Tippy Tap, Beta Version

tippy tap1

A tippy tap is a water-saving handwashing device developed for use in areas where there is no running water, usually fabricated out of simple found materials. Erik and I both love appropriate tech, and this is a really good example of the form. The tippy tap literally saves lives by allowing people to wash up after visiting the bathroom.

Erik included a tippy-tap, a rather fancy version of one, it turns out, in one of our link roundups.  I’d never heard of such a thing, and, intrigued, promptly fell down a deep YouHole watching tippy-tap videos.

The basic idea is that a jug of water is suspended from a pole or branch by the handle–so it can tip. A string is then tied to the top of the jug to act like a lever to create the tip. A small hole punched in the front side of the jug allows a thin, controlled stream of water to flow when the jug is tipped. To keep cross-contamination from occurring, you don’t actually touch the jug or the string to use it. Instead, the string which tips the jug is tied to a stick on the ground, which acts as a foot pedal, so the jug is tilted by foot action alone.

I thought it would be cool to have a tippy tap hanging in the garden for hand washing — better than spraying water all over with the hose, especially in these times of drought. It would also be a good handwashing station for camping.  So I made a beta version to test the idea. Long story short, it works well. I made a few mistakes and want to work out some kinks. Also, for use in the garden, I want to design a more attractive tippy tap, perhaps using a gourd or ceramics.

For the how-to, and some links to other tippy tap instructions, read on.

The first thing I needed was a plastic jug with a handle–though I’ve seen tippy taps improvised out of all sorts of plastic jugs and bottles, a good sized jug with narrow profile and a heavy handle seemed most ideal option. I didn’t have one at home, but I found a fabric softener bottle on the sidewalk which fit the bill. Of course it smelled like fabric softener, and I have a special hatred for fabric softener scent–but I picked it up anyway.

At home I washed and washed and washed the bottle again.  (So much for water savings!) Then I soaked it in vinegar. The vinegar really helped lessen the stench (“Green Burst with Emerald Stream Scent”)–but it did not eliminate it. When I use my tippy tap, my hands pick up a very faint “emerald stream” scent. Artificial scents frighten me because they are so darn persistent. Nothing wholesome lasts that long. If I do another tippy tap in plastic, I’ll use a water jug or a bottle which held something edible, like cooking oil.

Next, I gave the bottle a quick coat of paint because I couldn’t scrape off the label and couldn’t stand to wash my hands while that psychotic, chemical peddling teddy bear stared up at me.

The mechanics of building a tippy tap are quite simple, but fairly situational, so you’ll have to improvise around the shape of the water bottle you choose, and decide on a hanging method which fits your needs.  Some basics:

You need support

The bottle has to hang from something–it either hangs from a rope tied to a tree branch, or in areas without trees, the handle of the bottle hangs on a cross bar held up by two supports.  The supports could just be forked sticks pounded into the ground, or something more formal, such as poles sunk into concrete or gravel post holes.

Most tippy taps are based on jugs with handles, but if you use a water bottle without a handle, then you have to lash rope around the body and secure that rope to the branch or cross bar.

tippy tap close

My particular variation on support

My tippy tap hangs from a tree branch. I passed a rope over the branch, and slipped a pad under the rope to protect the bark.

Now, on the lower end, where the rope meets the jug, I could have just knotted the rope around the handle itself, but if I did, when I wanted to refill the tippy tap I would have to untie and retie that knot — or bring water to the tippy tap and fill it in place. Instead, I built a little swing. A short stick passes through the jug handle, and that stick hangs from two loops. The loops are loose enough to pass off the stick easily so I can remove and replace the bottle easily.

This works pretty well–at least the part about removal. However, the whole set up wants to list from side to side. It works best if I keep the support ropes snugged tight against the sides of the jug.

The water hole

Punch out a hole for the water stream in the front side of the bottle–or the side which is facing you when it is mounted. I’ve seen people burn a hole in the plastic with a hot nail. I just used a sharp screw to make the hole. You’ll have to experiment with the size of the hole to get the ideal flow.

The exact placement of the hole is a compromise. The higher it is, the more the bottle has to be tipped to get the water out. But if it’s too low, you can’t fill the bottle completely. In a jug shaped like mine, I’d place it fairly high, not far below the cap. The hole you see on mine in the pics is a smidge low.

Some people put the hole in the bottle cap itself, or just take the cap off and use the natural mouth of the bottle to dispense the water. I’d say that the first requires too much tipping, and the second uses too much water.

tippy tap close2

Air hole

You need to make a second hole, an air hole, so that the water will flow easily from the main hole. This second hole should be higher than the first hole, and probably on the back side of the jug, perhaps in the handle itself if you’re using that style of water bottle.  I put my second hole in a stupid location on the side of the bottle. It’s too low, so sometimes water sloshes out of it when I tip the jug.  But you know, c’est la vie DIY.

