How to Build a Compost Bin

By glblguy

building-compost-bin

Building a compost bin is something I’ve had on my list of things to do to ever since we moved here to the mountains. Compost is a great soil amendment for vegetable and flower gardens. Mature compost is the result of the natural breakdown of organic waste. Composting is the ultimate in recycling and considering organic waste makes up for more than 24% of municipal waste, composting is a great way to help the environment and save money.

Two weeks ago, I visited our local Lowes and picked up the wood and hardware needed to  start building a compost bin. I love building things, especially when my kids help as I get to teach them. Building a compost bin turned out to not only be a useful project, but a fun a fun family project as well.

Compost bin design

I started out initially with a compost pile over near the woods behind our vegetable garden. Using a compost pile is a frugal way to get started, but not the most efficient way to generate or maintain good compost. Let me briefly overview some of the more popular ways to compost. I’ll touch on the advantages and disadvantages of each:

  • Compost pile – Obviously the most frugal choice. Find an out of the way location and start piling. Advantages: inexpensive Disadvantages: eye sore, doesn’t produce mature compost quickly, can attract animals.
  • Wire bin – Another frugal choice. Just take some chicken wire (or similar fencing), make a cylinder out of it and begin mixing your compost inside. Advantages: inexpensive, better than a compost pile Disadvantages: Difficult to “turn”, doesn’t produce compost quickly
  • Compost Barrel – A compost barrel produces compost quickly and makes turning your compost a snap. Two of the many different barrel products are the Spinning Horizontal Composter and the Tumbleweed Composter. Advantages: fast compost, easy turning, attractive option Disadvantages: Somewhat expensive, makes a small amount of compost, will rust over time.
  • Wooden BinA wooden bin produces compost quickly and can be built to contain multiple bins to facilitate making more compost. There are tons of plans on the internet. Advantages: Attractive, can be built specifically for your needs, adjusted to your budget, fun – if you enjoy wood working. Disadvantages: Heavy, can be pricey, not the best solution for the non-do it yourselfer.

Building a compost bin

After researching several plans, I decided to go with a plan I found on Lowes.com. It had a material list, was the size I needed, and was a multiple bin plan. I also really liked the way it looked and the plan included lockable covers, which was important for me in order to keep the critters (and our dogs) out.

If you can do basic wood construction, you can assemble this bin. The most difficult part is making it square. If you decide to go this route, invest in a good carpenter square. I promise, you’ll be glad you did.

I took the materials list to our local Lowes and purchased all of the wood and hardware. Make sure you get everything you need on the first trip. Nothing worse than having to stop your project in the middle and head to the hardware store. Total cost for me was $350.00, but you could save some money by using scrap wood or existing hardware you may already have. Don’t use non-treated wood though, or your bin won’t last long.

Assembly took about 10 hours. Although if I had been doing it by myself (i.e. no kiddos), I think it would have been more like 6-8 hours. The plans from Lowe’s are good, but not perfect.

Here’s the end result:

One of the best features of this plan is that the wooden slats you see in the front are removable. If you look closely, you’ll see that they actually slide into tracks and stack on top of each other. There is a 1/4″ gap between the boards to allow for air-flow to the compost. The gaps were obtained by placing two screws in the bottom of each slat and leaving them out 1/4″. The removable slats make loading, unloading, and turning your compost so much easier.

The plan also has a raised floor which helps keep your compost dry and allows airflow into the bottom of the compost bin.  The lids also ease access to your compost, but protect it from being invaded by critters. In area that could be anything from our dogs to bears, but most likely racoons.

Overall I think it turned out very nice. It’s not perfect, but hey it’s a compost bin, not a piece of furniture right? One of the problems is that the plans from Lowes aren’t perfect. Let me share a few tips I learned along the way:

