An attempt to build a rotating compost bin

I’m fascinated by compost. Watching kitchen scraps turn into dirt in just a few weeks time is exciting and anything I can do to improve my soil is worth the effort. I want the ComposTumbler, but finding $429 in the family budget (the price after you give them an email address) for a barrel that holds dirt is proving difficult. So, this past weekend I decided to build my own.

The project was not a success in my mind but I thought I would post this how-to article anyway describing what I tried and the lessons learned in the hope that it will save others of you time and money should you embark on such a project yourself. The unit is complete and in my garden cooking up a batch of compost at this very moment, but it is difficult to use, I have concerns about how long it will last, and the door doesn’t stay closed.

Parts list

  • 55 gallon water drum
  • 3 treated 2x4s
  • Corner braces
  • Caster wheels
  • Draw catches
  • Super glue
  • Hinges
  • Screws and bolts
  • Textured exterior spray paint

Construction

First, I cut a door in the side of the barrel with my Dremel tool. It worked well, but the Dremel was not strong enough for the job and I ended up burning up the motor.

I then attached the door with small hinges and draw catches.

Paint is obviously optional, but I thought that it would look a lot nicer in the garden if it were a natural shade instead of bright blue.

I built the base out of treated lumber so that it would not have to be painted. It is thirty-four inches wide (the height of the barrel) and thirty inches tall. The height was specifically chosen so as to allow a standard wheel barrow to fit beneath for easy unloading.

After I was into the project a ways, I discovered that the side walls were not going to be strong enough to retain their shape now that I had cut a large hole in it. I stabilized the side walls surrounding the door and the door itself with wood strips. It helped, but it still flexes too much to shut tightly.

Here is the finished product in the garden.

The base turned out well. It is solid and should last quite a while. The major problem is the drum. The side walls of the plastic drum are simply not strong enough to retain their shape as the drum rests on the wheels with all of the dirt inside, with a door cut in it, and as the plastic softens as the temperature changes. Perhaps I used the wrong kind of paint, but the paint is also not sticking to the plastic well and has already started flaking off.

If I had been able to use a metal drum instead, I probably would have been able to produce something that I could have been happy with. The only place I have been able to find one is through an online distributor though for $85. But, for that price, and loosing my Dremel, I should have just saved my money and waited until I had enough to buy the CompostTumbler. As is, I am currently out $75 for parts and another $40 for paint.

34 Replies to “An attempt to build a rotating compost bin”

  1. Wade, I think this is an awesome project, you’ve inspired me! Thanks for stumbling through it and figuring out what not to do, I probably would have gone the exact same route you did (the plastic barrel). We’ll have to keep our eyes peeled for steel drums being tossed out!

    1. The composter I built was great and rolled on the casters while empty.  As soon as I filled it with materials for composting, it no longer rolled well.  My solution:  I just roll the thing back and forth on my patio.  Works great and rolls very easily. 

  2. Wade, I think this is an awesome project, you’ve inspired me! Thanks for stumbling through it and figuring out what not to do, I probably would have gone the exact same route you did (the plastic barrel). We’ll have to keep our eyes peeled for steel drums being tossed out!

  3. Actually, I thought your idea was brilliant – with the casters and rolling it that way. What if the door was on the end and not on the side? That way when it tumbles, it wouldn’t effect the door. I never would have thought the plastic wouldn’t hold up – WOW! I’m glad you posted this idea – very creative thinking.

  4. Actually, I thought your idea was brilliant – with the casters and rolling it that way. What if the door was on the end and not on the side? That way when it tumbles, it wouldn’t effect the door. I never would have thought the plastic wouldn’t hold up – WOW! I’m glad you posted this idea – very creative thinking.

  5. While not as convenient, the door on the end would solve the issue of the side walls loosing strength due to cutting into them. It wouldn’t solve the issue of them deforming from the weight of the dirt (against the caster wheels) however. Putting some metal straps around the bin where the wheels run (“tracks”) would probably solve the problem though.

  6. While not as convenient, the door on the end would solve the issue of the side walls loosing strength due to cutting into them. It wouldn’t solve the issue of them deforming from the weight of the dirt (against the caster wheels) however. Putting some metal straps around the bin where the wheels run (“tracks”) would probably solve the problem though.

