Introduction: Recycled 5 Gallon Bucket Wall

A working experiment in reusing 5 gallon buckets as low-tech structural building units.

Let me start off by saying that I'm only involved in this project in the design and tech side, no real labor yet. I hope that doesn't ruin this instructable for you, if I missed anything you can check our project website for extra details.

Visit any new construction, remodel, large painting project or stucco job and you will find 5 gallon buckets. Some of these may be reused for a short time but the majority will quickly find themselves in the local landfill. Each 5 gallon bucket uses approximately 1 cubic foot of landfill (a little less when compressed, but not much) so removing the quantity required to build this wall will reduce the landfill by many thousand cubic feet. This Bucket Wall is already attracting a lot of passer-by attention and it is expected that some new walls and other projects will be inspired by this technology, removing even more buckets from future landfills.

The Bucket Wall has a lot in common with building methods that incorporate straw bales, cord wood, bottles, and earth, in that it reuses existing products that might otherwise become landfill.

The ultimate hope for this project is that the methods perfected here will be structurally sound enough to use in ecologically friendly house construction and landscaping.

Step 1: Collect Materials

This project needs to be looked upon as an ongoing snail's-pace sort of thing. Unless you're very lucky you'll spend a lot of time waiting for buckets. You might want to warn your family that the yard will not be pretty... for a long while, even the tidiest stack of old buckets looks bad.

If you have thousands of buckets already and want to work fast forget the above and start calculating:
The basic structural unit that we used was a stack of 25-30 5 gallon buckets. The widest part of the bucket is ~1 foot in diameter and a stack buried 3-4 feet in the ground is around 7 feet high. Each stack is wrapped in wire and stuccoed but this doesn't add much to the dimensions.
So for each foot of wall you need
~30 buckets
1 foot x 14 feet of wire mesh (old chain link, chicken wire, rebar, remesh etc.) + enough for overlap
wire for "sewing" above wire onto bucket stacks
a 1 foot x 1foot x 4 foot deep trench
enough cement to stucco it
the lids from your bucket stack to fill in gaps and level top of wall
time.... (again skip this if you're not "normal")

I'm not going to break it down any further, let's just say thousands and thousands of buckets are required, and it might take a while, think of the planet, and if you get sick of it try pricing a chain link fence.

Step 2: Collecting and Planning

As you collect buckets you can stack them to the height you want your fence (+ 3-4 feet that will be underground).
If you want your wall along your property boundary you need to talk to your neighbor (you'll need to stand on their property while you work), and, if you don't know where your property corners are, a land surveyor. The surveyor may seem like overkill but being sure that you put all of the wall on your side of the line (even an inch is enough) could save you later (even if the current neighbors are cool doesn't mean they won't sell next week to someone more sue-happy). A string line is a good idea at this point, and even some sketches (SketchUp is a great free tool for project like these that are fairly irrevocable).
It is also worth checking with your local governing body to see if there are any regulations for walls or fences (especially applicable building setbacks and height restrictions).

Step 3: Dig

OK dig a trench.

Our project has been done in 30-40 foot pieces, but since there was a backhoe involved most of the trench was dug at the same time. If you're digging by hand you might want to dig the trench as it is needed since rain can ruin all you good work very quickly.
Stack the buckets (for tall walls it is easier to create the stacks in the trench) then tamp the soil back into place. Since this wall is ~7 feet tall, 1/2" rebar (reinforcing bar) was wired to the stacks horizontally to align them.

Step 4: Option 1

In this project the height of the wall created a number of problems and consequently a number of solutions. Here's what we tried first, a single row of partially buried bucket stacks. This didn't provide much sideways strength but would be fine with lower, or curved walls.

Step 5: Option 2

On the parts of the wall that we found to be a bit wobbly, or just looked like it could be, we added a single bucket stack buttress every 10 feet. This fixed the problem but used up a bit more room in a smallish yard. (Looks great though).

Step 6: Option 3

For parts of the wall that had not been built yet a third method was developed. In every tenth stack the bottom two thirds of the buckets had their bottoms removed to create hollow forms. After being tamped in place (with the upper third of the stack removed) these forms were filled with concrete to make a solid pier / anchor / footing.

Step 7: Wrap

When a section is ready it can be wrapped in wire mesh. We used old chain link, chicken wire, rebar, remesh, wire mesh fencing etc.
The bucket lids were used to fill any spaces, especially at the top of the stacks where the top buckets taper and on top of the stacks to adjust for any dips in the trench.
The mesh was bent over the top of the stacks and, where required, sewn down with strands of wire fed between stacks.

Step 8: Stucco

Beginning with a couple of filling coats start to fill in any gaps and built up a flat base and eventually a beautiful smooth finish. We used normal stucco mix but other types of plaster could be substituted (cob, papercrete, adobecrete etc.)

Step 9: Finished

If we ever finish this project I'll post a few more pictures but at the moment we need 5000 more buckets. Below are the portions of wall that are almost finished. This property has a very old adobe house on it that we will be adding to with strawbales. The final stucco color of the house will be matched on the wall.
You're welcome to look over our project website (