I’ve always wanted a nice smoker. I think everyone should have one. The flavors you can achieve in meat through a long, low-temp smoke are unbeatable. Smokers can take even the cheapest meats and make them tender and flavorful. Sitting outside and drinking beer all day while managing the perfect smoke is an addictive experience in itself as well.
I don’t have the money right now to spend on a nice store-bought smoker so I began to look up some options to DIY. Because they are such simple devices, you can make a smoker out of almost anything. Some are uglier than others but all of them can get the job done if built properly. You can even make a super basic, primitive smoker out of just sticks and paracord.
The whiskey/wine barrel smoker build caught my eye since I have an old wine barrel from California. I used to use it as a kind of table in my living room. However, a smoker is a far tastier and more useful destiny for it.
I want this smoker to be part work of art and part highly-functional smoker. I’d like to use charcoal as the fuel source and I’d also like to have just one grate (for now) for food. I had ideas of making the grate height adjustable but I’ll save that for a potential improvement down the road.
First, a little wine barrel smoker 101.
To smoke things, you need smoke. If you wanted to you could just suspend your food high over a fire and you would eventually end up with some pretty delicious meat. But that’s not efficient. What the wine barrel does, and other smokers for that matter, is provide an enclosure for the heat and smoke so we can use as little fuel as possible. The better a smoker is sealed/insulated, the better food you will have, the less fuel you will use, and the less time you will waste. By the way, wine barrels work great for this! Many people say wine barrel smokers produce better barbecue than expensive store bought smokers.
You need air for your fuel to burn and produce smoke. The better you can control the air intake, the less of a struggle you will have when smoking food. That’s why for this build I used a ball valve.
Finally, you need some sort of fuel to burn. From everything I’ve read, regular Kingsford briquettes seem to be the most popular choice. They are said to burn the longest and most evenly due to their uniform shape and density. Some people opt for lump charcoal because it’s more natural. Just remember, lump charcoal is not uniform and size and density and will therefore result in less consistent temperatures.
You can use propane as fuel, but I’m not going to get into that here.
For more info on how barrel smokers work, check out this awesome barrel smoker FAQ.
Ok, on to the build:
The Parts and Tools
Note: Feel free to use other materials in place of these if you think they will work. Much of this stuff I used because I had it laying around. I ended up spending about $50 on parts and $50 on the barrel (in California) but I already had most of the air intake and charcoal basket parts. If you bought all the parts from the store and bought a used a barrel somewhere this would probably cost you about $250 – $300.
|1||Wood wine or whiskey barrel||Smoker enclosure|
|1||22.5" round grill grate||Setting food on|
|1||12"-24" round charcoal grate||Setting charcoal on|
|5'-6'||8"-12" wide aluminum mesh or expanded steel||Charcoal basket walls|
|1||Box of 3/4" self-drilling screws||Fastening hoops to barrel|
|1||Old charcoal grill cover or bottom half of tailgating grill||Ash tray/catch|
|4||8" carriage bolts, fender washers, and nuts||Legs of charcoal basket|
|20"||~14 gauge copper wire, stripped||Joining charcoal basket walls to charcoal grate|
|2'-3'||14 gauge steel wire||Handle of charcoal basket|
|4||2.5" L-brackets (also called corner brackets)||Food grate supports|
|1||Small can of exterior wood stain||Aesthetics|
|2||3/4" diameter steel pipe elbows||Air intake|
|2||3/4" diameter short steel pipe connectors/nipples||Air intake|
|2||3/4" diameter, ~12" long steel pipe connectors/nipples||Air intake|
|2||3/4" steel floor flanges||Air intake|
|4||3" bolts and nuts||Air intake - fastening flanges to barrel|
|1||3/4" ball valve||Air intake|
|1||Tube of silicone caulk||Sealing air intake|
|1||Handle for grill with nuts and bolts||Lid handle|
|3'-4'||Small diameter chain||Lid support when open|
|1||Rectangular door hinge, at least 3"||Lid hinge|
|1||Grill thermometer||Smoker air temperature readings|
|3"||Adjustable galvanized steel elbow or automobile exhaust tip||Aesthetics, rain blocker|
|1||1/2" expansion plug||Water/rain drainage|
- Drill, bits, 3″ hole saw
- Dremel and cutting disc
- Circular saw with ripping blade and rip guide
- Jigsaw with blade for wood (if not using hole saw)
- Wide painters tape
- Orbital sander and 60, 120, 180-grit sandpaper
Fastening the hoops to the barrel
Wine and whiskey barrel’s metal hoops are only attached to the actual barrel by brads (small nails). So if you cut the top off of a regular wine or whiskey barrel it will just fall apart and you probably won’t be able to get it back together again without swearing a lot. So, it’s important to fasten the hoops securely to the barrel. It’s easiest to use self-drilling (not self-tapping or self-piercing) screws. This way you don’t have to drill a million pilot holes first.
