Building an Offset Barbecue Smoker – Part One
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m maxed out with my current cookers as far as capacity. Thirty pounds of meat is about as big as I can go, and to go that big requires a whole lot of extra work maintaining two cookers that function and cook very differently – I described that in my last post.
Stepping back for just a minute, I’m a bit of a collector when it comes to cookbooks. I have all sorts of cookbooks, but the ones that feature wood, fire, and meat are by far my favorites. One stands out – Aaron Franklin and Jordan Mackay wrote Franklin BBQ, A Meat Smoking Manifesto. This book is amazing and clearly defines Franklin’s unique (albeit simple) cooking style. Anyone could get sucked into this book, BBQ fanatic or not – ask Caitlyn.
Franklin describes the dynamics of his cookers – all home built, but gives no measurements or specific details about how he builds them. He also makes it very clear that building something that will ultimately weigh in close to 2000 pounds is not for the faint of heart, but ultimately rewarding as there is nothing like knowing every inch of your cooker like the back of your hand. In his opinion, and now my own, the only way to maximize control of such a dynamic process is building a smoker yourself.
Sure, there are pit builders all over the internet that build high quality, heavy duty, large cookers quite similar to the ones he builds, but the drawback is the cost and sometimes control. Steel isn’t particularly cheap, and it’s heavy. Like really really heavy. Trust me on this one. I tried to find an easier, softer way, but couldn’t find anything for less than a $3500 dollar price tag. More often, the cookers I found were closer to $10,000.
Last summer, I started talking to Caitlyn about building an offset barbecue smoker. Like most things in my life at the time, it was just another plan that I’d probably get to around about never… The beginning of 2017 brought some big changes in my life, and I thought to myself, why not? If I can’t do this now, I never will, so I set out to build my own.
The instant I decided that I was going to build it, only one man came to mind. Monte Moncrief has always been a bit of a legend, at least in my mind, and I knew that I would need his help to pull something like this off. I’ve always been interested in DIY, but this build was on a whole new level. I reached out to him with a few of my sketches and he responded something back to me like, “Whoah, that’s going to be a lot of work, but we can build it.” And he was right.
I honestly can’t thank him enough, he’s spent so much time with me on this project, and we’ve gotten to know each other really well. He’s always pushed me to do all the actual work, tighten up my welds, measure two (or three times in my case) and cut once, and most importantly – don’t rush. There are a lot of life lessons in there, especially for a guy who is always looking for learning. Thanks Monte – I owe you big time.
The Tank and Trailer
February 2nd, I drove my Jeep to arrange a pickup for a 250 gallon, condemned propane tank from a waste yard and a 1969 trailer from a local boat dealer. The tank was $150.00 and the trailer (a galvanized steel boat trailer) cost me $200.00 tag and title.
Cutting into a condemned propane tank isn’t as easy as it sounds. It’s also really dangerous if you’re not careful, so my advice is to do just that – be VERY careful. The first thing to do is to remove all the fittings from the tank so that the tank can naturally breathe. All of the pressure should have been released by the seller, due to law, but it doesn’t hurt to be sure. Afterwards, fill it with water and begin to cut while the tank is full so it doesn’t explode. Take time to properly mark your doors and cut slowly. I used an angle grinder with a small cutting blade and worked through probably 50 blades from the start of the project until the finish.
Pro tip – leave the corners attached after cutting the rest of the doors. It’s MUCH easier to attach the hinges if the doors are already lined up and intact.
Hinges and Doors
Next up is building the hinges. Sure, you could spend a lot of time and money fabricating hinges or even purchasing them, but why? We simply used some cold roll pipe and rod, which we heated up and bent with a little persuasion using some plyers and a hammer. The advantage to doing it this way is that the doors can open and slide right off if you should need to remove them. Make sure that the hinges themselves line up by running a piece of the rod through them before welding so that they square up with the door. You don’t want them to bump or drag when you go to open the doors. After the pipe hinges are welded on, you can go ahead and cut the corners out of the doors.
You’ll notice that the doors will fall directly into the tank at a negative angle because there is no lip on the door to catch it. This gap will also leak smoke and heat, so it needs to be sealed. We used some 2-inch flat bar on the bottom and sides to hold the door in place and to seal it up. Tack the flat bar into place and then persuade it with a hammer while tacking further and further down the strip / door.
Now that you can get inside, go ahead and clean whatever gunk you can out of the tank. I highly recommend getting your partner or spouse to do this. It will help explain why you won’t be home after work until after dark most nights for the next few months.
I had planned on building the firebox out of ¼-inch steel plate, but after getting quoted for the raw material, I changed my mind purely based on cost. I went and picked up a second 250 gallon tank for only $150.00 and cut about 1/3 of it for the firebox. I used the same process as before – slow and steady – and stacked the cut end on a pallet jack to line it up with the end of the cooker. Lining it up only by sight, we figured out the way we’d end up joining them.
At this point, it was probably only the end of February or very early March, and I remember saying to Caitlyn, “We’re basically almost finished.” I didn’t realize it yet, but all the most difficult pieces were still to come.
Part two here!