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How To Make A Compost Tumbler (Very Inexpensively): A Photo Tutorial

03/09/2011

As I venture into this foreign world of organic gardening, I keep reading about how great compost is. Compost this and compost that. Suddenly, I want to make compost! This has actually been on my “List of Things To Do” for a long time, so I am happy to finally be marking it off.

I’d like to show you how I, along with my mother-in-law and my husband, made a compost tumbler for free. That’s right!  I did not spend any money on it! We used things that were left over from other projects or stuff we found laying around my mother in law’s farm to make this. I realize that most of you do not have a farm with lots of ancient equipment and supplies to raid, but this project can be done very inexpensively, especially considering how much it costs to buy a tumbling compost bin.

Let’s begin!

How To Build A Compost Tumbler

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The inspiration:

I knew I wanted a compost barrel and I knew didn’t want to buy a new one. (Because I can’t afford it!) I started searching online and discovered a couple of very helpful blog posts that gave me the idea for this project. You can find those two posts here and here.

Supplies you will need:

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A barrel – We found this for free from a local car wash. When I called to ask them if I could have a barrel, they were delighted and told me to take as many as I wanted to and to tell my friends. Its a 30 some gallon barrel, but a 55 gallon barrel would be fine too.

Some saw horses or some wood (2x4s) — I’m purposefully being vague here about how much wood and about measurements because you (most likely) will not use exactly the same items I did, so you’ll have to figure out all of that on your own. Sorry.

A pipe to go through the center of the barrel

Two hinges and a latch

Some screws or bolts

Some black paint to paint the barrel with

Old pillow block bearings from an ancient hay baler – This one is completely optional. You can definitely do the project without it.

You’ll need access to some power tools too—a jigsaw, a drill, and a circular saw. Although if you know the length of the boards you need, you could have the nice folks at your local hardware store cut them to size for you for free.

(A little disclaimer: I am not a photographer, nor do I know how to adjust all of these images in Photoshop. I’ll just apologize in advance for some of the poor lighting. We started this project in the evening and were racing against the dark to get it done. We didn’t get it done, so we finished it the next day. You’ll notice that in the following pics.)

The Method:

The door of the barrel

Draw a door on the barrel. The only thing we had out at the time was a yellow highlighter, so you’ll have to look real hard to see the door we sketched out, but its there.  The door is roughly one foot square.

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Cut out the door.

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Wash out your barrel if it isn’t new. I used some Simple Green and water with a scrub brush. Make sure to rinse it out really well. You don’t want any crazy chemical residue if you can help it.

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Attach the hinges. These are old hinges from a cabinet door.

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The screws we used were sharp on the end and my husband was worrying about me impaling my arms, so he used these plastic furniture leg/floor protector cover things to put over the screws. (Yes, that is the technical name for them.) He’s so smart.

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Attach the latch. We made ours out of a carabiner and two eyelet screws. It’s what we already had and it works as a latch, but I think a normal latch would be better. I was just trying not to spend any money.

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The ends of the barrel

We didn’t want the weight of the compost to break or warp the plastic on the ends of the barrel. Therefore we attached some 2×4 pieces to the each end and then drilled a hole through both the wood and the barrel.

Cutting the wood to size on the back of the truck.

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Here is it before attaching it.

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My mother-in-law attaching it. (Not sure if she’d be pleased I put this picture of her up here, but she was integral to the process, so I’m doing it anyway.)

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After both ends of the barrel have the wood attached to it, you need to drill a hole through both the plastic and the wood for the pipe to go through. We had a huge drill bit and used that. If you don’t have access to that, before you attach the boards to each end, you could cut a hole through  the plastic of the barrel and through the wood with your jigsaw. After that, line up the holes and then attach the boards.

The Drill Bit

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Drilling the Hole

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Here is how it should look after you are done.

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The Saw Horses (Or whatever you decide to use)

The old saw horses we used are made of big metal pipe. These were also just extra and hanging out around the farm. I’m guessing you don’t have these, so I want to point you again to these links – here and here. Neither of these people used the same materials we did for this part of the project. You will need to look around, see what you already have on hand, decide whether you want to be able to move this thing to another location or not, and then figure out how to build it from there. Sorry I can’t be much help on the specifics with this part!

Here is my husband attaching the pillow block bearings to the saw horses.

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Testing it for strength

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Putting it All Together

Now, take the metal pole and put it through the barrel. Then put it into the holes of the bearings. (Or whatever you decided to use to h0ld up your barrel.)

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The Finishing Touches

Now you get to learn from my mistakes on this next part. This is the point where I should have painted it black. You want it to heat up so all the stuff inside breaks down into the rich compost you are looking for. However, I got excited and went ahead and starting putting all my kitchen scraps in there before I did either of the next two steps. Listen and learn, people. :)

After you’ve painted your barrel black, then take a drill with a small bit on it and drill holes all over the barrel. You need lots of air flow to the compost.

Finally, clear out any little plastic threads that are in the barrel from drilling the holes and you are finished! Start adding grass clippings, leaves, leftover kitchen organic waste, and even coffee grounds. I’m still trying to figure out the proper ratios for the compost, so I’m not going to offer any advice on that yet. You’ll have to research it yourself or wait for me to feel confident enough to write a post about it. :)

Here is the finished product (until I can paint it black) out by my garden plot.

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Let me know if you have any questions in the comments!

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22 Comments
  1. 03/09/2011 12:07 pm

    I have a question. Since it’s called a tumbler, does that mean you have to rotate it periodically? And if so, don’t you need a handle to do that more easily?

