Introduction: Stylish and Low Cost 55 Gallon Drum Planters

About: 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 founder and manager for Autodesk and just finished building out…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.