100-Year-Old Way to Filter Rainwater in a Barrel

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Last Updated on March 2, 2021

In times of drought or should the municipal services that you rely on cease working, it may be necessary to know how to filter rainwater.

large barrels or plastic drums have been used to filter rainwater for decades.

During our boiling, broiling, blistering summer of 2012 here in the Missouri Ozarks, water was a topic of conversation wherever we went. Creeks and ponds dried up (some never recovered) and the water table dropped, forcing a few neighbors to have their well pumps lowered or to even have deeper wells drilled.

Many folks shared memories of rain barrels, cisterns, hand pumps, and drawing water with a well bucket as a child, usually on grandpa and grandma’s farm. Some said they’d never want to rely again on those old-time methods of getting water. But, at least they knew how to filter rainwater and get the job done.

It seems we have lost much practical knowledge in the last 50 or so years because we thought we’d never need it again. Now we are scrambling to relearn those simple know-hows.

A tattered, 4-inch thick, 1909 book I happily secured for $8 in a thrift store reveals, among umpteen-thousand other every-day skills, how to make homemade water filters. The instructions in “Household Discoveries and Mrs. Curtis’s Cookbook” are quite basic as everyone had a rain barrel back then and presumably knew how to filter rainwater. Now, 104 years later, I am thankful the authors had the foresight to preserve their knowledge for us and pointed out that rainwater collected in barrels from a roof is a necessity in some locations, but also is best for laundry and “often more wholesome for drinking purposes than hard water.”

Rain Barrels are amazing at collecting, now you need to filter rainwater that has fallen

The “wholesome” observation applies to plants, too. I noticed during our 6-week dry spell (not a drop of rain) that I was only able to keep my vegetables alive with the garden hose – until our well, too, began sucking air. The pitiful potato, tomato and bean plants actually seemed petrified, like faded plastic decorations. Then, after a 2-hour rain shower, the plants miraculously leaped to life – vibrant, green, and THRIVING. I did, too.


In early June last year, my husband surprised me with a 425-gallon water tank so I could water with nutritious rainwater, although it was August before any measure of water was in the tank. When the elusive rains finally paused briefly overhead, I was out in it with my 2-gallon watering can, running and sloshing the water like a crazy woman onto our neglected trees far up the hill.

100-year-old instructions to filter rainwater

For gardening, rainwater is, naturally, best unfiltered. But, for household use, the vintage book says the following instructions yield a cheap and easy way to make a filter just as good as a patent filter costing 10 times as much:

“Take a new vinegar barrel or an oak tub that has never been used, either a full cask or half size. Stand it on end raised on brick or stone from the ground. Insert a faucet near the bottom. Make a tight false bottom 3 or 4 inches from the bottom of the cask. Perforate this with small gimlet holes, and cover it with a piece of clean white canvas.

“Place on this false bottom a layer of clean pebbles 3 or 4 inches in thickness; next, a layer of clean washed sand and gravel; then coarsely granulated charcoal about the size of small peas. Charcoal made from hard maple is the best.


“After putting in a half bushel or so, pound it down firmly. Then put in more until the tub is filled within 1 foot of the top. Add a 3-inch layer of pebbles, and throw over the top a piece of canvas as a strainer. This canvas strainer can be removed and washed occasionally and the cask can be dumped out, pebbles cleansed and charcoal renewed every spring and fall, or once a year may be sufficient.

“This filter may be set in the cellar and used only for drinking water. Or it may be used in a time of drought for filtering stagnant water, which would otherwise be unpalatable, for the use of stock. This also makes a good cider filter for the purpose of making vinegar. The cider should first be passed through a cheesecloth to remove all coarser particles.

“Or a small cheap filter may be made from a flowerpot. A fine sponge may be inserted in the hole and the pot filled about as directed for the above filter. It may be placed in the top of a jar, which will receive the filtered water.”

Free online reading

It's easy to filter rainwater with common household items

My copy of the 1,000-page book is stained and worn, I assume from many years of use in the house, barn and garden. Even though I could read the bright, white online version, I treasure my rag-tag book and am hanging onto it. I still have much to learn.

To read the free online version of Household Discoveries and Mrs. Curtis’s Cookbook that covers everything from how to eradicate vermin, salt fish, and build a 5-hole privy, visit Household Discoveries on Open Library.org. Information on filtering water begins on page 108.

