If you are anything like me, you understand the simple truth that there is little in this world more delicious than hickory-smoked ribs. A barbecue grill isn't often expensive, but doesn't quite hold the smoke in to make really good smoked meat. Commercially available smokers are usually prohibitively expensive. Well fortunately you can make great smoked barbecue meat right in your own yard with minimal (or scavenged) materials and a little elbow grease!
For anyone curious, you can see how to make the actual breathtakingly good ribs over in this instructable right here.
Step 1: Gather Your Materials
The strength of this project is that you can manage to make it from things you probably have lying around your yard. The only thing I had to purchase for this was a bag of drainage rocks. Here are some things that every project will need.
1) A shovel
2) Something large to use as a lid (I used an old, cheap, rusted metal fire brazier) Pick something metal or maybe thick wood. Do NOT use a plastic garbage can lid.
3) Bricks - you can use some broken ones but you'll need a few clean straight ones for the top
4) drainage rocks - 0.5 cubic foot bag will likely suffice for a pit the size I'm showing you.
5) something to use as a grill-surface. I used the grill from an old rusted-though barbecue.
Optionally - if you live in a very dry climate, you might have to do some ground saturation and then you'll need some sort of large metal spike and a hammer.
Step 2: Pick Your Site.
You have to take a few things into consideration when picking a site for where you want to dig. If you are unsure of where your property's utility lines are, you should give your local utility and water concerns a call to make sure that you are safe. Here where I live this is as simple as calling 811.
Beyond potential catastrophe, you'll want to think about this - is the spot you are looking at away from things that are massively flammable? This bad boy will get VERY hot for a long period of time - best to keep away from any slab-foundation structures that could crack. You'll also want to keep it away from any high-traffic areas. You ARE digging a huge hole and having someone step in it and twist an ankle can ruin a weekend.
Step 3: Optional: Soften the Soil
I live in North Texas. In the middle of August, after a few weeks of 100 degree plus days, the ground tends to dry out the point where it's only slightly softer than stone. This is a problem when you are digging a hole. If you live in an area with a normal amount of moisture or sane temperatures, you can ignore this step entirely.
1) Soak the ground. Run your garden hose over the top of the soil for long enough to dampen a spot in the center of where you intend to dig. You do NOT want to turn your site into mud.
2) Drive a spike. Once the ground is a little soft, drive a spike into the ground for anywhere between six inches to a foot. I used a long iron rod and a hammer for this. After you are done, remove the spike
3) Irrigate. Put your garden hose in the hole and run water in it for a while.
4) Repeat. I advise driving at least three more holes around the edge of where you plan to dig.
Remember - your goal is to soften the earth, not turn the whole place into a mud pit.
Step 4: DIG!
Here's where you'll start sweating.
Get your shovel and start digging. At first you'll be eye-balling your measurements and your shapes of the hole, but you might want to have something on hand to use as a template for the size you want. I used a bicycle rim that is slightly smaller than my lid - or you can just use the lid you plan on using. You'll want something that's smaller so the lid doesn't fall in to your pit.
As for depth, You'll end up wanting about six inches from where your food will be sitting to the TOP of your fuel source. If you plan on using charcoal and soaked hickory chunks, you'll be able to dig a smaller pit than if you plan to use small logs. Keep in mind that you'll want an inch or so of drainage rock at the bottom as well.
Cook surface + fuel size ( four or five inches for logs, two or three inches for charcoal ) + an inch of drainage rocks + six inches = pit depth.
I wanted my pit to be able to handle large hunks of wood, so I dug mine to around a foot.
Step 5: Sore Up and Brick
Once you have your hole dug, you'll want to get it prepared for the bricks. The bricks will help the structure keep it's shape and prevent the pit from caving in. You'll want to sculpt the soil at the bottom of your pit into a slightly convex shape. Having the bottom bow out slightly will help the bricks stay in place while you get them set in.
Line all the bricks up with the holes pointing INSIDE of the pit. This will help the hole drain quicker when it fills up with water. Once you have the bricks in place, pat them in with a little soil to keep them from moving around. Make sure you get the soil in all the cracks and crevices around the back of the bricks too to keep them standing up straight.
I added another layer of bricks around the top of this as well. Make sure the arrangement you choose is able to support your cooking surface as well. I set the bricks in JUST right to where the four corners of my grill top will rest on the bricks and not fall in. Don't worry though, you will be able to adjust this - you can even adjust it after-the-fact with a little effort.
Step 6: Drainage Rocks.
Cover the bottom of your pit in landscaping drainage rocks. This will help your ash and detritus from fires soak down into the soil when it rains. This will also help keep the whole thing from turning into a gross pit of mud.
Step 7: Get Ready to Cook!
Double check that your cooking-surface fits on snug, your lid covers the pit more-or-less. You don't need it to be perfect - after all, you are literately cooking dinner in a hole in the ground.
Step 8: Starting a Fire.
Now that you have your pit dug and set up, You need to build a fire if you want to have dinner, right? However, a smoker fire is a little different than your ordinary bonfire. I'll share my trick to make a good low-heat high-smoke fire.
I get the charcoal started in a charcoal chimney starter to make sure that everything gets good and evenly hot. I find that using a chimney is far more efficient than using lighter fluid. If you need some hints on how to get this little device to work, head over to one of my other instructables
Step 9: Getting the Fire Going.
Once you have your charcoal hot, you'll want to add your wood. You can tell that the charcoal is good to go when it's white all the way around without any major black spots. Spread the hot charcoal all over the bottom of your pit and place a few logs over it.
You do NOT want to get this fire going too high, you want it to smolder. The trick to this is how you do the hickory wood chunks. Fill a large container with water and allow a few handfuls of hickory to soak in the water for about a half hour. Once your logs start to smolder, add the wet hickory to the pit. This will steam, this will sputter, and eventually, it will smoke. This is the goal. If you notice your logs starting to actually burn with an open flame, this will be a clue that your fire is getting TOO hot. Throw a handful of your wood-soak water on the flame to cool it down.
Step 10: Smoke and Cover
Once you start getting your fire going good, and you get a nice amount of smoke started, you'll want to cover your pit. Covering it will keep the fire smoldering as well, it keeps the embers from getting enough oxygen to burn very hotly, and will encourage that delicious delicious smoke.
Follow whatever recipe you want for whatever meat you want! You'll never want to use a standard style grill again.
Step 11: Bonus: Bonfire!
There's no reason you can't keep the lid off of this and just burn some logs as a bonfire that you and the family can gather around on cool nights, or keep a medium heat fire going and make burgers on the 4th of July. Once you have this pit dug, you'll be able to use it for all your fire-based needs.