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How to build a grill out of a 55 gallon drum?

Building a 55 Gallon Drum barbecue was one of the most rewarding experiences I've had in a long time.  The picture doesn't look like much but I'll tell you that I'll stand my grill against grills costing 2 or $3,000 anytime and my barbecue will be far superior.  Below are my steps to creating this grill.  The dents and scars are what we call "character" and believe me my grill has a lot of "character".

I did a bit of welding back in my college days before putting on suits and ties.  Now I leave all the fun stuff to my brother who has incredible welding touch and aptitude.  He and I met to discuss the peculiarities of my proposed grill, such as 55 gallon drum, catch bin, enough space for charcoal, smoke stack, storage rack and side shelves, and of course the grill must be movable.

Being a welder he collected a nice 55 gallon drum from a near by oil plant.  This barrel was considered excess so total cost was $0.00.  Next we needed to select hardware, wheels, side rack features, hinges, a chain and piping for the stack. 

Most of the items needed were found at a local hardware store.  However, the stack was considered custom and needed to be hand welded.  First things first though, he needed to clean the barrel.  There were a couple of ways we could do this either by steaming it, scouring the inside or simply burning out all the inner materials. We chose to burn out the materials which served two purposes, one of the main being it would actually help pre-season my grill for extended use.  With that done and the barrel cooled we collected angle stock to form the side trays.  The stock ran 1-1/2 inches wide and would meet to form a 12 inch X 24 inch rectangle.  The inner material we selected was a cross hatched pattern that would allow loose material to fall through and also could be used to peg certain items like meat thermometers and utensils.

Our barrel measured approximately 24 inches in diameter and needed to be cut in half.  We got out the cutting saw and slowly but surely split the barrel.  We ran a grinder over the sharp edges then took more angle to form a closure on both sides of the barrel.  This would allow the barrel half to seat perfectly when the lid was shut.  Once that was done we formed the two side racks.  We waited to add them on until we had properly aligned the two sides of the barrels with hinges.  Since we added angle to the frame this worked well for seating hinges.  We knew the grill would get lots of use so we chose to weld the hinges in place which would help prevent loosening over time.  Now we needed to be able to provide a stop to the barrel which would prevent it from flipping over when open.  With our supplies from the hardware store we collected 12 inches of steel chain.  We measured the chain looking for the optimum opening angle which was about 90 degrees from the top of the flat steel angles on the bottom barrel.  Once that was done we knew we need to seat the barrel on a rolling platform.  The platform is made from ½ in tube steel on one side of the barrel and angle steel on the other end similar to our frame.  We chose the two because we wanted a set of smaller wheels on one side which we could turn.  The tube steel would allow us to seat and weld a set of casters into them.  On the other side we welded in two 5 inch wheels which we also bought at the hardware store.

To make the barrel usable we decided that the cooking grate would measure 34 inches high.  This would allow easy access while making sure it wasn't too low so that small children could get into.  We cut the tube and the steel angles first then welded in the wheels.  Following this we needed our rack on the bottom to hold it all together.  Again this was more cross hatched steel grating combined with our angle steel. 

Looking at the finished rack we then lifted the barrel into place and began welding all the angle with bead welds to ensure that we would not have loosening issues down the line.  Once welded it was time to add the side racks which we did.  We made note to cut in an access segment for the chain.  Since the chain wasn't going to land inside the barrel we needed a segment cut out of the cross hatched rack when we did.  Now came the tricky parts.  My barbecue has a side draft flow action, meaning the lid of the barrel came with one pour hole, we needed to add another hole for air movement and smoking when the lid was closed.  Early on we decided that we would take the original top making sure that hole would be on the bottom half barrel section.  As for the top section we cut in a 2-1/2 inch diameter hole about 2 inches from the top apex of the barrel.  We bought two sections of thin gauge steel pipe from a junk yard but knew we needed to curve the stack.  So we clamped the sections and heat treated them with a welding torch bending as needed.  This heat treating took some time so be prepared for that.  Last two things we did were to add a fluted collar on the top of the stack and weld the stack onto the barrel hole.

To complete the barrel my brother decided on two things, one, the addition of some wrought iron work on the bottom basket and two, the addition of a chromed handle for opening the grill.  The attachments and handle were also bought from the hardware store.  That finished the outside, now we had to decide on the inside grill grating.  After much discussion it was decided to put together a series of aluminum rods which we found at the recycling yard.  The rods would be attached by cross beam underneath with two above top handles for pickup and movement. The attachment method would allow easy clean up when necessary. Personally, I would have preferred a steel cross tray, but as they say, this was no hill to die on especially after we had come this far.  So, the grill plate was formed and matched up with the bottom barrel.  We did install some resting tabs for the tray which would help stop the tray from falling inward.  The catch tray at the bottom of the barrel was made from a flat steel plate with welded angle.  This increased the weight some but gave a sturdy containment system for the wood and charcoal.

With all that done it was time to give it a test run, but not before we had properly cleaned the grill and gave it a fresh coat of paint.  To paint we selected Rustoleum flat black.  We knew the grill would sit outside and would be subject to all kinds of conditions so a good weathering; rust resistant paint was the focus.  With the paint now dry we put in the trays, added some charcoal and started the fire.  This was a dry run so we put the grill grate on, seasoned it with oil and let the fire burn through for about 5 hours. All was going very well at this point.  Over the course of the 5 hour period I checked the temperature around the grill. I found the best way to check the grill temperature is to buy an oven temperature gauge which can be sat and left then moved when needed.  This gave me a pretty good idea of the hot and cool spots around the grill.  Adjustments were made to the top half of the grill tweaking the lid a bit.  The tweaking was done to ensure that gaps were properly closing when the lid was shut.  Once done the dry run continued. 

The true test came the next day after the grill cooled.  I removed the grill plate, cleared away the old charcoal and reloaded.  The briquettes were lit and the grill plate put back on.  Once the charcoal came to temperature I re-seasoned the grill with oil.  I brought out some baby back ribs which we seasoned the day before gently laying them on and closing the upper half of the grill.  Within minutes I could see the smoke rising from the grill funneling through the stack.  Within 15 minutes I checked the temperature of the meat. Everything looked very good and the color on the ribs were amazing so I monitored the cooking cycle through to completion.  The actual eating results were even more amazing.

All the work, effort and time were more than worth it.  I would do it again if I really needed another grill.  As for how much we spent, it was around $240.00.  The grill came out so well I've been aiming people at my brother for months to build their grills. 

Happy Grilling!


P.S. Some of you may say...hey Jake, your grill looks a little dirty...well that's because a really good grill gets USED! :-)

This product was added to our catalog on Monday 13 October, 2008.
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