What are Oil Drum or “Barrel” Smokers?

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  May 31, 2022

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Drum smokers are very popular these days and for good reason! We’ve written about the benefits of vertical smokers before and 30 gallon oil drums have the perfect shape and size for smoking meat and vegetables. They are easy to take with you on a trailer (if you don’t want to buy a whole trailer smoker!) or in your truck, plus old oil drums are often used for building DIY barrel smokers because they already have the heat resistance built-in.

In this guide, we’ll explore why oil drum barrel smokers are so popular and how to use them safely.

What is an oil drum smoker

Is an Oil Drum BBQ a Grill or a Smoker?

Before we dive into whether an oil drum BBQ is a grill or a smoker, let’s first understand the difference between the two:

  • Grilling involves cooking food directly over high heat, usually with the lid open.
  • Smoking, on the other hand, involves cooking food indirectly over low heat, with the lid closed, and with the addition of smoke to infuse flavor.

The Role of Oil Drum Barrels in Cooking

Now, let’s talk about oil drum barrels. These large steel containers are commonly used to build both grills and smokers (or these great combos). The type of cooking you can do with an oil drum barrel depends on how you set it up.

  • If you cut the oil drum in half and use it as a grill, you have a direct heat source that’s perfect for cooking burgers, hot dogs, and other small items.
  • If you use the oil drum as a smoker, you have an indirect heat source that’s great for slow-cooking larger cuts of meat like beef brisket or pork shoulder.

The Importance of Proper Size and Preparation

When it comes to using an oil drum barrel for cooking, size and preparation are important factors to consider.

  • The size of the oil drum barrel will largely determine what type of cooking you can do with it. A 55-gallon drum is a popular size for both grills and smokers, but smaller drums can be used for more portable versions.
  • Proper preparation is also important. You’ll need to make sure the drum is cut and cleaned properly, and that any chemicals or contaminants are removed to prevent them from potentially contaminating your food.

The Benefits of Using an Oil Drum Barrel

Using an oil drum barrel for cooking offers a lot of benefits:

  • They’re relatively easy and inexpensive to build compared to buying a new grill or smoker.
  • They offer great control over the cooking temperature and smoke element.
  • They’re able to contain a lot of food at once, making them perfect for large gatherings.
  • They offer a great way to combine efforts with friends or family to build a quality product that you can be proud of.

How Drum Smokers Work: A Smokey Journey

Drum smokers are created from metal barrels, which are accessible and easy to alter to fit your needs. The main feature of a drum smoker is its vertical design, which allows for a straightforward method of smoking meat (like these best choices). The size of the drum smoker can vary, but the most common sizes are the Oklahoma Joe’s Bronco Pro Drum Smoker and the Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker.

The Heating Process of Drum Smokers

Drum smokers rely on the thermodynamic process of convection to cook meat. Burning charcoal at the base of the drum produces heat and smoke, which heats up the air inside the drum. The hot air rises to the food and cooks it before escaping out a vent at the top. As the air rises, it pulls in more air through a small vent at the bottom, which keeps the temperature inside the drum consistent.

Using an Old Oil Drum for a Smoker: Is it a Good Idea?

If you’re thinking of building your own smoker, using an old oil drum might seem like a good idea. After all, they’re relatively large, easy to find, and offer a lot of space for cooking. However, before you choose an old oil drum, there are a few things you need to consider.

Can an Old Oil Drum Contaminate Your Food?

One of the biggest concerns with using an old oil drum for a smoker is the potential for contamination. Oil drums can be coated with chemicals that could potentially contaminate your food. To prevent this, you need to properly clean and season the drum before using it.

How to Properly Clean and Season an Old Oil Drum

To properly clean and season an old oil drum, you’ll need the following tools:

  • A saw or angle grinder to cut the drum
  • A wire brush to remove any rust or debris
  • A drill to create ventilation holes
  • A high-temperature paint to prevent rusting

Here’s how to clean and season an old oil drum:

  1. Cut a hole in the side of the drum for access
  2. Remove any rust or debris with a wire brush
  3. Create ventilation holes on the bottom and top of the drum
  4. Paint the drum with high-temperature paint to prevent rusting
  5. Burn a fire in the drum to season it

Is it Better to Select a New Drum?

While using an old oil drum for a smoker can be a fun DIY project, it’s important to remember that it may not be the best option. A new drum will offer a better guarantee of safety and cleanliness, and it will be easier to season and maintain.

Not All Oil Drums Are Safe for Building Smokers

If you’re still set on using an oil drum for your smoker, it’s best to choose a drum that is specifically designed for cooking. Here are some options:

  • Reconditioned drums that have been cleaned and treated for cooking purposes.
  • Lined drums that are designed to contain food and prevent the leaching of hazardous chemicals.
  • New drums that are made from food-grade materials and are safe to use for cooking.

