Build a Tumbling Composter

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One of the keys to composting is aeration. The bacteria need oxygen to carry out the aerobic respiration that creates rich compost. One way to aerate your compost is with a pitchfork or a compost turning tool. If you keep your compost in a tumbler, however, all you have to do is turn the container. Since most compost barrels can be expensive, you may be interested in building your own for much less money and an hour of your time.


  1. Buy a plastic drum, between 20 and 55 gallons (75-200 liters), and a 48 inch (1.25 meter) length of 2 inch (5 cm) schedule 80 PVC pipe, or a length of 1 1/2 to 2 inch (3.8-5 cm) galvanized steel pipe.
  2. Drill holes in the center of the top and bottom of your drum, large enough for the pipe you are going to use for an axle .
  3. Pass the pipe or post through the center holes.
  4. Build a wooden saw buck to support the compost barrel. Nail 2 sets of 2x4s (pieces of wood that are 1.5″ × 3.5″ or 38×89 mm in terms of height and width, respectively) in an x-frame, and nail two 2x4s across the feet at the bottom for support.
  5. Set the barrel with the pipe in the wooden 2x4 saw buck.
  6. Drill holes in the body of the barrel with a 1-inch (2.5 cm) drill for aeration.
  7. Rotate the barrel in the sawhorse frame using the pipe or post as an axle.
  8. Cut a hole in the side and add simple hinges and a hasp to create a door with the piece you cut from the side of your drum. Or, you can simply use scrap wire to create three hinges, and use the same material and an old cabinet knob to effect a way to close the hatch.
  9. Create a Mixing Fin Inside the Barrel to help turn the compost when the drum is rotated. A long spare piece of galvanized sheet metal bent into an L shape and bolted to the interior wall of the barrel will do this nicely. (Put the Fin opposite from the Hatch, so as to weight balance the empty container.)
  10. Fill your drum composter with leaves or other compostable material, and allow your new "garden helper" to do its job. You will want to rotate the drum a few times every day or so, depending on the outdoor temperature. (See Tips below for ideas on how to add a handle.)
  11. Check the contents occasionally, and when they are broken down by the bacteria in the drum, remove them to use for soil amending, mulch, and other purposes around your lawn and garden.


  • If your barrel is a light color you might consider painting it a dark green, brown, or black. There are paints like Krylon that work particularly well on plastic. The dark color will absorb light and raise the temperature of your compost.
  • If the contents of the drum are very dry, moistening them will accelerate the composting process, but do not saturate them with water.
  • Composting (decomposing) occurs more quickly in warm weather.
  • If you would like to add a handle to help you turn the barrel, drill a 1" (2.5 cm) hole all the way through one end of the pipe. Slide a piece of rebar or other round steel tubing that is 1" (2.5 cm) in diameter through the holes. The rebar should be about 2' (60cm) long. Center it so that you now have two handles on the end of the pipe and can grasp them to turn the barrel. You can cover them with pipe insulation for an easier grip.
  • You could also build the tumbler on a diagonal axis (enough to create a slope) and put a plug in the bottom of the drum, which would allow you to add water that will help the decomposition and create a liquid fertilizer when drained from the drum.


  • Filling your composter with green (fresh cut) lawn trimmings or other material may cause it to generate too much heat, in which case it may begin to smolder, if the container is not rotated occasionally.
  • You may need to add supports for the barrel if you're using a plastic drum, otherwise the barrel may rip off of the axle. An example of those supports can be seen at

Things You'll Need

  • One 20-55 gallon (72-200 liter) plastic drum.
  • One 48 inch (1.25 meter)length of pipe with a 2 inch diameter (5 centimeter).
  • 2X4 treated lumber.
  • Nails
  • Circular saw.
  • Drill motor, hole saw, and drill bits.
  • Basic hand tools. (hammer, measuring tape, square)
  • Hinges

Related Tips and Steps