Oil Drum Handicraft: Barrel Stoves, Barrel Heaters and Barrel Smokers

1 / 7
2 / 7
This diagram shows how to make a smoker from a used oil drum.
3 / 7
This diagram shows how to make a stove from a used oil drum.
4 / 7
Top left: An empty oil drum ready for conversion. Top middle: Drawing a reference line on the drum with a level. Top right: Measuring an 18" arc around the drum from the reference line.Bottom left: Removing the top of the oil drum with a hammer and chisel. Bottom middle:  A blazo can with the top removed, then wired in place. Bottom right: A completed Yukon stove.
5 / 7
Diagrams for an improvised water heater, barbecue, and oil tank  made from 55 gallon oil drums.
6 / 7
Left and center: Blazo boxes repurposed into a bedside table and storage shelves. Right: A valve installed on an oil drum.
7 / 7
Diagrams for a shower made from a Blazo can and a box trap for small game made from a Blazo box.

“You cheechakos have too much stuff to work with,” growled the old sourdough. “When I came to Alaska back in ’36, we didn’t have no fancy ‘lectric furnaces to heat our cabins. There weren’t no tubs for baths. We learned to use what we had . . . we didn’t throw nothin’ away.”

One look at the old-timer’s cabin confirmed his boast. He had built the house with logs from his homestead. The stove he used for cooking and heating was made from an old oil drum. A square Blazo gas can hung beside the building to serve as a shower. Everything had been made from whatever was on hand at the time.

The old fellow was wrong, though, when he took us for tenderfeet. My wife was born in Alaska, and I’ve lived here for six years. During my time in the “bush” I’ve made many of the objects the veteran was bragging about. I, too, have learned to improvise from what I can find, or modify what I have at minimum cost.

Like many residents of the North, I’ve found that the easiest and cheapest of all materials to recycle are 55-gallon drums, five-gallon (Blazo) gas cans and Blazo shipping crates. These versatile objects have been put to so many uses, in fact, that folks in these parts refer to the barrels as “tundra daisies” and to the boxes as “Alaskan lumber”.

Where do you get these handy articles? Well, some gas stations or garages will let used 55- or 30-gallon drums go for free. The bulk petroleum plants usually sell them for $10.00 or $15.00, depending on whether or not you buy the containers filled with fuel. It’s a good idea to do so . . . I’ve found that it’s usually much cheaper to purchase a barrel of gasoline from a wholesale distributor and siphon the fuel into my car than to stop at a service station each time my vehicle’s tank runs low.

The bulk plant also deals in “case gas”—two Blazo cans in a wooden crate—in the form of white gasoline, pearl kerosene or aviation fuel. Or, if you don’t need any of those products, garages usually have tins and boxes lying around that their operators sometimes give away.

The basic tools needed for working on drums are a sharp cold chisel and a heavy hammer. A welding set is indispensable, too, but can be rented. (Caution: Never weld or use a cutting torch on a barrel or gas can until the container has been thoroughly cleaned! Smart mechanics fill such tanks full of water before cutting or burning. Any remaining fuel can ignite and cause an explosion.)

A sturdy pair of tin snips is useful in converting Blazo cans. Other equipment for the projects I’ll describe includes a drill and good metal bits, hacksaw, vise, screwdrivers, wrenches, pipe flaring tool, file and pliers.

With the help of these supplies—and a little ingenuity—you can turn old fuel containers into a multitude of useful objects. The following are just a few of the possibilities.

Drum Smoker

Some of the best smoked fish I’ve ever eaten came from a smoker I fabricated from a 55-gallon drum. My improvised smokehouse isn’t so large that it takes a lot of work to make or operate, but is big enough to produce a good supply of cured meat.

If you’d like to make one of these home smokers, begin by cutting the top out of a drum with a cold chisel and hammer. This job won’t wear you out so quickly if you first pierce the inside rim of the barrel by cutting straight down. Then hold the tool at a 45-degree angle and work around the lid from the first cut. Clean the inside of the container after the end has been removed.

