Budget Smoker Project - JDONATHAN.COM
Picnic roast smoked on the grill with fat cap visible on top.
I've been grilling for years, and have always loved it, but recently I've found myself more and more preferring, long, low-and-slow, indirect heat cooking, and even more recently have found myself wanting to actually smoke my meats.  After doing a pork picnic shoulder for the first time a few weeks ago I was fully hooked.  It was a 12-14 hour project, which gave me plenty of time to make my own home-made potato salad and a couple of barbecue sauces (a mustard and vinegar based, spicy South Carolina style, and a thin, tangy, St. Louis style for those who don't appreciate the heat).  It was a blast, and I had a great time serving it to family and friends.  But it was also a pain, because I did it on my Char-Broil gas grill, using ultra low settings and aluminum pans of wood chips.  Not ideal.  

The meat came out delicious, smoky, and falling off the bone; but keeping the temperature low and steady, and keeping the wood smoking was a constant chore.  So I decided then I need to get my hands on a smoker, the only problem being that the budget isn't exactly brimming with play money.  So I started watching Cragislist and Freecycle.  At the same time I started doing some further research and after initially thinking that I really wanted one of those cool looking big offset smokers I came to the conclusion that in my price-range those were not the way to go.  (This guy was really helpful in convincing me of this and also just helping me get my bearings on what I was looking for.)  So I started looking for a vertical water smoker (i.e. a smoker that has the fire directly below the meat with a pan of liquid above it to moderate the temperature and keep the meat moist.  

Eventually I found what you see below for a steal.  It's a nearly brand new Char-Broil H2O smoker (though missing the decal).  This is a budget smoker, big time.  But not to worry, I had already planned to modify whatever I found.  Many thanks to ~day_trippr for steering me in the right direction with his detailed modification plans from his Brinkmann Gourmet project.  Due to a lack of skill, patience, and tools, my finished product isn't nearly as pretty or professional looking as his, but his ideas and experience were invaluable.

The first thing I did is what everyone will tell you to do first.  I added a real thermometer.  The one that comes on the smoker is kind of a joke, with no degree markers, just zones for cool, ideal, and hot.  The new thermometer you see pictured below is not the one that ended up on the grill, because after installing it I read several negative reviews regarding it's accuracy and I wasn't really satisfied with the temperature markings anyway.  It went up to 700° which meant that the range I'd be working with (200-250) was very small and hard to read.  So, after finding a much better one, with a 400° range, handy color coding, and a 2 1/2" stem (longer than the original one) for about the same price (~$10) at Cabella's I returned this one to Home Depot and replaced it.  As you can see I mounted it just below the top rack, which I think will give me a fairly accurate read for both racks.  I decided to leave the original in place as removing it would just leave me with about a 2" inch hole to fill.

The next step was a little trickier, and one that I was a little more hesitant about.  Nevertheless I couldn't see having no exhaust control, so I forged on.  After several failed attempts, and probably my first use of a compass since 7th grade geometry, I fabricated an exhaust damper out of a $.65 aluminum shingle, with three 1" holes in it.  It was originally supposed to have three tabs, but I cut one off in the process : ).  I then used that to mark the holes on the lid, and using the same 1" hole saw bored the exhaust holes themselves.  From there it was just a matter of drilling my center hole, working the aluminum into a slight dome shape to fit the curvature of the lid, and attaching it with a stainless steel bolt.  I will say that after the initial design, molding the piece to fit that curvature was the most difficult part.  It's still not perfect, but it fits fairly snug when the exhaust is fully closed and it's not going to be often that I'm going to need a completely tight exhaust seal, other than if I'm just trying to shut the fire down after a smoke.  Plus, I can always take it off and work it a little more to try to get a better seat on the lid.
The final few steps are where I really lucked out.  The original smoker had no sealed bottom pan, just a fire pan at the bottom with a good 1-2" gap all the way around.  I really wanted to find a way to seal that area off and then add dampers so that I could easily control airflow to the fire, and thus temperature.  Well, as I said I lucked out.  As it turns out, just like with the Brinkmanns (the Smoke 'n Grill and the Gourmet) there is an upgraded model of this same smoker, the Char-Broil Deluxe H2O, that comes equipped with a sealed bottom pan, and I found a guy willing to practically give one away that was a little more heavily used, but still in operable condition (see the first picture below).  So not only did I get my bottom pan, but I got a whole slew of spare parts to mix and match as things wear out.  

