Three Low-Cost Compost Tumblers

For avid gardeners in need of compost, compost tumblers are exceptional devices that anyone can build with a few tools, the right materials, and a little mechanical aptitude.

| March/April 1979

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The first and simplest of MOTHER EARTH NEWS' three compost tumblers uses a 55 gallon drum set on steel roller skate wheels attached to a wooden stand.


If there's one thing that most avid gardeners will agree upon, it's this: Compost is unequaled as a soil conditioner and enricher. The wonderful substance fertilizes, aerates, and adds valuable humus to the soil. And, best of all, it's free!

Yet many "tillers of the soil" avoid making and using this organic elixir at all because of the labor, care, and nurturing that is traditionally involved with maintaining a compost heap. Still other gardeners build elaborate compost bins, fill them, and then fret over the decomposing mounds like a hen over her chicks.

It's unfortunate that such an intimidating mystique has developed around such a basic substance. Compost is, after all, simply decayed organic matter, and all of the complicated techniques, recipes, and procedures that have been developed merely help Mother Nature do her job a little faster, and with less unpleasant odor. The fact is, you can have these advantages and simplicity too, with any one of the compost tumblers we've designed.

You've no doubt seen these composting drums advertised. They are high-quality, "last a lifetime" units, but the commercial models usually carry a price tag of $225 or more! That's precisely why MOTHER EARTH NEWS' researchers have developed three different build-'em-yourself composters that [1] are not only every bit as good as the commercial ones, but [2] can be constructed in an hour or two for as little as $8.54! Furthermore, you won't need a lot of fancy tools to build any one of these nifty tumblers. In fact, you can get along just fine with a handsaw, a power drill, an electric saber saw, a screwdriver, and a pair of pliers. The only thing you might want to purchase is a pop rivet tool, and you can even "work around" this item by merely bolting certain components together.

These homemade revolving compost bins are not at all complex. In fact, regardless of the type you decide to build, there are only three basic parts: [1] the drum that holds the decomposing material, [2] a loading/unloading door on this drum, and [3] a stand to keep the whole shebang at a convenient level and to provide clearance for the drum to rotate. We've worked up three designs so that you'll be able to tailor your equipment to fill your own composting needs.

The Drum and Skate Soilmaker

The simplest rotating drum composter design utilizes a standard 55-gallon barrel and a pair of steel roller skates. Refer to the Drum and Skate illustration when following these instructions. Start one off by scrounging or buying a dent-free and nonrusted drum, then cut an access door into one end of this barrel using a saber saw equipped with a metal-cutting blade. (Be certain to leave the 1" sheet metal "lip" at the rounded edge of the container intact.)

3/16/2016 11:48:48 AM

Since I am an old scrounger I was able to build a compost barrel from some stuff I had around the house. The direct expense for the barrel was $0.00. Since the barrel I used was left over from another project my indirect expense was the $10.00 or so I had paid for the barrel originally. Everything else was things I had scrounged up for free over the years. Instead of cutting the door into the end I put mine on the side reinforcing both it and the barrel with some scrap pieces of flat metal I had laying around the house. My hinges were a couple of old utility hinges I had salvaged somewhere and my "latch" is a couple of eye bolts I had laying around and a piece of wire. I had an old metal frame lying around that had been given to me that was just the right size so I attached some rollers I had salvaged from old store displays and then painted the barrel black with some leftover paint.

monica cooper
9/7/2013 9:22:08 AM

I have been looking for a simpler way to do my compost,The mixing and turning a pile is just getting to be to much for me to deal with.This is just what i have needed for awhile. Thank You,It has brought joy back into doing my gardening or what i fondly like to call my dirt theryapy it is really starting to catch on.

monica cooper
9/7/2013 9:22:06 AM

I have been looking for a simpler way to do my compost,The mixing and turning a pile is just getting to be to much for me to deal with.This is just what i have needed for awhile. Thank You,It has brought joy back into doing my gardening or what i fondly like to call my dirt theryapy it is really starting to catch on.

9/5/2013 10:01:37 AM

I made my tumbler out of an old plastic bait barrel. Instead of a frame to roll it on, I just roll it across the yard a couple of times, flip it end for end, and roll it back. The flip helps mix it a little better, I think! If I add a lot of stuff at once I just roll and flip a few more times. It doesn't take that much of an effort.

3/23/2013 5:48:03 AM

You are not overthinking it at all. My husband built me two very similar to the clover leaf design in the article. They have 2 doors, one labeled garbage and the other gold. We used metal shelving, the kind with the diamond shaped holes, from the garage where our son works. We welded them into place. We welded the barrels together and put them on steel frames also. The first time around the barrels were hard to turn, but he installed a crank handle on them that has a gear that runs through the garbage side and it makes it easier to turn and the gears help to grind the garbage a little quicker too.

mark sheaffer
3/20/2013 4:35:15 PM

I'm planning on building a single drum composter. My thought is to divide the inside of the drum in half using chicken wire and having an "in" door and an "out" door on either side of the chicken wire. Am I over-thinking this? The raw material would go in and as it decomposes, the organic matter would filter through the chicken wire to where the out door is located. Then I'm not picking banana peels out of the garden and putting them back in the barrel. I'd appreciate any thoughts on this.

charles giltner
3/8/2012 3:15:48 AM

For what I would need making two water tank models one above the other on the two fence posts would work very well, saving space and adding a little greater capacity/steady supply. The cloverleaf design is pretty good for the barrel although contrived for added capacity. The base for that as shown looks like it would separate without an additional brace on each end to keep the legs together under load and lateral stress of turning the composter. Very good work, thanks for sharing.

robert heinis
3/7/2012 9:40:14 PM

David, in the image gallery, regards Robert

david mccannon
3/7/2012 8:50:04 PM

Where's the diagram of the clover leaf composter?

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