Next make the smoker’s base: a sheet of plywood that’s an inch and a quarter thick, about three feet square and has a six-inch hole in the center. This board can stand on legs like a table, or it can be partly sunk into a hillside (my own preference . . . good old Mother Earth seems to add a little extra flavor to the fish).

If you, too, favor my method, dig a level notch in the hill as wide as the plywood square and far enough into the slope that the hole in the base’s center rests on earth. About four feet downhill cut a similar niche in which a Blazo can will fit horizontally and end first. Then scoop out a four-inch-square groove in the ground from the rear of the lower ledge up to the opening in the smoker’s foundation. You can line the bottom of this trough with one continuous length of eighteen-inch-wide aluminum foil and roof the tunnel in the same way. Mud can be used to hold down the edges of the foil and seal in the smoke.

Now for the firebox. Cut the top out of a Blazo tin and hinge it back in place to serve as a door. In the bottom of the can open a five-inch square on three of its sides. Bend the flap back and set the box—on its side—in the earth, so that smoke will flow into the groove when you fire her up.

Your final construction job is a fish rack that stands inside the inverted drum. Make the framework from whatever comes handy and fit it out with three or four wire shelves small enough to fit inside the barrel (I used about 25 feet of one- by two-inch wood).

To operate your finished smoker, load the shelves in the upper chamber and make a smoky fire in the Blazo can. Avoid very resinous woods that produce an unpleasant flavor. If you feed the blaze with chips, dampen them slightly to make more fumes. You’ll need to experiment with curing times and temperatures until you get the results you like . . . check the meat every day or so and sneak a bite to see how the taste is coming. Or, if you really want to become an expert, pick up a book on smoking.

Yukon Stove

If you have access to a welding set and a little scrap iron, you can turn an oil drum into a great cooking stove and heating device for a small cabin or house.

First cut a 10-inch square out of one end of the barrel and use hinges or wire to fasten the metal back in place as a door. While you’re at it, drill two holes in the flap and loop wire through them to make a handle.

Now—if the stove is to be used for cooking—you must cut a section right out of the cylinder and replace the curved surface with a flat panel that will become the cooking “top”. Lay the drum on its side, hold a carpenter’s level along the barrel and draw a straight reference line from the door end down twothirds of the container’s length . . . or use the edge of a low table or similar object as a ruler.

With the help of a piece of string, measure 18 inches around the drum at the far end of the reference line, mark the surface along that curve and draw a second lengthwise line parallel to the first and a foot and a half away from it. The fourth side of your “rectangle” runs—not around the door end of the barrel—but straight across the upper part of the circle. Then, with a cutting torch, carefully remove the shape you’ve outlined.

Your stove will cook better and stay hot longer if you replace that cut-out section with a flat piece of one-quarter-inch iron plating that measures 16 by 22 inches. Weld this lid to the barrel and close the arched space at the back of the cooking area with an iron butt plate.

If you can’t get an iron cover, carefully cut the end semi-circle off the piece you removed from the drum and weld that segment in place as a butt plate. Then flatten the curved section of barrel wall, weld it over the open space and trim off the excess steel.

You’ll need an outlet for smoke, of course. Cut a five-inch hole in the rear third of the stove’s top and weld a six-inch stovepipe over the opening. Continue the chimney up through the roof or out the wall.

A metal frame can then be made to support the heating unit, or the barrel can be set in a sandbox. (Lay a sheet of asbestos between the sand and the floor . . . and use the same material to protect any wall that’s closer than 12 inches from the stove. These Yukon burners sometimes get red-hot.)

Obviously, if you need only a heater (and not a cooking surface), you can make one very simply by just cutting a door in one end of the drum and adding a stovepipe as described. You may find that the entrance must be propped open to allow the fire to draw air.

