WSMC Overhaul

Discussion in 'Charcoal Smokers' started by i is a moose, Apr 27, 2012.

  1. I've been playing with my 22.5 inch WSM for a year now, and as much as I love it, I've also noticed some areas for improvement. I still feel that it's just about the best off-the-shelf charcoal smoker money can buy, but there are some places where "tweaking" is in order. Additionally, I've taken this opportunity to get my hands on a Barbecue Guru to make longer smokes a little less of a source of insomnia.

    This is my agenda for the overhaul:

    1. Find a better heat sink.

    I've never been happy with using the water pan, it's my personal belief that I don't want to add more moisture than necessary to the cook chamber. I've tried using play sand, which was a maintenance nightmare, so I think I need to look further outside the box.

    2 Find a way to "retain" the heat sink better.

    I've had many a good fire get snuffed out before its time because my water pan has slipped from the hooks and plopped onto my coals. There has to be a better way.

    3. Improve the sealing around the lip of the lid.

    I always see some smoke escaping from this, it's a constant source of consternation for me.

    4. Improve how the side hatch seals against the body of the smoker. Same as the lid, the side hatch loses smoke pretty fast.

    5. Accomodate thermometers.

    I want dedicated ports in the side of the smoker for all my various probes and sensors to pass through that won't interfere with the lid.

    6. Modify the smoker to properly accept my controller unit.

    No sir, I don't like using foil or duct tape when true repairs can be made with a little extra effort. Not one bit.

    So, read on as I build a better Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker.
    Last edited: Apr 27, 2012
  2. As I've mentioned, I've had water pan issues. I feel that the evaporating water interferes with the really nice, bacony bark I've gotten on dry smokes; but I don't want to just discard it, because I'd like to keep some kind of a baffle in there to retain indirect heat. Additionally, some insulation is nice to help the chamber temps bounce back when there are openings of the doors.

    So for this matter, I've found an 18" Terra Cotta water tray for a large flower pot:


    Pretty. 17 bucks with tax from my locally-owned harware store.

    I grabbed a framing square and a pencil, and got to work marking it off:


    And then drilling along the dotten lines with a ceramic bit:


    The reason for the holes is to allow some direct heat through, but also to increase the surface area of the insulator, so air can exchange across it better, transferring heat more efficiently. Essentially these holes will not only help allow better air and smoke circulation, but will also allow it to both heat up and cool down more efficiently so it's a heat sink that's more adaptive.

    While I was there, I pulled out the internal side-braces that hold the racks and the heat sink, and drilled the bottom ends with a 1/8" cobalt drill bit.


    Bolting them back up, I spanned bailing wire across from them to create a safety mesh:


    This will help to better retain the heat sink. I would get pretty pissed off when those little hooks would heat up, and warp out of spec slightly on a long smoke, dropping the water pan onto the coals. This was soemthing I've always wanted to do, and I'm glad I've finally gotten to it. It's worth mentioning that, should you choose to do this, you'd be best off running the wire loosely at first, then adjusting it with the water pan in place so it'll sit snug, but not force it too far up.

    And here's everything put back together:

  3. In the last pic, you got a preview of my attempt at sealing up the lip of the smoker.


    What I did was grab several tubes of high-temp RTV Silicone sealant, rated to 900 degrees, and spread it on both the shoulder that the lid seats on, as shown, and on the lip of the smoker as well. I've chosen silicone because it's inert once set, heat stable, and won't gas off when its compeltely dry.

    I used a putty knife to spread this on thin to mkae sure it didn't interfere with the physical opening and closing of the lid

    While I was there, I drilled some holes into the aluminum  side hatch of the smoker.


    I've chosen to drill here because, as an owner of vintage Toyotas, I know that rust never sleeps, and if I were to drill into the steel body of the smoker, I'd end up with swiss cheese pretty soon.

    I passed a set of pipe nipples through these holes, and sealed around them with more RTV.


    With that done, I sanded the soot from the back of the hatch in a border about two inches deep from the edge back.

    Looking back, I should have done this prior to the nipples, but that's just how the story goes.


    and more RTV goes on:


    I again spread this pretty thin, but forgot to snap a shot. I'll have to fix this later.
  4. Now, this is the really ridiculous part of the overhaul.

    I've chosen to buy a BBQ Guru NanoQ because it's the simplest of the three options. It has no screens, no programs, and no real frills to it, it just reds the temps, and pumps the air. I like it for that, my lifelong motto is "Keep it simple, stupid", and I think that this is about as simple as any controller can be without scrificing quality.

