Reader projectSmoke it up

  • Reader projectSmoke it up
  • The hickory wood chips, pre-soaked in water, begin to smoke.
Date:31 July 2010 Tags:, , , , ,

One man converts a pedal waste bin into a smoker.
By Sean Woods

What you need

To get started on this project, you’ll need to visit a home and décor shop for a goodquality stainless steel pedal waste bin (avoid the flimsy, el cheapo designs). Alternatively, you might find a suitable bin at your local hardware store.

  • Stainless steel pedal waste bin. Estimated cost: R300 to R350
  • Round cake tin, diameter 228 mm. Cost: R21
  • 1 m of chicken wire. Cost: R40
  • 1 x 13 metre roll of 2 mm-diameter fencing wire. Cost: R40
  • 600 mm-long 8 mm-diameter threaded rod. Cost: R15
  • Lacquered wooden handle. Cost: R10
  • 3 x perforated plates (80 mm x 240 mm). Cost: R90
  • 7 x perforated plates (60 mm x 200 mm). Cost: R119
  • 4 x canopy clips. Cost: R50
  • 4 x connecting plates (to align lid). Cost: R20
  • 4 x 6 x 16 gutter bolts + washers and dome nuts. Cost: R10
  • 1 bag of 4 x 20 mm bolts and nuts. Cost: R10
  • 1 bag of 10 mm p20 washers. Cost: R10
  • 1 bag of 45 mm washers with an inner diameter of 10 mm. Cost: R30
  • 8 mm dome nut. Cost: R6
  • 1 bag of 10 mm x 100 mm bolts and nuts. Cost: R30

Total cost: about R800

Tools for the job

This smoker was purposely designed to be an easy build, and requires only a few basic tools.
Here's what Letherbarrow used:

  • Hand drill
  • 10 mm and 5 mm metal drill bits
  • Flat screwdrivers
  • Shifting spanner
  • Locking pliers
  • Hacksaw

John Letherbarrow is shamelessly addicted to hot stuff. In fact, unless his taste buds are on fi re and steam is issuing from his ears, he feels he hasn’t quite cracked it. So it hardly comes as a surprise to learn that he has a thing for chillies – the hotter and smokier, the better.

Having conjured up the perfect recipe for a killer (and we use the term advisedly) smoked-chilli sauce, the multi-talented Capetonian quickly realised that the only way he was going to secure a ready supply of the primary ingredient was to go the DIY route. More specifically, he would have to design and build his own smoker.

Letherbarrow started making chilli sauce about two years ago, using a recipe he found on the Tabasco Sauce Web site, but it was a tedious process that involved fermenting the chillies in oak barrels for three years. That wasn’t a practical option, so instead he cut the process down to six months, explaining: “It (the Tabasco version) tasted good but I wanted faster results, so I began to experiment.”

Much experimentation later, he found that if he smoked the chillies first, he could make his sauce in just 12 days. His method proved to have another advantage; he didn’t need to clutter his flat with small oak barrels. For fun, he bottles his fiery creation for distribution among his “clients” – appreciative relatives, colleagues and friends. Being a graphic artist by profession, he was in the happy position of being able to design his own label.

He gave it an amusing (if slightly rude) name that encompasses such disparate elements as the Inuit people, the human excretory system and an additive commonly used in automotive cooling systems. Says Letherbarrow: “I find, making chilli sauce quite therapeutic; it’s a fun hobby. But they say you can get addicted to the taste, so I suppose that could be part of it.”

Letherbarrow had a very clear idea of what his ideal smoker should be like. For starters, it had to be weatherproof, since it would live on the balcony of his flat, and sized to allow easy storage. It had to be capable of smoking up to 2 kg of chillies at a time, and shouldn’t cost too much. But most importantly, it had to smoke and partly cook at the same time, which meant that it needed a heat source.

He explains: “Fresh chillies are moist and have quite leathery skins. I found that they needed heat to dry them out and allow them to absorb an adequate amount of smoke. The combination of smoking and roasting also gives them a distinctive flavour that I find particularly pleasing.”

The only problem was that most commercially available smokers he came across were better suited to cold smoking, and one model that almost matched his criteria cost about R2 000 – way over his budget. “In a way, I was glad that I couldn’t find the smoker I wanted because it gave me the perfect excuse to tackle it as a DIY project.”

Because he didn’t own many tools, Letherbarrow was obliged to keep things simple. “My design required a fair bit of thought. I find that it’s often harder to come up with a simple solution than a complicated one. But eventually I came up with a good design that requires only a hand drill, a shifting spanner, locking pliers, hacksaw and a couple of flat screwdrivers to complete.”