The most pleasurable use I’ve found for a drum heater is as the heart of a sauna. After sealing a small shed as best you can, construct a barrel stove in the middle of the building. Set that heat source in a bed of sand enclosed in a frame (I used 10-foot lengths of two- by four-inch wood) covered with chicken wire, and then fill the fenced space with rocks . . . but make sure the stones are hard, unstratified, and thoroughly dried so they won’t explode when heated.  

Get a brisk fire going in the stove and in about 30 minutes you’ll have one very hot sauna. Pour small amounts of water over the rocks to steam up the chamber. A Blazo can with the top cut out and the sharp edges hammered down does very well to hold the liquid, and the same container’s shipping crates make fine stools to sit on while you work up a sweat. For a real treat, build the Finnish bath next to a river or lake so you can rush out of the hot shed and jump into the cold water (or into the snow, as we do in Alaska).

Photo by Unsplash/Aleks Dorohovich

Drum Water Heater

One luxury I often miss when living in the “bush” is plenty of hot water for bathing, cooking, and washing. It’s a constant battle to keep enough on hand. One remedy for that shortage is to couple your drum stove with a hot water heater made of a fuel barrel and some used one-inch copper tubing.

Cut the top out of the drum with a cold chisel and hammer down the sharp edges. Now you need to make a heating unit from a length of coiled copper pipe attached at both ends to the outside of the tank. This arrangement must stand out far enough from the container’s wall to be pushed into the front of a stove or fireplace. (If your heat source is a homemade Yukon model, you can of course build the tubing into the firebox during construction.)

Bend the central portion of your length of pipe around some object about 12 inches in diameter, leaving straight sections at the ends long enough to fasten to the drum. Now drill two holes in the container—one near the bottom and one halfway up—just big enough to receive the tips of the tubing and braze the joints so they won’t leak.

A sturdy base should be built to support the drum at a height that will allow the bottom pipe to pass straight into the source of heat. The device works very simply: The hot water rises and causes the liquid to circulate, so you have a constant supply for household use. Just pour in cold water and let the stove-heater combination do the rest.

Stove Oil Tank

One of the most common sights in the North is a stove oil tank made from a drum. Such containers are inexpensive, easy to build, and can be used for any small oil stove or furnace.

In the top of the fuel barrel you’ll find two threaded holes, one large and one small. You’ll be using the bigger opening to fill the tank from time to time, and the other is the point where you’ll attach the connection to the stove.

At your local plumbing supply store, purchase a tank valve with a three-quarter-inch standard pipe thread (male) to fit the threads in the small hole of the drum. The other end of the valve should have a fitting for the size of tubing used on your stove or furnace. If you don’t have a pipe flaring tool to attach the gadget, ask the supplier for flareless fittings.

A strong support (I used two- by four-inch wood) should be built to hold the drum in a horizontal position at least three feet above the stove’s carburetor.

Other Uses for Drums

You can make an excellent culvert out of “tundra daisies” by cutting the tops and bottoms from the barrels and welding the cylinders together end to end.

Or—if you have several drums in good condition—you can easily use them for a boat dock, since they’re very buoyant and easy to work with. Just strap the empty containers together with angle iron and cover them with wooden planks.

And finally, cut a barrel in half lengthwise, weld a few metal rods across the opening and you’ll have a large, useful barbecue.

Blazo Cans

During the long, frigid winter months, one of the most trying of all human duties is the visit to that coldest of all man’s curses: the outhouse. Fortunately, there’s a solution for the not-so-brave adventurer.

Remove the top from a five-gallon Blazo can and drill two holes near and on opposite sides of the opening to take a wire carrying handle. Find an old toilet seat or cut an eight-inch hole in a piece of plywood that’s large enough to fit over the tin.

To prepare the toilet for use, fill the can three-quarters full of water and pour in about a quart of kerosene, stove oil, diesel fuel or the like . . . but not gasoline. There should be about one-fourth to one-half inch of fuel on top of the water.

