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Do-it-yourself projects and plans for anyone who can swing a hammer.


Making Your Own Tools

forge
Unsplash/raulbarrios

Blacksmiths often held a special status among traditional people; when your plow bent or your scythe broke, he kept your family alive. They must have seemed like alchemists, turning bare stones into gleaming jewellery or fierce weapons; here in Ireland even their homes looked different, with a bizarre keyhole-shaped door that announced the resident’s craft as clearly as any barber pole or butcher sign.

Try blacksmithing for a short time and you respect them yourself. Metals like copper or tin can be hammered into shape cold, but iron needs more than a thousand degrees of heat to become malleable; for those temperatures you need charcoal, a forge and a continual blast of air, along with the skill to know what you’re doing.

I do not claim to have such skill, but under the guidance of two excellent tutors, I was able to take a rusty piece of discarded machinery and, by heating and pounding it many times over two days, flatten and shape it into a useable machete. The course was one of many offered by the Irish organization CELT, and hosted at the Slieve Aughty Centre in County Galway.

We started by creating a forge – in this case, out of clay, sand and horse manure, mixed and shaped like a sand castle. We cut and stapled plastic bags and wooden planks to form bellows, and used pipes to connect them to the clay structure, and soon we had something primitive yet useable. We used metal ones later to save time, but it’s a great pleasure to know that you can make a working forge from almost nothing.

Forge 1
Two of my course-mates stoking their forge; the bellows are pipes and cattle feed bags, the forge itself is sculpted out of clay, sand, and horse manure. 

We quickly learned that forging metal means a lot of time standing over the fire, holding the metal – with tongs, obviously – in just the right place to get the proper amount of heat, and withdrawing it at just the right moment. Too much heat and it sparks and disintegrates, too little and no amount of hammering can budge it. Movie blacksmiths look like bodybuilders slamming white-hot metal with sledgehammers; the reality involves a lot more frantic and often delicate tapping, as the smith has only a few seconds to make the right changes before it cools again.

In my case, I hammered the old machine part into a straight bar, flattened it into a knife-shape over the next two days, and a bit of cutting and polishing did the rest. I cut a handle from a hazel branch, heated the “handle end” of the metal until it was yellow-hot, and seared the hot metal into the handle, with a gust of steam and a few bursts of flame from the wood. The result looks a bit crude, like a weapon an orc might use in the Hobbit, but it’s turned out to be a perfectly serviceable tool.

Blacksmithing is one of the dozens of professions that were widespread in all traditional cultures, when most villages had families of craftsmen – coopers, wrights, tanners and thatchers – that now survive only as surnames. Children apprenticed from an early age, learned a skill for several years, and might have entered the working world as masters at an age when teens today are spending their prime years bored and self-destructive.

A world of craftsmen creates an economy alien to modern Westerners; instead of cheap belongings meant to be thrown away quickly, goods had to be made durable, to be fixed, recast, re-forged or re-sewn over and over, with no mountains of rubbish. Such an economy entirely lacked the anonymous transactions that we think we depend on; writers from a century or two ago described recognizing particular barrels, nails or saddles as we would recognize someone’s handwriting, and the craftsman’s reputation hung on the quality of their work.

Of course, few people would be able to make a living as a smith anymore, but it’s a skill we should retain; plastic can only be recycled a few times, but iron can be recycled indefinitely. When the world is no longer able to mass-produce new materials at its former rate, when there is no new plastic and fewer forests, we will have billions of tons of landfill waste. Movies like WALL-E posit garbage covering the Earth, but in real life much of that garbage would not only be reusable, but precious, and today’s landfills could be tomorrow’s mines.

Knife
The knife I made, with a book for scale.

For more information about CELT’s Weekend in the Hills. If you are in County Galway, do check out the Slieve Aughty Centre near Loughrea.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.

Making Soap: Yes You Can!

 tallow-soap
Pixabay/freestocks

I made my first batch of soap about 15 years ago. It was a big deal since I decided to render beef tallow myself, just for the experience. It added a lot of work and time to the soap making process, but for me was worth the experience. The soap turned out nice­—but not terribly exciting. Next I tried a recipe that used olive oil. The soap turned out nice, but again, not terribly exciting. Then, after years of thinking my soap making days were over, I found a recipe that had a combination of rich, emollient nut and vegetable fats, plus coconut milk. This is a very creamy, fine-bubbled moisturizing soap and also doubles as a shaving bar. I'll share the recipe below, but first a little history, science and basics about soap making.

