Growing an edible, urban ecosystem one backyard at a time

Pallet Compost Bins – 5 Practical Tips and 3 Mistakes to Avoid

This post may contain affiliate links, which means if you click on a link and purchase something, I may earn a commission (at no additional cost to you). As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. See my full disclaimer HERE.

Having a good composting system set up is one of the best things you can do for a permaculture garden. A set of pallet compost bins was one of the first things we built at our new property, and I’m so glad we did.

Pallets are an excellent resource for building backyard compost bins. Not only do they make sturdy, long-lasting compost bins, but pallets are readily available for cheap or free.

Before you build your compost bin, read up on how to compost in my post, From Waste to Gold…

Woman with baby pointing to a pallet compost bin
Here I am with Bubs on my back the day we put our bin together.

Building one of these bins makes a great weekend project that can be completed in a day or spread out over two. But if you’re planning on building one, don’t be like me and make these rookie mistakes. Instead, learn from my mistakes and make your pallet compost bin right the first time around.

In this post, I’ll go over the materials and tools you’ll need for building a pallet compost bin. Then I’ll give you my top five tips for building one. And finally, I’ll shine a light on the mistakes I made in building mine so that, hopefully, after reading this post, your pallet compost bin will be better than my first attempt.

Pallet Compost Bin Materials

Here are the materials and tools you’ll need to build a pallet compost bin.

Pallets

You can find pallets for free pretty easily if you know where to look. They are regularly discarded by businesses so call around, look for marketplace ads, or just have a look around your city. Just make sure any pallets you take are actually free for the taking by asking first.

Make sure to get heat-treated pallets, not chemical-treated. Every pallet should have a stamp on it, identifying how the wood was treated. Look for the letters HT for “heat treated,” as in the picture below.

Fasteners

You’ll need some type of fastener to attach the pallets to each other. Wood screws are probably the easiest and strongest option, but nails will also work.

Scrap wood

Scrap wood, like short sections of 2x4s or 1x4s, will make it easier to attach the pallets to each other. Use scraps you have lying around or take apart an extra pallet for the wood.

Chicken wire (optional)

You can use chicken wire to line the inside faces of the bin if you wish. See tip 1.

Tools

  • Drill or hammer
  • Saw for cutting scrap wood to size
  • Metal sheers for cutting the chicken wire (optional)
  • Staple gun for attaching chicken wire to pallets (optional)
  • Tool for taking pallets apart (optional – for extra wood)
  • Clamps for holding the pallets together temporarily (optional but makes assembly easier)

For taking pallets apart, a crowbar or claw hammer will work but expect to split some of the pallet wood in the process.

The best tool for prying apart pallets is a pallet buster. This brilliant tool makes the work of pulling pallets apart almost fun. Buying one probably isn’t worth it unless you plan to do a lot of projects with reclaimed pallet wood, but if you can manage to borrow one for this project you’ll be glad you did. Consider that a bonus tip. Now on to my main tips.

Tips for Your Pallet Compost Bin

Here are my five tips for building the best pallet compost bin.

1. Use chicken wire to help contain the compost

Attaching a layer of chicken wire to the pallets will keep smaller bits of compost from falling between the slats. It’s easiest to attach the chicken wire to the pallets with a staple gun before assembling the bin.

The teen helped with this part of the construction of our bin. I just love delegating work around the property.

2. Fill in gaps between the slats

Another way to keep bits of compost from falling between the slats, depending on the style of pallets you have, is to fill in the spaces with planks from another pallet. This is when one of those fancy pallet busters would come in handy. This step also makes the bin look neater if done on the outside.

3. Make multiple bays

Although a one-bay compost bin is perfectly fine, especially if you’re working with limited space, making one with two or three bays is even better.

Three is an ideal number of bays. One active bay where you put fresh scraps and yard waste, one for cooking compost, and one for finished compost. If you want to go crazy, add a fourth bay for storing other materials like mulch.

4. Reinforce the bin

Reinforcing with a long 2×4 across the back top of the bin will do a lot to strengthen your bin. Alternatively, use spare slats to brace the connections diagonally across the back of the bin. Or do both for an extra sturdy bin.

5. Build the bin in place or close to it

Pallet compost bins can get quite heavy, especially with multiple bays, so think ahead and construct the bin roughly where it’s going to live. We were able to scoot our assembled bin across the ground a few feet easily enough to get it into its final position against a fence. However, I wouldn’t want to carry the thing across the yard.

