How to Build a Cold Smoker

Take your culinary know-how to a new level by learning how to build a cold smoker at home by creating an aboveground or buried firebox.

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by AdobeStock/Илья Подопригоров

Take your culinary know-how to a new level by learning how to build a cold smoker at home by creating an aboveground or buried firebox.

Cold smoking is easier to manage than hot smoking because you don’t have to worry about maintaining a consistent temperature; in fact, you don’t even want heat from the fire to enter the smoking chamber — hence the name “cold smoking.” Once you’ve established a strong burn and a nice, steady stream of smoke, the process requires little attention.

However, building a cold smoker is a little more complicated than building a hot smoker, because you need to create two chambers: one that holds the food and smoke, and a separate chamber that holds the fire that generates the smoke. The two chambers must be connected to each other so the smoke can travel from one to the other while losing the heat of the fire.

The following instructions result in a smoker that’s great for making cold-smoked bacon, fish, sausage, and smaller pieces of cured meat. It calls for using a 55-gallon drum, but any number of other objects will work, as long as they can safely hold a fire over a long period of time, are food-safe, and can be vented to exhaust the smoke. I’ve seen people use old garbage cans, kegs, large pots, terra cotta planters, cast-iron wood-burning stoves, and even a simple hole in the ground for a firebox. One creative and simple solution I’ve seen is connecting two grills together with piping — one grill serves as the firebox, and the other as the smoke chamber.

Tools and Materials for Cold Smoker

  •  Power drill with 1/4-inch step bit
  •  Reciprocating saw with metal-cutting blade
  •  Metal file or metal grinder
  •  55-gallon steel drum with lid
  •  Paint, optional
  •  1-1/2-inch-long, 1/4-inch-diameter, 20 TPI bolts with lock washers and nuts (4)
  •  Standard gate pull handle with appropriate hardware
  •  Fireproof vessel (woodstove, steel drum, etc.)
  •  4 feet of 6-inch-diameter stovepipe
  •  6-inch-diameter stovepipe elbows (2)
  •  22-1/2-inch-diameter grill grate
  1. Prepare your drum. Remove any old paint or rust inhibitors from the drum. Once prepped, you can repaint the drum if desired. High-temperature paint isn’t necessary, as your drum will never reach a high heat in cold smoking.
  2. Drill holes for the cooking grate. Measure 7 inches down from the top of the drum. With the 1/4-inch step bit, drill four holes equally spaced around the drum, about 18 inches apart. Make sure the holes aren’t large enough for the bolt heads to slip through. Install the bolts from the outside so they stick out into the barrel. Fasten the bolts with nuts and washers. This is where you’ll eventually place the cooking grate.
  3. Cut a hole for the stovepipe. Flip the drum over so the closed end faces up. In the center of the bottom, mark a 6-inch-diameter circle. Drill a hole within the 6-inch circle, large enough to allow your reciprocating saw blade through. Using the reciprocating saw, cut out the 6-inch circle. This is where you’ll feed the stovepipe in. Make sure you can easily slide the stovepipe into the newly cut hole. If not, file or grind the edges of the hole until you can.
  4. Drill holes for venting and the handle. Measure 3 inches in from the edge of the lid and drill eight equally spaced, 3/4-inch-diameter holes around the lid, about 6-1/2 inches apart. Then, drill holes fitted to your gate pull handle, and install the handle on the lid.
  5. Choose a spot for your smoker, preferably where the grade is on an incline. Decide where you’re going to install your cold-smoke drum. The stovepipe should rise slightly as it goes from the firebox to the smoking chamber. Having a pitch on the stovepipe ensures that the smoke is pulled from the firebox into the chamber. Mark on the ground where you’ll put the smoking chamber, firebox, and pipe. There should be at least 4 feet between the firebox and the smoking chamber.

Once you have your smoking chamber prepped, there are two different methods of installation to choose from. Below are the steps for both a buried installation and an aboveground installation.

The Buried Firebox

fire box buried in the ground with a tube connecting it to a tall cylindrical…

If you want this smoker to be a permanent installation, you can bury some of the features, such as the stovepipe and firebox, in the ground.

