Introduction: Stylish and Low Cost 55 Gallon Drum Planters

Picture of Stylish and Low Cost 55 Gallon Drum Planters

I wanted to build some simple, low cost & attractive containers for a few fruit trees that were ready to be replanted in my backyard.  Using second hand 55 gallon food safe plastic barrels and some scrap wood that I cleaned up on the planer, I was able to create some very basic planters for my backyard garden.  The wood was free and the barrels were purchased off of craigslist for $10 a piece.  

The project came together in an easy afternoon at the shop, and what's best, I got to use my brad nailer for the first time - bonus!

Inside the containers I planted a black jack fig tree, meyer lemon tree, and an unknown varietal of avocado that I started from seed 6 years ago.  All in all, I think they really spruce up my backyard.

Step 1: Source a Plastic Barrel

Picture of Source a Plastic Barrel

I was able to find cheap and clean used barrels all over craigslist.  Although you could use a steel drum as the structural container you wouldn't be able to use the brad nailer to affix the decorative wood slats - half the fun of this project, so I opted for plastic barrels which were cheaper and widely available used online.  

I paid $10/barrel and bought two of them, one blue and one white, from a nice guy who was using them as rain barrels, but had just upgraded his system to something larger.

Step 2: Cut Barrel

Picture of Cut Barrel

Using a jig saw with a fine tooth blade, cut the top off of one of the barrels.  

To mark an even cut line all the way around the barrel I simply held a marker in place at the height I wanted to cut at and spun the barrel around keeping the marker stationary - voila. 

To make two smaller planters instead of just one huge one, cut the barrel in half and DON'T cut the top of the barrel off, since that will now become the bottom.

Step 3: Deburr

Picture of Deburr

Deburr the lip of the barrel you just exposed from your cut with a de-burring tool.

This step is completely unnecessary, but just something nice to throw in if you have the tool and the time.

Step 4: Drill Drainage Holes

Picture of Drill Drainage Holes

Using a decent sized drill bit (3/8" or larger), drill many holes through the bottom of the barrel to promote good drainage.  

Container gardens need to drain well in order provide healthy environments for the plants that grow inside them.

Step 5: Attach Risers

Picture of Attach Risers

I wanted to raise the really big barrel off of the ground just a little bit so it would be easier to move around and position in my backyard.  

I did this by creating two simple skids out of 2x4's and attaching them to the bottom of the full-size barrel with drywall screws and fender washers so they wouldn't rip out.

Step 6: Prepare Scrap Wood

Picture of Prepare Scrap Wood

The next order of business was to get to work on revitalizing some old wooden redwood slats (good for the outdoors) that I salvaged from my garage.  I had some other scrap wood lying around in the shop as well so I used that too.

I first ran all the boards through the planer to clean them up a bit, then ripped them to varying widths on the table saw.  Next, I cut them all to length using a stop-block on the miter saw.  First, a long set for the full height barrel, second, some shorter pieces for the half-size barrels.

Plane, rip, chop and repeat until you've got a sizable pile of scrap wood to adorn your barrels.

Step 7: Affix Wood to Barrel - Method 1

Picture of Affix Wood to Barrel - Method 1

Grab an air powered brad nailer and start shooting the place up!

This was the most fun part of the build process by far.  Taking random boards of contrasting color, begin to cover the plastic barrel in wooden slats abutting them next to eachother as closely as possible so no blue-barrel shows through.

Continue working your way around the barrel until it's completely been covered. 

I used a block on the bottom of the barrel to align the wooden slats so that everything would be even on the top.

Use sufficiently long brads so that you've got 1/2" or so of nail sticking out on the inside of the barrel once you shoot your nail through the wood slats.

Step 8: Affix Wood to Barrel - Method 2

Picture of Affix Wood to Barrel - Method 2

On the full-size barrel I simply abutted each wooden board around the barrel.  On the two half-size barrels I affixed the slats like shingles at a slight angle on top of one another for a different effect.  

Follow the same principles as described in method 1 to affix the boards, but this time simply rest the edge of one board on top of the preceding slat.

Both methods give a nice effect - do what you like best.

