Interesting Details About Catfish Smoking Machines You Didn’t Know!

Introduction to Catfish Smoking Machines

Catfish smoking machines are heavily employed in the smoking of catfish in many countries.

And there are many reasons to smoke catfish.

The obvious being that of a desire to change its taste, aroma and how it looks.

In addition to these benefits, research had shown that, smoking of fish gives not only the fish a needed taste and smell but provide lengthier shelf-life through its antibacterial and its oxidative effects decreasing pH, imparting coloration of the fish as well as augmenting the drying process, and acting as an adversary to spoilage agents and chemical degenerative alterations

Furthermore, smoking of fish has been a healthier inventive method of fish processing in relations to retaining protein value and a decrease in the moisture content.

So, given the importance and desirability of catfish smoking, anyone seriously considering starting a smoked catfish business must at some point think of what tools and equipment they would need for the smoking process.

Catfish smoking machines come top of this consideration for anyone interested in catfish processing as a business in doing it as a commercial enterprise.

While this post would focus mainly on the mechanical smoking machines, it is normally quite common to see many small catfish processors start with using non-mechanical equipment (locally constructed traditional methods).

So, as part of our introduction, let’s talk a little bit about traditional catfish smoking machines.

Traditional Catfish Smoking “Machines”

In many countries of West Africa, fish processing (including catfish smoking) is mainly done by settlers in the riverine communities.

In Nigeria some of these communities are found in states like Lagos, Edo, Delta, Rivers, Ondo etc.

In Ghana, these are around many communities in the Lake Volta regions .

In these communities, the tools used for fish smoking are often very rudimentary and unsophisticated as they operators couldn’t afford them otherwise.

catfish smoking machines -traditional smoker
Traditional catfish smoking machine in Ghana

In a traditional catfish smoking, the “smoking equipment” would normally consist of an earthen or cement block mounded fireplace where firewood is burnt to produce both the heat and smoke.

Due to its low cost and ready availability, firewood is usually the energy source of choice.

The temperature and smoke is controlled by regulating the amount and frequency of replacement of the firewood as it is being consumed in the fireplace.

In many cases, the smoking is achieved by having the raw fresh fish arranged in rows on an iron grill. The fish and grill are then both covered with thick jute bags or similar materials and placed above an open wooden fire at about 40-50 cm distance.

The jute bags or wrapping materials serve to keep both the heat and smoke within and around the fish to maintain its temperature.

To control the smoking temperature and ensure consistency of the smoking process, the fish is rotated (flipped from one side to the other) until the fish is totally cooked and fully smoked.

From time to time as the processor observes the smoking process, the quantity of the firewood in the fireplace, is either increased or reduced to control the heat intensity during the smoking.

Unfortunately, since the smoke is a direct result of the wood burning, it is often difficult to control the smoke intensity using this type of method.

Although we have described these types of catfish smoking processing equipment as “machines” they are quite very manual without any recognized electrical or mechanical inputs.

These are simply raised platforms built of earth or metal such as iron and heated by firewood. Another example of such a traditional catfish processing fireplace is shown in the image below:

Traditional catfish smoking machine 2

A traditional catfish smoking fireplace in West Africa powered by firewood

Limitations of the Traditional “Smoking Machines”

One of the serious limitations of the traditional smoking machines is that they do not contain any measuring or regulating devices and hence no automated control of any sort.

Thus, process parameters such as the internal and ambient temperatures, smoking time, pressure, humidity or any other parameters that a mechanized system might offer a not be monitored or controlled to influence the quality final product.

However, it is often seen that many small-scale processors start with these traditional smoking machines and would gradually integrate some form of mechanization in their process as their business grows and their catfish processing volume increases.

As one might expect, with the absence of any automated method of controlling the processing inputs, the quality of the products then tends to fluctuate from one processing batch to another.

Some times, the fish could be burnt or charred, and moisture the content could be vary widely, leading to very poor product shelf-life and hence spoilage if not consumed quickly.

The bottom line is that this method of smoked catfish processing is not very reliable for a commercial producer.

As a result of these quality and other related issues, small scale producers who use these methods are often unable to meet the quality standards expected of urban retailers and merchants who would normally collect their products and only pay the vendor after the products are sold.

Catfish Smoking Machine Price

Catfish smoking machines in general come in different price ranges based on how big and sophisticated they are.

Their sophistication can be measured in terms of how many features and functionalities are in them.
It is also about what parameters of the smoking process the equipment can measure or controlled and how many.