He found a round stainless-steel pedal waste bin that suited his needs perfectly – that is, after a few modifications. Coming across a 228 mm-diameter cake tin, he realised that it could work rather well as a rack stand inside the smoker. For the rest, he simply “walked around a large hardware store to see what else I could use”.

Among the items he loaded into the shopping trolley were a 600 mm-long, 8 mm-diameter threaded steel rod, some chicken wire, a roll of 2 mm-diameter fencing wire, various sizes of flat perforated galvanised-steel brackets, four canopy clips, a bunch of differently sized nuts, bolts and washers, plus a lacquered wooden handle. (For a more complete component list, see “What you need”).

Related material:

* Video: Catch the smoker in action, as Letherbarrow cooks lunch for Popular Mechanics.
* Blog: Read Sean’s blog for more detail on how to convert a pedal waste bin into a smoker, including cool illustrations.

Making the smoker
Letherbarrow first removed the plastic inner bucket that lined the waste bin, dismantled the pedal mechanism, then attached four “guide plates” to the detached dustbin lid. This would allow him to guide it accurately into position when using his smoker. Four canopy clips ensured that the lid remained securely closed while the smoking process was underway.

Next, the wooden handle was attached to the lid, giving the smoker a distinctly classy look (and also, says Letherbarrow, to avoid him burning his hands every time he lifts the lid). He then drilled four holes around the base of the bin to feed air to the burner. “The trick is to admit just enough air to the coals so that they can burn, but without providing too much ventilation, which risks losing the smoke.”

Constructing the five (or six, depending on your needs) circular racks – made from fencing wire, chicken wire and the 60 x 200 mm flat perforated brackets – proved to be easy. First, he made a template by bending the fencing wire around the inside of the bin to make sure it was the right diameter. Next, he bent 10 strips of fencing wire into half-circles, using the template as a guide, leaving some excess wire at each end so they could be attached to the brackets later. Says Letherbarrow: “The wire was very easy to work with; all I needed was a pair of pliers.”

The bracket – essentially the rigid backbone of Letherbarrow’s ingeniously simple rack system – has a 10 mm hole drilled through it near one end; this is where the 8 mm-diameter threaded rod will pass through when the smoker is assembled. Two sections of the prepared fencing wire are attached to each end of the bracket, using the perforated holes already there to bolt them down tightly with washers. Once the load-bearing, circular frame is complete, the only job left is to attach the chicken wire.

The cake tin didn’t remain intact for long. Its lid ended up as a base, or rack stand. It also acted as a heat shield, preventing the chillies on the lowest level from burning because of their proximity to the coals. The tin itself was cut down and turned into a base to catch any falling charcoal fragments. A piece of its side wall was used to plug the void left in the bin after the lid-lifting mechanism was removed. To prevent any smoke from leaking past the edges, Letherbarrow improvised and used aluminium foil as a gasket.

The small, V-shaped burner is cleverly designed, yet so simple. It comprises three 80 mm x 240 mm perforated plates, one 90-degree bracket and five 10 x 100 mm bolts. Four of the bolts not only pull the entire unit together, but function as legs, too, preventing the burner from tipping over. The fifth bolt passes vertically through the centre of the corner bracket – its job is to hold the third plate (which acts as a grilling surface for the wet hickory wood chips) in place. Assembling it was a nobrainer: all Letherbarrow had to do was drill a few 10 mm holes through the plates and bracket so that the bolts would fit.

All five smoking racks, the lid and the base are attached to the threaded rod in exactly the same manner – with lots of 8 mm nuts and 45 mm washers. First, Letherbarrow cut the rod to the desired length, then he attached a flat bracket to the top of the rod so he could bolt it securely to the lid. Next, working from the lid down, he fixed each rack in place by sandwiching them tightly between two nuts and two large washers. Finally, to provide his smoker with a classy finish, he fitted dome nuts to all exposed bolt threads. He also used a brass plumbing fitting to disguise the hole left by the bin’s pedal.

Letherbarrow has used his smoker on about 10 occasions so far, and he’s very pleased with the results. “I’m keen on trying olives next. I’ve also heard of people smoking vegetables and then pickling them, and I’d like to give that a bash. You can smoke pretty much everything.”

If you want to make your own smoker and would like to contact John Letherbarrow for any advice, you can e-mail him at


Latest Issue :

May-June 2022