  • If you aren’t real experienced at building wood projects, pick up an extra piece of wood for each size. The plans specify the exact amount of wood you will need. One bad cut, and you won’t have enough wood. As my grandfather and father used to always reinforce to me: “Measure twice, cut once“. You can always use the extra wood for other projects you’ll have.
  • Use the step by step plans and not the downloadable diagram for measurements. They don’t match and the diagram is wrong. Use the diagram just as a visual reference.
  • The materials tells you to buy two boxes of most nails and screws. Buy one.   I have unopened extra boxes. I’m ok with that, as I always need them, but if you don’t do much wood work, it’s a waste of money.
  • As you build the compost bin, constantly check to make sure it’s horizontally and vertically square. If you don’t, it will make putting in the slats and top far more difficult.
  • Once you get the frame built, place it where you are going to keep it permanently. The completed compost bin is heavy. We made the mistake of assembling it in our driveway. Fortunately I have 5 boys and a truck, so we were able to load it up and hauled it up to our garden. But it was HEAVY. I’m guessing at completion (with no compost) it weights around 300lbs due to the treated wood.
  • One area of the plan that was NOT clear is how long to cut the the 2x2s for the lid. Measure from the back to the front of the slats. The plan seems to imply that you measure from the back to back of the slats. If you did this (like I did), the locks for your lid won’t work. I had to cut two small pieces of 2×2 to place the locks on so they would work. Look at the locks on the right side in the picture and you’ll see what I mean.
  • While you can do this project with a handsaw, there is enough cutting that a power circular saw would be highly recommended. If you don’t have one, pay the extra for a Dewalt. A Dewalt  saw is not the most frugal option, but it cuts wood like a hot knife through butter and will last you forever. I believe that paying more for quality tools is worth it in the long run. I’ve had mine for over 5 years and it’s never skipped a beat.

Filling it up with compost materials

Once we had it placed, we moved the compost pile into the bin. This gave me a chance to interweave some fresh material and also aerate the pile. I thought our pile would fill up at least 1 bin and most likely 1/2 of the other. Turns out in only filed about 3/4 of the one bin.

The secret to successful composting is the proper layering and ratio of materials. You want 1/3 green and 2/3 brown. Green includes things like: grass clippings, vegetable peelings, manure, seaweed, plants and plant cuttings. Seaweed? Yes, I compost the extra algae growth from my saltwater aquarium. Brown materials include: leaves, hay, coffee grounds, shredded paper, wood ash, sawdust, and teas bags. Layering your bit with green and brown materials in the right mixture is critical to having a productive compost pile. Don’t use full sheets of paper or newspaper, as they will just compact your compost pile. Also, shred leaves before placing them in the bin to avoid the same problem. An easy way to do this is to run over the leaves with a lawn mower a few times.

You can see here in this picture the initial layering when we loaded the new bin:

I’ve since added more grass clippings to the top. All the white is shredded paper out of my paper shredder. I’ve also started the second bin as well with a base of dry leaves I found under our deck. Leaves make for great compost.

To hold kitchen scraps until we can take them up to the bin, we keep a 5-gallon bucket with a lid next to the trash and other recylables. You can pick up the bucket and lid at Lowe’s for next to nothing in the painting area. Here’s a picture:

kitchen-compost-container

Now we wait. Mature compost generally takes 3-6 months depending on the materials. The only care and maintenance required is to turn the materials every few weeks to keep things aerated. Airflow is a critical component to good compost.

A tell tale sign that your compost is maturing and breaking down properly is the temperature at the center. It should be between 110 and 160 degrees F. Yes, that hot. It surprised me too. I have a long stem thermometer and tested my temperature last week: 120 degrees F. So I’m composting away! (yeah I know, I’m excited about compost…my wife picks on me too).

We’re adding new compost materials to the second bin now, while the first bin “cooks”. I plan to build a compost sifter soon too using some scrap wood and left hard hardware fencing I have. This will allow us to filter out all of the materials that didn’t fully breakdown and have good clean compost.

To make sure I turn it on time, I’ve added repeating entries to my Google calendar to remind me. Most experts recommend turning it every 4 weeks, so that’s what I’m doing. I’ll keep you posted!

Composting Resources

Here are some really good resources I found on composting you should check out:

Do you compost? Have any tips you can share? What type of compost bin do you use? Add a comment!


42 Responses (including trackbacks) to “How to Build a Compost Bin”

  1. Luke Says:

    Awesome! Thanks for this post. One of my summer projects is to build a compost bin, but I hadn’t figured out how to build one yet.

  2. Maggie Says:

    I love it! I would love to compost but am well aware that I don’t stick with my “new ideas” very long before I have moved on to the next one. I really have to prove to Charlie that I will stick with it before he will help me get started. This year I am working on recycling maybe next year I can move on to compost.

  3. Denise Says:

    I enjoyed your post and your enthusiasm about building the bin but my first thought was $350!!! To me, that is a LOT of money to build a compost bin. This article is great for gardening and DIY but not for saving money. Many people might not have that kind of cash for a compost bin. I realize that you might look at this as an investment and you did list cheaper alternatives but still, I was taken aback at the ammount of money that you spent. Take care and God Bless.

