Elizabeth Jane Cochran Seaman was better known as the muckraking journalist Nellie Bly. She had more than writing to her credit. In 1894, the world-traveling investigative reporter married an industrialist, Henry Seaman. The marriage lasted a happy decade. When Henry died Nellie took over his metal factory, which produced kitchen enamelware and sinks. Remembering a metal container that she’d seen on a trip to Europe, she asked her lead designer to help come up with something bigger than the standard 42-gallon drum. In 1905, that designer, Henry Wehrhahn, took out two patents for “a metal barrel which shall be simple and strong in construction and effective and durable in operation”—and the 55-gallon drum was born.
Nellie Bly’s Iron Clad factory turned out a thousand drums a day. When the patents expired, other manufacturers added to that number, so that today there are untold millions of the things scattered around the planet. The chances are good that there’s at least one 55-gallon drum within easy walking distance of you that’s not being put to use. Chances are equally good that even if so, it’s not being used to its original purpose: to store oil, gasoline, and chemicals. In fact, people have been wildly inventive in coming up with new uses for the barrels, some of which you may want to put to work on your own place.
As we said, 55-gallon drums have often been used, at least at some point in their lives, to store dangerous or noxious chemicals. Assume this is the case with any metal barrel you want to use. Clean it thoroughly with trisodium phosphate, sold under a variety of trade names in cleaning products that are readily available at box stores. Trisodium phosphate, a powerful degreaser, can irritate the skin and lungs, so wear rubber gloves and a mask and use it outdoors.
On cleaning the drum, cut it lengthwise, something best accomplished with a high-powered saw and metal blade or by a trained welder with a steady hand. (Check your local auto-body shop.) Clean it again once the barrel has been cut in half. You can use a simple half drum as a rudimentary grill, but as long as you’re going to the trouble, you might as well put hinges on the halves and use them together as a grill whose lid can close. Adding a 1-inch pipe with a valve lid allows better temperature control, and with the lid closed, the contraption can also act as a smoker. To hold the barrel, weld a metal frame and attach wheels if desired, or build a bed out of bricks or cinderblocks.
Building a grill or smoker demands elbow grease, but given that buying one ready-made can run a couple of hundred dollars, it makes a good investment of time and effort.
If you do go the simple route for that grill and have half a drum left over, then make a wooden frame high enough for a browsing critter—a llama, perhaps, or a donkey, or some other animal that feeds at a trough—and use the other half for a manger. As always, be sure to clean the barrel thoroughly. An animal feeder lends itself to using either plastic or metal, whatever’s on hand.
Build frames so that you don’t have to stoop to water them, and use the halves to grow vegetables and herbs. A bonus is that pests such as rabbits and moles can’t get at the raised beds, though you’ll want to screen the barrel half to keep birds and nibbling deer away.
Start a beehive by building a sturdy frame of 2x4s with a hinged wooden lid atop and lay in a plastic 55-gallon drum half (a metal one can get too hot in most climates). The bunghole of the barrel is just the right size for an entrance for the bees, and the hinged lid allows the beekeeper easy access to the hive and all its wonderful honey.
Home-garden uses for 55-gallon barrels are pretty well endless. One that I intend to experiment with is to keep a blue plastic drum half-filled with water tucked alongside a cold-sensitive fig tree that I’ve been tending to for a few years now. The theory is that the water will heat in the blue barrel during the day, then slowly radiate the heat during cold nights. It’s less intrusive and smelly than smudge pots, which are now illegal in many areas.
Let’s say something goes a little awry with the hinged grill you build, and you decide to start over. Be sure to keep the 1-inch pipe on the lid. Take the bad unit and build a rectangular frame of 2x4s. Lay the hinged barrel lengthwise. Open it up, lay down a couple of inches of clean garden soil, then add vegetable scraps from your kitchen—peeled cucumber skins, the ends of cabbage heads, corn cobs, that sort of thing.