History

An excavation of ancient Babylon turned up evidence of intentional soap making around 5,000 years ago. It was made from fats boiled with ashes and the resulting soap was used for cleaning fibers used in textile manufacturing. More history of soap can be found on the Today I Found Out web site.

Trivia: Ever wonder how soap operas got the name? It's tied to the excessive amounts of money Proctor & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive and Lever Brothers spent advertising their soaps on such TV programs. They had the perfect audience!

Chemistry

You must be very specific when measuring soap making ingredients: saponification is a chemical process that requires the correct balance of fats and alkali. Fats (vegetable/nut oils and animal fats) are triglycerides. When triglycerides come in contact with a strong base (e.g. lye), the molecules are split and fatty acid salts and glycerol are released, making what was once oily fat into a water-soluble hygroscope (attracts and holds water molecules from the surrounding environment).

Soap-Making Basics

Melted oils and fats are combined with an alkali (sodium hydroxide, commonly known as lye, mixed in water or other liquids). The lye has a chemical reaction with the fats, called saponification. The resulting mixture is placed in a container for 24-48 hours to harden (incubation), then removed and cut into bars and set out to air-cure. The lye eventually deactivates during this time and the fats/oils are turned into soap. The curing process takes about 4-6 weeks to complete.

Tools You’ll Need to Make Soap

• Digital scale
• Non-reactive pot, spoon and spatula
• Bowls of various sizes (for ingredient measuring and lye mixing)
• Plastic or cardboard shoebox, wax paper & tape
• Sandwich baggie
• Hand-mixer or submersible blender
• Thermometer (digital is best; 2 are even better)
• Towels for incubation
• Some sort of drying rack

Warnings: ALL Are Very Important!

1. Soap recipes are generally given in weights, not volumes (as stated above, this is chemistry so proportions have to be specific). A scale is necessary.

2. Use only non-reactive containers, pots and utensils when making soap. Glass, stainless steel and plastic are all fine.

3. Lye can be scary. If the crystals become damp, they will burn through anything. Safety glasses and dishwashing gloves are recommended. ALWAYS pour the lye into the water, not the other way around, to avoid damp lye particles from being disbursed. It's best to mix the lye and liquids outdoors if possible‑there's a gas given off by active lye that you don't want to inhale. Finally, the lye will heat the water to about 200 degrees F.

4. Both the melted fats/oils and the lye/water need to be as close to 100 degrees as possible to get them to emulsify properly when mixed together. Any additional ingredients (fragrances, essential oils, abrasives, oatmeal, spices) are added after the fats/lye/liquids are emulsified.

 

This is tracing, see 6 below.

Making Soap

1. Prepare your soap mold by lining with wax paper (tape helps)

2. Weigh all ingredients carefully (even liquids!) and set aside. Place the weighed lye into a sandwich bag. 

3. Place weighed liquids in a non-reactive container (Pyrex works fine), take it outdoors if possible, and gently pour the lye into the water being careful not to splash. Mix gently with spoon. Do not inhale the fumes! The mixture will get very HOT. Throw out the empty bag. 

<p">4. Place fats/oils (not fragrance or essential oils though) in a pot and melt, then remove from heat.</p">

5. Check the temperatures of both the melted fats and lye/water mix. When they are both as close to 100 degrees as you can get them (it may take a little juggling back and forth to get them to both the same temp at the same time), carefully pour the lye mixture into the pot of melted fats. Mix together with a non-reactive spoon.

6. Blend with the hand mixer or blender for about 5 minutes, then stir by hand for 5 minutes, back and forth until "trace" is reached (the contents will thicken like pudding and eventually you will be able to make traces of the mixture onto itself. (See photo.) You can stir in your fragrances, etc. now.

7. Pour/scrape the mixture into your mold. Wrap the mold with towels and keep for 24-48 hours in a temperate place. 

8. Pop the soap block out of the mold, peel off the wax paper and slice with your favorite cutting tool. Place bars of soap on a rack and let them air-cure for 4-6 weeks. You MUST do this since some lye will still be active. Bars may lighten in color over time.

 

Soap bars on a cookie rack for curing.

Enjoy! The printable recipe for my favorite moisturizing soap can be found here.

Deb Tejada is an urban farmer, foodie, do-it-yourselfer, graphic designer, illustrator and web developer living in sunny Colorado. When she’s not in the kitchen or garden, you can find her at The Herban FarmerRead all of Deb's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.

An Introduction to Soap Making

cold process soap 

Soap-making is one of those traditional skills that are undergoing a huge renaissance. With many people craving healthier, more natural and more personally crafted skin products, artisan soaps have turned into some very profitable businesses.