I’m going to be honest, this step is quite tedious and can take a couple hours so grab a beer. It’s best if you screw each metal hoop into each stave. You can get away with just doing a couple hoops but if you want the thing to last just do ‘em all. It’s important to remember here to not have the torque setting too high on the drill or it will strip the screws once they get into the wood. It works best if you finish the last turn or two by hand with a screwdriver/ratchet. I just eye-balled the center of each stave and placed the screw right in the middle of the hoop. I’ve seen people be more exact and measure everything out but unless you are way off, no one will notice.
Cutting off the top, hinging it and chaining it
Now that the barrel is secured together, you can cut the top off. I cut the top off of mine midway between the second and third hoop. This way the lid is deep enough to where you don’t have to reach way down into the barrel when placing the meat but it’s not cut down so far that the lid is super heavy. The best way to cut the top off evenly is to use a circular saw with a rip guide. You can use a jigsaw but good luck getting a straight, pretty cut.
First, tape halfway between the hoops where you will be cutting to reduce splintering. You will literally be cutting through the tape. Next, adjust the rip guide so that the blade is exactly halfway between the hoops. You can measure to find this point. This is important if you want your hinge to be even between the hoops.
Once you are ready to cut, place the barrel on its side. Use wedges or something similar to keep the barrel from rolling. Make sure you keep the blade depth at about 2” to make sure it cuts all the way through. Make a cut about a foot long, rotate the barrel, make a cut, rotate the barrel, and so on.
Remove the tape after the top is cut off. Then lightly sand the edges so you don’t get any slivers. Rinse out the barrel and the top with a hose. If you made any mistakes or gouges with the saw you can use wood filler to fix them. The wood filler I used was quite a bit lighter in color than the barrel so it’s pretty noticeable. But, it’s better than nothing. You definitely want to make sure the lid and barrel meet nice and tight so that smoke doesn’t leak out.
Now for the hinge. First, you want to bend down the edges of your hinge so that it contours nicely to the barrel. I just placed the hinge on the edge of a concrete floor and used a hammer. Make sure you don’t bend the barrel of the hinge or it will not open/close! All you need is a slight bend on the corners to match that of the wine barrel.
Next, take your hinge and trace it onto the barrel, making sure the barrel of the hinge (confusing I know) is directly over the seam of the lid and the wine barrel. This will ensure your lid operates properly.
When picking the location of your hinge, remember that the air intake valve will come out of the bunghole (hole in the middle of the wine barrel) so you want that to be off to the side when opening the lid. This is something I realized after I finished mine.
Most likely your hinge will overlap the hoops. No worries! Take your Dremel and cutting wheel and notch out the hoops for the hinge. Finally, screw the hinge to the barrel and make sure not to strip the screws.
To make the smoker easier to use, some chains should be added to hold the lid when open. I used some galvanized steel chain I had laying around and it worked perfectly. All I did was cut two even lengths and then screwed the end links in to the barrel and lid on each side. Here’s what it looks like:
The food grate and charcoal holder
Ideally, you want some space between the ash tray/catch and the charcoal basket. This will allow a place for your air intake to go as well as allow air to move around under the charcoals. To accomplish this, attach the 8” carriage bolts, nuts and washers to charcoal grate to create legs. Next, to create the walls of the charcoal basket, use the metal mesh and form into a circle slightly smaller than the diameter of the charcoal grate. To keep the mesh together, take a piece of the wire and weave it through both pieces at the seam. Overlap the mesh slightly for more strength.
You can also use smaller pieces of wire to attach the mesh walls to the charcoal grate.
Because I used the lid off of an old Weber grill for the ash tray, I just cut the handle off with a hack saw so it would lay flat on the bottom of the barrel.
