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Grain Bin Building Tools, Techniques, and Cautions: An Illustrated Guide

Joy worked in construction for 7 years alongside her husband (25+ yrs. experience)—working on pole barns, grain bins, and barn repairs.

Grain Bins in Morning Mist

My husband and I erected all of the bins in this row. I look forward to the serenity of an early-morning job site, and count grain bins among our happiest projects.

My husband and I erected all of the bins in this row. I look forward to the serenity of an early-morning job site, and count grain bins among our happiest projects.

Requirements

Erecting a grain bin is typically not a job for construction weekend warriors. It requires specialized tools and a great deal of common sense. Mistakes are expensive and possibly fatal.

A knowledge of tools and applied physics is a requirement, especially if you are not working alongside an experienced person. Do not put your wellbeing, or the lives or limbs of others, at risk through ignorance.

To do this job safely and efficiently, you will need equipment which is typically only available to grain bin contractors. You will either need to rent this equipment, or make your own.

Above all, you need to have abundant common sense. Many serious errors have been made by those who lacked sufficient sense to understand the building process.

Never allow anyone onto the jobsite who has a reputation for not paying attention. Doing so may result in serious injury.

Make sure that all equipment is properly serviced and in good working order prior to beginning.

A Big Project

This bin is 18 feet tall (walls only), and 18 feet in diameter. It holds over 4,000 bushels of wheat, or more than 100 tons.

This bin is 18 feet tall (walls only), and 18 feet in diameter. It holds over 4,000 bushels of wheat, or more than 100 tons.

Time Estimates

A bin 18 feet tall (6 rings), and 18 feet in diameter, takes an experienced crew of 2 men about 2 hours to erect with a boom truck, or 5 hours with jacks. This does not include site preparation, pit construction or hopper construction and installation, anchoring and sealing the bin, or adding components such as sweep augers or drying floors.

A medium-large bin may take 2 to 3 days, especially if other regular jobs must be maintained meanwhile.

Early morning is often the best time to build bins in warm weather, and is usually one of the safest as far as wind patterns are concerned. My husband and I have often started before sunup, and worked until mid-morning or perhaps 11 am.

Tools List

  • A bin and all components from a reputable dealer
  • Site preparation equipment and abilities, including concrete working skills
  • 6 sack concrete mix or better, with appropriate reinforcements
  • Proper grain bin jacks--must rent or buy these from a reputable grain bin tools source, or manufacture a set yourself if you're exceptionally handy with a welder
  • Alternate way to lift the bin, if desired--crane, boom truck, or large forklift (forklift for small bins only!)
  • Lifting ring, large truck rim, or bin halo--if using a crane
  • Lighting for working at night
  • Drift punches, medium length (10 inches at least)--1 minimum for each crew member
  • 9/16-inch box-end wrenches (2 at least), with long handles
  • High quality impact wrench, as you will give it a work-out
  • Hearing protection--preferably ear-muff or electronic type
  • Drill and appropriate metal bits, for correcting potential manufacturing errors on bolt holes
  • Scrap lumber for placing under parts to be drilled
  • Permanent marker, black wide tip
  • Work gloves which allow for dexterity (optional)
  • Comfortable work boots with decent tread, hard toes optional
  • Work clothes which will not snag or allow you to get hurt easily
  • Vice grips, high quality
  • Slipjoint pliers (optional, but can be handy)
  • Tape measure, standard
  • Tape measure--100' on a reel, for site preparation (optional but will increase accuracy)
  • Ladders, 6 foot and 8 foot tall minimum, depending on the size of the bin--for building the roof
  • Scaffolding--an alternative to ladders
  • Tool pouch/apron, or coffee cans/small buckets for hardware (a small pouch is annoying as it must be refilled often, and is hard to reach into)
  • Mastic (a sealant for between sheets).

    Mastic can be found using the search words: Single Bead Tape Roof Sealant Metal Sales

  • Silicone for hopper seams
  • Spray type sealant and/or tar pad.

    Keywords for looking up tar pad are: AST HI-acrylic Ash, ASH 50-25-04 Exterior Sealant Tape

  • Ropes or straps, for guiding the bin during placement
  • A way to block wind from swaying or sliding the bin during work (we often use a semi truck and trailer)
  • T-posts for driving in around the partially built bin during off-hours, or a suitable way to weigh the bin down at the peak (i.e. the boom of a boomtruck or crane)
  • Forklift, ATV, or another way to move the sheets and other materials on and off the jobsite
  • Storage building for bin components, if they must sit between building sessions

Notes on Site Preparation

A concrete pad which must hold the weight of a filled grain bin, home, or business is not the place to experiment with learning concrete skills. Hire a professional, or at least someone experienced, to see that the pad is poured and finished correctly.

If you have sufficient experience with concrete and understand what is at stake, by all means, make this part of your project.

If you are mounting the bin on a hopper, proper reinforcements must be made beneath the place where each leg will rest, or your pad will fail--cracking, buckling, and perhaps allowing your bin to topple or be seriously damaged. Ground water and run-off patterns must also be understood and considered.