Soap making requires two basic ingredients: oil or fat, and lye (sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide, for solid and liquid soap respectively), typically dissolved in water. There are elaborate soap-making tutorials that insist on a very precise, scientific approach and exact measurements of the oil to lye ratio. It is important to keep in mind, however, that in the good ol' days, every household used to make its own soap from leftover cooking fat and lye produced by seeping water through wood ash. I can't imagine it was a very precise system, but it worked. 

Having said that, a reliable recipe and a digital scale go a long way towards minimizing frustration and giving you consistent, predictable, uniform results. 

Many people approach soap-making as a creative venture or micro business of its own, and stock up on supplies specifically for this purpose. For me, it was more about using up old oils that were not much good for anything else, whether it's non-food-grade olive oil we had tried to use for lighting but couldn't because it smoked, coconut oil that had gotten an off taste from sitting on the shelf too long, or almond massage oil left over from my first pregnancy a decade ago. I love the satisfaction of putting something to good use rather than throwing it away! 

Whatever oil or fat you use, look up a recipe specifically geared towards it, because the amount of lye will vary slightly for each one. Not enough lye will result in incomplete saponification, separation of oil, and messy soap; too much lye will give you a harsh, unpleasant soap that dries the skin (if this happens, though, no worries - you can grate the soap and use the flakes for laundry). 

The basic process of making soap is really quite simple: dissolve lye in water, add to oil and stir, preferably with a stick blender. The more effectively you mix, the sooner you will perceive the characteristic mayonnaise-like thickening known as 'trace'. 

Warning: lye is a highly corrosive substance, so please handle with caution. Wear rubber gloves and protective goggles, and dissolve the lye near an open window or, better yet, outside, to keep from breathing in the fumes. Never work with lye near small children. Use a glass or plastic bowl and a wooden spoon for mixing the lye solution and soap. Lye will eat through metal bowls. 

Once you gain a little more experience with making soap, there are many fun twists you can try. You can add essential oils for scents, textured materials such as poppy seeds or coffee grounds for a gentle exfoliating bar and, of course, natural colorants. With thick enough batter, you can make layers of different colors or gentle swirling/marbled effects. 

Once your soap has reached trace, pour it into molds. Silicone is best for this purpose. I like using little silicone molds in all sorts of cute shapes, but a plain old English cake mold will do as well. Unmold your soap when it's stable enough to keep its shape, but still soft enough to cut into bars (if you use one big mold). It can take several days until the soap is ready to be removed from the mold. 

After you've got your soap bars unmolded, it's time to cure them. This takes several weeks, and the wait may seem endless when you are looking forward to trying out your new natural soap, but it's very important to let the curing process take its time. While your soap cures, any excess liquids evaporate, along with remaining traces of lye. The result is a firmer, milder soap bar that cleans without leaving your skin irritated and dry. Cure your soap on a rack with good airflow from all sides.

If you have a bottle of old oil you can't bear to throw out, or if you are just ready for a few adventures, give soap-making a try. You will learn a useful skill, and who knows? You might just gain a new satisfying hobby. 

Anna Twitto’s academic background in nutrition made her care deeply about real food and seek ways to obtain it. Anna, her husband and their four children live on the outskirts of a small town in northern Israel. They aim to grow and raise a significant part of their food by maintaining a vegetable garden, keeping a flock of backyard chickens and foraging. Anna's books are on her Amazon.com Author PageConnect with Anna on Facebook and read more about her current projects on her blogRead all Anna's Mother Earth News posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

How to Make a Quick and Easy Chicken Saddle

I think most people that own chickens have heard of chicken saddles. Chicken saddles are fabric "vests" you can put on hens that are suffering from overly, ummm, romantic roosters. The rooster’s constant attention causes chickens to end up losing feathers on their back, which leads to irritated and abraded skin, which leads to bleeding and then things really go south from there: the dreaded cannibal chickens. Putting the saddle on the chicken protects them from the rooster's claws AND the cannibals.

Here’s Jenny modeling her new saddle.

While I don't have roosters, I have needed chickens saddles in the past to protect injured chickens. The most memorable time was when a coyote, in broad daylight, attacked my hens. One of the hens was grabbed by the back, but the coyote dropped her when my son chased it away. She had a 3-4" gash across her back, wing to wing, another gash lower on one side—but for the most part seemed okay other than being in shock. I rushed her to my (horse!) vet, who cleaned and stitched up her wounds. I kept her indoors in a dog kennel for several days while she recovered and regained her strength. But I knew that the sooner I'd introduce her to the flock, the better. And if the other hens caught sight of her wounds and stitches, it would be all over.

