How to Make a Burn Barrel [a Backyard Incinerator Tutorial]

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Have a heap of trash but nowhere to put it? Maybe the local dump is too far away, or is charging you a pretty penny to drop off your garbage?

Making a burn barrel might be your answer.

This handy, homemade incinerator can take care of your trash needs. But making one can be tricky! Getting the most suitable materials, ensuring that the barrel gets correctly ventilated, and knowing what to burn with it are all things to consider before creating your burn barrel.

Rip roaring backyard fire with the burn barrel.

Sound intimidating?

Don’t let the details scare you away from making your own! We can help sort it all out.

Continue reading to learn how to make a burn barrel the right way and start saying so long to your trash right from the comforts of your backyard.

What Is a Burn Barrel?

A burn barrel consists of a 55-gallon metal drum. The top gets opened to allow proper ventilation when burning trash. Prop it up on some cinder blocks. Put some holes in its side. Add a ventilated cover, and you have the basics of a burn barrel.

If done right, this repurposed barrel can provide an on-property incinerator that can take care of pounds of garbage that would otherwise be costly or annoying to dispose of without fuss.

Many homesteads and off-grid folks use these to eliminate waste safely. But there’s more to it than popping open a barrel and lighting your trash on fire.

Making your burn barrel right and using it correctly are keys to getting the most out of this useful homesteading tool.

How to Make a Burn Barrel

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Burning trash and garden waste helps to save time and money. But – make sure you use the right equipment! We advise a heavy metal barrel that’s in good condition. Avoid using ancient rusty barrels! They might let sparks and embers escape without your notice. Above all else – stay with your fire at all times. Don’t burn unattended!

To make a burn barrel right, you only need a few materials to get started.

  1. 55-gallon steel barrel with its top removed
  2. Cinder blocks or bricks underneath the barrel
  3. A drill or metal punch to make holes in the barrel
  4. A metal grate, cloth, or fence to use as your burn cover
  5. A solid piece of metal, typically sheet metal or grill cover, to keep the rain out

That’s it! 

But, knowing how to combine and use these materials to make the most out of your burn barrel is a different story. 

Keep reading to learn more about creating and using your incinerator correctly.

Read More – Building a Smokeless Firepit! Easy DIY!

Ventilating a Burn Barrel

Ventilation is the part that a lot of people get wrong. Having the proper airflow is critical to get the burn hot enough to take care of all the trash within the barrel.

We recommend using a drill or a mental punch to make anywhere from 12 – 15 holes along the sides of the drum at varying places. Add three or four ventilation holes to the bottom of the barrel to allow for any rainwater to drain, and the drum will be able to breathe.

Prop up the entire barrel on some cinder blocks or bricks to allow air to come in from underneath it, and these steps should create a generous airflow to give the barrel fire the fuel it needs to keep burning! 

Alternatively, some folks take the bottom off the barrel entirely and prop the barrel upon four cinder blocks. Removing the barrel allows for effortless airflow, helping with the burn, and also makes cleaning out the leftover ashes simpler to reach.  

But – be careful if you go this route, as the occasional ember might sneak out the bottom and make it easier for an unexpected fire to start. 

One last note! Don’t go crazy with the drilling! Adding too many holes can lead to quicker rusting of the drum, and I am sure you want this barrel to be around and burning for quite some time.

Covering Your Burn Barrel

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We do not cover our burn barrel. We always have a water hose nearby! And we make sure not to burn when it’s dry. We have never run into any issues. But it doesn’t hurt to be cautious, especially if you are in a dry part of the country! Be extra cautious. And never leave your fire unattended!

There are two types of covers for your burn barrel to keep it working and safe.

First, you want to have a rain cover to go over the top of your barrel. A piece of sheet metal or grill top will work just fine to prevent moisture from accumulating in the drum when the barrel is not in use.

Rain covers will help to preserve the barrel and keep the rusting down.

The second cover you’ll want is burning. A burn cover is a ventilated piece of metal. Burn covers are usually a grate, fencing, or metal cloth. They will keep the trash inside the barrel while allowing smoke to escape out the top.

A burn cover will help to prevent burning trash from hopping out of the barrel and is an important safety measure to have in place.

If you decide to burn more significant items, consider the burning cover optional.

Though we recommend keeping items lower than the height of the barrel’s top for safety reasons, there may come occasions where you have something to incinerate that sticks out the top.

In that case? Remove the burning cover, but keep an eye on the tall burning item to ensure that nothing escapes out the top.

Lighting Your Burn Barrel

For safety reasons, light your burn barrel the old-fashion way by stuffing some newspaper or dry kindle at the bottom of the drum. Put a match or lighter to it, and then you’re off to the races.  

There are accelerants out there that can assist with getting the blaze going, but we recommend keeping it simple and safe by starting the barrel burn like you would a campfire.  

Accelerants are often unpredictable and can cause uncontrolled fires or explosions that are dangerous.

If you’re insistent on going this route, do your research!

Read More – Cinder Block BBQ Grills! DIY Guide!

What to Put Into Your Burn Barrel

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We know that sometimes – burn barrels are the only way to go – especially for rural homesteaders! But – remember that you can also chuck your yard debris into a wood chipper or an organic compost shredder! Homemade compost makes some of the best soil amendments you can use. Next year’s veggie harvest will thank you.