Correct preparation of the site must be done prior to pouring concrete. This includes levelling the ground, removing dirt which will make a poor bed, and bringing in a sand mix. If you have neither the earth moving equipment nor the expertise to handle this, hire it done.

Above all, keep in mind that wheat (for example) weighs at least 50 pounds per bushel. A 4,000 bushel bin, such as those pictured below, will hold over 200,000 pounds, or 100 tons. This does not include the weight of the bin or hopper. You can see how this puts extreme pressure on the concrete slab.

Lighting for Nightime Work

Very hot weather, wind patterns, or nosy neighbors may make it desirable to work at night. If this is the case for you, good lighting is a requirement. Flood lights or similar are recommended. Lights designed to draw fewer insects are also helpful.


Keeping Sheets Dry

It is necessary to keep sheets and all components indoors to avoid rust. During off-hours and any breaks of more than a few hours during construction, sheets must be kept inside. If possible, keep them near the jobsite so that minimum time and effort are spent during set-up and cleanup each day.

Transportation of Sheets Onto Site

What you need to move sheets will depend on the distance to be moved, and the size of your worksite.

A skid loader, forklift, or tractor with front forks is ideal for lifting whole bunks of sheets, and transporting them to a convenient spot on your building site. You can then lift individual sheets and place them where wanted.

After you have a stack of sheets handy, you can probably use drift punches inserted through bolt holes as handles to drag each sheet into position. If the sheets are enormously heavy and this is impractical, use an ATV to drag them.

Jacks

One requirement is a way to lift the bin during construction. In a following article is a discussion of different kinds of grain bin jacks, but for now please understand that you will need either a boom truck, crane, large forklift (small bins only!), or jacks designed for building grain bins. These jacks come in different styles, and may be hydraulic or mechanical. Depending on the size of the bin, you will need a minimum of 4 to 6 jacks. They are designed to make the process as foolproof and safe as possible. Other types of jacks, such as hydraulic floor jacks, must not be substituted, as their potential for failure is high.

Jacks make the building process slower than other lifting methods, but are safer in most conditions.

Boom Trucks, Cranes, and Forklifts

If you are not using grain bin jacks, you will need to lift your bin in some other way. Cranes and boom trucks are good, safe options for most bins. You can probably hire one of these with an operator through a local contractor. (Most owners are not going to allow you to try to run their crane or boom truck--the operator is part of the package deal.)

A third option may be using a large forklift--but only for small to medium size bins. Forklift masts or booms cannot lift high enough to complete larger bins, or to set smaller ones on large hoppers. The forklift pictured below has over a 30 foot reach, but was still insufficient to complete and lift an 18 foot tall bin.

Lifting Rings

Lifting rings are designed to support the weight of the bin during construction, while it is lifted by a boomtruck or crane.

There are a few professionally designed and manufactured models on the market, but it will probably not be worth your while to invest in a lifting ring for one or two jobs. Instead, consider using a large truck rim, as shown below.

Impact Wrench Tips

With a high quality electric impact, you should be able to tighten 3 nuts per second or more during re-assembly. Have a person on the outside with 2 box-end wrenches holding the heads of the bolts as you tighten the nuts. 5/16 nuts should only be tightened around 22 foot pounds, and I normally go a little more. 3/8 nuts should be tightened around 38 to 42 foot pounds. On a 48' diameter bin, the black impact socket will often turn cherry red by the time a ring is completely tightened. Remember, tighten the nuts, not the bolts. You may need good gloves and rags to hold on to the impact after a while, as the gun will get extremely hot.


Brands

Jepson impacts (now out of business), are my favorite brand. Their impact wrenches out-perform any other gun on the market. They do not seriously over-heat, and they take the abuse.

If you cannot find a Jepson, a DeWalt or Milwaukee are your second best options.


Electric vs. Pneumatic

On a big bin, both types of impact guns give problems. If you are working fast, a pneumatic wrench will get very cold or freeze up. This is extremely uncomfortable to hold, even if the gun still works.

Also on a big project, an electric impact will overheat and possibly fry. You may continue to use a hot gun by wearing gloves and wrapping the handle in rags so you don't burn your hands.

There is no good solution to these problems if you want to work fast.

Additionally, a pneumatic gun will not keep up with the demands of an experienced builder even with a decently big air compressor. The compressor will need to refill frequently, forcing the crew member to stand idle waiting for it.

Impact Wrench Buying Guide

Drift Punches

Drift punches are used for aligning panels by inserting them into the bolt holes and leveraging the sheets into place.

They are also used for handles while carrying individual sheets short distances.

We recommend having at least one 10" punch per crew member, like the one shown below next to my hand. Also shown is a longer punch with a handle/hook on one end. This kind comes in handy during especially ugly situations, when more leverage and reach are required.

Box End Wrenches

9/16 inch box end wrenches are used on all standard grain bin bolts.

They are used for holding the bolts still during the tightening process, in which an impact wrench is used to achieve proper torque.

Drills

During new construction, a drill should only be needed for drilling holes in components that were not marked correctly at the factory.

More than once, we have been delivered the wrong wind ring, for example.