Linda Holliday lives in the Missouri Ozarks where she and her husband formed Well WaterBoy Products, a company devoted to helping people live more self-sufficiently off-grid, and invented the WaterBuck Pump. A former newspaper editor and reporter, Holliday blogs for Mother Earth News, sharing her skills in modern homesteading, organic gardening, and human-powered devices.

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A better way instead of having the spigot at the bottom is to have its outlet connect to a piece of hose or piping and have the actual out let up a ways on the barrel, this way the contents of the barrel always stay wet allowing beneficial bacteria to thrive and never die because they dried out.

Mike Kennedy

With our modern acid rain how about an update and adding a layer of marble chips to the top? They are available at hardware or aquarium stores. I don’t think this system would discourage bacteria—it might even be making a better place for it to live than an empty barrel!


Hard maple for the charcoal. Not hard marble! Typo.


Thanks for the heads up!


Can also use coconut charcoal.


makes more sense now


I’d certainly love to see someone attempt to make charcoal out of marble, though 😉



The link is in the article above, but here it is again. http://openlibrary.org/books/OL24653192M/Household_discoveries The links to download this book in different formats are on the right side of the page.


Nick Vasey

Unfortunately PDF link seems to be down. Annoying, because I want to print it out. But, not your fault either! 🙂 Cheers for good info. 🙂

Pat Henry

Thanks Nick!

Are you talking about the link for the actual book or this site? We had some issues last hour that should be resolved now. The link to the actual book should be working too.



Nick Vasey

Downloading it now. Just didn’t realise it is such a monster. It’s 74.5MB!


Awesome! Thank you for the link! I was guessing it was probably in the public domain because when I clicked the Amazon link, it was almost $5,000!! Eeks lol! Must be a rare copy 🙂

Don Darkes

Thank You! I enjoyed and learned from the article. I live on a self-sustaining sailboat with its roof adapted to catch rainwater and condensation. Even though I live in a relatively pristine ocean environment the amount of contaminants in the air/rain water are terryfying. I have used a number of commercial charcoal/ceramic/UV light filters and processes to purify the water. The effect of this is best seen when tasting the water or baking bread with and without filtering the water first. Eye-opening!


Where would one get a new oak barrel? And do you have any recommendations for where a city dweller would get charcoal appropriate for using in the filter? Thank you for posting this.

Pat Henry

Sorry, for not responding sooner. I just saw this comment… For the charcoal, you can make it by simply burning wood. Even in the cities there will be wood you can scrounge. Pallets, lumber from abandoned buildings, unused furniture, packing crates. All of it will work. Simply burn it all down and use the charcoal that your fire created in your filter. Now, for the Oak Barrels. You can get them but they aren’t cheap and most are probably treated with chemicals to keep pests out of the wood. Even if the wood is safe, real wood barrels are SO… Read more »

Meat Eater

I know this is a very old post, However! Be careful with the wood you burn for charcoal. Some pallets have had chemicals stored on them or been treated with chemicals to keep insects away. Building lumber is pine, make really awful charcoal. Best bet is dead fall or storm damaged trees. READ how to make charcoal, not as easy as it sounds and check the local ordinances about open burning


Great question profesora. Hope you get the answer that we all are looking for. This is the question we all have,little help here!

catherine holliday boyce

Your website url caught my eye as I live in Escondido, Ca. I live in a ground floor apt. with large enclosed patio to house plants and have been collecting rain for the past 4 days in various recepticles. Want to filter it and your article will definately point me in the right direction.
I grew up in countryside of southeastern pa. so collecting rainwater was not necessary although my parents did have rain barrels set out.
Thanks for this posting.
Cate Holliday Boyce


I could not find that book on openlibrary .org.have you seen it there recently?any help would be appreciated.it may have been written by a distant relative and I would like to read it.If you could email me any info that would be great.

