Like most spoiled kids from my generation, I grew up with my mom doing my wash.
So, it was a big shock for me to start washing my own clothes when I moved out – especially since that first apartment didn’t have a washing machine.
I remember one day that I was feeling too lazy to walk with my dirty clothes to the laundromat. I figured, “Everyone used to wash their clothes by hand without electricity. How hard can it be.”
What proceeded was a huge mess, lots of wasted water, and even more wasted energy. I put my dirty clothes in the bathtub and filled it with soapy water. Using my hands, I started to slosh the clothes around in the water.
Soon, there was water all over the bathroom floor. My clothes were in a tub full of dirty water, and I had to drain and refill and refill the tub a bunch of times until all of the soapy water finally got out.
Luckily, there is a much simpler system for washing clothes without a washing machine and without any electricity.
The bucket washing machine costs about $5 and will take you just a few minutes to make.
Step 1: Get Your Supplies
You will need:
- Bucket with fitted lid – Check on Amazon
- Plunger – Check on Amazon
*It helps to have a bucket opener too. Opening bucket lids can be hell on your hands!
Step 2: Drill Your Holes
The first thing you’ll need to do is drill a hole in the middle of the bucket’s lid. This is where you will put the plunger through.
Then you will need to drill some holes in your plunger. These holes allow water to go through the plunger as you move it up/down.
Step 3: Use Your Bucket Washing Machine
- Put some clothes into the bucket washing machine. Then put some water and detergent into the bucket. You’ll want the waterline so the bucket is about ¾ full.
- Insert the plunger handle through the hole and then put the lid on tightly.
- Move the plunger up/down to move the clothes around in the bucket. Yes, this requires some work but you’ll have some awesome-looking biceps soon. 😉
- When you think your clothes are clean enough, remove the lid and drain the water.
- Now fill the bucket with clean water, put the lid on, and plunge again.Drain this water. Do one final rinse if necessary.
Full video below:
Variation of the Bucket Washing Machine
Some people like to make their off-grid washing machines using TWO BUCKETS.
With this method, you drill holes around the bottom and sides of one bucket.
The bucket with holes gets set inside the other bucket without holes.
You wash the clothes using the plunging method. When done, you lift up the interior bucket. Water will come out of the holes, saving you the trouble of draining the bucket.
Another benefit of this method is that you can “dry” the clothes. When you are finished washing, you remove the bucket with the holes and let water drain out.
Then put the bucket without holes into it to push out excess water.
Finally, you spin the bucket, just like with a spin cycle to get water out.
Full video below:
I do NOT like this version of the bucket washing machine!
The reason I don’t like it is that water gets everywhere when you wash the clothes. As you plunge the clothes, the water will come out of the holes and leak out from the space where the two buckets are inserted together.
When you lift the bucket with holes out, the water also sloshes everywhere. It is really hard to capture, especially if you plan on reusing the greywater.
The same goes with the “spin cycle” — water goes all over the place!
While this might not matter if you are washing clothes outdoors during the summer, anyone who has ever washed clothes by hand in the freezing cold winter knows how much it sucks to get all wet!
Drying Your Clothes
In the summertime, you can just take your soaking wet clothes and hang them on the line. They will dry fairly quickly in the sun.
In wintertime, this doesn’t work so well.
If you don’t wring out most of the water before hanging them to dry, it can take DAYS before your clothes dry! I don’t have enough clothes to wait 5 days for my laundry to dry!!!
It is not possible to wring clothes out by hand. Your hands will start to cramp up really quickly (And I pride myself on being pretty fit and strong. I can’t imagine how someone with arthritis could do this.). Even with all that painful squeezing, you still won’t be getting that much water out with just your hands.
It is really worth it to get a clothes wringer. You can find them online or might even be able to find an old one at a flea market. The wringer gets out a lot of water so your clothes dry faster.
An easy alternative is to use a mop bucket for wringing out your clothes. Just put the wet clothes in the squeeze area and press to get the water out. The great thing is that the bucket catches the water so you can reuse it.
The Higher-Tech Solution
Bucket washing machines work great and are cheap, but maybe you’d rather buy a readymade solution?
If so, you can check out one that works with a foot pedal. You can just sit down and pump your foot to clean your clothes.
Portable Non Electric Washing Machine
Have you ever washed your clothes by hand? Any tips to share?
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What if you take that holed bucket full of clothes that are ready to do the final spin dry, set it on a strong branch above your garden (or a strong beam in the middle of your greenhouse) by hanging it on a rope, twist the rope until it can’t twist any more, and then run out? You get to water your garden AND get the clothes part of the way dry. That way you don’t waste any water. I hope that’s a good idea that you can use since you didn’t like the idea of wasting all of that rinsing water.