As to be expected, the cheapest of the mechanical catfish smoking machines are those that are locally manufactured as you will find in many West African countries like Nigeria, Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire or Cameroon.

While there are no standard prices, one is normally able to discuss with an artisan to produce a custom size based on how much the buyer has if he or she is unable to afford whatever standard products the producer has.

Next in line in terms of pricing are the ones that typically made in China.

While they are electromechanical in nature, they are typically at the bottom of the price range for smoking machines of a comparable size made either in Europe or North America.

Many of these are advertised and sold on a popular online market place Alibaba with many manufacturers of the products of different types and sizes listed.

Given the loads of variety displayed, a would be buyer must familiarize themselves with what they need before engaging the sellers to ensure one gets what they want.

You may also like: How to Preserve Smoked Catfish

Catfish Smoking Machines in Nigeria

Nigeria is one of the countries that benefit from its location around the equator to profit from having fish as a major source of protein.

As it also produces a lot of catfish in smoked form, it therefore has need of smoking machines.

Most of the catfish smoking machines in use in Nigeria are locally made by artisans sometimes in collaborations with some of the Agric/Aquaculture departments of tertiary institutions and other related research agencies of the Nigerian Government.

Others are produced by independent producers without such collaborations. Many of these artisans can be found in towns like Ibadan and Lagos in Nigeria. Similarly, they are also found in Accra or Kumasi in Ghana.

For the most purposes, these are usually simplified ovens with a separate heat and smoke source. They are very labour intensive to use and requires the producer to constantly monitor the fish while the smoking process is in progress to avoid the fish getting burnt.

So since it takes a number of days of continuous smoking o get the process completed, sometimes processors stay up all night or have to wake up intermittently to monitor the smoking process using these types of smoking equipment.

Local Catfish Smoking Machine Design

In the typical design of these locally manufactured catfish smoking machines, the heat usually provided by natural gas (CNG) bottles piped into the bottom of the oven by pipes while the smoke is produced in an adjoining chamber or underneath the oven by burning firewood.

In terms of controls and sophistication, here are their characteristics:

  1. At best, they would normally have a simple temperature indicator to measure the internal oven temperature but usually doesn’t have any way to pre-set the temperature of the oven itself.
  2. These do not have any way of measuring the internal temperature of the product inside the oven nor do they have a way of ensuring uniformity of the temperature inside.
  3. If the oven chamber has several layers of shelves, like they would typically do, there is no automated way of ensuring uniformity of the temperature across all the shelves or even of the smoke circulation.
  4. The products on the different shelves are usually rotated and swapped from time to time as a way of trying to ensure equal the products are exposed to the same amount of heat. This is also how they tend to also ensure the fish is exposed to the smoke.

Impact on The Quality of the finished Product

The inability to control or pre-set the oven temperature, regulate the flow and intensity of the smoke, expose the different trays housing the fish to same flow of smoke or accommodate the impact of the ambient temperature variations on the equipment make producing products of a consistent quality very difficult.

This means no two batches produced by this type of machine can be really the same since there are a lot of the parameters that should determine the taste and look are at best estimated rather than measured and controlled.

While fish processed in this way would be edible, they may not be able to meet the quality standards demanded by established retailers or by whole sale exporters looking to buy large quantities for overseas export.

Smokehouses (Electro-Mechanical) Catfish Smoking Machines


catfish smoking machine double trolley
A multi-trolley industrial smokehouse

These are typically electro-mechanical devices and are also called smokehouses. They usually come with an enclosure of different sizes which provides a controlled environment for the fish product to be smoked.

The enclosure of a typical smokehouse would have space to take in one to several number of trolleys with each trolley containing several racks or shelves.

The catfish to be smoked is arranged in rows on the trays (or shelves) and placed on the trolleys. A standard smokehouse would contain between 1 – 16 trolleys arranged in a number of configurations such as 1×4, 2×2, 2×4, 4×4 etc. A typical trolley is about 1 m x 1m 1.8 m high

catfish smoking machines -single trolley
A single trolley Smokehouse

The energy for the heating could be from a natural gas or electrical source while the smoke is generated by a different means depending on the type of smoker it is. (See the section on types of smoking Machines below).

A mechanical smoking machine would provide an ability to control and monitor many of the listed parameters below depending on their sophistication or cost:

Fish Processing Control Parameters
To successfully produce a good quality smoked catfish, the raw fish must be properly cooked to attain a the recommended internal temperature for a minimum time period while maintaining acceptable humidity and ensuring uniformity of the cooking process.