James Wurm

Hey, I’m late to the conversation, but I really like this article. In my other research on this topic, another issue that came up is toxic particulate matter that runoff the roof, be it from the tar shingles themselves, or pollutant dust that settles from general air conditions. I think the filter assuages my concerns about that, but you also mention that the filter shouldn’t be applied to gardening water, that its better for the plants to have unfiltered water, and while I’m certain that is fine for general landscaping plants, what about fruits and vegetables? I know the soil… Read more »

Pat Henry

Thanks for the comments and questions James. I don’t know if Linda is still checking on this one or not, but I think the article was referring to rainwater that wasn’t collected off the roof when she mentioned the garden. Straight from the sky would be best for your plants and vegetables, but if you are capturing from the roof filtering will be better for the plants to avoid the toxins you mention. Another great idea is a back flush type of system where when the rain first starts, it fills a tube up prior to going into your rain… Read more »

James Wurm



First of all, you’ve got the order wrong. It’s supposed to be gravel on the top, followed by a layer of sand and then the charcoal on the bottom. You can follow that up with another layer of sand on the bottom, but it is not necessary. Secondly, you need to use activated charcoal, not just any charcoal. Activated charcoal has been treated to open up the pores in the charcoal, which are what make it work so well for trapping bacteria. Finally, you didn’t mention that you need to rinse the grave, sand and activated charcoal thoroughly, before building… Read more »

Steve LaFontaine

we have lived on rainwater exclusively for 30+ years. initially we filtered by using WOOL FELT and SILK over the mouth of the barrel similar to the illustration on the article. a common MISTAKE is to put the large rocks on top and the sand at the bottom. NO PROFESSIONAL FILTER SYSTEM works like this. the SAND goes on top then smaller rocks progessing to largest at bottom. FINAL stage is CHARCOAL which is not to filter but to restore taste to the water. here is my filter. note i deviated by putting charcoal in middle after all the filtering.… Read more »

Pat Henry

Thanks for sharing your set up Steve! Is that your idea or did you get this from some other source? I am curious as to the benefits of each of your different types of stones. Is it just the sizing?

Steve LaFontaine

my own design developed over years. the second layer of sand is to keep the charcoal from depleting.the clay is even finer than the sand. since i had to use small rocks i figured why not arkansas quartz gravel. look up the properties of quartz.. the dolomite is to keep the charcoal from depleting. i have a vien of it on my property so i figured i’d use it…. imparts magnesium to the water. good stuff that magnesium. a really simple filter is simply sand on top. small gravel is to hold the sand in place then larger gravel progressing… Read more »


I realize this is an old post and I tried to look your information up on Google but have not found the complete guide on how to build your system. Would you please share with me how to find this or a guide on exactly how to build this? I am new to rain barrels and have been researching a lot but this sounds like a perfect system for me. Thank you!


Safe for drinking water?

Steve LaFontaine

we’ve been drinking it exclusively for over 30 years and in perfect health the entire time… but then i do make and use colloidal silver too.


Sounds great, thanks for responding. I’m excited to try it now!


Just curious, but how long does this filtration system last, before you have to replace the materials? Or do you only have to replace the activated charcoal?

Rob P

How often do you have to changed the filter ingredients? Charcoal sand clay etc- thank you


you should still boil the water if you plan to consume it even after using this filter

Steve LaFontaine

this is BS! the sand goes ON TOP. the barrel shown is a disease breeder…. look at ANY industrial filter. the sand is ON TOP. the rocks are ONLY to give a void for the water to collect. the charcoal is ALWAYS LAST because it is not to filter. it is to RESTORE TASTE.
we live in the ozarks. we have lived EXCLUSIVELY off rainwater for over 30 years.

Darryl C.

How do U filter out CHEM Trails?

Dr. Doomsday

Very similar to Cresson Kearny’s filter in Nuclear War Survival Skills…


Anyone have any idea how long this or similar filtration systems will last before some or all of the materials have to be replaced? For instance, I know activated charcoal loses it’s charge after some time – making it less and less effective.

They suggest to replace smaller filtration systems every month (e.g., brita), but I would imagine a larger one like this would take longer. However, it would imagine that you would have to make sure that was water is evenly distributed across the barrel, so water isn’t just pouring down the same path each time.


Rainwater filter


Wow. Look great system. I bet that this can work well when comparing with the modern one, but may be not as good as the modern tehnology about function.


I just wonder how to setup like this model? How much does it cost? How do we compare with the modern style? Thanks.


The system looks great. I just curious about how to install the same system quickly.
Reference: http://thebestabovegroundpools.com/

Ian and Dee Newton

Great reading we in rural south Africa, all that comes in terribly use as our river water is not fit for human consumption.
We rely totally on our rain water tanks, and find it difficult to obtain aqua tablets to purify our water.
Thank you
Dee Newton

top 5 best

Wow amazing! Thank you for sharing article.

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