    What's ridiculous is that I'm somewhat of a perfectionist. My father's an electrician, and I grew up chasing wire with him alot on the job site. He's an old-timer "do it right the first time" kind of a guy, and I found the BBQ Guru's methods of install to not be 100% in keeping with that. Slapping tape onto something isntead of properly fixing it or properly installing it is for hacks. I knew that if I followed the standard directions, Dad would disown me.

    So, I scrounged around and got my hands on three K/O Seals.


    What these things do is replace any removed knockouts from the backs of electrical boxes. They keep rats and mice out of the boxes so they don't build nests and start fires. the're phenominally handy for just about anything, too. I've used them to block up empty button holes one the chasses of computers I've made, blocked holes in car firewalls, and now plugged up smoker vents. A genuine multitasker!

    Using a cobalt drill bit, I drilled out the back of the retaining rivet that holds the vent plate in place:


    Applied more RTV to make sure that seal was as airtight as possible:




    Repeating the process as two more times, I finsihed the operation with a single nut and bolt, two washers, and a lock washer to seal the rivet hole:


    The Weber adapter mated up snugly without any need for tape on either side to enhance the seal:

  5. Looking forward to more on this and to find out how everything is performing!  Thanks!!

  6. I allowed four days for the silicone to cure. I didn't want it gassing off while I was trying to cook, so I gave it the maximum of time to cure.

    After four days, I did a dry run, just an attempt to heat everything up and test to make sure all the seals worked, or that nothing produced off flavors or toxins. As I mentioned, silicone is inert ans stable when dried, but I didn't want to take any chances.

    After a cool three hours of playtime, I brought out the good stuff:


    A pork butt, rubbed, and a couple short ribs.

    On the heat:


    I had some heat management issues from the start. To begin with, all I could get on short notice was mesquite charcoal, which is crap. It burns too high, and the qhality management on it is subpar at best. I got about three gigantic chunks, and a bagfull of dust, so I was stuck with a really really uneven, stinky fire that runs too hot. My temps stayed around 260 the entire time (I was using my Thermoworks Thermocouple to measure, not the Weber bi-metal unit) but soon the fires just died, and the temps plummeted to 200, and no amount of stoking could get the coals to burn. I finally had to pull the meat way early, and finish them in the oven while I tried to get the fires to come back to life.

    I reset my NanoQ with no luck, tried to ramp it up to 475 to see of I could even get it to blow some air and get the coals back, anything. I couldn't do it. That fan was cooking along but for nothing. I gave up, and tore down my operation for the day. As I took my blower off the smoker, I noticed that I'd left the shutter closed on it. D'oh! It wasn't blowing air anywhere! I treid to fiddle with it a bit more, but the coals were out.

    So Wednesday's lessons are:

    - Pay attention to your hardware. I think I closed that shutter when I installed the fan, and never nocited. When I did the dry run, I was so busy fiddling with the lid and side-hatch that it kept enough air in the unit for those first three hours, but once I sealed it up tight, it just died. I think my seals are too good.

    - Mesquite charcoal sucks.

    Until better quality controls are applied, I think that I'm done using mesquite. The inconsistent heat, and the handfulls of trash (yes trash!) I've found inside the bags couple with the fact that mesquite tends to burn too darned hot to be useful makes this an open and shut case. I will stick with oak charcoal from now on, it's my favorite anyway.

    Other lessons include:

    - The Smokey Mountain and The A-maze-n Smoker just don't seem to get along. I tried all kinds of things to get my new AMNS to play nice with the Weber, but I think that there just isn't enough airflow in the unit to sustain it. I'm eager to retry this with my NanoQ now working, but it doesn't pain me much to know the AMNS will have to do cold smokes exclusively. It's hard to make space for it inside the WSMC to begin with, so I think I'll stick to hardwood chunks for now.

    - The wooden dowels I'm using to plug up the thermo holes in my smoker don't work well. I'm finding an alternative, maybe cap nuts. I think a thinner dowl will work for limiting airflow through the holes when thermometers have been passed through, though.

    Finally, there was one small victory:


    Struggles aside, I got some nice chopped pork out of the deal. I had me a sammich that night, and then made a breakfast hash with potatoes, onions, pork, cheese and pan-scrambled eggs for dinner Thursday.
  7. Thanks for the kind words!

