DIY Compost Tumbler

Posted: May 31, 2011 in Being Green

As part of my effort to reduce landfill waste from our home we’ve instituted several different methodologies:

  • Use reusable bags (the real effort is remembering to bring them to the store).  The best strategy we’ve found is to put them immediately back into the car when we are finished emptying them from the latest trip to the supermarket / store.  Then on your grocery list put in #1 spot – bags.  In fact some metropolitan areas are now charging if you need to use plastic or paper bags, even some ban plastic bags altogether.
  • Do a better job in collecting recyclable materials.  In order to make it more convenient we’ve set aside several recycling areas right outside the door into our garage: normal Olathe recycling can (takes all hard plastic up to a #7 (on the recycle triangle); tin; aluminum; cardboard and paper).  We also recycle all glass jars with a separate bin and then when full take it to the Blackbob Walmart where there is a Ripple glass recycling container.  Plastic bags (doesn’t just have to be those thin cheap store bags) or plastic wrap from toys, etc can be collected and recycled at all large department and grocery stores as they are now required by law to accept recycled plastic bags.  Interesting statistic is that plastic bags take up to 100 years to start to biodegrade – plus they are not as inert as we expected and can lead to release of toxins into the environment.
  • And last but not least and the topic of this post: Compost non meat/dairy food waste and yard waste.


I wanted to make my own compost in an easier fashion.  I currently had a compost pile I kept at the far end of the yard in a small pile with lattice borders to allow air in.  The hard part became trying to stir / mix it as that helps the organisms and bacteria compost the material faster.  I searched around on the web and looked at prebuilt compost tumblers costing at least $100 for even the most basic ones with others costing significantly more.  I don’t understand why they were so expensive as essentially they are a large plastic bin with holes in it.  So I went about finding a good DIY kit I could build one at a fraction of the cost.

There are many kinds you can make from:

  • Stationary bins / piles where you have to use a shovel to stir it frequently.

  • Stationary bins where you feed compost into the top and scoop out from the bottom.

  • Ground tumbler where you literally kick it around to mix it up

  • Tumblers that are affixed to stands or platforms (the one below costs $250!).  I’ve even seen plans to hook up an electric motor to drive a fixed gear on the tumbler in order to set a timer to turn it in regular intervals.

My DIY Plans

I wanted to make my own and learn more about composting at the same time.  I searched and found a simple set of instructions (Compost Tumbler) that looked pretty easy and cheap to do.  One major factor I wanted was it to be close to the ground so it can retain heat better during the night and in the winter (heat helps bacteria thrive).  Normal compost temperature is around 140 degrees but can get up to as high as 160 degrees.  The general rule is the higher the temperature you can reach the more items you can compost safely including dog waste (higher temps kill more pathogenic organisms and kill weed seeds).  You will want your compost also to be in direct sunlight for most of the day as it helps kick start the process.

I also made some changes to my liking during the process and have an updated it below.  The items I purchased was:

  • 1 55 Gallon Barrel ($20 from Craigslist – blue barrels tend to have had food grade or non-poisonous materials inside).
  • 1 3 Ft. x 18 In. Board  (I later decided to make my own 2×2 frame from a 2x2x10 so that the stand will not kill so much grass underneath.  The compost pile will leak juices and on a large board it will look nasty.
  • 4 NON Pivoting Wheels (HW store)
  • 2 Pivot Hinges (HW store)
  • 2 3 In. Pin Locks (HW store)
  • 1 drawer handle for easier door opening (HW store)
  • Wood Screws (though I did use a pop rivet gun instead).  The plastic barrel is quite thick and screws do work fine.
  • Heavy duty zinc plated pre cut with holes angle iron (HW store).
  • 4 one inch bolts that will fit in the angle iron with washers and nuts.
  • Spray paint (black / brown / green) – looks more natural and the darker the color the more sunlight to be absorbed.


  • Drill
  • 1/2″ Drill bit
  • Sawzall or Jigsaw – you can also use a Mini Hacksaw
  • Philips ( + ) Screwdriver
  • Adjustable Wrench for bolts


Where to get compostable items:

  • Food waste: vegetables; bread (worms love bread); rinsed egg shells (calcium is great for the soil); tea bags; coffee grinds; and non Meat, Dairy, or oil / fatty food.  The latter will attract animals and other pests.  Some are successful in composting rinsed shrimp or crustacean shells – however they could attract mice or rats so make sure he pile is pretty far from the house or inaccessible to them.  Get a compost pail with a built in charcoal filter and recyclable compost bags so you can throw scraps right in it and remove bag when full and not have to clean the pail.
  • Yard waste: grass clippings; leaves (you want more brown than green); dog waste can also be successfully composted but must be composted longer and at a higher temperature to kill bacteria resident in their droppings.  I’ve been successful in doing this (takes about a month though to thoroughly compost it).
  • Jump start your compost with healthy compost or soil full of worms – it has the bacteria in it ready to consume your compost.  If your compost is too wet add more medium such as news paper or sawdust.  If it is too dry – add water.  You can also add some low level nitrogen fertilizer to help get it started.


1. Cut Out Access Panel: The first thing you need to do is cut out the access panel to the barrel.  This needs to be big enough to fit a normal shovel inside with a scoop of compost.  It also should be pretty wide so you can also stir the pile inside if needed.  I cut a 1.5 foot wide x 3″ long access panel using the sawzall.  I drilled at each corner so I could fit the blade inside.  The Jigsaw will be easier to cut with if you have one.  You can use a Mini Hacksaw but the plastic is pretty thick so it’ll take some time to do it that way.  Please note this picture shows the access panel after I finished (didn’t take a pic after I originally cut it out).

2. Install hinges and pin locks into panel to secure door: This is the easy / busy work part.  You can use the screws that came with the pin locks and hinges as the plastic is pretty thick and will hold pretty firmly.  I choose to rivet them for a little nicer look.  Again this picture is after I painted the barrel.



3. Drill & Paint: This step is very easy as you take the 1/2″ drill bit and drill holes evenly spaced over entire surface of the barrel.  By doing this it allows more air to get into the pile as the bacteria need oxygen to do their work.  I also painted the barrel black color in order for it to absorb more sunlight.



4. Build Base for Barrel to sit on: After the paint has dried you need to build the base for it to sit on.  The original plans I found used a flat board which seemed easy enough.  I mocked up a piece of plywood I had lying around but then changed tact.  Notice my little helper giving me a hand.  I wound up using some left over 2×2’s I had from another project and made a base out of them giving the tumbler an open bottom which will not create such a big dead spot if I decide to move it later.  See Picture in Step 2 above for an idea of what I did.


5. Make it easier to Turn: After putting this together I thought I was done.  I filled it up with some good compost and added new materials and soil.  The very next day I went to turn it and could not turn it very well – seems when you have it 1/2 full it weighs a least a couple 100 pounds.  So I bought some pre-drilled angle steel (zinc plated – prevents rust).  I installed it so I can use a left over 2×2 to help turn it by amplifying the torque.


Rotate frequently – at least ever 48 hours.  In 2 weeks you should start getting some great compost as the bacteria works 24×7 and never takes a holiday.  Read up more on the best items for composting and never put the bin next to the house as it can invite unwanted pests.

If you have any questions – feel free to ask.  Plans are not 100% accurate but close.  I wound up making my own changes all throughout the project as it is pretty simple.

  1. Apache says:

    Great article. Any idea how long these last wise regular use?

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