The mini-coop can be easily moved around the yard and garden by just one person, so the birds can feed on fresh grass and bugs as much of the year as possible.
There are so many good reasons to keep chickens that even city folks really should have a few birds. But too many backyard chicken operations look like something plucked out of a John Steinbeck novel, and that's a stumbling block for many. While the chicken-shack lifestyle is fine for some folks, the cause of sustainable, small-scale food production will never make serious headway unless its presented with a touch of class and style. That's the goal of Mother Earth's mini-coop, which makes it easy to keep a few hens even in the fanciest neighborhood or smallest back yard.
Our design team (myself and Mother Earth News editor Cheryl Long) sought the advice of several poultry experts in our quest to come up with a coop design that keeps the birds safe and productive, makes daily care as easy as possible, and looks good enough to park on a front lawn in town. The mini-coop keeps the birds safely fenced in, but can be easily moved around the yard and garden by just one person, so the birds can feed on fresh grass and bugs as much of the year as possible. The sheltered coop area is about 4-by-4-feet — a perfect bedroom for three or four hens. The attached chicken yard is 4-by-5-feet, or you could make it longer if you want to.
The mini-coop is a great project for kids. It's easy for children to help build the unit, then take complete responsibility for overseeing the egg production, giving them valuable, hands-on experience. You can even slip the coop into the back of a pickup truck — chickens and all — and take it to schools for demonstrations. We predict your local schools will be glad to host this egg-mobile.
Building the Mini-coop
The coop is framed with a series of truss-like triangles connected by a ridge board at the peak and a floor frame around the perimeter. The grazing area is enclosed in predator-proof, 1-inch galvanized welded-wire mesh, while the indoor roost is protected by shingle-covered 1/4-inch exterior plywood. If you've got two people to move the unit, you can simplify the project by omitting the wheels.
Study the drawings in the Image Gallery and then begin by cutting parts for the five triangular trusses you'll need to make the coop's frame. The main feature of the truss frames is that they be identical and rigid. To make them, you'll need 10 rafters, five cross ties, and three end spacers: one for each endmost truss frame and one for the frame, that divides the interior and exterior sections. I used cedar because it's lightweight and rot-resistant — desirable attributes for this project. You could substitute construction-grade softwood, although it will add more weight to the coop and will be less durable.
Before you assemble the trusses, prepare the notched cutouts for the two handle braces. I cut a series of kerfs in the notch area and knocked out the waste with a chisel and mallet. Before moving on, cut the floor-frame sides, the handle braces and the ridge board.
Next, assemble the rafters, cross ties and end spacers. Join each truss frame with glue and screws at the bottom joints, but use just a couple of small nails and a temporary, 3/4-inch-thick spacer at the peak (see photo in the Image Gallery). The nails help hold the truss frame together and keep the parts accurately aligned. Later, you'll need to take this joint apart so you can slip in the ridge board. Bring the peak together first (with a spacer sandwiched between the rafters), then add the cross tie at the bottom. Since the truss is a triangle, you can be sure all angles are accurate if you follow this procedure.
Install the Wall Sheathing
Add wall sheathing on the two end walls and the inside partition wall that divides the coop in two. I used 5/8-inch textured exterior plywood sheathing for its looks and durability. It's a bit beefier than necessary for this application, but we wanted to make sure all parts of the coop are durable and long-lasting.
To keep the doors simple, inexpensive and bind-free, we opted for a hinge-free design. The two removable end-doors are held in place with swiveling butterfly fasteners, while the middle door simply slides to keep the chickens in or out.
The plans show important details on how the sheathing attaches and how the doors work. Take a look before you decide on your own approach. Trace your truss frames on the sheathing to determine layout lines, then saw the sheathing to shape. Sheath the three walls that need plywood, and get the sliding door working. A vent on top of the roost's exterior door, together with the inner sliding door, assure ventilation for the birds during hot weather. When the weather gets cold, you can block the vent with a piece of cardboard and close the sliding door each night.
Bring the Trusses Together
While the glue on the truss frames is drying, grab the two floor-frame sides and the ridge board you cut earlier. Clamp them together and mark the location of the truss frames you'll be fastening to them. The floor-frame sides are longer than the ridge board, so be sure there's an equal amount of overhang on each end before you clamp and mark.
Temporarily prop up the two end trusses on a level, flat surface. Use a builder's level to get everything plumb. If the frame is brought together with any kind of twist, that defect is there to stay. Connect the two outermost trusses with the floor-frame side members, then add the ridge board. Next, fit the remaining trusses in place, following the layout lines you drew earlier on the side-frame members and the ridge. As you work, use screws and an adhesive to fasten the pieces together. It takes a little longer, but it will make the structure more rigid and sturdy.
Complete the main frame by adding the two handle braces, the plywood floor, the roost bar and the nest box. Leave the nest box loose so you can lift it out when you clean the interior.
Apply a coat of nontoxic, one-time wood finish. We used a powder made by Valhalla Wood Preservatives that is mixed with water, strained and applied with a pump sprayer. The solution wets the wood's surface, soaks in, and eventually turns the wood a dark, weathered gray.
Mesh and Roof
The mesh and roof help tie the structure together solidly. We chose finch welded-wire mesh, although other options may make more sense where you live. We fastened the mesh to the sides of the coop that are unsheathed, but left the bottom of the pen open to maximize the chickens' scratching opportunities. If you want to protect your lawn, or anticipate problems from small nocturnal predators such as weasels, you may want to cover the floor with wire mesh. Fence staples do a great job of holding the mesh in place.
To sheath the roof, nail 1/4-inch-thick, exterior-grade plywood on top of the 3/4-inch-think strips of solid wood that frame the coop's edges. Although we selected thin plywood for its light weight, one of its drawbacks is that it's too thin to take roofing nails. We secured asphalt shingles to the sheathing with beads of roofing adhesive. Rotate the coop so one side of the roof is level, and fasten the shingles with blobs of adhesive, using nails wherever rafters are located. (The kind of roofing adhesive that comes in a caulking tube is the easiest to apply neatly.) Run a line of single shingles along the entire ridge of the coop to keep important wood joints dry and to hide the sharp, raw edges of the wire mesh.
Finish up by installing wheels and an axle (if you choose to use them), door hardware and replaceable "rot" strips of wood along the bottom of the stroller (to protect the frame from decay). We used scrap pieces of recycled plastic lumber for our rot strips, secured with counter sunk screws. You also could use real wood, replacing it when it gets soft.
To minimize our chicken chores, we installed an automatic waterer made by Edstrom Industries. It includes a suspended reservoir tank that feeds the trigger cup (a small float-controlled water bowl — see photo in the Image Gallery). You can hook up a garden hose to replenish the tank automatically, but there's really no need when you're watering just three or four hens. The 1-gallon water supply lasts a long time. Individual cups with valves are just a dollar each. The reservoir tank costs about $40, but you could easily fashion your own from a lidded plastic pail.
Contributing Editor Steve Maxwell has been helping people renovate, build and maintain their homes for more than two decades. “Canada’s Handiest Man” is an award-winning home improvement authority and woodworking expert. Contact him by visiting his website and the blog, Maxwell’s House. You also can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook and find him on Google+.