In order to be able to add and light the charcoal to the basket outside of the barrel, you need to add a handle to the basket using the steel wire like so:
To hold up the food grate, fasten the 4 L-brackets approximately 7 inches below the underside of the lid. 7” seems to be the general consensus on the thickest cut of meat that you might smoke.
The air flow system
Now for the most important part of a wine barrel smoker, the air intake. Controlling the amount of air that enters the smoker is critical to controlling the temperature inside the smoker. Some people just drill holes near the bottom and use corks to control the air intake but I like to be more precise. This is most easily accomplished using a ball valve.
I also opted to utilize the bunghole for the location of the air coming into the barrel. I did this instead of drilling new holes so that I could minimize drilling and therefore minimize the potential amount of smoke/air leakage if I had to plug the bunghole. The downside to using the bunghole as the air intake is that it’s kind of high on the barrel. Ideally, you want the air to enter through the bottom, hit the underside of the coals, and get sucked up through the exhaust hole for the best efficiency.
To accomplish this, I used ¾” steel pipe to bring the air under the charcoals. Essentially, you make an L shape coming down from the bunghole using the pipe, elbows, and nipples. You want the outlet of the pipe to end somewhere near the middle and bottom of the barrel. The exact lengths of pipe needed depends on what you use for your ash tray. For the least amount of work, have the pipe go between the ash tray and charcoal grate. There is no need to tape or seal the threads for this application.
The floor flanges will be used to clamp the air intake securely to the barrel. For the best seal, make sure you sand down the areas a little where the flanges will go to make them flatter.
One thing I learned for the flanges is to use a drill bit that is one size larger than the bolts you are using. It is pretty tough to get the flanges on both sides of the barrel to line up without having a little wiggle room in the drilled holes.
Here, I would recommend using silicone (make sure it has a decent temp rating, mine was rated at 400 degrees F) between the outside of the barrel and the outside flange to make sure the only air coming into the barrel comes through the ball valve.
As far as the exhaust pipe goes, I used a 3″ adjustable galvanized steel elbow. This type of elbow would be used for an oven or dryer vent or similar but works great for this application. The handy thing about a 90 degree elbow is that it is tough for rain to get inside if it starts to rain during a smoke. If you want to change the look and make it straight when it’s not raining, all you have to do is twist the elbow.
To install, all you need to do is cut a 3″ circle on the top of the barrel. This can be accomplished with a hole saw (ideally) or jigsaw. The placement of the hole is up to you, but I’d place it near the edge of the barrel. If you are using a jigsaw, make sure you are able to cut the hole circle without bumping into the edge of the barrel.
To attach the exhaust pipe to the barrel, simply screw in two or three of the self-drilling screws through the exhaust and into the lid from the underside of the lid like so:
It really helps if you have a long extension for the drill to get a good angle with the screws. If you notice any gaps between the exhaust and lid you can gently tap the exhaust with a hammer to form it to the hole in the lid.
Staining, adding the handle and thermometers
On my smoker, I reused the handle off the grill lid that I used for the ash tray. All I did was drill a hole on each leg of the handle (it was welded to the old lid) and drill two holes in the barrel. I then fastened the handle to the barrel with a couple nuts and bolts.
I wanted to attain a natural look to my smoker but protect it at the same time, so I opted for a natural oak color stain. To prep for the stain, make sure you clean any dirt off the outside of the barrel, then sand it. I had to use a combination of an orbital sander and a sanding block to get between the hoops. To get a smooth finish, sand from 60-grit to at least 180-grit. Wipe the barrel down with a tack cloth, wet rag, or similar to remove dust particles. After cleaning, tape the hoops to make sure you don’t get stain on them. This is optional but I felt it helped me stain the barrel faster since I didn’t have to worry about getting stain on the hoops. Finally, apply the stain evenly according to the directions on the can. Two coats is sufficient for good protection. The stain I used had polyurethane added in but if your stain doesn’t, adding a coat of poly at the end will even better protect your smoker.
Eventually I will have a dedicated thermometer for the air temperature, but for now I just drilled a hole at the food grate level to stick the probe of my instant read thermometer in. As far as the meat thermometer, the best option is to use a wireless thermometer that you can leave in the meat while smoking. This allows you to open the lid as few times as possible which will result in more stable temperatures. With a wireless thermometer, you can also sit in a lawn chair and enjoy a beer while you smoke your meat!
