Ugly Drum Smoker: A First Timer's Guide

Ugly Drum Smoker: A First Timer's Guide

So, you've constructed your very own ugly drum, DIY smoker?

That's wonderful! Accept our hearty welcome to this facet of food preparation. You're continuing a tradition of meat preparation that dates back to the time of the cavemen.

For the Smokin’ Ugly first-time meat smoker, starting on the path to mastering using an ugly drum smoking isn't one that necessarily comes easily. To be sure, it shouldn't. Smoking meat is an art. It takes plenty of practice, as well as some trial and error.

If you're a first-timer taking your drum smoker on its maiden voyage, you might be intimidated by all the various parts and pieces or confused about how to actually get your smoker up and running.

Take heart -- with a bit of preparation and some basic knowledge about what makes an ugly drum smoker work, you'll soon be smoking meats like a pro.

Ugly Drum Smoker 101 | Setting the Foundation for Meat Smoking Mastery

Though Van Gough had an acumen for painting, his early works weren't the masterpieces he became known for.

The same goes for the novice meat smoker. Odds are your first smoked meat -- be it a rack of ribs, a whole chicken, or beef brisket -- won't be your best effort. You'll need to work up to being the person with the smoker your friends tell their friends about.

Put simply, every successful smoker started somewhere. And like a master at any craft, having command over the basics of using an ugly drum DIY smoker set the stage for becoming a BBQ virtuoso.

To start off on the right foot as a first-timer, here are the essentials you should know about using your 55-gallon drum smoker:

  • Beyond the build: prepping your barrel
  • Coming to the table prepared: the supplies you'll need
  • Getting fired up: fuel source selection
  • Let it burn! getting your charcoal going
  • Getting up to temp & staying there
  • Bringing the smoke
  • Post smoke: being ready for next time

Beyond the Build: Prepping Your Barrell

With your ugly drum smoker built, it's not time to start smoking meats immediately. That's probably not the news you wanted to hear. Don't worry -- you'll be putting your drum smoker to good use soon enough.

After building your drum smoker, it's critical to continue readying your barrel for its first use.


By building a fire inside the barrel the same way you would when you're smoking meat.

This serves two important purposes:

  1. You'll burn off any paint or coatings inside the barrel that could ruin a great cut of meat.
  2. Much like a cast-iron skillet, you'll season the barrel. That means you'll get better flavoring for whatever you cook in it.

Coming to the Table Prepared: The Supplies You'll Need

After your smoker gets its first baptism by fire, it's time. Your makeshift BBQ smoker is ready to start tackling even the most ambitious of culinary projects.

But before you put meat to smoke, it's important to come to the table prepared. Nothing makes a smoke go south like being unequipped.

Your smoker toolkit should include:

  • Charcoal briquettes or lump charcoal (more on this later)
  • Wood chips/chunks
  • Grilling utensils -- tongs, fork, knife
  • Temperature gauge
  • Heat-resistant gloves
  • A fire starter (another thing we'll talk more about)
  • Seasonings
  • Paper towels
  • Aluminum foil
  • A table & cutting board

Does Your Ugly Barrel Smoker Have Everything it Needs?

Check out our ugly drum smoker kits and accessories.

Getting Fired Up: Fuel Source Selection

There are a few different types of charcoal that can be used in ugly drum smokers. The most common are lump charcoal and traditional charcoal briquettes.

Lump Charcoal

Made from natural hardwoods that have been burned, lump charcoal is a first-choice fuel source for pro-smokers. Resembling the pieces of burnt wood in a bonfire pit, lump charcoal burns hotter and cleaner than other types of charcoal. The result is meats with a more intense smoky flavor.

Traditional Charcoal Briquettes

Briquettes are made of the same material as lump charcoal, but they are compressed and have a chemical coating that helps them to burn more evenly.

While they're not the worst things to use for smoking meats, they do have their downsides. They burn more slowly and don't always have the intense flavor that comes with using lump charcoal. What's more, their coating can impart an off-flavor to a cut of meat.

Let it Burn! Getting Your Charcoal Going

Now that you're fully prepped and ready to start smoking, it's time to tackle the task of actually starting your smoker with its first fire.