  4. glblguy Says:

    @Maggie – Hey Maggie! (First time commentator everyone!)

    I’d been wanting to do it for a while as well. Working on the yard this spring we just had so much yard “waste” that it just sorta made sense.

    btw, I’m real guilty of the moving along on ideas…I really have to focus. See ya Wednesday ;-)

  5. Angie Says:

    Great work! We had one come with our recently purchased house. I hadn’t thought of putting my paper from shredder in there. Love it!

  6. MyJourney Says:

    Considering I live in a Condo, I think the neighbors would be a little angry about a garbage box in my shared backyard.

    That being said, I’d love to hear more about your fishtank. I have a 90 gallon, my dad has 2 175s, a 90 and a 55, but all freshwater.

  7. Kim Says:

    I am just about to do this too, but for free!

    -went to a local factory and got a free plastic 50 gallon barrel (with air tight lid to keep things in as we roll it).

    -put a used metal fence post through center (longways) to help break up the soil as I have kids roll it around.

    Debating cutting a side door in it. I think it will get too heavy to keep upright and having to tip it over to roll it around.

  8. DDFD at DivorcedDadFrugalDad.com Says:

    Nice bin!

    I love composting . . . helps my garden and keeps my garbage from smelling between dump runs!

  9. glblguy Says:

    @Denise – Some things are worth spending money on so they last. Wood is expensive, and while more frugal options do exist,they would not have done near as good a job, nor met my needs like the bin I built.

    I don’t think composting really saves you money, it’s more about reusing and recycling. With that said, we are pretty serious gardeners and will get a great deal of use from the compost.

    I realize many people may not have that kind of money, and hence why I listed the other options. Personally, I would rather spend $350.00 once, than $50.00 10 times over for a “bin” that didn’t met my needs, my neighbors hate, or did’t last more than a year or two.

    Thanks for your comment.

  10. jim Says:

    Great post, we don’t have a bin (I just bury it) yet but one thing we do is leave a coffee can by the sink to collect the scraps we want to compost, it’s like a mini version of your 5-gal drum. It’s a lot easier to manage and the lid is easier to open. :)

  11. Lisa Says:

    That’s a great looking compost bin. As a longtime composter, I’ve developed an excitement about the maturing compost that my friends think is geeky. May the omposting force be with you.

    I’ve got one fairly important correction to your list of “greens” and “browns.” Things like coffee grounds, tea bags, and hay (not straw, but hay) are greens rather than browns. The “green” and “brown” refer to nitrogen content and not color. The balance you’re trying to achieve is a caron:nitrogen ratio. Coffee grounds are one of the higher nitrogen components. In fact, they can heat your compost pile up as much as manure. Hay is also a green, though maybe not as intense as fresh grass clippings.

    Thanks for sharing your bin. I look forward to seeing your completed compost sifter.

  12. Ken Oatman Says:

    I have a free solution.

    Four wooden pallets. Tie together with wire coat hangers.

    Mine’s been going great for ten years now.

  13. Clay Wllmsn Says:

    Some blogs ago, I posted other uses to recycle paper shreds. Do you have a preference on using a strip cut shredder or a crosscut paper shredder? I only use crosscut as it shreds it finer.

  14. Bridgette Says:

    Thanks for reminding me that I have a garage bag full of shredded paper. I’ll have to retrieve it and use it in my compost!

  15. Heidi Says:

    Your bin is beautiful! If your turn your pile once a month you will get great soil in about 6 months. BUT you can actually speed up the process by turning the pile more often. Geek factor alert: if you monitor the temperature of your pile you will notice that it hits it’s peak after a few days, then goes down slowly from there. If you turn your pile when the temperature starts to go down you can speed up the decomposition considerably. Each time you turn the pile it will peak again — that is when the rapid decomposition takes place. I have found that turning every 5-7 days is ideal in my area (realistically it gets done once a week at my house.) At once a week our compost is done in 6 weeks. Another benefit of keeping the temperature up is it “cooks” the seeds that may get in there and you don’t get unwanteds sprouting in your garden.

  16. Gravity Gardener Says:

    Good info.. I find it pretty easy to compost once you are in the mindset that a lot of the fruit and vegetables you discard could easily be added to a compost box.

    I created my compost bin from discarded 3×3 pallets. They worked out pretty well.

    If anyone is interested, I added the steps and pictures of the process.
    http://gravitygarden.com/bucketgarden/?p=552

    Happy Composting!

  17. Chuck Says:

    The Lowes design has a floor. Do worms still find there way into the pile? I understand that worms help the composting process.