This oily layer will prevent any odor (except its own) from escaping.

Blazo cans with the tops cut out also make great storage bins, garbage containers, water pails and dish-washing buckets. If you can get enough of them, the same tins will shingle your cabin roof if you cut out both ends of each can and flatten the remainder.

Then—after a sweaty afternoon of nailing squashed cans to your housetop—you’ll probably enjoy a refreshing bath . . . and you can easily make a five-gallon shower unit from (you guessed it) another Blazo container. Cut away the top of the tin and make the receptacle into a water bucket by adding a wire handle. Then see the local hardware store for a faucet with a one-half-inch standard pipe male-to-hose connection and a garden hand-sprinkler. Cut a hole in the wall of the container toward the bottom and bolt in the faucet with a retainer nut. Screw the sprinkler onto the tap, fill the can with hot water from your drum heater and enjoy your wash. You’ll find it much better than a sponge bath!

Blazo Boxes

I’ve found “Alaskan lumber” useful for cabin shelves, stools, tables, night stands, shop storage bins, sled boxes or whatever. Just paint the crates and use them as your heart desires.

Blazo boxes also come in handy if you want to trap birds or small animals like rabbits and squirrels. Make a set of notched rods and prop the case up with them. Then lay a trail of food that leads to the trip stick and—when an animal disturbs that “figure four” support—the crate will fall and catch him. Most critters can dig under the box’s edge to escape, however, so check your traps often.

Of course, the suggestions I’ve made for recycling fuel containers are just a beginning . . . the usefulness of these articles is limited only by your imagination. And such inventiveness is important these days. There are limits to what Mother Earth can give us, and we must learn to live within those bounds by reusing what we already have.

Price Lists

Note that these rates reflect 1973 prices in Alaska. Although prices in Alaska tend to be about 25 percent higher than those in the lower 48 states, inflation has probably driven them higher still.  

Fundamental Materials 

55-gallon drum: $10.00
Case gas (two sealed cans in a crate): $9.00
Rental of gas welder (weekly): $48.00       

Drum Oil Tank 

55-gallon drum: $10.00
Tank valve, 3/4″ standard to copper: $ 3.15
2″ x 4″ wood for stand: $10.00 
Total estimated cost: $23.15

Drum Smoker 

55-gallon drum: $10.00
Blazo can (used): $0.50
18″-wide, heavy-duty aluminum foil: $0.75
3′ x 3′ x 1/4″ plywood base: $2.00
Hickory chips for smoking: $1.59
25 feet 1″ x 2″ wood for smoking rack: $1.25
Nails and wire for smoking rack: $0.50
Total estimated cost: $16.59

Drum Barbecue 

55-gallon drum: $10.00
25″ metal rods (8): $4.00
Total estimated cost: $14.00

Blazo Toilet 

Blazo can (used): $0.50
Toilet stool: $2.50
Total estimated cost: $3.00

Yukon Stove 

55-gallon drum: $10.00
16″ x 28″ x 1/4″ iron plate: $14.00
6″ stovepipe, 24″ length: $1.90
Angle iron (1″ x 1″ x 1/8″ … 11′ @.50): $5.50
Total estimated cost: $31.40

Blazo Shower 

Blazo can (used): $0.50
Faucet with hose connection: $1.50
Retainer nut and washers: $0.25
Garden sprinkler: $1.95
Pulleys (2): $1.50
Rope, 50′: $1.00
Total estimated cost: $6.70

Box Trap   

Blazo can (used): $0.50
1/4″ x 1/2″ x 28″ stick: $0.50
Total estimated cost: $1.00

Water Heater 

55-gallon drum: $10.00
1″ flexible copper tubing, 10′ length: $15.00
24″ x 24″ x 3/4″ plywood base: $ 3.00
2″ x 4″ x 4′ wood: $ 0.75
Total estimated cost   $28.75