How to Make a Safe Burning Barrel

Herb Kirchhoff

An open-topped 55 gallon drum easily transforms into a home incinerator for burnable trash with a bit of work, a common sight in rural areas. Burning trash greatly reduces its volume, which means fewer trips to the dump or a lower cost for trash pickups. A properly made burn barrel is efficient and safe.

Keep a shovel and bucket of dirt nearby in case fire escapes.

Making a burn barrel requires that you be moderately skilled in home projects and familiar with using common hand and power tools.

  1. Contact local authorities to find out the regulations for burn barrels, as some counties require specific hours of operations or a burn permit to use them. If they are permitted, choose a location that’s downwind from your home, won't bother neighbors and is at least 10 feet away from any combustible vegetation or other combustible materials.

  2. Make your burn barrel from a clean 55 gallon drum with a removable lid, with the safe rolled edge. Save the removable lid to cover the drum when not in use. Wash out the interior of your drum with detergent and water to remove all traces of its former contents.

  3. Drill or punch four 1/2 inch holes in the bottom of the drum to for air to reach the fire from beneath and moisture to drain if it gets inside. Make 20 1/2 inch holes in the lower half of the drum’s wall to allow entry of air that speeds combustion around the circumference of the drum. Space the holes equidistant apart.

  4. Place the drum on two concrete blocks for better air circulation. When burning trash, cover the drum opening with a metal grate or mesh fencing to keep flaming embers from flying out of the drum.

  5. Burn loose paper and cardboard trash, dry tree leaves and dry yard trimmings in your barrel. Wet the area around the barrel before starting the fire. Burn combustible trash one bag at a time. Wait for the first bagful to burn down before adding another bag. When you are done burning, cover the drum opening with the drum lid or a piece of sheet metal to keep out rain.

  6. Tip

    Select used drums that were used for food products. These are not likely to contain toxic residue.


    Avoid closed-head drums with non-removable lids. Removing the top can create sparks that could ignite flammable residue inside the drum.