The Gear You’ll Need for Building a Drum Smoker

Building a drum smoker is relatively easy, but you’ll need some gear to get started. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • A cutting tool such as a reciprocating saw or angle grinder to cut the drum.
  • A drill with a bolt and nut to create air vents.
  • Extra materials such as grates, handles, and hooks to add to your smoker.
  • Research and learn about the best way to build your smoker before you start.

Getting the Right Tools: Cutting the Oil Drum Barrel for Your Smoker Project

Before tackling any project involving metal, it’s important to have the right tools. This means having the proper safety gear, including gloves, eye protection, and a mask to prevent inhaling any harmful particles.

The Cutting Process

Cutting an old oil drum barrel to create a smoker requires a few steps to ensure that it’s done properly and safely. Here’s what you need to know:

  • First, clean the inside of the barrel thoroughly to remove any residual oil or other substances.
  • Next, set up your cutting area in a well-ventilated space and let the barrel cool if it’s been sitting in the sun.
  • Use an angle grinder or saw to cut the barrel to the desired size. Repeat until you have all the pieces you need for your smoker project.
  • If you don’t have experience with welding, it’s best to hire a professional to weld the pieces together for you.

Preparing the Barrel for Cooking

Once you have your barrel cut and welded, it’s important to properly treat it to prevent rusting and ensure that it’s safe for cooking. Here’s what you need to do:

  • Clean the barrel thoroughly, both inside and out, to remove any debris or leftover metal shavings.
  • Season the inside of the barrel with a layer of cooking oil and heat it up to 250-300 degrees Fahrenheit for a few hours. Repeat this process a few times to create a protective coat on the inside of the barrel.
  • Let the barrel cool completely before using it for cooking.

Keeping Your Oil Drum Smoker Clean and Safe

When it comes to preparing your oil drum smoker for cooking, one of the most important steps is to clean it properly. Not only will this help prevent potential damage to the internal surface of the drum, but it will also ensure that any residual oil or other contaminants are removed before you start cooking your food. Here are some reasons why cleaning your oil drum is so important:

  • Residual oil or other contaminants can affect the taste and quality of your food
  • They can also release harmful chemicals when exposed to heat, which can be dangerous to your health
  • Failure to clean your oil drum properly can cause damage to the internal surface, which can affect the performance of your smoker in the long run

The Best Methods for Cleaning Your Oil Drum

Now that you know why it’s so important to clean your oil drum properly, let’s take a look at some of the best methods for doing so:

1. Burn off any residual oil: The first step in cleaning your oil drum is to burn off any residual oil or other contaminants. To do this, simply build a fire inside the drum and let it burn for approximately 2-3 hours. This will help to release any residual oil and heat the metal surface of the drum, making it easier to clean.

2. Sand the surface: Once the drum has cooled down, use a wire brush or sandpaper to smooth out any rough bits or surface rust. This will help to create a smooth surface that is easier to clean and will also prevent any potential damage to the internal surface of the drum.

3. Use a cleaning mixture: To ensure that your oil drum is completely clean, you may want to use a cleaning mixture. This can be a simple mixture of water and soap or a more specialized cleaning solution. Be sure to follow the instructions carefully and use the right type of cleaning solution for your particular drum.

4. Rinse and dry: After cleaning your oil drum, be sure to rinse it thoroughly with water and allow it to dry completely before putting it back into use. This will help to prevent any residual cleaning solution or water from affecting the taste or quality of your food.

Treating Your Oil Drum Barrel Smoker: A Crucial Step for Safety and Flavor

Before you start creating your oil drum smoker, you need to prepare the barrel properly. This means treating the inside of the barrel to prevent rusting and protect your food from contamination. Treating the drum is essentially seasoning it, just like you would with a cast iron skillet. It’s an important step that will help you achieve the best results when cooking with your new smoker.

The Process of Treating the Drum

Here are the steps you need to follow to treat your oil drum barrel smoker:

1. Clean the inside of the barrel: Use a wire brush or angle grinder to remove any rust or debris from the inside of the barrel. Make sure to wear safety gear like gloves and a mask while doing this.

2. Cut the barrel: Use a saw or angle grinder to cut the barrel to the desired size. If you don’t have experience with cutting metal, it’s best to hire a professional to do this step for you.

3. Set up the barrel for seasoning: Weld the barrel shut and drill holes for ventilation. You can also add legs or wheels to make it easier to move around.

4. Coat the inside of the barrel: Apply a layer of cooking oil or vegetable shortening to the inside of the barrel. This will help protect it from rusting and create a non-stick surface for cooking.

5. Heat the barrel: Build a fire inside the barrel and let it burn for several hours. The heat will help the oil penetrate the metal and create a protective layer.