Now that you’ve got your barrel set up and ready to burn, what should you put inside?

Isn’t the whole idea to burn your trash, you say?

Well, hold right there! Because not all garbage should go into a burn barrel. 

Some materials just aren’t meant to be lit on fire (ahem, aerosol cans!) and are better off being disposed of with other methods.

Non-recyclable plastics, paper, and food wrappers – burn them all! Wood, leaves, and brush also work. But make sure you can’t compost them first! These materials are appropriate for burning in your barrel. So long as you don’t overdo it.

One of the greatest mistakes a homesteader encounters is overfilling their burn barrel! Stuffing your burn barrel too heavily can lead to an incomplete burn or even still-burning trash falling out onto your lawn.  

And nothing will kill grass quicker than fire.

Your best bet is to keep it to one bag of trash per burn and avoid lighting up recyclable things or anything that could release harmful chemicals into the air like styrofoam, rubber, or particleboard.  

Also, avoid things that might explode, like accelerants or aerosol cans! Trust me when I say these are not the type of fireworks you’re looking for – no fun!

Keep it simple and burn a small amount of regular household trash, and you should get the best use out of your burn barrel while keeping everyone safe. 

homemade metal barrel burner in garden
Most natural yard clippings and garden debris are okay for burning. But not all material is safe for burning! Try to avoid plastics, foam cups, and bleached papers. These materials can cause hazardous smoke that you don’t want to breathe! Another example of material to avoid is CCA-pressured wood. It contains arsenic. It’s not great for burning. Or breathing!

Other Precautions to Keep in Mind About Your Burn Barrel

As with any use of fire, you want to make sure you’re being cautious when burning.

Besides being mindful of what you’re burning (did I mention, don’t burn aerosol cans!), there are other things to keep in mind that will keep your barrel burning safe and effective.

Local Ordinances

Check your town’s ordinances before doing any burn. Many towns require permits or training before using a burn barrel. So, we suggest verifying that it’s legal to light up your trash. Or else You may face fines or worse!

(Doubly so if you have prying neighbors.)


Ensure that you have your burn barrel away from structures, trees, or other flammable objects that could easily catch fire from a free ember. Your house isn’t garbage, so unless you want to add it to the burn barrel, make sure the barrel is far away from it.

Climate and Weather

Depending on your location, the current weather climate may make you want to hold off on burning your next bag of trash. Things like high winds or drought could cause the fire to unintentionally jump to other objects and spread more quickly if you’re not careful. So be aware of current conditions before starting your next blaze.


There’s a time and a place to burn trash, and meal times probably isn’t one of them! Though, if done right, the burn barrel shouldn’t stink, a fiery pile of garbage shouldn’t replace the candles in a candle-lit dinner.  

Be mindful of neighbors too. No one likes sitting out on their patio only to have a burn barrel roaring right next to them. The best time to burn is during the day when most folks are at work, and no one will have a problem with you incinerating a couple of pounds of trash.

Our Favorite Incinerators and Homemade Burn Barrel Alternatives

Building a burn barrel is a lot of work – especially if you don’t have many spare parts around your homestead!

So – we made a list of the best burn barrels and garden incinerators that make burning trash much simpler.

These are the sturdiest and best burn barrel alternatives we could find.

We hope you enjoy them.

And – happy burning!

  1. One 55 Gallon Reconditioned Steel Trash Barrel / Burn Drum

    We love these heavy-duty steel trash barrels! They're perfect for burning, storing, or composting. Please note that these barrels aren't fancy! They may come with scratches - and you get a random color. (Green, blue, brown, gray, black, et cetera.) But - if you want a zero-fuss burn barrel and a big sturdy 55-gallon drum - then these barrels are sturdy and get the job done. Each barrel weighs around 35 pounds.

    Get More Info

    PAID LINK - We may earn a commission if you make a purchase, at no additional cost to you.

    05/13/2024 12:54 am GMT
  2. 22-Inch Burn Bin | Camco
    $176.99 $129.83

    Want an easy-to-use trash incinerator without needing to build one yourself? Maybe you have loads of trees, sticks, and shrubs that need burning? Here's one that's heavy, sturdy, and stainless steel. The incinerator weighs roughly 35 pounds and is 22-inches tall. It also has a lid to stop embers from escaping! The reviews are also (mostly) excellent.

    Get More Info

    PAID LINK - We may earn a commission if you make a purchase, at no additional cost to you.

    05/13/2024 05:32 am GMT
  3. Professional Grade Products Burn Barrel Incinerator Cage

    Do you have a fresh mound of brush or documents that need incinerating? This stainless steel incinerator assembles in only 15 minutes, and it looks better than an old rusty barrel. It has many vent holes that ensure your fire won't suffocate. It weighs 25 pounds and is approximately two feet high. There's also an extra-large version that's 48 pounds and 32-inches tall. Pick your size!

    Get More Info

    PAID LINK - We may earn a commission if you make a purchase, at no additional cost to you.

    05/12/2024 05:32 pm GMT

Final Thoughts

A burn barrel, when done right, can make your life a lot easier.  It saves on time and money and prevents a nasty build-up of trash in your home. 

With anything fire-related, be careful with how you use it and what you burn, but if you follow these steps, you should be burning your garbage away in no time!

Read More – Does Smoke Keep Mosquitoes Away? Or Not?!

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