Enterprising High School Welders Are Building Custom Barbecue Smokers

Several barbecue joints will soon get their first Bison Smokers from the students at Forney High’s metal shop.

David Rodriguez (left) and a Forney Metal Shop student work on a smoker for Stiky Ribz Barbecue. Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

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.

From right: Former students David Rodriguez, Douglas Zepeda, and Ryan Neal, teacher Thomas Bailey, and the current students at the Forney Metal Shop.Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

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.

A student grinds the end of a Bison Smoker exhaust elbow at the Forney Metal Shop. Photograph by Daniel Vaughn
A new logo for Bison Smokers was designed by the students at the Forney Metal Shop. Photograph by Daniel Vaughn
Left: A student grinds the end of a Bison Smoker exhaust elbow at the Forney Metal Shop. Photograph by Daniel Vaughn
Top: A new logo for Bison Smokers was designed by the students at the Forney Metal Shop. Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

Bailey’s idea to build smokers came after a visit to Sunny Moberg’s shop; he was hoping to persuade Moberg to let Forney Metal Shop build the trailer onto which he mounted his smokers. Moberg builds his own and didn’t need the help, but he gave Bailey a shop tour and told him how long his customers were willing to wait for a Moberg. Bailey returned to Forney convinced that his seventy or so juniors and seniors should build smokers instead of trailers. That’s how many attend the welding classes offered at the high school, but most of the work is done after school hours. Two or three “work nights” are scheduled each week. Five students were working on a recent Thursday evening. They’re overseen by Bailey, along with Douglas Zepeda and David Rodriguez, former students who volunteer on work nights. Another former student, 2016 graduate Ryan Neal, volunteers his time to draw up smoker plans on AutoCAD.

When I asked Rodriguez, a commercial plumber by day, why he spends his free time working on these smokers, he said, “I really don’t see welding as work. It’s what I enjoy doing.” He hopes one day to make welding his full-time job, maybe even at the Forney Metal Shop. Bailey has plans to really enter the smoker market once his current orders are completed. “I think we’ll be putting out two a week,” Bailey said, referring to the thousand-gallon smokers they plan to advertise to the public once his current orders are completed. I asked Moberg whether he’s concerned. “I’m not worried about competition,” he said, adding, “There’s plenty of customers out there.”

The shop’s profits from construction will go back into the school’s welding program, to pay for new equipment and materials to keep the shop running. The program is an expensive one for the district, which Bailey said has always been supportive, but the shop needs to provide their own funding for new specialty equipment. Plus, Bailey would like to add a scholarship program for students who want to go on to become professional welders. “I really want to give back to the kids because they work so hard,” he said.

The students at the work night I visited were excited about the future of Bison Smokers. The show trailers were nice, they said, but seeing their class projects feeding people from restaurant kitchens would be more rewarding. The smoker customers thus far also enjoy the unique backstory of their equipment. “The feedback I’ve gotten is that they think it’s a neat deal,” Bailey said. Once his students finish up those early orders, Bailey said he’ll feel more comfortable getting the Bison Smokers name out into the buying public. He promised, “As soon as the first one goes out the door, we’ll have our own Instagram.” He hopes to create not only a following for the account but also for the student-fabricated smokers of the Forney Metal Shop.


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