Not having the time to look for and buy a chicken saddle on the internet, I threw a very crude one together in about 15 minutes, saw that it kept her wounds hidden and protected and eventually made myself a pattern so I could make more saddles.

So, whether your problem is roosters, wounded chickens or you just like to dress up your chickens, I'm sharing my pattern and basic instructions. I suppose you could do all the sewing by hand if you had to, it would just take less time using a sewing machine. You can download my pattern for free. You don't have to buy fabric, I suppose repurposing clothing, an old pillow case or even cotton towels would work. Depending on the weight/thickness of the fabric you use, you could do without the interfacing, which adds thickness and body to the saddle. 

Instructions for Making a Chicken Saddle

Materials

  • Printout of the pattern
  • fabric
  • lightweight interfacing (iron-on preferable) or an extra layer of fabric
  • scissors
  • sewing machine
  • straight pins
  • 12 inches of 1/2-inch elastic
  • 2 - 1-inch pieces of Velcro

Instructions

1. Download, print and cut out the pattern.

2. Using the pattern, cut two pieces of fabric and one piece of interfacing (iron-on is nice) or make three layers of fabric if you don’t have interfacing.

Pin the pattern to the fabric & cut.

3. Pin all three pieces together (right sides facing out, you can iron in interfacing if that's what you're using)

4. Pin elastic through neck edge of fabric.

5. Pin 1-inch of loop Velcro to each side of saddle where marked on pattern.

6. Pin 5/8-inch piece of hook Velcro to ends of elastic.

All pinned together, ready to sew!

Sew all pieces together (using a zigzag stitch is preferable around the raw edges, sewing twice around is even better)

    Done! I used red thread here so you could see it better. 

    That's it, you’re done! Now just grab a chicken, place the saddle on her back, run the elastic under her wings, front to back, and attach elastic ends to the saddle with velcro. You now have a safe and very fashionable chicken!

    Deb Tejada is an urban farmer, foodie, do-it-yourselfer, graphic designer, illustrator and web developer living in sunny Colorado. When she’s not in the kitchen or garden, you can find her at The Herban FarmerRead all of Deb's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here


    All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Why a Firewood Splitter Makes Sense

full view of wood splitter 

If I had to choose one machine that does more to boost my household self reliance, a wood splitter would be at or near the top of the list. You don’t need a splitter to heat and cook with firewood, but it sure does help. It was more than 20 years ago that I moved from splitting about 15 face cords of firewood a year with an axe to using a gas-powered wood splitter. These days, I own three different wood splitters and my son and I cut and split about 50 face cords a year in less than half the time it used to take us to do 15. And while a wood splitter is the tool of choice for making useful amounts of firewood, there are things to consider as you decide if a wood splitter really is for you.

pile of cut wood

Why Split Firewood?

Making pieces of firewood small and speeding up the drying process – these are the two reasons people split firewood. While you saw logs to length so the pieces aren’t too long to fit into your wood-burning appliance, splitting is faster than sawing for cleaving the wood into smaller pieces along the length of the grain.

The most common type of gas-powered wood splitters use a 5 to 12 horsepower engine to drive a hydraulic wedge into the end of a firewood block, splitting the wood along its length. Start the motor, lay a block of wood on the splitter, flip the hydraulic control lever with your hand, then watch the splitting wedge move slowly into the wood, prying it apart in a least two pieces with nearly unstoppable force. Sounds dangerous? It can be, but it can also be very safe if you follow certain procedures to protect yourself. 

wood splitter in action

Splitter Safety

Of course, the main concern is getting your hand or finger caught between the log itself and the wedge-shaped part of the splitter as it moves into the wood, but there’s an easy solution to this. Never allow your free hand to touch the wood while the splitter wedge is moving. The only part of your body that should be allowed to touch the machine or the wood during an actual split is the hand operating the control lever.

If you always make it a point to lift your non-lever hand off the wood and tuck it behind your back or at your side after lifting the log into place and before activating the hydraulic lever, it will always be out of harms way and impossible to get injured. Sometimes you do need to steady a log momentarily until the wedge contacts the wood, but then it’s hands-off for safety. Click here for my video tutorial on how to use a wood splitter safely.

wood splitting up close

Using a Wood Splitter

The best wood splitters can be towed behind a truck or car. This is one reason it’s easier than you think to harvest firewood from free sources. This is true even if you live in a city or the suburbs. Tow your splitter to the logs or branches, saw them to length with a chainsaw, then split the blocks up with your splitter on site.