    Thus far, I'm really happy with it; it seems to work well and many of my issues have been "the nut that holds the steering wheel" kind of problems, but they're fun to get to the bottom of.
  8. pvillecomp

    pvillecomp Fire Starter

    Nice restore. A few minor tweaks and you should be there.
  9. frosty

    frosty Master of the Pit

    Great "how to" and tons of excellent ideas.  I like the Barbecue Guru, but hadn't figured a way to handle the holes.  Thanks for the tips and ideas!!!

  10. sam3

    sam3 Smoking Fanatic

    This is a great post. I bought a 22.5 WSM and haven't used it yet. This gives me something to think about.
  11. I did another test run on Friday. It's working great, but I'm considering adding a band of fiberglass wood stove seal around the lid, because it still leaks faintly.

    The leakage is most prominent when the chimney is closed, so I'm figuring it's caused by backpressure. This means that hot air will always find the easiest out, so I need to revise my hatch seals while I'm at it.

    On the plus side, the new heat sink is working very well. It shields the meat from direct heat from the coals, keeps the smoke chamber nice and hot, and is easy to clean in the kitchen sink. I'm considering grabbing a 9" one to run in my One-Touch.

    I'm pretty sure I understand how to play shepherd to the NanoQ, too. I think I'm starting with fires that are too big (1 full chimney), when I should be lighting maybe five or six medium chunks of charcoal, and letting the NanoQ bring them up to temp on its own. It's easier for the controller to add air, but it can't just cut off air without me physically closing the shutter. I've also figured out that once things are going, and the controller is pulsing air in on occasion, I need to close the shutter halfway, to limit the passive feed through it. With just that tiny opening, my smoker overshot all the way to 300 degrees before I caught it, and took care of things. (I was away making boiled cider at the time, my bad!) I also suspect lack of season was at play as well. My smoker was looking a little shaggy before the overhaul, so I cleaned it pretty thoroughly, and I never got around to properly re-seasoning it.

    Here's a rough rundown of how my NanoQ Standard operating Procedures are looking:

    1. Do not interfere with the unit's ability to stoke the fire.

       This thing does what it does admirably without human intervention; it's designed to feed a fire, not starve it It's better to allow it to do its thing at its own pace than to try an make it play at recovery.

    2. Start with a small scattered fire.

       It's called a stoker for a reason; it can manage building things up as needed, but it can't handle a big fire: it'll just sit there, feeding it passively. When loading your lit coals onto the unlit coals for a Minion Method fire, scatter them. If you think clockwise, put a medium-sized lit coal on the unlit coals every thirty minutes, that way the fuel is "zoned' with a unique initiator coal for each quarter. This seems to even out the heat distribution, and better ration your coal reserves.

    3. Use the damper

       Once it goes idle, the opening and fan body can passively feed the fire, creating overshoots. Keep an eye on it for the first hours, once it's at a steady temp (using a separate probe) and it's back to the occasional pulse, close the damper halfway. Believe it or not, that's enough air for the fire to coast, and the unit can always add more. It's surprising how much air the Pit Viper fan can push through that small hole.

    4. Remember what its designed for.

       Always keep in mind that this thing is made to feed air to a fire, not take it away. Run your setup with this mindset.

    5. Don't leave its side for the first four hours or so.

       Like any smoker, it needs to be babysat until it establishes its set pattern. Things could go very wild for a while, and you might have to pilot it for a bit before auto pilot takes over. After a while of playing with the smokestack and the inlet, you'll reach equilibrium. Once you're there, keep watching it for any sudden changes, and if it proves stable, then feel free to go take a nap, mow the lawn, or watch the game. The NanoQ can take it from there.

    Thanks for reading, folks!
  12. You'll love it, I really think it's the best charcoal smoker on the market. Weber always seems to win when it comes to simple tech!

    My two cents is to run it vanilla for a while, and get a feel for its traits. I'm confident in its out-of-the-box ability to maintain a steady temp, but the autopilot is my long-term insurance in that direction. My last big smoke, I had 30 pounds of butt in 5-pound portions on the fire, and I was doing some emergency rewiring on my pickup on a cold day, and I just couldn't get the temps up. I managed to get the goods past the 4-140 rule, but only barely, and my smoker temps were circling the toilet at a furious pace. The oven saved the day, but I felt like a cheater.

    It would've been nice to have had a wingman stoking the flames from the get-go.
  13. I hope the ideas help, I'm beyond happy with the build results.
    I'm getting there.

    If you have any suggestions, I love feedback!

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