardware store. A simple build using the following parts:

  • 55-Gallon Drum – $10 – $30 
  • Cooking grates – $20-$30
  • Valves, nuts, bolts, clips, washers, handles, etc – $30-$40
  • Charcoal basket $30 – $50

Amazon UDS Parts List

Amazon sells complete UDS parts that come with a basket, grates, smoke stack, vents and all the nuts and bolts. A cheaper option is to find all the parts separately. Here is a list of some key parts found on Amazon that can be used to make a UDS.

Charcoal BasketLid HingeSmoke Stack
Thermometer GrommetHigh Temp SealerAir Inlet Tube

Pitmaster Malcolm Reed built a Ugly Drum following this UDS parts list. It’s easy and you can find everything you need at your local hardware store. Watch Malcolm’s video below.

The Best Drums For Making Smokers

When selecting a drum to convert into a smoker, make sure it is food-grade and hasn’t been used to store chemicals. Before using it, give the drum a good clean because whatever was inside the drum could give a disgusting taste to your food. Once the drum is clean, throw in some charcoal and light a fire to burn off any nasty remains. To make life easier, look for a drum with a lid. Most drums are sealed so you will need to take an angle grinder and cut out the top. If you can’t find a drum with a lid, a large 22.5 inch Weber Kettle lid fits on top of a 55-gallon drum.

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Kettle Lid on a UDS

A 22.5 inch Weber Kettle lid fits a 55-gallon drum, so if your drum is without a lid, buy an old kettle grill secondhand and salvage the parts. The Weber lid may not sit flush on top of your drum, so you might need to make some small modifications so it doesn’t leak.You will also be able to use the Weber grill grate for your UDS fire basket. 

There are a couple of ways to seal the Weber lid so it fits better. If you have some auto body mechanic skills, you can beat out the lid until it sits perfectly on the drum. The other way is to take your angle grinder and take a few inches off the top of the old Weber Kettle and fix it to the top of the drum, or cut a piece of sheet metal and attach it to the lid. 

UDS Kits

There are a few DIY Ugly Drum Smoker kits on the market that save you he hassle of searching for the parts. The UDS kits include vents, cooking grates, charcoal baskets, etc, so all you need to do is find is the drum. Big Poppa Drum Smoker kit includes everything except the drum, so all you need is the power tools. The kit includes all the vents, slide vents, cooking grates, handles and grips, shields, thermometer, charcoal basket and all parts and assembly instructions. Amazon sells UDS kits like the Classic Pit Barrel Cooker Package. If you want a kit with the drum included, The Barrel House Cooker UDS kit is the way to go.

Best Pre-Made Drum Smokers

If you want a ready-made drum smoker, there are a few good products on the market. Gateway are one of the biggest names in drum smokers. A Gateway drum is more expensive than a DIY kit, but you get a quality UDS ready to go. For more information, head over to the Gateway Drums website here. Amazon sells an Oklahoma Joe’s Barrel Drum Smoker which also has grilling capabilities. Check the latest price on Amazon.

Drum Smoker vs Kamado & Big Green Egg

An Ugly Drum Smoker is a cheaper alternative to a kamado smoker and a lot cheaper. A kamado grill such as the Big Green Egg costs close to $1000 whereas a drum smoker is can be put together for under $200. A ceramic smoker is more versatile than a drum because it can bake and grill, but for smoking, a UDS can match it with any kamado cooker. Kamado grills are known for being well insulated and can hold stable temperatures for many hours, even in freezing conditions. Drum smokers are also well insulated and can hold stable temperatures over many hours in the cold. A drum smoker is much lighter than a kamado, so you can move it around your yard or take it with you on camping trips, etc. A ceramic grill is extremely heavy and is difficult to move around. If you want to learn more about kamado grills, I’ve written a detailed article here: Everything You Need To Know About The Kamado.

Drum Smoker vs WSM

The Weber Smokey Mountain is an extremely popular meat smoker made by a company that is known for constructing quality grills. The major difference between a WSM and a UDS is the price. Building a rum smoker will cost approximately $300 less than a Smokey Mountain, depending on the WSM size and the UDS build. 

In terms of performance, a UDS and WSM are evenly matched when smoking meat. Both smokers are well insulated and can retain heat over many hours. Some people who own both say the drum makes better tasting meat because the meat in a drum drips directly onto the fire and flavours the meat.