Step 9: Hammer Down Tips of Brad Nails

Picture of Hammer Down Tips of Brad Nails

Take a hammer and use it to bend down the exposed end of the brad on the inside of the barrel. 

This will lock the boards into place so the nails can't wiggle out, as well as protect your hands during potting from all the sharp nails now on the inside of your planter.

Step 10: Make Top

Picture of Make Top

I came up with two simple methods for making a rim/top to the planters.  

The first involved cutting the edges of 8 short sections of scrap wood to 22.5 degrees so that they could form an octagon around the top of the full height barrel.  It took a little bit of experimentation to get a perfect fit, but starting with the piece a little long and then chopping them all to the same length bit by bit, I was able to create a perfectly fitting octagon that matched my barrel.

The other method for the nested shorter barrels was to simply continue the shingle style nesting that I used on the sides, on the top as well.  I laid down one short slat section first, and then in a sunburst pattern spiraled additional boards on top.  

The octagon topper was held together with brads and glue, while the sunburst pattern on the shorter barrels is simply nailed into place with the brad gun.

Step 11: Screen Holes

Picture of Screen Holes

The bottom of one of my planters was originally a barrel top, and thus, it had two holes for pouring out liquids.  

Since these holes were just a bit too big and would let dirt out the bottom, I used some old window-screen material to cover the holes.

Step 12: Gravel

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Above ground planters need good drainage, so I put some small pebbles at the bottom of each of the planters.  About an inch or so of gravel will do fine.

Step 13: Soil

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Fill the planters with a soil mixture that's optimized for container gardening.  In this case, something with a decent compost percentage and good drainage.  I'm using "Kellog Patio Planter Mix" that I bought at my local Home Depot.

Step 14: Plant

Picture of Plant

Plant your plants/fruit trees/vegetables into the pot.  

I planted a Black Jack fig, a Meyer lemon tree, and an avocado tree that I started from seed 6 years ago that was desperately needing a larger pot.

Step 15: Mulch and Your Done

Picture of Mulch and Your Done

On top of the plant goes more soil to cover the roots, and a topper layer of wood chunks or mulch so that the California sun doesn't bake all the water right out of the container as soon as I water them.

Most of the slats that I used were some very old redwood shingles, so I wasn't too worried about rot outside and water damage.  That being said, hitting the planter with a coat of water-based exterior polyurethane or varnish will increase the lifespan of these planters tremendously, and if you're in a particularly wet climate, would definitely be a good idea.  I'll probably give them a coat later this season just for safety.

Place the planters and the project's done.


Swansong (author)2017-04-12

That's beautiful!

grannyjones (author)2015-11-28

Has anyone tried this with a dead fridge? Nice rectangular planter, insulated against excessive heat. Good for taters!

SimoneW18 (author)grannyjones2017-04-09

I did similar thing to a dead fridge turned it on its back ripped out all the electrics etc anything not required plugged up holes ,,placed boards all round and on fridge door turned it in entertainer for keeping beer and soft drinks on ice for parties

daveand5 (author)2012-07-08

a green (recycling hint) for planters, to avoid heavy planters with rock and loads of dirt, use plastic bottles or aluminum cans as a filler on the bottom to take up unneeded dirt space, then cover with landscape material, then fill with the gravel and dirt to actual depth needed. bushes and trees need more depth than flowers, flowers only need about 8 inches of soil, and the large barrel would be too heavy to move easily otherwise.

HandyGal101 (author)daveand52016-03-08

Another option I've used is Styrofoam shipping peanuts. They are light and I think indestructible.

HandyGal101 (author)daveand52016-03-08

Another option I've used is Styrofoam shipping peanuts. They are light and I think indestructible.

HandyGal101 (author)daveand52016-03-08

Another option I've used is Styrofoam shipping peanuts. They are light and I think indestructible.

daveand5 (author)2012-07-08

cool planters, when i build a few i think I'm gonna grab some steel strips, acid etch them for antique look, then add them top and bottom to give more of a barrel look.

HandyGal101 (author)daveand52016-03-08

davidand5 did you ever complete this project and put on the metal band?? I would love to see the completed project.

noahw (author)2012-07-09

I really appreciate all the ideas people gave in these comments. My breakthrough concept here was just to attempt to build a quick and cheap planter that looked better than a plastic barrel.