  7. You’ve saved me as well from buying and ruining a plastic barrel. It’s important in science and engineering to publish the negative as well as the positive results. Great post.

    Right now, I’ve just built a 3′ tube I made out of hardware cloth that I pile debris into. It doesn’t tumble, but it’s inexpensive. I plan to, every now and then, move the tube over a few feet and shovel the debris back into the tube. I put a micro-sprinkler on the side of the tube that’s hooked up to my drip irrigation to keeps the pile moist. Hopefully that’ll work well enough.

  8. You’ve saved me as well from buying and ruining a plastic barrel. It’s important in science and engineering to publish the negative as well as the positive results. Great post.

    Right now, I’ve just built a 3′ tube I made out of hardware cloth that I pile debris into. It doesn’t tumble, but it’s inexpensive. I plan to, every now and then, move the tube over a few feet and shovel the debris back into the tube. I put a micro-sprinkler on the side of the tube that’s hooked up to my drip irrigation to keeps the pile moist. Hopefully that’ll work well enough.

  9. I’d been wanting one of those rotating compost bins too, but like you, the cost was just more than I could justify. We’ve found a cheap solution that is working really well. We made ours by drilling holes in an old plastic garbage can, covering the holes with window screening and to rotate it… we simply lay it on it’s side and roll it around the yard every few days. (The lid is held on with bungie cord) Not the fanciest thing in the world, but it looks like we’ll have compost to add to our square foot garden soon.

  10. I’d been wanting one of those rotating compost bins too, but like you, the cost was just more than I could justify. We’ve found a cheap solution that is working really well. We made ours by drilling holes in an old plastic garbage can, covering the holes with window screening and to rotate it… we simply lay it on it’s side and roll it around the yard every few days. (The lid is held on with bungie cord) Not the fanciest thing in the world, but it looks like we’ll have compost to add to our square foot garden soon.

  11. you can get 55 gallon barrels at the beer nut in SLC. you have to wait until they empty them (they sell malt out of them i think.

    I used to get them from them a few years ago. they are VERY dirty with sticky molasses type liquid on the inside. just take it to the car wash and blast out the inside.

  12. you can get 55 gallon barrels at the beer nut in SLC. you have to wait until they empty them (they sell malt out of them i think.

    I used to get them from them a few years ago. they are VERY dirty with sticky molasses type liquid on the inside. just take it to the car wash and blast out the inside.

  13. You need to add a screened panel, made of hardware cloth, to provide air flow into the barrel or it won’t compost properly. Without airflow, you’ll just end up with moldy vegetation and waste, and ultimately “sick” soil, much like that found under black plastic landscape fabric covered areas.

  14. You need to add a screened panel, made of hardware cloth, to provide air flow into the barrel or it won’t compost properly. Without airflow, you’ll just end up with moldy vegetation and waste, and ultimately “sick” soil, much like that found under black plastic landscape fabric covered areas.

  15. So how's it holding up? After all that work I hope it's still going strong. It looks good. I am still of a mind to think it's worth paying a couple of hundred rather than take the time (and cost of broken tools) to build one.

  16. It didn't hold up at all unfortunately. The plastic barrel collapsed under the weight of the contents. While it was a fun project it would have been better to have purchased one.

  17. Hi, I just stumbled on this posting. I’m not sure if you’ve given it another shot yet, but if you haven’t, I figured I’d give you a tip as far as scoring inexpensive (or, if you’re lucky, free) 55 gal. metal drums: call a local machine shop. They typically get their coolant and occasionally their way lube oil in these containers. They generally put a few to use as chip barrels or whatnot, but once in a while they have more barrels sitting around than they have use for. Ask for a coolant barrel over an oil barrel, as coolant is water-soluble, making the barrel far easier to clean out (and most coolants tend to be non-toxic, so a bit of residual stuff left inside won’t harm your compost).

  18. A robot? What a great idea. Robots are very helpful in our daily lives. Everything that is programed to make our task easy is considered as a robot. Nice to heard that you want to invent something new.

  19. Thank you for this post. I have aquired a metal drum and will begin construction today with these plans. I’m think some kind of ventilation on each end of drum would be needed.

  20. what if you use some sort of banding around the barrel to keep it from deforming. also wider wheels could help. This is a great project thanks,

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