  18. Chuck Says:

    Sorry for the error: Do worms still find “their” way into the pile?

  19. glblguy Says:

    Chuck, no they don’t, but the advantage of floor is that it keeps the compost dryer and allows more air to circulate into the pile. Good air circulation is critical to the composting process.

    Worms are great, but if I wanted worms I use a vermicomposting bin. I am considering one of those as well.

    I have lots of ants, do those count? :-) Seriously, from everything I’ve read, having ants is good sign.

  20. concerned Says:

    Besides the crazyness of spending $350 on something like that the wood you used is treated and you are ending up with poison in your composted soil ….

  21. Susannah Martin Says:

    We went with the “compost pile” method. We all have small yards around here and they are fenced, so there are very few animals to worry about. If it starts looking unattractive, we just turn it which ends up burying anything that doesn’t look like dirt yet. The bonus is that we have a ton of worms now, they just love it (free bait :) ).

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  23. Frank in Fla. Says:

    Cement blocks work real well, too. Turn them sideways with the holes for ventilation. Make a semi – circle and load it up. It makes it easy to govern the size you need by making the circle bigger or smaller… Higher or lower. I have a sizeable garden & my wife is fanatical about recycling & saving organic stuff for the composter. Both yard waste & kitchen scraps go in. At the end of the season when I put the planting area to sleep from October to February, I transfer my “Black Gold” to the beds & cover them with black plastic. This finishes everything off….weed seeds included. I never thought in 55 years of life that I’d be excited about rotted grass & lettuce in my backyard. Happy Composting & Happy Gardening!!!

  24. Morgan Kelly Morin Says:

    I am noobie in blog and have just created my own site and today I ‘m doing my best to learn as many as possible regarding this kind of new world. I truly like your blog template, can you tell me what skin is it? Is that custom design or is it paid one? However I don’t have the funds to get paid design nor got the ability to custom design myself. I’m sorry for this newbie question, thanks.

  25. Belinda Says:

    I cannot find the plans for this compost bin on Lowes site can you send it to me?

  26. Ryan Says:

    Love the compost bin but the plans aren’t on Lowes site anymore. Can you send them to me?

  27. Bekah Says:

    I wasn’t able to find the plans on the Lowes site. Any place else you can recommend?

  28. Ben Says:

    For the last few posters asking where to find the plans, they are linked to from the Lowes site, but you do have to do some hunting. Currently the plans are at http://www.lowescreativeideas.com/idea-library/projects/Building-a-Compost-Bin-0109.aspx .

  29. spike Says:

    Uh, where is the materials list?

  30. J Says:

    Link to the materials list/instructions:

    http://lowescreativeideas.com/idea-library/projects/Building-a-Compost-Bin-0109.aspx

  31. john Says:

    Thank you for a wonderful review of what looks like a great plan for a composter..alas, I think Lowes has taken this project off the web..do any readers have a copy of the instructions and materials list?

    Thanks!

  32. Tequila Bob Says:

    Lowes has removed the plans again. I found the pdf for the plans on a different blog using a google search. This blogger has posted the pdf so the plans can be downloaded from his site.
    http://www.sonorangarden.com/Building%20a%20Lowes%20Compost%20Bin.pdf

  33. john Says:

    Thank you Tequila Bob! Let the hammers fly!

  34. Gson Says:

    Hey @Denise and other compost bin DIYers. No need to spend a whole bunch of money on wood. Use pallets! They’re everywhere and free!
    Get a bunch and either pry them apart or if you have a Sawzall (reciprocating saw) just cut all the nails holding the wood together. Spend 1/2 hour to an hour breaking down pallets and you will have all the wood you need for this project. The only expense is nails and maybe hinges. Plus—-most pallets are untreated wood and therefore you don’t have to worry about chemicals in treated wood leaching into your compost. Double whammy!

  35. Jaskn Says:

    Do you have the plans and material list for your compost bins? I’ve looked at Lowes.com and its not published any longer.

  36. Les Says:

    Just a thought in regards to the cost of this project. You can get used pallets for free (from Lowes and Home Depot or any major grocery store chains) and then use the slats off of those to use with the 2 X 4 frame. You can also use the whole pallet for the base floor as well if you like. So there are some ways to cut the cost if you do not want to invest in all new lumber for this project. But this is good design and is versatile.

  37. Benjamin Joue Says:

    Great compost, I actually started to build mine as well and hopefully my credit card goes through. Thanks again and I hope to see more about these different compost bins.

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