Usually an 11/32-inch bit will be needed, as the bolts are normally 5/8-inch. This makes holes only 1 size bigger than the bolts, providing a snug fit.

Ladders

Step ladders or scaffolding will be required to build the roof.

We often use one 6-foot ladder, and one 8-foot ladder in a medium-sized bin. Obviously, the bigger the bin, the taller you will need your ladders to be.

Scaffolding is often considered safer than ladders, but can be expensive and is not so mobile as ladders.

Do what you can with what materials you have, while maintaining relative safety. The main object is that you be able to build and work with roof components, without breaking your neck.

Guide Ropes

Guide ropes are used to help persuade a bin into position on a hopper, or to help keep it from swinging in the wind during transport short distances with a crane, etc.

Straps are bolted in or secured near the bottom if the bin, at whatever angle is most strategic to the job at hand. Wind direction and strength will most influence this.

Sealants

Types of sealants which may be used on grain bins include:

  • Tar
  • Tube silicone sealant
  • Spray foam

Tar/hit rubber sealant is used on foundations and bases, to waterproof between the metal and concrete.

Silicone is used between parts of hoppers and wherever loose hardware may present a problem.

Spray foam may be used inside bins to ensure that an imperfect fit between bin and hopper is rectified.

Also used is mastic a thick tape-like sealant which is applied on the overlap between each grain bin sheet. Occasionally a builder will use silicone instead.

Weather Safety

Weather will strongly affect your grain bin building experience. Even a 10 mph wind will make it difficult to safely lift or move the bin. Heat will make you miserable, transforming the bin interior into a solar oven. Please consider taking extra potassium when working in the heat. Extreme cold or needing to work with insulated gloves will make handling hardware almost impossible and very tedious.

Cold weather will make tools and engines work extra hard, and materials may be brittle.

Wind Blockers

Buildings, semi trucks, and windbreaks make good wind blockers both during construction and off-hours.

Be careful not to put a bin between two buildings or blocks in any position that may create a wind tunnel.

Trucks and trailers may be repositioned as needed, and can be parked close on either side of a bin to hold it still during off-hours.


Securing a Bin During Off-Hours Using T-Posts

T-posts driven in around a bin whenever it is not being worked on can serve as anchors against wind. Without this precaution, you may be liable for an expensive, dangerous kite.

T-posts may be used at almost any stage of construction, and are a suitable solution whenever you cannot hold down the bin with machinery.

How many posts you will need is determined by the size of your bin and the anticipated wind speeds. 4 to 6 posts spaced around a small to medium-size bin is recommended.

The depth to which you drive them will be determined by hardness of the ground, wind speeds, and how many you have. In very hard ground you may be able to drive the posts in less than 2 feet, and this may be sufficient. In softer ground, which will allow for more shifting, aim for at least 3 feet.

After setting the posts, wire the bin to them using tough wire inserted through empty bolt holes.


Alternatives to Posts

  1. If you are using a crane or boom truck, lower the boom on to the hole at the peak, if possible leaving the bin in a position in which it cannot be much affected by wind.
  2. If you are using A-frame grain bin jacks which are bolted onto the bin, lower the bin to the ground and secure it using the jacks.

T-Posts as Anchors

This T-post has been driven in at a slight angle to wedge against the base of the sheets. Others are spaced out around the bin. The ground was excessively hard. We refrained from wiring the posts to the roof sheets.

This T-post has been driven in at a slight angle to wedge against the base of the sheets. Others are spaced out around the bin. The ground was excessively hard. We refrained from wiring the posts to the roof sheets.

Tips for Tearing Down Old Bins

Old grain bins may come with a plethora of problems you wouldn't normally encounter while building a new bin. The tear-down process may be slowed by rusted panels and hardware, filth and vermin, rotten grain, crowding trees, or pigeons.

Be prepared to use both brains and brawn to overcome these and other problems.

Depending on the age of the bin, hardware may not be uniform. Particularly those bins manufactured during the 1940s, or which use hardware from that era, may have bolts of several different grades and head types. Square, hexagonal, and slotted pan-head bolts may be found all in the same bin.

Hardware which is seized by rust may need to be cut or ground off, using an angle grinder or reciprocating saw.

Additional Tools for Bin Tear-Downs

  • 4" angle grinder with a cut-off wheel (a thinner wheel than a standard grinding wheel, being 1/16-inch thick)
  • Reciprocating saw with carbide fine-tooth metal-cutting blade(s)
  • Spade-end pry bar or wrecking bar
  • Screwdriver, large straight blade
  • Electric drill/screw driver with suitable bits
  • Vice grips (good ones!)
  • Box end wrenches, 9/16-inch and maybe others

Previous and Next

  • How to Build a Grain Bin: An Illustrated Overview
    Photos show the basic process of building a new grain bin, for purposes of information only. The process shown is not complete enough to be used as instructions, but is intended to help you decide whether or not you can make this a DIY project.
  • Site Preparation for Building a Grain Bin: a Discussion
    This discussion is born out of the experiences of a long-time grain bin contractor. Here we consider the many requirements of the building site itself, and the concrete or foundation for a grain bin. Includes advice for bins with and without hoppers.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2020 Joilene Rasmussen

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