  1. Dig a trench for the stovepipe. The trench should be wide enough to fit the 6-inch stovepipe, and should keep a 5- to 10-degree pitch going upward from the firebox to the smoking chamber. Ideally, the trench will rise 1 inch for every foot, creating a 5-degree angle. At this angle over a 4-foot run, the stovepipe will be 4 inches higher at the smoke chamber than at the firebox.
  2. Choose a firebox. Your firebox — the space where you burn the fuel to generate smoke — can be nothing more than a hole in the ground. If you decide to just dig a pit, make it about 2 feet deep and 18 inches in diameter. If you’d rather have a firebox less prone to flooding and erosion, however, use another steel drum, metal garbage can, cast-iron kettle, large terra cotta planter, or (one my favorite solutions) a small wood-burning stove. Whatever you use for the firebox, it needs to be able to connect to the stovepipe, and it should be enclosed or coverable so that the smoke is forced into the stovepipe and up into the smoking chamber. The firebox should also be level at its base. A piece of scrap metal or a large, flat stone will work well as a lid.
  3. Lay the stovepipe and smoking chamber. Lay the stovepipe so that it enters the firebox and reaches where you intend to place the smoking chamber. Attach the stovepipe elbows, with one elbow facing downward into the firebox and the other turned upward to where the smoking chamber will be. Carefully place the drum over the upward-pointing stovepipe, fitting the end of the stovepipe into the hole you previously cut on the bottom of the drum.
  4. Install the grate. Install the grill grate in the smoke chamber by placing it on the bolts.

Aboveground Installation Without Sloping Site

fire box buried in the ground with a tube connecting it to a tall cylindrical…

If you want the smoker to be a temporary installation, don’t feel like digging, or don’t have a place in your backyard with a suitable incline, you can install it aboveground. The basic principles of installing it in the ground still apply: The pipe should rise 1 inch for every foot, creating a 5-degree angle, so that over a 4-foot run, the pipe will be 4 inches higher at the smoke chamber than at the firebox. This design requires lifting the smoking chamber onto cinder blocks to achieve the proper stovepipe angle.

Racks of cooked meat

  1. Choose a firebox. A small cast-iron woodstove works well for this. These are relatively easy to find, inexpensive, designed to hold long-burning fires, and built to have the smoke piped out of them. Alternatively, you could use another steel drum, a metal garbage can, or anything that can hold a fire. Just remember that you’ll need to connect the stovepipe to the firebox, and that you’ll need to be able to cover the fire (if the firebox is open), forcing the smoke to travel into the stovepipe and up to the smoking chamber.
  2. Connect the stovepipe. Fit the stovepipe to the firebox, using one of the stovepipe elbows.
  3. Raise the smoking chamber. Calculate the height of the smoking chamber end of the stovepipe based on the required pitch. This is the height at which the bottom of the smoking chamber should sit. Prop up the smoking chamber to the calculated height, 4 feet away from the firebox. I use cinder blocks because they’re inexpensive and plentiful on my property. You can also build a wood frame or weld a metal frame. Be sure you don’t block the hole cut into the bottom of the smoking chamber.
  4. Connect the smoking chamber.
    Connect the smoking chamber to the firebox with the remaining stovepipe elbow.
  5. Install the grate. Install the grill grate in the smoke chamber by placing it on the four bolts.

Jake Levin is a butcher and charcuterie expert. This is excerpted with permission from his book Smokehouse Handbook (Storey Publishing), illustrations by Michael Gellatly, Order from the GRIT Store or by calling 800-234-3368.

From finding the right meat combination to mixing the ultimate flavor, this handbook is the perfect guide for smoking meat, fish, and vegetables. With detailed step-by-step photos that show the various techniques for smoking, a survey of smokers, and a wide range of recipes, the handbook will be the only reference you need to smoke delicious meat. 

  • Updated on Jun 22, 2022
  • Originally Published on Jan 22, 2021
Tagged with: cold smoker, cured meat, DIY, firebox, smoked fish
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