Improving the longevity of the project by using stainless brads, or a pallet bander to hold the slats in place is definitely a change that I would recommend.

Additionally, if you don't know the history behind your barrel, it isn't worth taking the chance of growing your veggies in the stuff that created the ninja turtles, and so it's probably better to simply wait until you can find a safer alternative.

Thanks all!

HandyGal101 (author)noahw2016-03-08

great idea. You could use so many different size containers this way and then make them look like they all belong together!! The only thing that I wood possibly add would be to paint your container before starting. Brownish if you are covering w/wood just in case the lathes would shrink or if a couple boards were not butted up against each other.

KellyCraig (author)2016-01-22

Couple other points to add to this, obviously, good idea:

1) If you leave a little gap between the bottom of the wood and the base, the wood is less likely to wick up water from the ground.

2) My barrels came from a farmers fertilizer supply and were free. Of course, pay attention to what was in them and how it will affect your plants or trees and the environment.

KellyCraig (author)2016-01-22

This also works on car, truck and tractor tires, to make your "lifetime planters" more aesthetically pleasing. Of course, cutting most of the top out (leave a few inches of the tire wall on top to keep the shape of the tire).

KellyCraig (author)2016-01-22

Since brads will leave stains in reaction with moisture, and if that would be a problem, also consider making three kerfs in each pieces of wood at the top, middle and bottom.

This allows you to hold the wood on with copper or galvanized wire. I used copper, which is easy to snug and twist.

To terminate the wires, I just drilled holes into the bucket where the wires meet, pushed them through and twisted the wires together inside.

Kreat0r (author)2015-12-14

cool looking design!

RoyB21 (author)2015-10-12

Screw the wood from the inside of the barrel with 3/4" No. 8 screws with 1/8" x 1/2" washers. Use a square drive bit & square drive screws. I've used this with wood facing on Rubbermaid containers. If you just use screws they tear through.

SylvieD (author)2015-07-17

Another option for those who are worried about the boards coming off over time...glue them in place with this brown glue that comes in a silicon like tube AND THEN nail them. Even though I'm pretty sur just with that glue they won't ever come off.

daveand5 (author)2012-07-08

I hate to criticize good instructables, but since your using a power nailer/stapler, wouldn't it be better to nail from the inside with nails of shorter length? more secure and no bending over of nails to snag everything including flesh? Making the slats stay in place firmly would simply be using a clamp or laying barrel down with slat to be nailed on the bottom. if edges of the boards fit close enough, glue can be used also to improve stability and overall unit stability.

elaine_focus (author)daveand52015-06-12

I immediately started thinking of alternatives to fastening the wood to the barrels. All in all, a good post.

noahw (author)daveand52012-07-09

My concern there is that the boards could still easily be pulled off. Brad nails don't have the best holding power when you apply a force parallel to their orientation...I think over time the boards would come off. Additionally, the boards are all different thicknesses (scrap wood) and so you'd be using multiple sized nails in order to have them poke through the front of the boards. I thought better to nail IN with intentionally long nails and then bend the tips down with a hammer so they'd hold in place a bit better. Once bent over, the boards really are secure, and it really isn't a fear for snagging because the planter is filled with dirt. I don't plan on digging up my fruit trees in the near future, and if I did, I don't think I'd be rooting around the side of the barrel with my hands. I had the same concern when I first started - sharp nails - ouch! But after weighing the alternatives, I still think this is the best/easiest way to go. Thanks for your comment and ideas!

thrutraffic (author)noahw2012-07-09

Re: nailing from interior -- The wood slats are outside the would be inside it with the nailgun. Hitting the proverbial fish would likely be easier from that vantage point. ;-} On the other hand, the nails, heated by passage thru the plastic might just melt a little and get dragged into the wood -- self-glued! (Note to patent attorney.) BTW, daveand5 is dead on about your good instructable. Nicely done, noahw.

bretinc (author)2015-04-26

good idea brother! Cheers!

SIRJAMES09 (author)2015-03-27

good instructable!! I like it!

