I want to be very clear from the beginning of this post that the main motivating factor for me purchasing this Oklahoma Joe Highland off-set smoker was to dip my toes into the world of stick burners. Inevitably this will be the type of vessel that Mark and I will be building out of a 500 or 1,000 gallon propane tank. I also want to make it be known right off the bat that I fully understood that I was buying a COS (cheap off-set smoker). Thin metal, uneven temps, lots of leaks, and poor quality control are things that plague your typical COS. Regardless of all that, I believed that a bargain basement off-set smoker from Wally World can be morphed into a lean, mean, smoking machine. Follow along as I try to mod my way to a decent off-set… without breaking the bank.
A quality off-set smoker is not cheap. Mainly because of the thick steel that it is constructed from. I’m not looking to make this my main cooker (I’ve got my UDS for that). I just wanted to begin learning what goes into cooking with all wood so that Mark and I are better prepared for that world when the time comes. Enter the OKJ Highland which was on sale for $200 at my local big box store. The perfect entry-level off-set to get us started. Ok, before I get to the mods that I made to my new Oklahoma Joe highland smoker I’ve got to touch on how poorly this thing went together out of the box. I had to bend the cooking chamber door (that was not easy) in order for it to somewhat close. I’m not kidding that out of the box there was a 1/4 inch gap when the door was shut. Also, just for kicks, there wasn’t enough hardware included. So after jumping up and down on the lid to straighten it a bit and running to the local home repair store for some stainless steel bolts and nuts, I was finally ready to get the modifications going.
Sealing the Leaks
OKJ’s are notorious for leaking smoke and heat from the various parts that connect together. I used both food grade silicone sealant and nomex fire tape to solidify the vessel. The silicone application was pretty straightforward. I simply created a small bead on the firebox halves and where the firebox connects to the main cooking chamber. I also spread the silicone around the smoke stack. A few notes on the high temp sealant: be sure to buy the stuff that is rated for 750 degrees. Also, wear gloves. This stuff doesn’t wash off easily. Fire tape was my next move for the cooking chamber and firebox lids. Additionally, you’ll notice in the pictures that I had to use some more silicone on the cooking chamber door. My lid came so bent out of the box that I needed to add both silicone and fire tape to seal that part up.
I think that you get the point by now that the lid for this smoker sucks. My final step toward sealing the main chamber tightly was to use some clamps that I found online from a barbecue store. These things work great! They really hold the lid down tightly, sealing in all the smoke and heat during cooks. Unlatching is easy and so was the installation. You do need to do some drilling and the clamps don’t come with bolts. I was originally miffed about the lack of hardware but quickly forgot about it after realizing how well made the clamps are.
All off-set smokers deal with the issue of running hotter near the firebox. The high end smokers willl include a baffle that blocks the heat near the firebox and gradually lets more heat through the further it travels down the cooking chamber. Like most prefabricated products, these baffles can be expensive, costing upwards of $80. My answer to this problem was cookie sheets. Following the same design of the store bought baffles, I used a step drill bit to make holes, from small to large, in the sheets. Lastly, I bent one of the cookie sheets to create an angle that would cover the opening between the firebox and the cooking chamber. I don’t have a metal brake so I just used a couple of 2×4’s that I had on hand and my vise to make the bend. This was by far my best mod as it evened out the temps dramatically. I went from a 50 degree variance to only a 10 degree temperature difference from one end of the smoker to the other. That rivals even the best off-set smokers on the market.
The Charcoal Basket
The firebox can be a messy place. All that ash can be a pain to clean up so I decided to bend a no weld charcoal box. Besides tidiying up the firebox, I figured it would also keep my wood and charcoal contained to one area. The fabrication was super easy. I measured the quadrants for each side of the box on a piece of 24×24 inch expanded sheet metal. With the painters tape marking my lines, I used my grinder to cut out the small sections on each corner of the sheet metal. A few quick bends and I had my box. The last step was to use some wire to hold the sides together.
I had a few other mods that I decided to do that were very quick and easy. The first was a vent that I installed on the inside outlet of the smoke stack. This design forces the smoke to travel along the meat before leaving the cooking chamber thus enhancing flavor. A quick note on this: don’t use a galvanized dryer vent. These can emit dangerous gases at higher temps. Better to be safe than sorry.
Not pictured but worth mentioning was a quick fix for the firebox. In its original position, the firebox grate sits very low and will choke out the fire very fast. That’s bad news for an off-set. A smoldering fire creates nasty white smoke that will impact the taste of the meat. To keep the fire burning, I turned the grate the opposite way which allows the charcoal box to sit higher. This creates more airflow and allows the fire to burn hotter and in turn much cleaner.
I’ve cooked on the OKJ a handful of times now and I have to say that it is pretty dialed in thanks to the mods that I made. Steer clear however if you don’t feel like spending the extra time and money (I probably spent close to $150 on materials) on a smoker. Not to mention, stick burners are super finicky and not a good choice for someone just starting out. But for Mark and I, this Oklahoma Joe is going to get us rolling on burning all wood. Check back soon for a full report on the trials and tribulations of cooking on a stick burner!