After getting it home I set to work cleaning up the parts I needed and prepping my modifications.  The first order of business was to take the legs off of my original unit so that it could be seated on the new pan.  That was easy enough. 

The bottom pan on the deluxe model comes from the factory with three 2" holes in the bottom, but again, no way to regulate the air flow.  So I took my trusty aluminum shingles and cut out three tab type dampers, molded them to fit the curvature of the bottom pan, drilled my holes and attached them with over-sized washers on the inside to avoid pulling out of the soft, slightly rusted metal.  Then I bent the ends over and voila!, dampers.  I made a small mark with a sharpie to indicate, fully closed, but at some point, I'll probably go over that with white paint and make a few more for half and full open.  

Next, I put three small bolts through the sides of the inner fire pan about 1 1/2 - 2" inches from the bottom to stabilize an 11" grate that I picked up from Ace the other day (~$10).  This will keep the coals off of the bottom of the pan and allow the ash to fall through so that the fire doesn't smother itself as it burns down.  Then I took my largest metal bit, a 3/8" and drilled 9 holes around the sides of the pan, just above the level of the grate, and 5 in the bottom to allow air flow around the base of the coals and wood.  I may need to add more, but I figured I'd start with this and see how I do keeping my temps where I want them.  You can always drill more holes.  

Finally, because the deluxe model is literally made from the same parts, just with a few extras I was able to move the tabs that hold the grates and water pan in place around, and add the bolts from the older smoker that allow you to lock the body onto the base pan at the botom.  This gave me my locking bolts, tabs for the water pan, and two grates for smoking meat.  I may at some point add another set of bolts to allow for three racks of meat and/or greater flexibility in the height level at which I place different meats, but for now I think this will work.  
So, there you have it.  This is the finished product except for one minor modification I still have planned, and one that I've considered, but I'm not sure is necessary.  I've got a flat oven gasket from Rultand Inc. ordered that I'm going to put around the lid just below the lip to seal off the gaps between lid and body (the body is not perfectly round, especially at the joint), so that I can have full control of the exhaust via the damper on the lid.  If there is enough of the high temp sealant leftover I may use a little around the inside of the door as well.

The second modification that I'm not sure is necessary, but I may do just for grins, is to remove the side handles from the leftover smoker and add them to the base pan.  This would allow you to easily pick up and move the base pan even while it was hot.  I'm not sure how necessary that would be, but it might be nice to have the option.
It's been a fun little project and I'm hoping to burn a good hot empty fire in the morning just to condition it a bit (can't promise I won't throw some sausages on) and then give it a test run with a bunch of chicken legs.  If all goes well I'm hoping to do another pork shoulder/picnic roast soon.  Happy barbecuing!
2/6/2013 23:09:44

All prices should mark them to be visible

3/16/2013 11:16:47

This is a really good read for me, Must admit that you are one of the best bloggers I ever saw.Thanks for posting this informative article.

6/30/2013 22:22:27

An awesome do it yourself project. I will definitely try this. But, this will be a bit costly, right? Can you specify the cost of the things you have used in making this Budget Smoker? It will be so much helpful for those who wish to make this!

3/25/2014 21:45:39

I have a presentation next week,and I am on the look for such information.

6/12/2014 16:21:00

I had already planned to modify whatever I found. Many thanks to ~day_trippr for steering me in the right direction with his detailed modification plans from his Brinkmann Gourmet project. Due to a lack of skill, patience, and tools, my finished product isn't nearly as pretty or professional looking as his, but his ideas and experience were invaluable.


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