So far I had moderate success with smoking meat. But it definitely seemed like there was more chance involved than I would like. I talked to my buddy Hank over lunch and was telling me about some BBQ TV show that he used to watch and how all the guys made various modifications to their smokers. I liked the sound of that. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to bring my natural nerdy talents to BBQ. I think I started my Google hunt searching for "Brinkmann Smoke-N-Grill" or something similar. I quickly found that these smokers are called ECB smokers (El Cheapo Brinkmann) by the serious BBQ guys.
Then all it took was searching for "ECB Mods" to find this fantastic page on ECB modifications.
I ran to the hardware store and got some 1/4" all-thread, and various bolts nuts and washers and got to work trying to fix my ECB. The two main things you want to do are to 1) get the charcoal pan to stand on it's own so that you can easily get it in and out of the smoker and 2) get some holes in the charcoal pan and the top of the smoker so you can control airflow. Heck, even you don't have working vents just having the holes will help because some of the ash can fall through.
Another modification that you can do, that I'm not having much luck with, is to put a smaller grill inside of the charcoal pan so that the coals are up off of the bottom of the pan a little bit. This gives a space for the ash to fall through. I'll be damned, though, if I can find a grill that's the correct size to fit inside my charcoal pan.
Anyway, here's a picture of what I did with my charcoal pan and if you have an ECB you should definitely do something similar.
You'll notice that I rigged up a way to open and close the holes at the bottom of the pan. That's a cookie sheet that I cut in half. I'm not sure I'd recommend doing it that way. All I had was tin snips and let me tell you what, when you cut a cookie sheet with tin ships it does two terrible things. 1) Tiny razor sharp metal fragments fly everywhere and 2) The edge you are left with on the sheet is so sharp that you can cut yourself by just looking at it. If you go this route then wear heavy duty gloves. Also, when you are done, use a file or dremel tool or something to dull the edge.
I don't have a picture, for some reason, but the other thing I did was to drill a grouping of holes on the top of the smoker and I have a little circle of aluminium foil (from a pie sheet) that I can spin to cover the holes. Frankly, I would skip designing a cover for the holes. I literally never cover them. Here is my method.
If you google for "Minion Method" you will learn about a great way to use use water smokers. Here's the gist of how I do it with my smoker. First, I fill the charcoal pan just about as full as I can get it. I open the vent on the bottom of my pan to be wide open. Then make a little valley in the middle of the coals. You are going to fill this with about 15-20 red hot coals that you will want to start in a chimney starter. I then take my wood chips and place them about as close to the edge of the pan as I can. Then I put really hot water (boiling would be ideal, but I don't really want to navigate my toy-strewn floor with a big bowl of scalding water) in the water pan and set it in place in the smoker. While I'm doing this the smoker "shell", if you will (basically everything except for the stand-alone charcoal pan), is not yet on top of the hot coals. This way I can get everything prepped without a face-full of hot smoky air. After I get the water pan in place, I get my meat where I want it and the probes for my grill thermometer in place. Then I put the shell of the smoker on top of the charcoal pan and I cover the smoker with the lid. I have the holes I drilled in the lid uncovered but I do try and use aluminium foil to cover the gap between the lid and the smoker body. Then, I leave it alone.
Once the grill temperature gets to about 225F I will lift the shell of the smoker off of the charcoal pan and I will slide the vent to cover about 1/4 of the holes. Then I put the shell back over the coals and I shouldn't have to do much else for about 4-5 hours. I keep an eye on the temp, though, and if I notice that it's starting to drop to 200 or below I will take action. Since I don't have the coals up off the bottom of the charcoal pan, the ash from the burned coals starts to smother the fire after about 4-5 hours. But, I don't replace the coals yet, I can still usually get a few more hours out of them. Here's what I do. First, I get some serious freaking gloves on. I think they are welder's gloves, maybe? Anyway, then I remove the shell of the smoker to get access to the charcoal pan. Now, I open the vent on the charcoal pan all the way. Next I grab the sides of the charcoal pan and I literally shake it up and down. I'm trying to get all of the ash to fall through the holes so that the remaining charcoal can get more air and not be smothered.
Obviously, you'll want to be careful about where the hot sparks and ash are falling. I actually place my smoker inside of one of those metal fire pits. So all the ash and whatnot just falls into the firepit and I don't have to worry about setting my yard alight.
Anyway, once I have shaken enough ash out, I'll put the smoker shell back over the coals and I should be good to go for another 3 hours or so. If I'm smoking something like a brisket or pork butt then I will have to change out the coals. Here is what I do there. Using my chimney charcoal starter, I'll scoop out a bunch of the remaining hot coals and shake it a little bit so that the ash falls out. Then I set the chimney starter on my concrete deck and I dump the remaining ash (and random few coals) into another fire pit or chimenea or something. Then I basically start the whole process over again. That is to say, I full up the charcoal pan with new charcoal and I put the red hot coals back over the top and I'll put the smoker shell back on. I repeat this until my meat is done.
In the case of a brisket or pork butt, this can take 20+ hours. Be careful if you need to change out the charcoal in the wee hours. I once slipped on a patch of ice as I was holding a charcoal pan that still had a few hot coals in there. If I had fallen backwards then I could have really uglied up my face. Jeez... I think I'll stop here. This has turned into a novel.