Drum vs offset smoker: how they differ & how to choose

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  May 31, 2022

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When you’re new to smoking, you might wonder what the difference is between a drum and an offset smoker.

Although they differ a lot, that’s not a strange question because they both look like drums. But they couldn’t be further apart!

In this article, I’ll take you through the exact differences so you’ll know once and for all using two of my favorite brands to illustrate.

Offset vs drum smoker

An offset smoker has a barrel-like cooking chamber with a firebox mounted horizontally so air can flow from firebox to cooking chamber underneath the meat back to the top whereas a drum smoker is an actual barrel drum in vertical position where the smoke flows straight from bottom to top.

Let me illustrate how they look with two of my favorite brands:

Smoker type Images
Best offset smoker: Char-Broil Oklahoma Joe’s Highland Offset Smoker Oklahoma Joe horizontal offset smoker
(view more images)
Best drum smoker: Pit Barrel Cooker Classic Package  Pit Barrel Cooker Classic Package
(view more images)

Differences between an offset and a drum smoker

Offset means that the firebox is mounted slightly lower than the cooking chamber. This way, smoke flows from beneath and the right to the chamber and rises up past the meat and out through the smokestack.

How horizontal offset smokers work

The drum barrel smoker doesn’t have this horizontal setup but instead uses the bottom of the barrel itself to start the fire and get the wood to smoke to let it rise up past the meat.

How to buy a bbq smoker video
How to buy a bbq smoker video

Let’s look at both in more detail:

Offset smoker

In general, when people think of BBQ smokers they picture an offset smoker. These smokers have two chambers separated by either a sliding door or a vent.

The main chamber is where you would place the meats and other food you want to smoke.

Offset smokers can also be used just like a regular charcoal grill when you just don’t feel like smoking up some food.

So to start smoking meats you’ll have to soak up the wood and charcoal, and place them in the offset chamber, close the lid and finally open the vent or door.

You can use the vent to control the amount of smoke on the main chamber, simply open or close it in order to decrease or increase it. There is also no heat in the main chamber which means you can place your water pan anywhere you want.

Offset smokers have a great advantage among all of the other types of smokers out there. Even though they can all help you create delicious meals, offset smokers feature different chambers for the smoke and the food.

This means that it’s pretty easy to add more wood or briquettes as needed, without having to open the main chamber where your meat is smoking.

Thus, you don’t need to worry about letting heat or humidity escape the chamber when it’s time to add more fuel. Additionally, you’re able to control the temperature much more effectively using an offset smoker than a regular charcoal smoker.

How to get the best offset smoker for you

You will need to take many factors into consideration when you consider getting an offset BBQ smoker. These are some of them:

  1. Consider your options since you can get a complete trailer smoker, racks for smoking jerky, front or bottom shelves, removable charcoal racks or drawers, extra grill grates or a counterweight on the lid.
  2. Check how well it’s made. Especially the welds, which need to be well-executed and strong. It must also have insulated handles for your safety so you don’t get burned using the smoker.
  3. Adding to the previous one, we have build quality. The BBQ smoker should be made from heavy gauge steel and have a wheeled base that looks and feels substantial and stable.
  4. Make sure the lids on the main chamber seal properly. Also, check the seal between both chambers to make sure it’s tight.
  5. Finally, check the warranty to make sure it matches the price. For example, stay away from $1000 offset smokers that only have a 1-year warranty.

Drum smokers (Orientation: Vertical)

Perhaps the more advantageous smoker compared to the other smokers in this list is the drum smoker AKA the ugly drum smoker (USD).

The classic drum smoker is just a steel drum that has racks to hang the meat for smoking.

You can actually create this smoker in your garage with just a couple of tools such as a blow torch, welding equipment, paint, and some other steel plates and 3mm diameter stainless steel rods for the grates.

But, I prefer the Pit Barrel Smoker Package because you can get a high-quality drum smoker and all the necessary accessories.

It takes minutes to assemble and you get a great drum smoker that actually works very well.

There is also a DIY (do-it-yourself) option where you can purchase a drum smoker kit and just assemble it once it’s delivered, or even purchase it fully assembled.

This blog post says that you can build your own drum smoker for only $133! How’s that for affordability?

How they work

The drum smoker is a type of vertical smoker. But it works fairly simply, and like other vertical smokers, it too follows the laws of physics and thermodynamics.

Basically, you burn charcoal at the bottom of the steel drum. This process produces the heat that smokes the meat.

The hot air escapes through a vent at the top of the drum. When the air rises, it also pulls in more air at a tiny vent in the bottom. 

Then there’s a firebox which is located at the center bottom as well. Next, there’s a water pan to moisturize the air that’s placed on top of the fire and heat diffuser.

There are 2 or more cooking racks in the midsection and on the upper part of it.

It also has an adjustable air dampener on the lid.

Typically drum smokers sold online or at your local store are sealed tight with insulating materials.

This is done in order to seal the heat in which has 2 main benefits:

  1. to conserve heat
  2. to use that heat to smoke the meat thoroughly.

Advantages

They’re cheap to acquire and even cheaper to build on your own.

They’re easy to operate, durable, and very reliable.

Disadvantages

The drum smoker as it appears seems to only have a few disadvantages. Unfortunately, like with most vertical smokers, the heat is lost every time you open the lid to check the meat.

They’re not easy to move around and are also susceptible to bad weather.

The insulation isn’t very good unless you buy a specially made drum.

Conclusion

Drum smokers are so popular because they are easy to set up and use and are a lot cheaper than a good offset smoker brand.

But offset smokers are a lot more versatile and might provide more of a challenge if you plan on smoking a lot and as a real hobby.

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.