    • Kate permalink*
      03/09/2011 12:54 pm

      Becky,
      Yes, you do need to rotate it periodically. That aerates it and keeps everything all mixed together. You could put a handle on it, but as it rotates on the pipe that you put through it, I haven’t really found it to be necessary yet. I might once I get more stuff in there. It’d be easy to add a handle to one or two sides of it, though, if you wanted too. Good questions! Thanks!

  2. 03/09/2011 12:59 pm

    This is great, thanks for this! Don’t need compost where we’re at yet, put plan to be moving soon and plan on needing this.

    Also thanks for the great tip on where to get a barrel – for free!! Wanted one to collect rain water/snow and one for distilling plants for essential oils.

    Awesome!

  3. grace permalink
    03/09/2011 1:37 pm

    Wonderfully done! thank you for the step by step pictures! :)
    i love how you are NOT buying the latest, but are ‘making do’ which is soooo green too!
    love ya…

  4. Karie permalink
    03/09/2011 1:55 pm

    So which car wash has barrels?

    • Kate permalink*
      03/09/2011 2:04 pm

      Karie, I emailed you. :)

  5. Donna/Nonna permalink
    03/09/2011 4:13 pm

    Actually, the bearings are called “pillar block” (not pillow block) and they make turning the barrel super easy. It was great how the pole was exactly the right size for the bearings! As far as the pics go…I’ll just say “thanks” and leave it at that!

    • Kate permalink*
      03/09/2011 4:25 pm

      Donna, I googled “pillar block bearings” and every single thing I could find said “pillow block bearings.” And all the pictures of pillow block bearings look exactly the same as what we used. (I actually couldn’t find anything online called a pillar block bearing.) That’s why I put it in there. :) Perhaps its the Southern accent. I am guessing that ya’ll just pronounce “pillow” like “pillar.” :)

      • John permalink
        11/20/2012 11:38 pm

        How funny, to an engineer they are known as “pillar block bearings” but to Google “pillar block bearing” you get pictures all saying “pillow block bearing”. Kinda like when I was a kid a troop was a group of soldiers, now it is one soldier. Guess now one guy can kill as many enemy as a troop of men years ago. LOL

  6. Donna/Nonna permalink
    03/10/2011 8:31 am

    That is HILARIOUS! I was sure he said pillar…too funny! He is not normally THAT Southern.

  7. 04/13/2011 11:28 am

    Why is a tumbler better than a bin or a pile? I started a pile, but is that bad?

  8. Larry permalink
    04/23/2011 2:29 pm

    Kate, I don’t know where Donna is from, and this note is in no way disrespectful to her, but here in East Texas pillar blocks, winders (windows), and warshing machines(washing) are all synonomous, sort of.
    Thanks for a great article. Larry Morgan

    • Kate permalink*
      04/23/2011 7:26 pm

      Larry, No disrespect taken at all! In fact, I just had a conversation with Donna this afternoon about the proper way to say “hair” in southern GA. Evidently, its supposed to have two syllables. :) Thanks for stopping by!

  9. 05/04/2011 4:28 pm

    Hey, I called my local car wash and he had tons and was like, “yes! Please! Come take as many as you want!” I was actually quite surprised because I was a little embarrassed to call them up and ask, but it was so easy and no big deal at all!

    Anyway, Gonna try to make one of these over the weekend. So exciting!

  10. 10/16/2011 4:16 am

    This is a great idea. And I’m glad you used recycled items instead of buying new. Double win on the recycling, because now you get to recycle your food waste too.

  11. Louis Seymour permalink
    11/10/2011 6:22 pm

    I made the tumbler this past spring/summer. I did use a black 55 gallon, plastic drum. I put leaves, twigs, doggie stuff, and some grass. I spun it on a regular basis. My problem is, it really never broke down to compost. I’m wondering if I put too many holes in it, allowing moisture to evaporate or just the wrong kind of yard debris. I did not put any kitchen scraps in, maybe that is the trick. If yours is working, how many holes did you drill in it? If anyone had success in compost, do you have any ratio ideas on what worked?

    • Deb permalink
      11/13/2011 3:38 am

      Louis,
      I have read that you should not use dog droppings in compost. This also goes for cat’s as well. You do need to use vegetable based kitchen scraps. They really are needed to give your compost some more heat.

      • Louis Seymour permalink
        11/13/2011 1:14 pm

        Thanks Deb, I’ll give that a try this season. I just emptied it to cover my asparagus for winter. When I built my tumbler last year, a different site (based in Mexico) said to use the dog droppings and add about a quart of water to start the compost process. I also noticed at my local Lowe’s store, they sell a liquid based compost heap starter. I’m not going to buy something we can do for free.
        Thanks for the advice. I will be adding the kitchen left overs to my tumber. Is there a such thing as “too much” being added? Or, is this something I’d do every night when I clear the plates? I fill my tumbler about 3/4 full.
        Thanks again for the advice.

  12. 03/01/2012 9:19 am

    LOL…I love the part “Testing it for strength” That is too cute!

    • Chrissy permalink
      06/28/2012 5:13 pm

      Doggy doo is definitely a no no. However, well rotted farm animal droppings r amazing for “heating up” your compost. What does this is the nitrogen. Kitchen scraps, freshly pulled young weeds, plants, green leaves are all high in nitrogen. But the droppings sure work wonders. Everything from cow and horse to rabbit and chicken. Basically if it eats plant matter your golden. Also rabbit is great because they also shred paper and adding paper (no gloss or color) is a good form of brown (carbon) material. Which is great because you usually want a ratio of 3:1 carbon to nitrogen.

      Hope this helps;)~
      Happy composting!
      Chrissy

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