While our interest here is for fish smoking machines, many of these machines typically also come as multifunctional machines which often includes the following functions:
i. Baking
ii. Smoking
iii. Cooking
iv. Cooling
v. Heating
vi. Washing
vii. Venting

It is therefore not a surprise when the same machine could be used for various purpose such as smoking sausages, baking bread, smoking lobsters, producing fish filets.

multifunctional industrial smokehouses
A picture showing a Multifunctional Industrial smokehouse in use

Here are some of the parameters that these machines provide measuring and control functions for:
a. Temperature (internal fish, temperature and oven temperature)
b. Humidity
c. Smoke density
d. Smoking time
e. Programmable Process steps
f. Time (heating, baking, cooking, smoking, cooling)
Types of smoking Machines -Cold Versus Hot Smoking Machines
Smoking machines (sometimes referred to as smokehouses) are generally in two types based on the temperature of the smoke used for the smoking process.

wo-trolley industrial smokehouse
Am example of a two-trolley industrial smokehouse

Am example of a two-trolley industrial smokehouse

Hot Smoking

The hot smoking machines combine the process of applying heat to cook the fish with flavouring the fish with smoke at the same time.

These machines come with a smoking unit that allows for the loading of wood pellets (or chips) in an attached  smoke chamber where the pellets or chips are heated to produce the smoke required to smoke the fish.

The smoke is also heated by the same technology (natural gas or electricity) that heats and cooks the fish within the oven enclosure.

The smokehouse provides functionality to regulate the amount of smoke produced and the duration of the smoking process and hence the intensity of the smoke, thereby giving the processor control over the outcome.

The machines also contain programmatic functionality to batch many processes in a processing order to ensure multiple processes can be run automatically from start to finish without human intervention.

Cold Smoking

Cold smoking machines on the other hand only apply smoke to the fish to add smoke flavours to it. It does not cook the fish during this process of cold smoking.

These types of machines smoke the products using cold smoke generated from liquid smoke canisters loaded into the machine during processing.

The amount of smoke and duration the product is exposed to the smoke determines the smoke intensity, which in turn also controls the taste, aesthetics (visual appearance) and shelf life of the final product.

Cold smoking temperature

Cold smoking is done at a relatively low temperature usually between 65 and 85 Dec Fereigheit but no greater than 100.

Practical Applications of Hot and Cold Smoking Machines

Hot and cold smoking machines have different applications within the food processing industry.
Cold smoking process is typically used for smoked fillets and sausages while hot smoking is used for jerkies, smoked whole fishes, beef, chicken, turkey, pork and other protein products.

Catfish Smoking Machines -Ghana

The catfish smoking machines used in Ghana are similar to those used in other parts of West Africa like Nigeria.

They are all locally fabricated by local artisans, are similar in design features and have very similar limitations as have been described above.

Also, the smoked fish are prone to microbial hazards and insect pest infestation. Moisture, food nutrient, pH and temperature affect growth in microorganisms in food (smoked fish).

One such design is shown below:

A locally manufactured smoked catfish smoking machine

This popular over is called the Chorkor oven is an oven used for fish smoking. It gets its name from Chorkor, a fishing village and suburb of the capital of Ghana, Accra.

In Chorkor, this oven is widely used for smoke-drying sardinella (in Ghana also known as ‘herring’, not to be confused with the real herring Clupea harengus) and other fish

See also: Health Benefits of Smoked Catfish

Smoked Catfish Masterbuilt

A very popular domestic smokehouse is manufactured by Masterbuilt and serves many domestic purposes in the United States.

It is typically the size of a small cabinet and powered by electricity with the smoke provided by wood pellets. Some of the applications of this machine include smoked meat BBQ, fish and similar products.

Catfish Smoking Machine Buying Considerations

Any investment in the purchase of smokehouses must be one done after careful evaluation of a business need. This is because many of these industrial smokehouses have a huge cash out lay to purchase.

Once a decision has been made to purchase a fish process machine the next consideration is which particular type and make based on other business considerations.

Initial Cost outlay and Machine Operating Cost

By far the most important considerations in any decision to purchase catfish smoking machines is the initial purchase cost and how much is needed as operating on daily basis.

Initial purchase cost would be a fixed cost which can be amortized over a number of years, the running cost is a variable cost which has more impact on profitability and hence the bottom line of the business.