When it comes to cooking capacity, a large WSM holds more meat than a drum with a standard lid. However, there is little difference between a WSM and UDS if your drum has Weber Kettle lid which will allow you to fit more meat on the top rack. For a more in-depth comparison between a UDS and a WSM, you might be interested in another article I’ve written: The Complete WSM Buying Guide.

How To Use A Drum Smoker

How To Use A Drum Smoker

A drum smoker is a well insulated meat smoker that is easy to use, and will stay hot for several hours. UDS are easy to make, and an affordable option if you want a quality smoker that can retain heat. Drum smokers can fit a large amount of meat, and can also hang ribs.

Prep Time 10 minutes
Active Time 2 minutes
Total Time 12 minutes
Difficulty Easy

Materials

  • Drum Smoker
  • Charcoal
  • Wood
  • Lighter
  • Fire starters

Tools

  • Long tongs
  • Heat proof gloves
  • Wireless thermometer

Instructions

    1. Light the drum 1-hour before adding meat to stabilize the temperature in advance. One of the biggest challenges with a UDS is how to pull back the temperature because they can quickly get out of control and are difficult to bring back down. 

    2. Fill your charcoal basket and lay out the coals. The Minion Method (or a variation) of arranging charcoal works well in a drum smoker. A UDS can burn for a long time. A full basket of coals can burn for 18 plus hours.

    3. Light a charcoal chimney for 20 minutes then place the red-hot coals into the gap in the middle of the basket. 

    4. Light the charcoal and open all the vents.

    5. Use an accurate thermometer to monitor the temperature of the drum, because with a UDS, temps can escalate fast. 

    6. Place a water pan at the bottom of the smoker. Adding water will help keep the temperature under control. 

    7. Bring the UDS up to 250°. Adjust one vent at a time, then wait 10-minutes for a response. Start slow. It’s harder to reign in the temperature on a UDS than lower it.

    8. Once you have reached the target temperature adjust the vents to 1/4.

    9. Just before adding meat, place a few wood chunks onto the hot coals.

    10. Wait 1-hour before adding meat to allow the temperature to stabilize

Drum Smoker Tips

  • Keep a smoking diary and write everything you did, from the amount of coals, to the vent adjustments to the weather. 
  • Avoid opening lid as much as possible. You will need to open the lid for basting and foiling, but keep it to those things only. Drum cookers work best if left alone. If you open the lid, this will increase airflow and raise the temperature. 
  • During the cook, close the vents 2 minutes before and after opening the lid. Opening the lid will cause a huge temperature spike, so closing the vents a few minutes before will keep the drum’s temperature lower. 
  • Use a water pan to help regulate the temperature. A water pan is optional, not everyone uses one but I find it keeps the temperatures consistent. 
  • Buy a wireless duel probe thermometer to monitor your temps without opening the lid. To find out more about meat thermometers, check out The Best Thermometers for Smoking Meat

When To Add The Meat To A Drum Smoker

Don’t add meat to the smoker until the temperature is stable. Light the UDS about 1-hour prior to adding meat because it can take about 30-60 minutes for the temperature to level out. The temperature will also drop slightly after you add the meat, so overshoot your target temperature.

Prior to lighting the UDS, remove the rack, and load with meat so it’s ready to go. The quicker you can close the lid again, the better. The big intake of air will increase the temperature if the lid is open for too long. You don’t need to flip the meat in a UDS. Try to lay brisket fat cap down and keep the lid closed. 

How To Smoke Brisket in a UDS – 5 Steps

  1. Bring the UDS up to temperature and hold it within the 220°F–275°F range. 
  2. Lay the brisket fat cap down to protect the meat from the heat. 
  3. Mop/spritz the brisket every hour. This helps with bark development and helps prevent the meat from drying out (remember to close the vents 2-minutes before and after opening the lid). 
  4. Once the internal meat temperature hits about 150°F (this may take several hours), wrap the brisket in foil or butcher paper. 
  5. Place the meat back in the drum and remove once the internal temperature hits 203°F. Allow the brisket to rest for at least 1 hour. 

