I’ve been wanting to start a compost barrel for a while now. We throw away a lot of food scraps at our house, and then buy overpriced, non-natural fertilizer for my garden. Pretty stupid when you think about it.

I was looking in to start a composter, but most available models are ludicrously overpriced – like this tumbler for $99, or this even-dumber tumbler for $199. I had little intent on spending three figures on what is essentially a trash can with holes.

So I dusted off my engineering diploma and built my own.

I wanted something that could tumble around, but didn’t want to precariously perch a heavy barrel on a fulcrum rod, so instead, I built a tumbler that uses rollers.

The barrel I found, on a lead from my boss Amy, was a recycled olive shipping container from Dellalo’s. At first, I called the distribution center. They were selling old barrels for $15, but on the way there, I drove past a flea market that seemed to have a surplus sitting in the parking lot. In fact, the mass of orange barrels was so large, it apparently is visible from space (see right). I stopped and picked it up for $13 instead. *win*

After a quick run to Busy Beaver, I collected all of my supplies:

  • 55 gallon olive barrel – $13
  • 4 x 2 inch casters – $4 each
  • Can of black spray paint – $4
  • 2 x 6′ strips of 1×2″ pine – $3.50 each
  • Hinges and latches – $10

Total of $50

I won’t bother with detailed plans on how I built it. This is for a few reasons. One, it was an ‘organic’ process that lacked detailed measurements and rulers for the most part. Two, homemade compost barrels are highly unique contraptions, but mostly three, I was drinking whiskey at the time and thus had little interest in documenting my specific process.

Here is a basic outline:

  1. Open a bottle of Jameson. This is crucial. If you are home alone making a composter, you probably need some company.
  2. Build a support frame that allows the wheels to be mounted to align with the grooves on the barrel. The barrel has lots of circumferential peaks and valleys to make the barrel stable, but they seem to be perfect for accommodating rolling motion. (By the way, you roll a compost for aeration, read more about it here)
  3. Cut a door in the barrel that will allow you to unload and load the composter. I suppose you could get away with using the built-in lid, but if the composter gets pretty stuffed, this could lead to a traumatic, sludgy experience on a hot summer afternoon. I cut the door by heating a razor blade with a propane torch and essentially melting my way through the plastic. The barrel was polyethylene so I don’t recommend inhaling the fumes. Wear a mask.
  4. Drill aeration holes all over the barrel. I chose a lovely pattern, but I don’t thing bacteria care too much about Fung Shui.
  5. Paint it all black. Some composters aren’t black, but the hotter the composter gets, the faster the break-down occurs, so any steps you can take to getting your barrel to act as a blackbody are helpful.
  6. Install the hardware. I just used regular door hinges and locking latches, but I’m sure there are some creative ways that I didn’t consider. Bungie straps, velcro, whatever.
  7. Load the composter with organic material. Meat and bones are bad for composters; they make them smell rancid and attract scavengers. They also can introduce some unfriendly bacteria to the party that can ruin a nice, small-town microbe’s day. Egg shells, coffee grounds, vegetable scraps, some paper products, moldy bread – all of these and more are just groovy in a composter.

Here are some photos of my slick $50 composter. If you’d like me to build you one, show up with the parts and a bottle of whiskey and we’ll have a party.