A quick YouTube search will turn up plenty of tutorials showing the various ways you can start a fire in your drum smoker barrel. In our experience, the best way to get your charcoal burning is using a chimney charcoal starter.

Using a Chimney Charcoal Starter

To get your smoker's fuel going using a chimney charcoal starter:

  • Load your drum smoker's charcoal basket almost to capacity.
  • Put the chimney starter on the ground and add a few pieces of paper underneath it.
  • Fill the charcoal chimney about halfway with charcoal.
  • From beneath, light the paper and allow the fire to burn for about 5 minutes. By then, your charcoal should be glowing hot.
  • Carefully release the hot charcoal into your drum smoker to start the rest of your heat source.

Pro Tip:
While there are many ways to start your charcoal (lighting paper with a match or using an electric heat gun) there is one way you never should: with lighter fluid. A chemical, lighter fluid can impart an off-taste to your meat. It's also dangerous, as the fumes from the fluid can be toxic.

Getting Up to Temp & Staying There

It usually takes a bit for your drum smoker to get up to temperature. The key -- don't rush things. While there is an element of charcoal management you'll need to do, overwhelming the burn is the fastest way to inadvertently dampen the fire or increase its intensity. Remember: it's easier to go up in temperature than to go down.

Steadily burning charcoal is only half the equation for getting your drum smoker to the right temperature.

The other component? Air.

Nothing impacts a burn more than air, and smoking meats requires having adequate airflow.

In order to maintain airflow in a drum smoker, it's important to keep the vents clear of ash and debris. You may also need to periodically adjust the vents -- or even open the charcoal chute -- to ensure that the smoker is burning evenly. To an extent, it takes some fine-tuning to get the right amount of airflow.

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Bringing the Smoke

Once your temperature is where you need it, it's time to start literally smoking. You'll now add smoker pellets, wood chips, or chunks to the burn.

Hickory, mesquite, and applewood are among the most popular types of hardwood smoker pellets. For the beginner, these pellet varieties are a great place to start -- they pair well with most meats. However, each type of wood pellet is unique and imparts a different flavor profile to meat.


The classic hardwood for smoking, hickory boasts a strong, bold flavor that works well with beef and red meats. This strong smoke works especially well when paired with beef or red meats, as it enhances their natural umami flavors while also adding a smoky note.


Mesquite has a more intense flavor. It works especially well with meats that are low in fat, such as fish and poultry, as it brings out the natural flavors in these foods without overwhelming them.


Applewood is milder in flavor, so it works well with pork and milder meats like chicken or turkey. The sweet, fruity flavor of this wood gives these foods a subtle smokey note without overpowering them.

In addition to creating smoke, adding pellets to a meat smoker when cooking helps maintain temperature -- something can't be smoking if it's not burning. You should add pellets at the beginning of the cooking process and then add more as needed throughout. As a general rule, you will need to add about one cup of pellets for every 50 pounds of meat in your smoker. Make sure to add pellets slowly so they do not clump together.

Post Smoke: Being Ready for Next Time

One of the most important parts of a meat-smoking session is making sure you're ready for the next.

To that end, it's important to take a few minutes after the coals are out and the smoker is cool to prep for your next use. That involves:

  • Cleaning the grate with mild soap and water
  • Scraping out ash
  • Removing and disposing of any spent pellets and charcoal
  • Covering the smoker or moving it indoors & out of the elements

As a pro-in-the-making, take a few minutes to document your experience, noting things such as:

  • What temperature you reached and stayed at
  • Any struggles or successes
  • Where your vents were and how much airflow you had
  • Which type of wood pellet you used

Ugly Drum Smokers | An Ongoing Education

Even the most seasoned meat-smoking pros have an incomplete education.

Like them, you'll always be learning. The world of smoked meats is wide and complex. It also has plenty of room for experimentation.

With a foundation you'll start building during your first foray into smoked meats, you'll continue to learn and perfect your skills with each subsequent meat-smoking experience.

Need a Recipe to Start With?

Download our Smokin' Ugly Cookbook:


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