Another way to do this would be to build a container(a shell for lack of a better description) & then place your barrel inside...just a thought....

dlprice57 (author)2015-03-19

yes the gravel does help with the drainage and the drilled holes at the bottom help very much I made it, it works...

dana-dxb (author)2013-03-26

here it is

dana-dxb (author)2013-03-26

wish id seen this last year whin i planted my morning glory in a barrel
i didnt add any underneath holders and i cant move it or change it to a beggar place now that the roots are over flowing and to heavy to move

barakplasma (author)2012-08-02

Gravel won't help the drainage unfortunately.

JIM5349 (author)2012-07-10

Love the idea. Great instructable. Next step would be to make it a self watering planter ??

patmac (author)2012-07-10

Very nice looking planter and great instructions.

lassensurf (author)2012-07-08

Have you heard of any other places to get them? I'm living in a somewhat rural place and I can't find em anywhere except brand new for $80-90.

kerns (author)lassensurf2012-07-09

Automated carwashes (at least in NorCal) commonly receive their cleaning solutions in 28 gal. plastic barrels. Those in my area are also usually happy to give them away - the owner/operators I've talked to say they have to either chop their extras up for recycling or trash, or pay for large item removal. YMMV.

greatpanda (author)lassensurf2012-07-08

If you're in a rural area, use tractor tires or truck tires and stack them, like (shameless plug). Cut the sidewalls out, and don't forget to paint or cover them with something so they don't overheat. We use a pallet bander to secure the slats, nailer won't do rubber :) To use less dirt, fill 2/3 with wood mulch (chipped from logging or pallet remanufacturing), it will retain lots of water and capture your nitrogen runoff.

noahw (author)greatpanda2012-07-09

I like the idea of using a pallet bander to secure the slats very much! The brads aren't quite as "weak of link" as I think people suspect they are since once hammered down, really do lock in the boards quite well...but, the pallet bander would be perfect for this! The only snag would be to cut the boards thin enough to follow the contour of the barrel. Since the profile of these barrels is an arc, you'd have to muscle the slats into position, or steam bend them, which simply ads an extra step. If I made more of these, I'd definitely explore the steel strap/bander option. They even sell hand pallet banders that aren't too expensive! Thanks for the tips!

noahw (author)lassensurf2012-07-09

Besides craigslist I'm not sure where to look to be honest. Perhaps you can re-purpose another volume (stacked tires like greatpanda said) that might work. Someone else has already mentioned using rubbermaid bins as an alternative. Good luck!

tshallow74 (author)lassensurf2012-07-08

If you are in a rural area, try an area farmer, who may get herbicides in these kind of barrels. Just be sure to rinse out 3X and then fill completely with water and add ammonia. Then let soak for 24 hours. This should take care of herbicide residue.

BLUEBLOBS2 (author)2012-07-09

Amazing... absolutely amazing! What a wonderful job you have done! Rather than being satisfied with a cheap plastic bucket you went out and made a stylish, cheap, and easy to build alternative out of a cheap plastic bucket. I might have to try this, but with a little modifications... Great job!

roushent (author)2012-07-08

Preserving the wood will be the least of your worries re life of the planter. The weak link are the brads. They are pretty small in diameter and usually rust quickly when in contact with water. Using stainless steel #316 would extend the lifespan of the project by many years.

noahw (author)roushent2012-07-09

Good tip - stainless would have been the way to go for sure. They are 18 gauge brads, we'll see how they hold up over time. Since the boards aren't structural, and only ornamental, I have a feeling it will meet my expectations.

gailgates (author)2012-07-08

There we go!!! I am going to make one with a 20 gallon Rubbermaid tub.

Nice Post!

noahw (author)gailgates2012-07-09

Now you're talkin'!

Luny (author)2012-07-08

I love this! I have one of these blue barrels that I would love to use for a planter but I have no idea what it was originally used for. Is there a way to check? I'd hate to plant a fruit tree in one and then find out later that the fruit is inedible due to chemical leaching.