When you’ve built up a couple inches of scraps, turn the hose on it to wet the whole slippery mess down, then put a layer of straw or grass clippings atop the whole thing, and start over. You can supercharge your compost heap by adding seaweed or fireplace ashes every now and again. (Of course, you can also make a gleaming, perfect composter. It doesn’t have to be a throwaway from a project gone bad.)
Being able to close off the compost-heap-in-a-barrel lets the compost breathe through the stovepipe on the lid. This cuts down on the unpleasant aroma of the enterprise, and helps fend off pests. (Compost attracts all kinds of intruders, from mosquitoes to raccoons.) When your barrel is full, wet the whole thing down, close it up, and start another one. By the time you fill up that second barrel, the first will be nicely decomposed and ready to use in the garden.
Standard 55-gallon drums come in two flavors, metal and plastic. The plastic version makes an ideal receptacle for storing rainwater, directed there by a well-placed downspout from a gutter strategically situated at a place where the rainfall is heaviest on your roof. (Typically, this is a southern exposure.) Drums can be networked, using hoses, to transfer water from one container to another. Metal drums can be used as well, with the proviso that older metal drums tend to be leaky, in which case a little spot-welding is in order. Be sure to clean a metal barrel carefully with trisodium phosphate before using it; you don’t want to poison your plants. Add a little bleach to the stored water to keep mosquito larvae from hatching. Under no circumstances should you or your pets drink rainwater—reserve it for your garden instead.
Does your property face a lake, pond, stream, or other body of water? If you’ve got legal clearance to do so, then try a Robinson Crusoe–like experiment. Lash 6 to 12 barrels together, loosely, using aircraft cable or large rubber bungee cords to make a rectangular frame with some give—you don’t need the barrels to be immovable, just for them not to float away from each other. Separately, build to whatever size you wish (8 feet by 12 feet is standard) a frame of treated 2×4 beams covered by plywood or other 2x4s. This will be the platform that rests atop the floating barrels. Obviously, plastic drums will be lighter and float more readily than metal ones, but metal drums can float, too, as long as they’re empty and watertight.
Moor your structure to land and add a gangway, and you’ve got a dock. Unmoor it and cast off, and you’ve got a DIY pontoon raft. If there are some damaged barrels in the mix, then you’ve got the casing for a pier to a DIY footbridge to ford that overflowing creek on your property. Fill four of them with concrete, stick a heavy-duty common metal fence post or 4×4 in the middle of each, cut to height, and use it as the foundation for a platform that spans the watercourse. If the distance from bank to bank is wider than 12 feet or so, add barrels as needed. They can even be sunk underwater.
55-gallon drums lend themselves readily to adaptation as exercise equipment. Make a pyramid of them, well secured so that they don’t come tumbling down, and you have an impromptu jungle gym. A plastic barrel makes an excellent swing. It doesn’t take an engineering degree to hang one with stout ropes from a tree limb or frame, though with the safety of children involved, you’ll of course want to check and double-check that everything is tied securely. With their ends removed and the open spheres of the barrels glued together, you have the makings of a water slide. And, so on—the possibilities are endless.
So are the possibilities for folk art. Drums are just the right shape to turn into the torsos of horses, lions, and fantastic beasts. They can be made into walls lining garden paths, with holes cut in wondrous designs to let light pass through. They can take a thousand forms. Just as an experiment, I went for a walk in an old, settled neighborhood near our little ranch and counted the different pieces of art that had been crafted from 55-gallon barrels. My favorite: a driveway-spanning aerial sculpture of barrels and machine parts, looking very much like a World War II–vintage B–25 bomber.
Finally, don’t forget that Nellie Bly designed these 55-gallon barrels to store liquids. When I stopped for lunch at a favorite diner north of Phoenix, Arizona, not long ago, I was a little surprised to see that the owners had them put to use in a restroom-remodeling project. Surprised, yes, but also delighted, a fine example of Yankee ingenuity that doubtless would have pleased their brilliant inventor as well.
This article is from the spring 2018 issue of The New Pioneer Magazine. Grab your copy at OutdoorGroupStore.com.
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