Charcoal water smokers require more knowledge and attention to use than a gas or electric unit. However, charcoal afficionadoes almost always insist that the flavor of charcoal units are second to none.
On the plus side they are less expensive and are the ultimate in portability, no burners, bottles, or electrical cords to worry about. Taking safety into account there is really no place a charcoal unit cannot be used.
The most important thing that you must learn how to master first of all is temperature control. Without that, cooking any food in the smoker will be a chore, so that is the first stop.
Following that, you will also need to pay close attention to the manufacturers guidelines, and work out the most effective way to get the charcoal to burn. Too much can mean too much heat, resulting in burnt food, and too little fuel will result in low temperatures and shortened cooking times.
New users of BBQ smokers will also have to observe the effects of outdoor temperature, and how to safely ignite the coal. The quickest and most efficient way of starting a charcoal smoker is to use a chimney-style starter such as those made by Weber or Char Broil.
Consider what type of vertical water smoker suits your needs. Then buy the best quality model you can afford. Quality, construction, and suitability to purpose will vary for each user.
A good quality smoker will have a big impact on your food smoking enjoyment. You may find it useful to ask experienced smoker users for recommendations, and if the opportunity is available, try out some food they have smoked and use your tastebuds to decide. If the food tastes great, then you are at least halfway there.
If you can, buy a dual-wall construction model, this adds to the smoker's efficiency. Not only will you use less fuel but the exterior walls are cooler, a nice safety feature.
Look for quality construction. If you don't know what good quality looks like ask a friend who knows. Check for straight and clean welds, thick metal, doors that open easily and secure tightly, and a high temperature powder coat finish. Ask to see an assembled unit and test it's stability.
If you can afford it consider a stainless steel unit with a cover, you will pass that one on to your kids! If possible avoid sheet metal, unless you don't mind throwing it away after a few years. However, folks that use cheaper smokers, and take care with them, claim they get five or more years out of their smokers.
Electric Water Smokers
An added safety feature is No Fire or Flammable Fuel concerns. This is great if you have kids or pets. The biggest drawback is the requirement for a nearby electrical plug or extension cord so that the unit can be powered. Expect to pay around $150.00 for a good quality unit, such as those offered by Brinkmann or Weber.
While many electric smokers have no temperature adjustment, you will find that higher specified models may have a "high" and "low" setting giving greater control during cooking. This is quite desirable, and the price difference between the two is relatively little.
The drawback of a non-adjustable electric smoker is that the heat level is effectively preset as it is determined by how much wattage the heat element draws.
Lighting a charcoal smoker
Charcoal: First, start with good, dry charcoal made of premium hardwoods, because they light easily, maintain a steady cooking temperature, and burn longer.
Lighter cubes: Second, to light briquettes safely and with minimum hassle, try Weber FireStarter lighter cubes. These solid fuel cubes light as easily as a birthday candle (even when wet!) and are odorless and non-toxic, leaving no residue to mar the flavor of your delicious grilled meal.
Chimney starter: Another handy tool is our Chimney Starter, which holds the coals in a cylinder for fast, easy lighting.
Fill the canister-shaped starter with the proper amount of charcoal, place on the charcoal grate over two or three FireStarters cubes or crumpled newspaper, ignite the cubes or paper, and let the coals burn until they have a coating of light grey ash (about 25 to 30 minutes).
Pour the hot coals onto the charcoal grate and arrange for Direct or Indirect cooking with long-handled tongs. For safetys sake, wear heat resistant grill mitts for peace of mind.