The demand for custom, offset smokers hasn’t slowed since we wrote about the popularity of the thousand-gallon smoker in August. In fact, the waiting lists just keep growing. Sunny Moberg is nearing completion on a new shop for Moberg Smokers, in Dripping Springs, so that he can cut his lead times down to somewhere less than a year. More welders are entering the underserved smoker market, including a group of high school students.
Thomas Bailey, the welding teacher for the Forney school district, just east of Dallas, runs the Forney Metal Shop on the grounds of Forney High School. His shop doesn’t look much different than other welding shops that specialize in barbecue smokers. Power grinders screech across metal plates, the blue glow of a welding torch lights the corner of the metal building, and decommissioned propane tanks are strewn about outside. They await their turn to be cut and welded into barbecue machinery, in the capsule shape now familiar throughout Texas. The biggest difference between this operation and other welding shops is that this one is staffed by high school students. “I help them all the way, but they’re doing all the work,” Bailey said of the teenagers.
Their pits are emblazoned with the name Bison Smokers. Bailey chose “bison” to be a neutral beast rather than picking sides between the Falcons of North Forney High or the Jackrabbits of Forney High School. Students from both campuses converge on the Forney High campus for Bailey’s welding class three days a week. Soon, the first Bison Smoker will enter the restaurant world. Several smokers near completion sit on the shop floor, but it’s going to be another month before the first delivery.
If you read our review of Stiky Ribz BBQ, in Forney, you know they have a couple on order. Bailey would have delivered them by now, if not for his heart attack at the end of January. He’s recovered and back to work, with plenty of orders to fulfill. Mum Foods, in Austin, has a smoker in process on the shop floor. Chad and Jessica Sessions, of the Smoke Sessions Barbecue trailer, in Royse City, are planning a new brick-and-mortar location and have already ordered five 1,000-gallon smokers. Chad said his introduction to Bison Smokers was a cold call from Bailey. Chad was skeptical about the quality of what high school students could produce until he toured the shop. “I was really impressed with the craftsmanship that these kids were able to accomplish with these pits,” Sessions said.
Bailey wasn’t surprised by the skepticism, but this isn’t your average high school shop class. The students make a show trailer every year for competition. Bailey said the craftsmanship on those trailers is a better advertisement of their skill than any of his bragging. “I’ll take these guys over anybody who builds smokers,” Bailey reiterated to me, but don’t expect to see the smokers at any competitions. Bailey said, “I don’t want people getting out there drawing up and measuring it.”
There are still tweaks being made to the design. The students’ square, insulated fireboxes are inspired by those fabricated by Austin Smoke Works, but the way they fit onto the large propane tanks isn’t as clean as Bailey would like. They’ll revise that detail on the next model. For fans of Moberg Smokers, the large-throated exhausts will look familiar, and Bailey admits Moberg’s design was also an inspiration. Bailey also touted a nifty counterweight system of his own design that hasn’t yet been put onto a smoker. Custom handles, hinges, and skids are some of the other unique touches the Bison Smokers will include.
The first completed Bison Smoker won’t be in used Texas—it will head to New Mexico. James Jackson of Mad Jack’s Mountaintop Barbecue, in Cloudcroft, commissioned a smoker from the shop before it had even adopted the Bison Smokers brand name. “The briskets have been our best-seller, and we need a little more room for briskets,” he said, so when Bailey visited the restaurant and asked him to be the first customer, he agreed. “He’s giving me this thing nearly for free, it seems like,” Jackson said of the discount he got for being the first customer. He’s hoping to take delivery next month and park it next to his Moberg Smoker in a new smokehouse he plans to build.