How to Build a Sawdust Toilet

Not that long ago, I was totally ready to go with an indoor, composting toilet for our final cabin here.I also was trying to be pragmatic, and realized that an outhouse was going to be hard to do without until we had the cabin.

Then, after seeing references to it during my internet travels, I finally took the time to download and read “The Humanure Handbook” – I devoured it in two sittings (on the chesterfield, not the commode!).

It really changed my entire outlook – I was eager to try it as soon as I had the chance! And now, being here on the land, I finally had my opportunity to pee in a bucket of sawdust!

Up until today, we had the first half of the equation working acceptably – five gallon bucket, check. Sawdust in ample supply (thanks to my sawmill), check. People peeing in it during the night, check. Adventurous people adding more substance, check. Unfortunately, as Kenny would say, “there are two problems”.

First, the bucket was uncomfortable to sit on for more than a few minutes. Not that you should sit there longer, but the edges were not butt-friendly.

Second, we couldn’t agree on a place to empty the bucket. We understood that in theory it wasn’t suppose to smell, and it wasn’t suppose to contaminate surrounding ground or water. But we also didn’t want to take chances with either of those possibilities.

We roamed a fair distance around the back portion of our property, but everything seemed too close to something we wanted to preserve. Finally, last night, I noticed a stand of trees that were actually quite close to the sawmill, but not in the way of anything, and a number of ridges separated from our potential well and building sites.

This morning I pointed it out to Grandpa, and he agreed that it would be a good location. It couldn’t be any closer to an ongoing source of sawdust, it was in a small hollow of its own, and the swamp nearby “flowed” away from our building sites, across our (naturally filtering) driveway, and towards the highway.

With his blessing, I quickly grabbed a number of three and four foot long firewood that hadn’t been cut down to stove lengths yet, and made a small crib.

With our first bucket already piling up to the point that we were going to be sitting on sawdust tonight, it was a go for emptying it right away.

With a satisfying thump, the whole mass slid out and into my crib. I covered it with another layer of sawdust, and then began to tackle my first problem.

I gathered up some of my shorter boards and cut them all into sixteen inch lengths. I knew that my bucket was fifteen and three quarters of an inch tall, and my toilet seat would fit onto a sixteen by eighteen surface quite nicely.

Using some scrap pieces of OSB leftover from the floor of the yurts, I was able to fashion a box from my own lumber. I had to fire up the generator to do much of the early cutting, and then again to cut the hole(s) on the top, but otherwise, it was all cordless tools charged up courtesy of the sun. I likely could have done it all with my solar power, except that my mitre saw suggested over 1000 watts of motor, and my inverter manual recommended doubling up my cables if I was drawing over that amount. I’ll add double cables to my shopping list for next time I’m in town.

Grandpa was kind enough to donate his old toilet seat. Even though Mummu had consigned it to the dump, he stashed it in his woodshed for future needs (?), and when the time came, it was perfect!

I cut my own layer of boards to the shape of the hole in the toilet seat, and then cut the OSB underneath in a perfect circle to accommodate the bucket. After screwing together the whole box, Kenny and Donna arrived just in time to install the seat and give her a trial run.

Kenny said she was great, and tonight, christened her with his own champagne. I’m pretty happy with the results.

Donna still wants me to build her an outhouse, but hopefully this has bought me a little breathing room. Even if I do go ahead with the outhouse, I intend to just put the bucket in it and to empty the contents on a regular basis. That will be nice too, because I can locate the outhouse much closer to the house, and not be concerned about contamination.

In other news, Grandpa has reached a huge milestone in his road construction project! He has managed to build the road, on his own, all the way from our lower corduroy at the front of the property (where we have commissioned my gravel guy to build), to our yurts! He has likely built as much, or more, road than what the gravel fellow is going to have to do.