Nothing like improvisation – might be worth a try in a pinch.
Thanks for the plunger idea, I will definitely try it, which will be easier than trying to find a sturdy version of the versions I have seen online.
Most people washing by hand start out using way too much soap, which means using multiple rinses to get the clothes soap-free. If you leave the clothes with soap residue, the soap will attract dirt and you’ll be doing laundry more often. I start with 1 teaspoon for a 4 gallon bucket. And remember, lots of natural soaps don’t contain chemical foaming agents so you may not get a ton of suds.
Great comment Elslen – preserving as much water as possible is a fundamental survival strategy.
I made your bucket system about 10 years or more ago,but I did not have a drill I used my work trim knife to cut the hole out, I drained the water by swing the bucket over my head,I did get wet, but it was 90 out so I really did not care.
I use a little vinegar in the rinse water for my hair and for my laundry to cut/neutralize the alkaline soap. This also acts as a softener.
Great reminder for us all. When we don’t see lot of suds we think our clothes are not going clean but in reality they are cleaner without as much soap.
If you make your own laundry gel – not detergent – it will wash wonderfully but won’t give you suds … also be sure to use a bit of white vinegar in the rinse water and it will help get the soap out. The vinegar smell will dissipate and your clothes don’t smell of vinegar.
Great tip. Thanks
The second version works great if you drill some holes only in the bottom of the bucket. This way the clothes don’t cling to the bottom when being washed and you don’t waste that much water. It’s good to smooth the holes with some sand paper so the clothes don’t get ruined during washing.
Try it and you will see the difference 😀
For some small washing I also use bottom parts of a salad spinner and a small plunger. I do it even at home (where my washing machine is ready and waiting) because it is the most gentle way to wash some delicate items like scarves or underthings.
It is also good to let the clothes soak for a while in some soapy water. The washing then is more thorough and faster.
And if you need some of the washing to dry really fast put the squeezed clothes with two or three microfibre towels and mix and squeeze them for a while. The towels will absorb most of the water and everything will dry pretty quickly.
Great tips Joda thanks for stopping by.
Great Idea on the wringer! I hand wash all the time, but don’t do jeans and sweatpants because I can’t wring them well. Sometimes son and I will twist from opposite ends if I’m desperate. Anything is better than going to the laundromat at -48F
Ugh. You just brought back bad memories from the days before I had a washing machine and had to hand-wash jeans (and didn’t yet know cool hacks like this bucket washing machine :D). Yes, jeans and sweatpants are a total pain and take forever to dry if you don’t have a wringer!!
If somebody didn’t already make this comment, it might be a good idea to wash more often to avoid large loads. The presoaking suggestion is really good!
Yes, good comment! Washing more frequently is also important when you’ve got to air dry your clothes. In spring and fall, it can take days for clothes to dry. If you wait too long to do laundry, you can easily end up without anything dry and clean to wear. In winter you can at least put your clothes in front of the heater to dry them faster.
I keep a couple of old, light coloured towels on hand. Once I’ve squeezed as much water out as I can, I spread the clothes out in single layers and then roll the clothes up in a towel and wring/twist tightly. This absorbs more water and protects the clothes somewhat from the stresses of wringing. The towels dry with the clothes outside. Even in below freezing clothes will dry outside. Don’t know why it works, but if you leave them out for 3days when you bring them in they’re frozen stiff. Shake/flap/beat them soft and they’re dry. Go figure!
I made your bucket system about 10 years or more ago,but I did not have a drill I used my work trim knife to cut the hole out, I drained the water by swing the bucket over my head,I did get wet, but it was 90 out so I really did not care,in the winter I don’t wring out the water I just throw them on the line and let them freeze,them you go out every so every 15 or 20 minutes and beat the ice off until there about dry, then you can bring the in to hang to warm up and get the little water that might be left in them out.
Swinging the bucket over your head also seems like a good way to get some upper body exercise. I’m guessing you are a lot physically stronger than I am 😀
Yup, they basically freeze dry. They are crispy and rigid ’til you shake them out.
It kinda stinks if it snows and you forget to shake the snow off before bringing them inside. Fitted sheets can collect a lot o f snow in the corners. Lol
I’m going to get one of those janitor’s mop buckets with the mop press on it to use instead of squeezing it wringing by hand.
Instead of putting the holed bucket into the wash bucket, just wash in the wash bucket, then dump the mess into the holed bucket, sit the wash bucket on top and use your foot to add pressure. Do it in the bathtub or shower to keep the water from getting everywhere.
I didn’t have a drill to make the holes so i used a Phillips head screwdriver and a hammer. Now the holes have sharp edges. What is the best way to fix this?
You can use sand paper to smooth out the plastic. A woodworker file would also work. Maybe a nail file would work too.