Building Your Pallet Compost Bin

Based on the tips and pictures above, you probably have a pretty good idea of how we made our bin. It’s a pretty simple project, and I don’t think detailed instructions are necessary, but I’ll outline the basic steps below, and then get into the mistakes we made.

  1. Gather all the materials you’ll need.
  2. Position the pallets how you want them, without fastening them together yet.
  3. (Optional) Fill in the gaps between the slats of the pallets with slats from another pallet. On the inside for function, and/or the outside for making the bin look nicer.
  4. (Optional) Attach chicken wire to the pallets on the faces that will be the inside of the bin. A staple gun works really well for this.
  5. Fasten the pallets together in the arrangement decided on in step 2, using wood screws or nails and scrap wood. To hold ours square, we temporarily clamped on a 2×4 brace.
  6. Add bracing to make the bin stronger. This can be across the top back or diagonally across the back of the bin.
  7. Add a front panel or door (see my mistakes).
  8. Start composting!
Step 6. Dave and W are attaching two 2×4 boards across the back to strengthen the bin.

3 Mistakes to Avoid

You’ve probably got a good idea of how to put together a compost bin out of pallets now, but before you get to it, read about the mistakes we made with ours so you don’t make the same mistakes we did.

Mistake 1 – selecting pallets of different sizes

If you can, grab pallets that are all the same size, at least in one dimension. It doesn’t matter if the slats run vertically or horizontally, but you’ll want the heights, the way you lay it out, to all be the same.

We brought home pallets with several different dimensions, making it difficult to puzzle them together for a uniform bin.

It’s ok to get some that are different for extra wood, but make sure the back and side panels of the bin are all the same height. The lengths of the side panels can be different than the lengths of the back panels, but all of the side panels should be the same length. The back panels can vary if you want different bay widths, but whether they’re the same width or not, I recommend wide bays. See Mistake 2 below.

Mistake 2 – making the bays too narrow

Partly because we had some odd-sized pallets, and partly because we were trying to save space, we ended up making two of our bays narrower than the other one.

This is a problem for us for two reasons. First, the smaller bays are narrower than our wheelbarrow, which makes it less convenient to add loads of yard waste. Second, with smaller bays, the volume of compost is smaller, which means it won’t get as hot inside to cook and decompose.

Mistake 3 – not putting on a proper front panel to enclose the bin

If your bin is completely open on the front then compost will spill out as it fills up. This looks messy and makes it harder to build up a high pile. But making the bays four-sided, or attaching a permanent board across the front to contain the compost could interfere with shoveling or turning compost later.

What we did was get three long 2×6 boards to go across the front of the open bays. We held them in place with cinder blocks at the end of each pallet partition. This way we’ll be able to remove the board for easier shoveling if we want.

The problem with this setup is, as the bay fills up, the weight of the compost pushes on the boards and moves the cinder blocks, creating a gap between the front boards and pallet ends. Also, when dumping a wheelbarrow into the bin, there is no sturdy surface to rest the wheelbarrow on as you tip it over, which apparently can be dangerous. (I have a couple of bruises on my leg to prove it.)

To fix this issue, the boards need to be held firmly in place while still being removable. I’ve thought of several solutions.

  1. One solution is to secure the cinder blocks holding the boards in place by driving stakes through the hole in the cinder block and into the ground. 
  2. Alternatively, don’t use cinder blocks at all. Instead, sink metal posts into the ground to hold the boards.
  3. You could also screw scrap blocks of wood to the front ends of the pallets to make grooves for the boards to slide in and out. Each bay would have a separate front panel, probably a sheet of plywood rather than solid boards. This solution would require a little creativity to figure out exactly how to do, and I haven’t designed it in detail, but I’m sure it could work.
  4. The fancy solution is to add a hinged door to each bay of your compost bin. This solution would take the most time and effort, and we didn’t feel it was worth the trouble for our needs.

What we’re doing about the Mistakes

For now, we’re not doing anything to fix our mistakes and just leaving our bin as is. Even with the mistakes, it’s a great bin, though not perfect, and already full of composting goodness. We’ll see how it goes over the winter then decide what to do to change it, if anything, in the spring.

To Sum Up

Building a pallet compost bin is a pretty straightforward project, but there are some pitfalls you’ll want to avoid. I’ve talked about the materials and tools we used to make our compost bin. Then I gave you five tips for building one, followed by the steps we used to build ours. Finally, I told you the three mistakes we made and how I would do it differently next time. 

I hope you learned something from my tips and mistakes that will help you as you build your own pallet compost bin. May your bin be even more awesome than mine.

Take care and happy composting!


Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.