6. Repeat the process: Let the barrel cool down and repeat steps 4 and 5 several times. This will ensure that the barrel is properly seasoned and ready for cooking.

The Tools You’ll Need

To treat your oil drum barrel smoker, you’ll need the following tools:

  • Wire brush or angle grinder
  • Saw or angle grinder (if cutting the barrel yourself)
  • Welding equipment (if welding the barrel shut)
  • Drill
  • Cooking oil or vegetable shortening
  • Firewood or charcoal

The Safety Precautions You Should Take

Treating your oil drum barrel smoker can be a dangerous project, so it’s important to take the following safety precautions:

  • Wear safety gear like gloves, a mask, and eye protection
  • Work in a well-ventilated area
  • Keep a fire extinguisher nearby
  • Don’t leave the fire unattended
  • Let the barrel cool down before handling it

Is a Drum Smoker the Right Choice for You?

If you’re someone who loves to spend time cooking and experimenting with different kinds of meat, a drum smoker is a great investment. With its vertical design, it allows for easy positioning of large cuts of meat, creating an impressive presence at any barbecue. The low and slow cooking time produces a natural and pronounced flavor that is hard to replicate with other cooking methods. Plus, the standard design of a drum smoker creates a direct heat source, which allows for faster cooking times and improved flavor.

For the Novice Barbecuer

If you’re new to the world of barbecue, a drum smoker is a great place to start. Unlike a typical barbecue grill, a drum smoker involves a little more set up and maintenance, but the benefits are worth it. The simple design allows for easy positioning of meat, and the built-in features make it easy to maintain the desired temperature. Plus, adding wood chunks directly to the coals creates a true barbecue flavor that is marked by the iconic smoky taste.

For the Pork Lover

If you’re someone who loves pulled pork (great smoker recipe here), a drum smoker is the perfect choice. The vertical design allows for easy positioning of a large pork shoulder, and the low and slow cooking time allows the meat to rest and become tender. The resulting pulled pork is juicy and flavorful, with a pronounced smoky taste that is hard to beat.

For the Busy Cook

If you’re someone who doesn’t have a lot of time to spend cooking, a drum smoker is a great investment. The low and slow cooking time allows for the meat to cook while you go about your day, and the built-in features make it easy to maintain the desired temperature. Plus, the resulting food is so good that it’s worth the time you do spend on it.

For the Budget-Conscious

If you’re someone who wants to improve their cooking without spending a lot of money, a drum smoker is a great investment. Unlike other types of smokers, drum smokers are relatively inexpensive and can be built or purchased for a fraction of the cost of other smokers. Plus, the resulting food is so good that it’s worth the little extra effort it takes to set up and maintain.

Answers to Common Questions About Oil Drum Barrel Smokers

The most common types of fuel used in oil drum smokers are charcoal and wood. Charcoal is a popular choice because it burns steadily and can be easily controlled by adjusting the air vents. Wood, on the other hand, adds a unique flavor to the food but requires more attention to keep the temperature steady. Some people also use gas or electrical coils, but these are less common and require a different type of smoker.

How do I choose the right size oil drum for my smoker?

The size of the oil drum you choose will depend on how much food you plan to cook at once. If you’re cooking for a large group, a big oil drum will be necessary. However, if you’re only cooking for a small family, a smaller oil drum will suffice. It’s also important to consider the amount of space you have available for the smoker.

Is it difficult to make an oil drum smoker?

Making an oil drum smoker is a simple process, but it does require some basic knowledge of metalworking. You’ll need to know how to cut and weld steel, as well as how to clean and treat the drum. If you’re not comfortable with these tasks, it may be better to buy a pre-made oil drum smoker.

Are oil drum smokers expensive?

The price of an oil drum smoker will depend on whether you buy a pre-made one or make one yourself. Pre-made oil drum smokers can be quite expensive, but making your own can save you a lot of money. However, you’ll need to purchase the necessary supplies, such as steel and cooking grates, which can also be expensive.

Where can I find recipes for oil drum smoker meals?

There are many websites and cookbooks that offer recipes specifically designed for oil drum smokers. Famous barbecue chefs like Aaron Franklin and Myron Mixon have also shared their own recipes and tips for cooking on oil drum smokers. A quick search online will yield many options to choose from.

Can I use an oil drum smoker as a grill?

While oil drum smokers can be used to grill food, they are primarily designed for smoking. If you’re looking for a grill, it’s better to buy a dedicated grill or barbecue.


So there you have it- everything you need to know about oil drum barrel smokers. They’re a great way to get started with smoking, and you can use them for grilling, too. They’re a great way to get the whole family involved in the cooking process, and they’re a lot of fun to build with friends. Plus, they’re a great way to get rid of those old oil drums!

Joost Nusselder, the founder of Lakeside Smokers is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with BBQ Smoking (& Japanese food!) at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.