Introduction: Fountain From Buckets and Bowls With Automatic Water Resupply

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I had a large (31 inches diameter) stainless steel bowl that I acquired many years ago. The bowl has been kicking around outside since then. At one point I had it turned upside down and mounted on a tree stump - that made a shiny mushroom display. More recently I was experimenting with Savonius wind turbines where I used a couple of stainless steel buckets as the main components. So somewhere in the turbine time frame I came up with the idea of combining buckets and bowls to make a fountain. (My old concrete-type fountain had run its course and needed to be replaced).

I knew from experience with my old fountain that you really do need an automatic means of resupplying water to the fountain bowl to replace water that gets blown away by the wind and lost by evaporation. My idea was to use a conventional toilet tank valve with an arm and float to control the water flow. I ended up using a new-to-me toilet bowl water fill valve that is much smaller than the conventional device and is adjustable to manage water level.

The opening photo shows the fountain the same day we got it installed. Since then I've been planting grass seed and doing a variety of other improvements to the garden area. The video thumbnail photo shows the fountain as it it is now (a crow dropped by for a drink).

Step 1: The Main Fountain Parts

The sketch shows the approximate dimensions of the main fountain parts that I used. My initial fountain size reference was the big bowl that I already had. To fit in the pump and toilet shut off valves you will need a fair size bowl - mine measures about 31 inches in diameter and its about 16 inches deep.

The second photo shows the main buckets and bowls held together with clear packing tape. I went through this assembly not only to get a feeling for the shape and size but also to test the strength of the overall combination. To do this I set the temporary combination up outside and filled the big bowl to the top with water. Everything worked out so I went ahead with the project.

I bought the remaining bowls and buckets at Princess Auto (that's a chain here in Canada). I was pleased that the cost per bowl was not out of this world. My total cost for the 2 buckets and two bowls was about $100 (does not include the large bowl I had on hand).

My Sunterra brand fountain pump puts out 320 gallons per hour. I now know that that is overkill and if I were doing this again I would cut that down a fair bit. Fortunately the pump output is controllable with both the build in knob and the knobs that are included with the "Fountain nozzle kit" that I bought separately (about $20).

The wooden base is made from pressure treated 5/8 inch plywood and pressure treated 2x4's. The diameter of the base is 34 inches. This size fits nicely over the concrete anchor block and also leaves enough room to place some flower pots around the base bowl of the fountain.

Step 2: Tools Needed

If you checked out the video (above) you will see me using a wide variety of tools to build the fountain. But all of those tools are not essential to get the job done - the metal work consists almost solely of making a bunch of holes in the buckets and bowls. I've divided the tool list to show essentials and nice to have. (No welding is required for this project).

Essential tools

  • electric drill and a variety of screwdriver and drill bit sizes
  • metal/wood cutting hole saws (Greelee type punches much better though for the large holes)
  • jig saw and blades
  • hammer
  • carbide burr (tapered nose with sharp tip)
  • pliers
  • utility knife
  • carpenters level
  • center punch
  • hack saw
  • masonry bit for concrete anchor block holes
  • marker pen
  • pencil
  • ruler
  • adjustable wrench
  • wood rasp
  • pex plumbing tools (if you use the water connection type shown)

Nice to have tools

  • drill press with a few long shank drill bits
  • Greenlee type chassis punches (aka knockout punches)
  • hydraulic punch set
  • wood cutting bandsaw
  • nail gun
  • wood cutting miter saw (aka chop saw)
  • angle grinder

A while ago I was lucky enough to find a hydraulic punch set at the local Princess Auto store. It had a variety of punch sizes (all in metric) and it cost me about $120 - a real steal. Not sure if this is a standard stocked item but worth checking out if you are in Canada.

Step 3: Making Holes in the Big Bowl and the Cover-up Bowl

Big bowl

Three holes required: Two 1 inch holes - one for each toilet valve, and one 5/16 inch hole for the stainless steel threaded rod that secures the big bowl to the base bowl.

Start by test locating the pump and the two toilet valves to determine where to make the holes. The pump output should be in the center of the bowl. Just keep in mind that the holes must stay within the inside perimeter of the top column bucket. Good idea to draw a reference circle, using the inverted bucket as a guide, on the inside surface of the big bowl. Note: The pump has small suction cups for feet so there is no need to otherwise fasten it to the bowl.

The wall of the big bowl is much thinner than a typical toilet tank so it is necessary to make up or find a thick washer to let the plastic nuts grip the threaded part of the pipe. I found some 1/4 inch plastic and made up two washers, one for each valve.

Temporarily mount both shut off valves (hand tight is good enough for the test) and fill the bowl with water to check for leaks.

Cover-up bowl

Keep the low profile valve in place and remove the standard toilet bowl valve and cut the head off with a saw (a jig saw should work but I used a miter saw). Remount the valve and check it out for height. It must be higher than the pump but not so high as to make contact with the "cover-up" inverted bowl that hides the valves, pump, and wires. Once you determine a good height cut it off and reinstall. Good time now to leave the pump and nozzle in place and make a fountain nozzle clearance hole in the cover-up bowl. I made a hole about 1.7 inches (the punch set I mentioned has some odd sized punches - this one is labelled 43.2mm (1.700"). But fortunately exact sizes are not important for this project. A 1 inch and a 2 inch punch should take care of the whole project.

To find the center of the big bowl I levelled it up with my carpenters level and set loose a small ball bearing near the bottom. When the bearing settled at the bowl center I carefully marked the location with a marker pen.

Adding a drop of cutting oil helps with drilling and punching the holes.

