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How To Build a Mini BBQ Smoker

January 28th, 2013

So there I was, having lunch with champion BBQ chef Harry Soo, in the hospitality tent of what is pretty much the Super Bowl of BBQ (the Kingsford Invitational). You know, just another day of sampling world class BBQ, no big whoop. Just kidding, it was a big whoop, it was an awesome weekend of hanging out with some of the most decorated BBQ competitors in the Nation!  During lunch one day, Harry started telling me about this new mini smoker he was using now to compete. Commonly referred to on the forums as a Mini Weber Smokey Mountain, this thing was small enough to fit in the trunk of a car and according to Harry, it cooked some mean barbecue. One of the reasons this really interested me is because I am going through my first midlife crisis (you get 3, FYI) and I just got rid of my truck and bought a sports car with a pretty much non-existent trunk. I can’t hook up one of my full size smokers without borrowing my wife’s grocery getter, so I had to build one of these minis that I could throw in the trunk!

I started my research and found that this was a pretty popular DIY project on the BBQ forums like the Virtual Weber BB forum. I’m not sure how I missed it, but I did, so I immediately started gathering the parts. I have now used my “Mini-Me” for the last few months, so I have learned a lot about the build. I can also say that this thing is awesome to cook with. I use this thing a lot more than my other DIY smoker, the Ugly Drum.  It is very efficient (burns very little coal) and is perfect for a rack or two of BBQ ribs, or a single pork butt. If you are like me, you only cook for a crowd a few times a year, so it is nice to have a small and portable smoker for smaller dinners. I’ll share what I have learned in the remainder of this article and give you direct links to buy all of the right parts in one shot on Amazon (the specific grill and grates are sometimes hard to find in local stores).  For less than $100, this is an awesome project.  Here is what you need from Amazon:
Weber Smokey Joe Gold Charcoal Grill $34.99
Vasconia 32-Quart Aluminum Steamer Pot $29.99
Weber Replacement Charcoal Grate $11.99
Weber Replacement Thermometer $14.77

The rest of the parts (local stores):
3 – 1/4″ by 1″ long bolts
3 – 1/4″ lock washers
3 – 1/4″ nuts
Aluminum pie pan (heat diffuser)

The Grill, Silver versus Gold Weber Smokey Joe
The Mini is made by combining a Weber Smokey Joe tailgate grill and an aluminum pot to give the meat a little height from the heat. The Smokey Joe comes in two models, Silver and Gold. You can find the Silver at most box stores, but I haven’t seen the Gold anywhere in my local stores at least. In my opinion, the Gold is a much better choice for this project. The main difference is that the Gold collects the ash in the bottom of the grill and has vent holes above the charcoal. The Silver lets the ash fall through the vent holes, which are located at the bottom. The problem with the Silver is that the vent holes tend to get clogged with ash during smoking. No worries with the Gold, so it is much more “set it and forget it”. There are many forum posts online from people that have build things out of coffee cans to keep the Silver from clogging, but why bother when the Gold does such a good job? I can also attest to the Gold being a great tailgating and camping grill. While the design of the Silver lets it get much hotter, I use the Gold for burgers, sausages and even filet mignon all of the time. Just trust me and buy the Gold, Amazon is the best place since I haven’t seen it in stores. Oh and the Gold has a carrying handle, which is really convenient.

The Pot
A 32 quart aluminum steamer pot is the perfect fit on the top of the Smokey Joe. Not all 32-quart steamer pots are the same though and you really need to be sure you get one that ensures a snug fit to control your temps. this pot on Amazon is a perfect fit and has the added bonus of a lip toward the bottom that allows you to rest a lower grate for a heat diffuser (pie pan in my case):

 

The Hardest Part
The hardest part of this whole project is cutting a hole in the bottom of the aluminum steamer pot. I finally bought a pair of tin snips and my hole is not really pretty, but it gets the job done (no one will see it anyway). I have heard other people used a hacksaw, but the tin snips seem to work the best for me. If you find a better way to cut the hole, make sure you share your tip with us to make this an easier project!  Oh and make sure you wear protective gloves, that metal is sharp!  I used a Dremmel to grind the edge afterward because I am accident prone anyway.

The Hardware and Diffuser
Ok, you have the pot and the grill, you are almost there!  All we need now are a few bolts to hold the cooking grate and an additional grate to hold a diffuser.  To hold the grate, buy 3 1/4″ x 1″ long bolts, with lock washers and nuts to secure them to the grill.  The cooking grate from the Smokey Joe will sit on the bolts. Now we need to diffuse the heat so the direct heat from the coals don’t burn our meat.  To hold the diffuser, we use a Weber charcoal replacement grate.  It fits perfectly on that lower lip of the aluminum pot and will hold our diffuser about 2 inches above the coals to the smoke can get around the diffuser and to the meat.  Some of the forums recommend using a clay or ceramic plate as a diffuser. I tried this and think it takes too long to heat up and is overkill for our purposes.  I now simply use a disposable aluminum pie pan.  Grab a whole pack, it is easier to just throw them away each time than to clean them.  No water necessary, in my experience.

Building the Mini Smoker
Finally, here are some step by step instructions to put this sucker together:

  1. Using tin snips or a hacksaw, cut a hole in the bottom of your aluminum pot.   You are going to want to leave about 2 inches of aluminum around the lip to give it some strength.  I first drill a large hole as a starting point and then use the tin snips to cut the hole.    This is the hardest part, so just get through it and remember that no one will see the bottom of the pot!
  2. Measure 4 inches from the top of the pot and drill your first 1/4″ hole for the grate support bolt.  Install the bolt using a lock washer and nut.
  3. Now to save you some math, cut a length of string 14 inches long.  Measure 14 inches around from your first bolt and drill and install your second bolt, maintaining the 4 inches below the top of the pot.  Repeat for the third and final support bolt.
  4. At this point, some people drill and install a grommet to install a thermometer at the level of the cooking grate.  I have found this unnecessary.  I just insert the thermometer through the vent holes on the lid.  The length of the thermometer is perfect to hang right above the cooking grate.  Saves me another drilling job and possible air leak.
  5. There is no step 5, you just built a mini smoker!

Cooking On the Mini Smoker
That was easy to build, right?  Now it is time to fire that sucker up!  I have found that a half of a Weber chimney starter full of briquettes is just enough to get the party started.  Fill the Smokey Joe grill with unlit charcoal, leaving an empty spot in the middle for the lit briquettes.  Once the half of chimney of lit briquettes has started to form ash on the top, pour them in to the middle of the unlit charcoal.  Place the pot containing both grates and pie pan on top of the charcoal grill and put the lid of the grill on top of the pot.  To start, crack the bottom vents about 1/4 open, the same with the lid vents.  Insert the thermometer in to the top of the lid vents and watch the temp for the first 10 minutes.  As it starts to climb above 200 degrees, close the bottom vents to a small slit and let that sit for another 15 minutes.  Your goal is to hold a steady 250 degrees for about 30 minutes before you put the meat on the grate.  Once you have achieved your temp, lift up the pot and place some wood chunks on top of the lit coals and then replace the pot.  Put your meat on the top grate and replace the lid.  Monitor the temperature by adjusting the bottom vents only.  You want to leave the top vents open about 1/4 of the way throughout cooking so that the smoke can escape (preventing that nasty stale smoke taste from the settling residue).

Once you fall in love with this little smokey, go crazy with the high temp paint to customize your aluminum pot.  Make sure you share photos of your project with us in comments!

 

     

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