Feel the Burn

Barbecue envy. You know you've had it. You feel it every time you arrange that finger-blackening pile of Kingsford charcoal on your half-baked hibachi. If your heart races when you finger the Sunday Weber ads and you whisper sweet nothings to the stainless-steel 53-inch Vikings at Lowe's, you know what I'm taking about.

If you're like me, though, you probably ignore the impulse to upgrade because you know a sizzling barbecue can cost more than a new car. Now, I've never thought of myself as much of a handyman, but I've seen enough HGTV and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition to know that you can do almost anything if you set your mind to it, and have a little help. And if Ty Pennington can build a house in a week, why can't you or I build a barbecue this summer?

I'm fired up about having a project to do this summer that will add some real heat to my backyard entertaining. And come Labor Day, you'll all be invited to taste the smoldering fruits of my totally pimped-out barbie.

Okay, maybe not. But I'll give you all the info I gathered, in preparation to build my own.

Where to begin?

For starters, you need to decide what you want and what you can afford. For our buck, a semi-permanent custom island barbecue seems like the perfect choice. You can take it with you if you move. And most cities require you to pull permits to legally build a permanently attached barbecue. You don't need that hassle.

A semi-permanent custom island barbecue is basically a cabinet box that's a simple structure to hold a grill in place that can be moved if need be. It's framed like you would frame anything in a house. The structure is then covered with concrete board and finished with stucco or mortar material, tile or stone, and, finally, the grill. See, nothing to it. (Yeah, right.)

Cabinet designs can range from simple rectangle boxes to sprawling modular designs in any shape and size. I suggest starting with something simple. If you're a noob to laying out dimensions and plans, there are local dealers, Web sites and books that offer tons of tips and tricks.

I sought some input from Walt Groll at Starlight Company Inc. , located at 8833 North Central Avenue (602-943-3977, www.starlightbbq.com). Groll is a third-generation barbecue dealer who's been in the business for 44 years.

"Arm yourself with knowledge," says Groll. "Start simple, use domestic products, and have fun." Starlight's Web site also has more than 400 pages of how-to information on building barbecues, plus it has a massive parts supply warehouse and sells everything from built-in grills to pre-made boxes to entire custom-built islands.

Choosing the right grill and appliances should be done early on, because you will need the dimensions for the box design. Grills can range from under $300 to $10,000. Some recommended brands are Weber (www.weber.com), Fire Magic (www.rhpeterson.com/firemagic/) and Viking (www.vikingrange.com). Home Depot (www.homedepot.com) and Lowe's (www.lowes.com) have a decent selection, but you should check out dealers like Starlight (mentioned above) or BBQ Hut (www.bbqhutinc.com) in Cave Creek (602-992-2760) and Arrowhead (623-566-3004), which specialize in stocking quality appliances and parts.

Web sites like www.patio-bbq-grills.com sell plans or will actually deliver a pre-made cabinet box that you can finish the way you'd like.

Interestingly, there aren't many books written about building this style of barbecue, but one that I found helpful is Building Barbecues & Outdoor Kitchens (Sunset Books, Donald W. Vanderhort, Ed.).

For safety's sake, avoid wood materials at all cost, because, duh, wood burns! Always use galvanized studs to build the frame. Wood studs and plywood can dry up through years, and eventually most wood fashioned barbecues either collapse or, worse, burn up.

For gas grills, you need to build vents based on what kind of gas you're using. Natural gas rises, so you need to make venting high in the box so it can escape. LP gas (liquefied petroleum, or propane) is heavier and drops and pools up, so vents should be on the bottom.

Once you have the box built, you should attach Hardibacker concrete board (I recommend a quarter-inch) to encase the box, using screws. You can then apply any variety of stucco, mortar or tile and stone combination to finish it up. There's a glut of books published about applying stucco and setting tile, like Portland Cement Plaster/Stucco Manual (The Association, John M. Melander), Tile 1-2-3 (Home Depot, Benjamin W. Allen and Jeff Day) and Ceramic Tile How To: Real People -- Real Projects (Hometime, Dean Johnson and Robin Hartl), at places like Home Depot, or, better yet, the library!

Whether you build your barbecue from scratch, have it partially made or get someone to do all the work for you, pimping your barbecue is a lot easier and cheaper than you might think. And with a little planning and some elbow grease, you're sure to end up with a smoking custom grill that will set your summer social life on fire.

Now that I've done the legwork for you, the actual building will be a scorching good time rather than a total burn-out. I hope.

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Casey Lynch