Anyone considering this investment must therefore follow your laid out financing procedures to evaluate an assets return on investment before the buying decision should be made.

Source of funds or Availability of Financing

As has been stated, costs of purchase of these smoking machines range from a few tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of US dollars or Euros depending on the size and sophistication of the smoking machine and where it is purchased from..

As this is a major financial investment for any business, any purchase decision must be hinged on the availability of sufficient funds to finance the purchase.

Where there is a strong (justifiable business case) it could be possible to get funding from your bank or other agencies (private or public) involved in financing capital expenditures for a business like yours.

So, one of the first steps is to discuss with the financial institutions that you are in relationship with to access funding for this purchase.

Once the initial purchase cost is sorted out, the next thing is to evaluate what the running cost of energy, consumables (wood pellets, chips etc) and operating personnel would be.

As part of that decision is also whether to go for a natural gas or electricity powered machines. This decision is usually based on the relative costs of both sources of energy in your locality.

For example, many industrial facilities located in Eastern Europe use natural gas to power heating appliances as these are usually very available and cheaper.

In some places, electricity costs are not very expensive and hence may not make a major difference whether one’s fish smoking machine uses electricity of gas.

However, at other places, natural gas could be much cheaper than electricity and perhaps even comes with incentives to bundle these with the facility heating which already uses the natural gas.

Bottom line is that besides the one-off initial purchase cost, the running cost is also a major consideration when planning to buy a fish smoking machines.

Energy Consumption Considerations (Natural Gas vs Electricity)

Energy consumption should be a major consideration when considering buying a smoking machine.
The quantity of energy consumption will be dependent on the processing batch size and hence how long the processing batch would last.

With these parameters and a knowledge of the unit cost per kilowatt of electricity for example, it is usually possible to estimate what the energy cost would be to operate the smoking machine for any period of time say one month.
These cost estimates can then be used in the cost benefit analysis and determination of the operating cost to keep the machine on.

A similar calculation can be done to also determine how much it would cost if the source of energy in consideration is natural gas.

Where one source of energy is significantly cheaper, it is then possible for that factor to be the determinant for making the choice between one type of a smoke house or another or even whether at all to buy one at that particular time.

You may also like: Is Catfish A Good Fish To Eat?

New vs Fairly Used Smokehouses

Smokehouses are fairly rugged and hence tend to last a long time.

Besides, smokehouses can also be refurbished to also become as good as new in almost all aspects.

Due to the potentially high cost of smokehouses, many fish processors sometimes consider buying fairly used (or refurbished) smokehouses for their operations.

There are advantages and disadvantages with buying a refurbished smokehouse instead of a new one.

On the advantages, the first and most obvious is the lower cost to purchase compared to a new one.

Secondly, a refurbished smokehouse may also be more readily available than a new one which may have to be ordered and built only after an order is placed.

However, there are also many disadvantages with pursuing buying a refurbished smokehouse.

First, some financial institutions may not be willing to fund a used equipment and hence you are left with having to source for funds outside of those institutions.

Secondly, there is always the anxiety about how reliable it could be since it is a refurbished equipment.

One way of dealing with this issue is by prevention via doing a detailed due diligence to ensure that what you are getting is in a good and reliable state.

It may not be out of place to request inspection of the equipment and having it tested before taking delivery (if at all possible) or else ask that a clear warranty provision of whose responsibility it would be to rectify any defects on the machine at the point of delivery and during installation and these should be included in the contract of sale.


Catfish smoking machines especially the electro-mechanical ones help fish processors produce standard quality smoked catfish although these types of machines (smokehouses) tend to be quite expensive for small sale producers.

While the considerations of either buying a new one versus a refurbished one and where you buy from could significantly affect the cost outlay of this purchase, the operating cost which would depend on the source pf energy for the machine would also play a huge part in the decision of whether or not to buy and if yes which type to buy.

At the end of the day, an investment in a smokehouse is a business decision which should be made on a sound business case and hence where such judgement is based on solid evidence, finding a source of funding for the investment should normally be less of an issue.

There is no doubt that Catfish Smoking Machines are essential to producing quality products that meet many food safety requirements in many jurisdictions including Canada and US.  Any investment in this regards, would always be worth it.

We love to hear from you!

Are you already seriously thinking of purchasing catfish smoking machines of any type? Or have you recently done so?

Share your thoughts, experience or considerations using the comment section below.

Festus Otasowie
Festus Otasowie
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