And while I'm at it, do you think the slats could be glued onto the barrel instead of nailing/stapling them? I don't think nailing from the inside as suggested by chuckyd would be possible for me - I don't think my arms would be long enough to get to the bottom.

noahw (author)Luny2012-07-09

The barrel is big enough such that I could put my upper body inside of it, and I'm a pretty big guy. That being said, it's not quite as deep as you may think, and the nails don't necessarily have to go at the very bottom. But, to answer your glue question, I think you could certainly use a construction adhesive to hold them on there. You'd want to rough up the plastic barrel with some sandpaper and cut your slats thin enough so that they'd bend over the arc-profile of the outside of the barrel. It's not an insignificant bend on the barrel, so you really would be shaping the thin slats of wood into position in order for your to be able to glue them. Fasteners let's you avoid this process.

Re knowing what was in a barrel before you got it, I'm not aware of any registry that traces the life of a barrel, let alone even a serial number that you could use to trace it. Best practice would be to buy a new one, or a used one so long as you knew the history behind it. Testing for contaminants would be exhausting, and more costly than just buying a new barrel. You could of course plant something inside that you weren't planning on eating and was purely ornamental...but that's not exactly a revolutionary concept I'm coming up with here. Sorry, but thanks for your support and comment!

tshallow74 (author)2012-07-08

Very nice. I plan to modify this a little to use as a rain barrel.

noahw (author)tshallow742012-07-09

I'm thinking about this for rain barrels now as well - good idea tshallow74. The big blue or white barrel sitting by the downspout doesn't do it for me, small scale wood siding does. Best of luck in your project and please post pics when you make it happen!

greatpanda (author)2012-07-08

For the naysayers: leaching is quite poorly understood where it comes to growing edible plants. According to the Humanure Handbook, the active composting processes available in healthy soils can return even radioactive material back to inert natural compounds. Furthermore, the long-chain polymers in plastics and rubbers are not easily taken in by plant roots, if at all due to their molecular length. That said, there has not been any hard science to say one way or another what effect these materials can have this far downstream in a system like this, the best that has been done is heresay from people who have had "no measurable side effects" and have grown their gardens in them for several decades.

noahw (author)greatpanda2012-07-09

Good points about leaching greatpanda, but as with anything, there's a "be cautious" risk management side to this argument that everyone has to mitigate for themselves.

I used to do research on hyperaccumulators in school trying to get various varieties of Marigolds and Poplar trees to suck up loads of heavy metals from contaminated soil samples. The process is slow and relatively ineffective without several crop rotations, however, the plants did accumulate unhealthy levels of heavy metals in their structures. That being said, only a few varieties of plants excel at hyper-accumulation and most plants either find the soil inhospitable, or don't accumulate the metal at all.

Luckily there are plenty of sources for used food-grade barrels (oil, olives, other people's rain barrels - where I got mine from). And in a pinch, you can always purchase some new barrel straight from the manufacturer, so there's lots of ways to avoid any potential problem.

chuckyd (author)2012-07-08

This is a great re-use of regular materials. However, there are a few precautions that must be mentioned.

Many such industrial barrels originally contained outragously hazardous materials. Such containers must never be used to contain anything else. The residuals from many chemicals can never be completely cleaned, but will leach out over time, especially with such uses as planters.

The staples will rust in short order. Either use stainless steel fasteners (from the inside), or make a frame for attaching the boards.

Rot of even redwood is definitely a concern if you want them to last for more than a season. For the polyurethane to work, each wood piece must be coated on all surfaces. Coating on one surface only will not only provide no protection for the rest of the wood, but the one side will soon fail due to moisture approaching it from the inside of the wood.

Most instructions I have seen regarding such large planters suggest using several sizes of aggregate in the bottom, with the finer aggregates at the top, graduating to the largest aggregates at the bottom. Using this approach landscape fabric is seldom required, and screening over the holes is also not reqruired if the bottom aggregate is large enough.

Don't worry about weight. The safest way to move the barrels is to use handtrucks.

sparkleponytx (author)2012-07-08

Thanks for the awesome Instrctble! I plan to make some for my garden/yard.

usmcoap (author)2012-07-05

If you want repeatable lengths of wood for the octagon, masking tape the lengths together in a stack and cut them all together on a drop saw. That way, each piece is identical. Nice instructable though.

randofo (author)2012-07-04

That's nice. Very intentional-like.

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Bio: I've worked for Instructables off and on since 2006 building and documenting just about everything I enjoy doing. I am now the Creative Programs ... More »
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