Note: The carbide burr listed above in the Essential Tools is worth considering to make the starting hole in the big bowl, and perhaps all of the buckets and bowls for that matter. If the burr has a very sharp tip you won't even have to make an indentation with a center punch. This burr is intended to be used with a Dremel type rotary tool but I found that it worked well in the drill press running at just a few hundred rpm. For non drill press use it will probably be best to try the rotary tool.

Step 4: Column Buckets and Base Bowl Holes


After finding the centers of the bucket bottoms I drilled the 5/16 inch holes to clear the 5/16 inch threaded rod (that will eventually mechanically secure the big bowl to the column and base bowl). I found a paper disc placed on the bottom of the buckets was an easy way to locate the centers of the buckets.

Three 8-32 stainless steel machine screws and nuts tie the two column buckets tightly together. I made the holes for the screws a bit large to allow for any misalignment between buckets. Best to drill the holes in one bucket first and then secure the two buckets together with a temporary 5/16 inch nut and bolt at the center hole and then mark the location of the holes in the second bucket. Or if you use a long shank drill just drill down through the first set of holes to make holes in the second bucket.

While the two buckets are held together with the 5/16 inch nut and bolt you can locate and make the 2 inch diameter hole for the water flexible pipe and the pump electrical cord. Once again a long shank drill makes this operation quick and easy. After the pilot hole is made the buckets may be separated and punched with the 2 inch punch.

The bottom bucket will need 3 or four holes around the rim so that the bucket can be bolted to the inverted base bowl. I broke off one 3/16 inch drill bit making these holes so I switched to a long shank drill bit mounted in the drill press (a lot easier!).

Base bowl

Before I found out the benefits of using the carbide burr I had one heck of a time trying to accurately drill the mounting holes on the curved side of the base bowl. The video shows this drilling challenge and how the sharp carbide burr solved the problem. When looking for a base bowl it would be worth while checking out the availability of a bowl with a wide flat bottom - this would make the drilling job a walk in the park compared to making holes in the curved sides of a bowl. (I also discuss the carbide burr in Step 3 above).

To clue up this part of the project I cut off the wire handles of both buckets with the angle grinder.

Step 5: Pressure Treated Wooden Base

The wooden base of the fountain is made to last and, along with the concrete anchor block it can stay in the ground all year round. The stainless steel fountain assembly can be quickly disconnected from the wooden base and brought inside if desired. The only concern for the stainless steel assembly is the possibility of water staying in the low profile valve assembly and freezing.

I cut out the two 34 inch 5/8 inch pressure treated plywood base discs with the band saw. A jig saw can also do the job. I separated the discs with PT 2x4's giving a space of 1-1/2 inches between discs. This allows the flexible water pipe and the pump electrical wire to slide smoothly in and out of the base during final assembly or when taking the fountain in for the winter. I took the time and trouble of miter cutting the 2x4's to make a nice transition between the two discs... but to make it simpler you can just separate the two discs with 3 or 4 lengths of 2x4's arranged in a triangular or square fashion and just nail them together. The bottom disc and gap between discs might be covered up with soil or perhaps bricks arranged around the perimeter.

Step 6: Final Assembly and Installation

First I assembled the two column buckets with the 8-32x1 inch stainless steel machine screws and nuts. Then I attached the column to the base bowl with the same type of screw and nuts.

Before I cut the 5/16 inch threaded rod to length I screwed on a nut and 10-32 die so that I could easily clean up the cut end. This worked just fine so I then secured the threaded rod on the big bowl using a soft rubber washer, flat washers and two nuts.

I installed the two valves in the big bowl and gave them a little extra tightening with a wrench (being careful not to overdo it).

It was a two man job to get the threaded rod down through the column and into the 5/16 inch hole in the base bowl. Once the threaded was through I tightened up the end nut at the base bowl to bring the entire bucket/bowl assembly together. (Part of that process was to feed the flexible water pipe and the pump electrical cord down through the inline holes in the column and the base bowl).

After setting the wooden base in place and levelling it up we brought the fountain assembly out and set it in place. The flexible pipe and the electrical cord fed neatly through the base openings, as designed, so we were happy with that.

My electrician grandson upgraded the GFCI outlet and got the pump electrical plug installed. In the meantime I secured the fountain assembly to the wooden base with four homemade SS brackets and 4 lag screws.

I already had the plastic (PEX) water pipe installed underground so it was just a matter of extending the pipe to a new shut off valve and connecting the valve to the fountain flexible pipe.

Test time! We finally got to turn on the water and electrical power to give the unit its first test. All went well - we let the big bowl fill up above the pump and then we activated the pump switch (from inside the house). Got a good spray from the fountain nozzle and stood back to admire our work!

Step 7: What About Water

I'm supplying water to my fountain from my shallow well. Actually I pump water from the well into a small pond that I made and from there I have a tankless water pump that feeds the fountain. The pump only comes on when the water level in the big fountain bowl drops down below the level set by the low profile toilet shut off valve.

On a windless or low wind day the pump seldom comes on but on windy days the pump can be quite active. I leave power to the well water pump on all the time, but if I'm losing a lot of water from the fountain due to wind I will turn the fountain pump off (the switch is in the house).

I also happen to be connected to the city water supply and that is my normal water supply in the house. Although I can connect the fountain to this supply this is not necessary. At times I even use my well water to water my lawns and other garden areas.

For those not as fortunate as me re water supplies you might consider collecting rain water in a raised container and have that feed the fountain... it all depends on your particular water situation.

Metal Contest 2016

Participated in the
Metal Contest 2016