Pull String

You need a string which you pull to tilt the nose of the bottle downward. In my beta, and in most of the examples I’ve seen, this string is tied around the base of the bottle cap. I’ve seen some variations where a hole is drilled into the center of the cap, and the string is passed through that hole and knotted inside the cap. I chose not to do this because I imagine when the bottle is full there could be some leakage out that hole– not a great deal, and only when you use it, but…still.

One thing I do not like about the placement of the pull string in general is that you have to work around the string when you wash your hands. It stretches between you and the water flow. It works, but it seems inelegant. This is a problem I’m going to ponder for the next version.

The foot pedal

The pull string descends to the ground where it is tied around one end of a stick or scrap of wood. The length is adjusted so that the lower end of the stick touches the ground, whereas the high end, the end with the rope around it, is in the air. When you want to tilt the bottle downward, you just step on the stick.

I’ll include a link at the end to a video with an interesting variation using a clothes hanger which you depress with your wrists, instead of a foot pedal.

tippy tap foot pedal

This image is hard to read, what with all the Nasturtium around, but that there stick in the foreground is the foot pedal.

The soap

It’s nice to have soap. I drilled a hole in a bar of hotel soap with my sharp screw and made a soap-on-a-rope. In my set up, it hangs from one side of the little support swing I made.

FYI: if you’re in a place without soap, you can hang a container of ash by the tippy tap instead.

tippy tap soap

You may need drainage

Depending on where the handwashing station is located, and how many people will be using it, you may need to provide somewhere for the water to drain so the area beneath the tippy tap doesn’t become a muddy mess.  A small trench filled with gravel will do the trick. My tippy tap is hanging above highly mulched ground, so the water just soaks into the mulch.

Other sources for tippy tap information:

A very simple set of instructions (this one is available in many languages):


More detailed instruction in PDF form:


A tippy tap from Uganda, similar to mine:

A tippy tap made with a hanger pull instead of a foot pedal:

Leave a comment


  1. Oh, I like the hanger one. I think I’ll make one this weekend-there are several places wash water would be handy.

  2. I saw one last week that had the soap in a sock and one with soap in a mesh bag.

    Wouldn’t a jug that did not let in sunlight keep algae from forming? Your painted jug is pretty. If a jug were going to hang in my yard, I would not like advertising on it!

    The string hanging between your hands looks like a good place to grow bacteria. I may put one of these outside because exbf comes in with filthy hands–chicken poopy. It is too difficult for him to go down the basement stairs to the sink down there. My basement opens only to the outside. He protests that his hands are not THAT dirty. But, at least he is not squeamish.

  3. We used these with my Girl Scout troop while camping. We didn’t normally hang it, but set it at the edge of a picnic table with a bucket underneath to collect the water so as not to create a swamp in camp. Using it at the edge of the table, the water hole was at the bottom, and we used a golf tee to plug it up when not in use. We would put a bar of sock in an old stocking and tie the stocking onto the handle of the jug so that the soap was always near.

  4. I wonder if you could use a tea kettle and it would work? They’re more aesthetically pleasing that a laundry jug and I tend to see the old metal ones at the thrift stores or estate/garage sales on a regular basis. Either way, that’s a cool idea! Thanks for sharing.

    • Maybe so! I’m thinking you’d have to secure the lid, and that the balance might be tricky, but it sure would be cute.

  5. Note for when you’re somewhere without soap, the friction is really the thing that cleans your hands. rubba rubba with the water and your hands are nearly as clean

  6. I echo what others have mentioned about the soap, just putting the bar in the leg of an old stocking works great. Even when the bar gets really tiny you can still suds up with it.
    Also, with so many laundry detergents on the store shelves with spigot to pour out the liquid detergent this system is almost unnecessary (but still fun to make). I’ve taken two such jugs with us when we go camping. One for clean drinking water and the other for hand-washing. So convenient, and they even come with a little “drinking cup” that snaps over the spigot and keeps everything clean!

    • I can see that those spigot jugs would be handy in a lot of ways, and perfectly good for ordinary use.

      In defense of the tippy tap, though, the whole foot pedal/rope pull thing is to keep people from touching the water source at all, thus reducing the change of contamination (such as using your clean hands to shut the dirty valve, thus re-dirtying them.) It’s not something I’d be much worried about on a family camping trip, but would want in place when a bunch of people are sharing a bathroom in primitive conditions.

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