If you want to learn more about smoking brisket, check out: Brisket For Beginners: Tips For Smoking The Perfect Brisket

How to Hang Ribs in a UDS

One of the best things about using a drum smoker is the ability to hang ribs with meat hooks. The most common method of smoking ribs is using the 3-2-1 method (three hours unwrapped, 2 hours wrapped, 1 hour unwrapped). This method requires 6 hours low and slow. On the UDS, we can cook the ribs in half the time and still get great results. Here are the steps to follow:

  1. Insert the hooks between the biggest bone on one of the rib ends. 
  2. Fill your charcoal basket and light your drum.
  3. Open all the vents and raise the temperature up to 250°F.
  4. Partially close off the vents and hold the smoker in the 300°F range.
  5. Throw some wood chunks on the coals. Hickory, pecan, oak, cherry and apple blend well with ribs.
  6. Hang the ribs to the grill grate or hanging ring.
  7. Try spread the ribs out across the smoker so they’re not touching. There’s a lot or surface area on a drum so you should be able to hang up to eight racks per cook. 
  8. You can pre-hang the ribs on the rack/grill so that the smoker lid can remain closed for as long as possible. 
  9. Keep the temperature so it sits just under 300°F.
  10. Rotate the ribs every twenty minutes so that the ribs have a nice even smoke layer. 
  11. Continue with this process for about 2-hours, then remove from the smoker. 
  12. At the two-hour mark, you can wrap the ribs in foil. Before wrapping, baste the ribs in a mop sauce. 
  13. Return the ribs to the smoker and lay the wrapped ribs on the grill and continue smoking for another hour. 

How to Season a UDS

If you’re using a UDS for the first time, it will need to be seasoned before you attempt to cook any meat. You should do this for several reasons. First, to remove any paint or toxins that may be on the inside of the drum. You don’t want your first cook to taste like paint! Second, seasoning the smoker will help maintain it for the future. 

Smoking meat will expose your smoker to a lot of water. Water vapors from water pans and the moisture from meat will condense to the sides of the drum which can start the rusting process. To avoid rust, we want to avoid water getting on the inside of metal. This is best done by coating the metal with oil. Make sure you use an oil with a high heat threshold like palm oil, canola oil, or peanut oil. Don’t use olive oil, it has a low heat threshold. I recommend using an oil spray because it’s inexpensive and easy to apply. Remove all the grills and scrub them down if they are brand new. 

Once your UDS is coated in oil, light it up and do a dry run without meat. This will burn up any paint and will heat the coated oil layer. This will seal the smoker with a permanent layer. In the future, any moisture won’t be able to attach to the metal and cause rust. 

How to Clean a Drum Smoker

Cleaning a UDS is much simpler than cleaning any other smoker. Remove the racks and grates and clean them separately. You can use a barbecue cleaner spray on the inside of the drum. Some people prefer not to use any cleaning products. If you use a barbecue cleaner, might want to season the smoker again before using. Below is a quick video of pitmasters cleaning their Ugly Drum Smokers after competitions.

My Favorite Meat Smoking Tools

Thanks for checking out this article. I hope you learned a few things. Here are some of my favorite tools I use when smoking brisket that may be useful to you. These are affiliate links, so if you decide to purchase any of these products, I’ll earn a commission. But in all honesty, these are the tools I recommend to my family and friends who are just starting out.

Meat Thermometer: There are dozens of fancy thermometers on the market, but I still use my trusty TP20. For around $50, I have a high-quality meat thermometer with two probes, and can track the temperature of my smoker with one probe, and my meat with the other probe. The ThermoPro TP20 is an Amazon Best Seller because it’s the easiest thermometer to operate, is durable, highly accurate, and comes with pre-programmed meat settings.

Instant Read Thermometer: Arguably, the second most important tool you need is a fast and accurate instant-read thermometer. These tools play an important role in the latter stages of the cook when the meat needs regular checking in multiple areas. I use the ThermoPro TP19 because it can do everything a ThermaPen can do, but for a fraction of the cost. You can check out the TP19 on Amazon here.

Butcher Paper: Wrapping brisket in butcher paper has become a huge trend in barbeque thanks to Aaron Franklin. Wrapping your brisket in paper will give you a nice brisket bark. However, you can’t just use any old paper, it has to be unwaxed, food grade paper. You can find it on Amazon here.

Advanced Thermometer and Automatic Temperature Controller: Once you’re ready to take things seriously, the FireBoard 2 Drive is a six-channel Bluetooth/Wi-Fi thermometer that can monitor up to 6 pieces of meat, control and graph your cook sessions on your smartphone, and attaches to an an automatic blower that will convert your charcoal smoker to a set-and-forget. This is one of the most advanced meat thermometers on the market. You can check it out on the FireBoard website here.

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Best Wi-Fi Meat Thermometers (We Review the 5 Top Models)

Best Instant-Read Thermometers for Smoking (Top 6 Picks)

What Are Automatic Barbeque Temperature Controllers? The Complete Buyers Guide

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