Like throngs of others backyard bar-b-quer's, I wanted to get a bit more smoke flavor on my gas grill without purchasing a full on smoker. One day I'm sure I'll have a proper smoker, but for right now I'm simply just not at that scale or scope. To improve my situation in the mean time, I built a very simple wood chip tray that was custom sized to my Weber BBQ.
The easy to make, cost effective smoker tray that I bent into shape in minutes from some sheet metal serves my casual rib making needs very well and couldn't be simpler to use. While it's no custom full fledge meat smoker, it does make A LOT of smoke and help me turn out one of my favorite foods - BBQ ribs.
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Step 1: Design a Metal Tray
I measured my grill's width and the height between the flavor bars and grill grate and took those measurements to the shop.
The goal was to create a simple metal reusable tray that would hold wood chips above the bbq flame element in order to create smoke.
I used some old sheet metal to create the chip tray. Mark the dimensions of the box, in my case 20" wide x 4" deep x 1 1/2" tall. 1 1/2" is about the max height that the tray can be so that it still fits underneath the grill grates and 20" is the width of the interior of my grill.
The sheet metal will be folded up just like a cardboard box, so mark the bottom of the tray and the four walls. The four 1 1/2" corners that remain will be cut off.
Step 2: Jump Shear to Size
Take the sheet metal over to the jump shear and cut the metal down to the exterior dimensions. If you don't have a jump shear, a jig saw with a metal cutting blade works just fine.
Step 3: Remove Corners
Take the material over to the corner shear and remove the material in the four corners. This should be four 1 1/2" squares if your building your tray box to be the same size as mine.
Step 4: Sheet Metal Brake (Bender)
Once the sheet has been cut down to size and shape, use a metal bender to fold the box. Now the bender will only bend two opposing sides - adjacent sides are tough to do on metal benders, so bend the long sides on the bender and deal with the short sides in the next step.
Step 5: Bend Short Sides
The bending technique I used to fold the short sides into place is a bit crude - it's called a hammer and a steel block. I put a steel block onto the inside of the chip tray and a solid L shaped block of steel on the outside. This creates a form of sorts to shape the steel into place. Whack the interior block with a hammer and the bend is created.
With a little finesse it's actually a darn effective way to create the bend. While the bend wasn't quite as crisp as the metal brake bends in the previous step, it looks pretty much the same.
Step 6: Soak Wood Chips
Soak some wood smoker chips in water for a few hours. I'm using hickory in the picture above, but they do come in all varieties and flavors. Stick to something natural.
I'm using pretty small chips here. Bigger chunks of wood will definitely smoke for longer amounts of time, but the catch is that they don't fit inside the BBQ all that easily. Small chips it is.
Step 7: Fill Tray With Soaked Chips
Position the chip tray on top of one of the BBQ burners.
Drain the soaking wood chips and fill the chip tray.
I chose put the tray on the front burner (my BBQ has one in the front and one in the back).
Step 8: Replace Grill Grates
Put the grill grates back into position above the chip tray.
I bet you see where I'm going with this now...
Step 9: Low Indirect Heat
Ignite the BBQ turning on only the front burner. I wanted to smoke the ribs with indirect heat at a relatively low temperature (between (220 and 250 F) for several hours. Direct heat would burn the meat over such a long cook time, so igniting only the flame underneath the chip tray in the front is important.
I made the chip tray only 4" deep so that they're be plenty of room behind it for the ribs. I recently read that it's not great to put the meat directly on top of the smoking chips...I'm sure this warning is very much up for debate.
In about 20 minutes once the tray reaches temperature, you'll see the wood chips start to smoke. That's the cue for throwing on the meat.
Step 10: Smoke Meats
The ribs I put on the grill smoked for between 3 and 4 hours. The chips only smoke for around 1 hour since they are small and the tray is not all that big...it's no problem though, switching out the spent chips and replacing them with fresh ones is easy and takes only a few minutes.
Take the meat off the grill, remove the grates, dump the spent wood chips, fill with new chips, replace the grates, and finally, replace the ribs.
All in all I'd say that this approach is the best thing I've come up with to create a a poor man's smoker. After trying Mark Bitman's oven smoked ribs recipe, which I recreated on Instructables, attempting a version similar to what I've outline in this Instructable with disposable aluminum baking dishes and tin foil, and now this, I can definitely say that this DIY smoker method works the best.
I've got a ceramic bbq project slated for Spring 2013 which will hopefully provide me with a great backyard smoker/pizza oven/bbq grill, but until then, this works pretty darn good.