Annoyingly though, the day after Grandpa’s MTD suffered its indignities, Grandpa hit a stump with my trailer fully loaded, exposing the fact that it didn’t have a solid axle from side to side. Instead, it was a solid “pin” installed in a hollow pipe. The pipe broke off, and Grandpa was forced to unload my trailer onto his, and then fix the axle. After a few false starts, he seems to have gotten it back and working well. He cleaned up the pipe a bit to allow us to hammer the axle back in, and took off an extra collar that had been on the axle for no discernible reason, allowing him to insert more of the pin into the axle supports. He also had a great idea that if it suffers any future deformation, we’ll drill through the pin in one or two places, and add extra pins to try to stabilize it.

Tonight Donna and I endured a cold drizzle while we offloaded our canned food into my “bear box” – a dented and twisted pickup truck lock box. When the drizzle finally stopped, unbelievable clouds of black flies appeared. I felt a bit like Pharaoh – and I would have been more than happy to let the Israelites go if it would have helped!

Tomorrow sounds like a grocery trip for Donna, and, if my rollover bar arrives, I’ll perhaps head into town to pick it up too. But for now, it’s growing dark here, and I’m ready to retire.

Oh, one last thing, for the wag that pointed out that my blog entry about bears and food didn’t actually have a bear sighting, here’s a pile of bear poo that we found:


8 thoughts on “How to Build a Sawdust Toilet”

  1. So with a sawdust toilet, where are you getting all the sawdust? During building, I see you might have a lot, but where do you get it as time goes on? Do you go out and saw wood just to get it, or buy it in bags ???

  2. This is a great question! Now that I have cut most of the logs I have easy access to, the sawmill has been dormant, and our sawdust supply is being eroded. I am thinking that I have enough for another month or so, and in the meantime I am seriously contemplating the purchase of a chipper/shredder. If it came down to buying bags of sawdust, I wouldn't be against that either. I may check in with the larger mill down the road and see if they have a policy about the sawdust they create too.

  3. The local mill sounds like a great idea.
    But if you did choose to buy a chipper, can your solar + inverter handle it ? Or maybe you'd have to run that off the generator…. unfortunately.

  4. If I bought a chipper, it would be a gas powered model. I would love to be all electric, but itmisnt realistic for certain tasks. Maybe I should look into wood gassification technologies.
    As it happens, the sawmill down the road gave me a fantastic deal on sawdust, so until I get a good deal on a chipper, that is likely my best option.

  5. I too would love to go all electric with things, since you get reliability, silence and I can make electricity from solar, but I can't make gasoline.
    Wood gas did sound interesting, but then you still have a 25% efficient internal compustion engine (ICE) and a gassification unit with losses. On top of that, you have to go harvest wood for it. With a slightly larger solar array, maybe you can manage a small electric chipper and schedule to run it on sunny summer days… and stock up your sawdust for winter. Or were you going to use the gassification in another way?

  6. I just don't know if there is a chipper that is all electric, can handle 3" diameter branches, and not some sort of prohibitively expensive unit. I've barely scratched the surface of wood gas options, but next year with the sawmill in full swing, I expect to have more slabs than I can shake a stick at. This year over half of my winter wood supply has come from slabs left from the few projects I did this summer, and compared to what I want to tackle next year, that's a drop in the bucket… Maybe I'd be better served making a boiler to drive a generator, and use the wood to create electricity directly, and then go all-electric, with the solar supplementing my steam power?

  7. Chipper for 3" … might be costly… not sure. Or convert a gas type that has a blown engine? But living in the woods, can't you collect and chip smaller stuff? I did look into steam run generators a bit, and aside from the potential dangers, the cost for setup, etc.. sounds like a lot of complexity, for little gain. I still like the simplicity of solar…. but I realize that winter doesn't have much sun in Nov/Dec. Maybe you can get a PTO driven chipper for your tractor? I'm not sure of your charging schedules for the battery pack from your generator, but once you fire up a steam generator, you might want to run it for many hours before shutting it down. The startup and shutdown could be time consuming and energy consuming.

  8. About a cool grand. I can get a pto version, but they are much more expensive. I haven't run down the batteries since the second panel was installed…


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