The five-gallon bucket is among the best of man’s inventions, right up there with the wheel and sliced bread. Not only are these handled containers the perfect size for carrying a wealth of different materials from one place to another, they can be upcycled into a mind-boggling array of new conveniences and handy inventions.
That’s because these buckets are both remarkably strong and surprisingly adaptive. They’ll hold up to high pressure and heavy loads. They’ll take a beating without getting bent out of shape. They can be cut, melted, glued, drilled, pressurized, depressurized, and more.
They are also amazingly simple to work with and reconfigure. In fact, one of the many glorious things about working with a five-gallon bucket is that you won’t need many specialized tools. Chances are you pretty much have everything you need sitting in your toolbox right now.
People in many developing countries have long understood the fantastic number of potential uses a five-gallon bucket has. You’ll see beat up, timeworn versions pressed into service for everything from rooftop favela gardens to rural water purifiers to outdoor showers.
Depending on which upcycling project you choose to pursue, you’ll quickly find that not all five-gallon buckets are alike. The vast majority – but not all – are made of high-density polyethylene (HDPE). This plastic holds up under high temperatures and releases very low levels of contaminants. Low-density polyethylene containers are flimsier and will not tolerate higher temperatures or high-temperature contents.
When converting your bucket to a use that involves food or drink, the plastic must be food-grade. Non-food-grade five-gallon buckets may contain harmful compounds that can leach out of the plastic and into whatever is kept in the bucket – especially if the foodstuff is acidic.
If you’re unsure of what the bucket contained before you got a hold of it, the bucket itself can probably tell you a lot about the original contents. Obviously, a label listing food contents such as beans, frosting or salad dressing indicates food-safe plastic. Symbols on the label also offer clues. A snowflake means that the bucket (and its original contents) can be refrigerated or frozen. A wave symbol or dishes in water mean microwave and dishwasher safe, respectively – all signs that the bucket contained food. The manufacturer listed on the label may be a giveaway as well. Do a web search for the manufacturer’s code or any code listed on the bucket, and you’ll likely turn up what that manufacturer produces and puts into its buckets.
Lastly, you can look on the bottom in the recycling triangle that is stamped on most buckets. A 1, 2, 4 or 5 inside that triangle tells you that the plastic out of which the bucket has been manufactured is probably safe for food. In most cases, a 7 and the term bioplastic mean the bucket is food safe as well.
Why just reuse a bucket when you can reinvent it?
Cable and Cord Organizer: A bucket is idea for organizing power or home electronic cables. The shape allows for the cables or cords to be stored in neat and tidy coils, and you can stack more than one cord or cables in a five-gallon bucket. Just drill access holes at the approximate level of each cable or cord.
Shoe Rack: Positioned by a mudroom door, this heavy-duty rack provides a convenient place to keep shoes and boots, which means less dirt, mud and muck tracked across carpets and wood floors. With an open-weave metal top, this accessory is probably not attractive enough to sit in a well-appointed foyer or entryway, but it comes into its own in a high-traffic area inside a busy back door.
Portable Wine Rack: The easy-carry handle and impact-absorbing construction of a five-gallon bucket make for a perfect travelling wine rack for a long camping trip or a concert in the park with a group of friends. You can also adapt the rack to keep your wine safe and sound at home – craft multiples and stack them on their side to store your favourite vintages in a cool, dark place. Or adapt the project to transport or keep a six-pack of beer cold.
Upside-down Tomato Planter: Crazy at might sound at first, hanging your tomato plants offers a lot of benefits over planting them in the garden. Hanging locations usually have abundant direct sunlight because other garden plants aren’t competing for the light. Getting them off the ground also gets them away from many diseases and pests and ensures plenty of air circulation. Make sure that the structure from which you hang it can support the weight of a mature plant with fruit and a bucketful of wet soil. This is also a great way to grow squash, peppers, cucumbers and herbs.
Toddler’s Swing: Most people, whether they’ll admit it or not, won’t ever grow out of the desire to have a leisurely swing. The youngest members of the family delight the most in a little free swing time. Depending on their size, children from about one to three years old should reliably be able to use this swing. Test whatever support you’re thinking of using to ensure it will hold the weight of an adult – that will guarantee the little person is safe and sound for all the swinging he or she can handle.
Chris Peterson is a veteran home improvement and design author living in Ashland, Oregon. The 5-Gallon Bucket Book is among the many books he has written, including numerous home design books with noted media celebrities.