Adding a way for water to drain out was not something I did initially. I didn’t think that much water would collect inside from being out in the rain and in the humid air. Boy was I wrong. After the first winter, even wrapped in tarps, I had a good 8″ of water in the bottom. Now you may be thinking that this would be good to keep the barrel hydrated, which it is, but it also created the perfect environment for mold to grow. Even after attempts to allow air to flow through the barrel when not in use, mold still grew. So adding a drain plug in the bottom was the solution I chose to go with. This way, I could leave the smoker uncovered all year round without the plug in and any collected water would drain out the bottom. No mold. The reason I have the plug is so I can re-hydrate it (see below) when I need to.
To add the drainage plug, all you need to do is drill a 1/2″ hole in the bottom of the barrel, preferably to the side and out of the way of the ash tray. Leave the hole open most of the time so that any collected rain water can drain. Then, insert your 1/2″ expansion plug and tighten when you need to re-hydrate the barrel.
Results and Air Flow Adjustment
After your wine barrel smoker is (at least functionally) complete you’ll want to do a test run or two to get to know your smoker. When I ran the first test run on mine, it came up to 200°F in about 30 minutes. I lit 6 coals in a charcoal chimney and added them on top of a small unlit pile in the smoker. I had the air intake wide open when it was warming up. After it reached around 250°F I had to close the ball valve completely for the temperature to steady out. After messing around for a bit, I realized that the smoker was getting quite a bit of air from a gap between the lid and the barrel near the hinge.
Eventually, I will add some fire-proof weather stripping between the lid and barrel. As a temporary solution, taping the gap up during smoking works just fine.
Really, the most important thing to remember is to catch the temperature on the way up, as it is much easier than overshooting and trying to bring the temp back down. When you are 20° – 30° away from your desired temp, start throttling down the ball valve, as it takes a few minutes for the smoker to respond. With a couple of test runs, you’ll learn how your smoker acts and be better able to predict its behavior when you’ve got meat on.
After smoking a chuck roast, a tri-tip roast, and thanksgiving turkey (below) to tender perfection, I can tell you without a doubt that this is now my favorite way to cook meat.
A wine barrel smoker is not without its maintenance. Wine barrels were made to hold wine for extended periods of time. Without liquid and with the addition of heat, the wood will dry up and shrink. This will eventually cause your wine barrel smoker to develop gaps between the staves and consequently allow too much air in and/or leak smoke. If you notice that your valve is all the way closed and your temps are still maintaining/rising when you’re smoking then it’s a good indication you need to re-hydrate your smoker.
Ideally, you should re-hydrate your smoker once every few uses especially if you live in a dry climate. If your barrel is unstained, you can soak it with a hose or leave it outside in the rain. Doing either of these two things may result in the outside of your barrel developing rust streaks and stains. The best option I’ve found is to remove everything from inside the smoker, insert the expansion plug into the drain hole, fill it up with water and leave it sit for a couple days. Then, remove the expansion plug to drain.
Some people opt to use a water tray when smoking, and this can actually help slow the dehydration of the barrel as well. Some people don’t think water trays do anything for smoking. I don’t think you need to use one but just make sure you occasionally re-hydrate the barrel by soaking it to keep it in good shape.
Lessons Learned and Future Improvements
Eventually I’ll make some improvements to this bad boy. Here are a couple things I want to do on this wine barrel smoker or on the next one that I build. Take these into consideration when making yours:
- Fire-proof weather stripping added between lid and barrel – For a better seal
- Adjustable grate height – Possibly by using shelving brackets
- Lid clamps/latches – For a better, tighter seal
- Bigger hinge – For a more stable lid
- Move lid hinge so ball valve is off to the side – Just so I don’t knock my knees on the ball valve when opening the lid
- Screws for flanges or wider bolt holes drilled – For ease of installation
- Way to fasten food grate to brackets – So grate can’t fall
I would love to see pics and answer any questions you may have about building a wine barrel smoker. It’s been a very rewarding experience and I’m super happy with how mine turned out. Happy smoking!
P.S. – for another sweet DIY project check out my guide on this DIY cold brew coffee maker.