The wood splitting tips coming up next are things I’ve discovered gradually over more than 30 years of cutting and heating with wood:

  • Always wear hearing and eye protection as well as safety boots when using a wood splitter.
  • Greatly increase safety by never allowing a second person to place logs in final position on the splitter while another person operates the hydraulic lever.
  • Save labour by splitting wood right into a truck box or loader bucket, or where it will be stacked. Letting split wood fall to the ground leads to more wood handling because you need to bend down and pick it up.
  • Run the fuel completely out of the tank and the engine before long-term storage of your splitter during the off-season. The engine will start more easily next time when you fill it with fresh fuel.

Is your wood splitter failing to start? Drain the fuel from the carburetor bowl, then try again. Most carburetors on wood splitters have a small screw on the bottom of the carburetor bowl. Drain this gas, re-tighten the drain screw, let the carburetor refill with gas from the tank, then try and start again. This simple trick often allows any small engine with a bowl-style carburetor to start after long-term storage. It has got me up and running many times over the years.

Making your own firewood is hard work, even with a splitter on your side. That said, there’s good reason to make it part of your hands-on lifestyle. There’s nothing quite like being cozy in your home on a winter’s night, warmed by a cheery glow that you made with your own hands, while also safe from global heating fuel supply disruptions and high costs.

Steve Maxwell is a DIY expert and longtime contributor to MOTHER EARTH NEWS. “Canada’s handiest man,” Steve and his family homestead on Manitoulin Island, Canada, cultivating a little patch of farmland surrounded by a sea of forest. Connect with Steve at BaileyLineRoad.com, and read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

Seed-to-Fiber Clothing with a Homegrown Linen Vest

When it comes to feeding and clothing myself, I delve into the basics more than most, researching what it would take to do that from my garden. I wrote a book about the feeding part — Grow a Sustainable Diet — and have been working on the clothing part, growing flax for linen and cotton in my garden. My most recent clothing project is a vest which, except for the cotton thread I sewed the pieces together with, is made entirely from flax that I grew and processed into linen. Right down to the buttons!

Working with Flax Linen

Once flax is spun, it is called linen. The dorset-style buttons were made by wrapping linen 30 times around a half-inch dowel to make the core. Until now, I had used linen for the weft and cotton for the warp when I wove my homegrown fibers into fabric for clothes. (Warp is what goes on the loom first and weft is what is woven into it.) Each project is a learning experience and this one was no exception.

There is a hairiness to linen that is not in my cotton yarns and these hairs can inhibit weaving if they are used as warp. To tame the hairiness, I put skeins of linen in a sizing solution made of gelatin and water. Then I wound the yarn onto a swift to dry. I wound the resulting stiff yarn into balls ready to wind onto bobbins for weaving.

As you can imagine, the resulting fabric right off the loom is stiff, but soaking it in warm water washes out the sizing. There are many recipes for sizing and a friend of mine makes one using powdered milk.

Lessons on Looms and Linings

I once wove a linen sample on a small table loom when the warp threads were set at 16 epi. That’s 16 warp threads, or ends, per inch. There was no sizing applied and everything was fine. When I was ready to sample for the vest, I tried weaving a sample on a table loom at 24 epi. It did not go well, even though there was sizing on the yarns. The closer spacing didn’t allow the yarns to separate as well.

Things are different, however, with the larger floor loom. I wove the vest fabric at 24 epi on a 4-harness floor loom and it did fine. The shed, which is the distance between the upper and lower warp threads when weaving, on the floor loom was greater than that on the table loom. That difference helped separate the warp threads, as did the greater distance from the shed to the back beam of the loom.

I also wove the vest lining from my homegrown linen. The lining turned out so interesting that some of my friends liked it better than my intended outer fabric, which was partially dyed with Japanese indigo. So, I made it reversible.

The photo shows the side I had intended to be the lining. That is the eclectic side and the other side is the more formal one. You will find more information on all that in  my blog post at Homeplace Earth.

Cindy Conner is the author of Seed Libraries and Grow a Sustainable Diet (available in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Store) and has produced DVDs about garden planning and managing cover crops with hand tools. Learn more about what she is up to at Homeplace Earth, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

Designing an Architectural Chicken Coop

Shades of muted brown or grey blend well with nature for the author’s chicken coop.

Listen to this post! Audio is available from the Jo of the Woods Podcast.

My plan was to begin raising chickens as soon as I took possession of my 6 ½ acres of land. Over the first couple of years, I built and took apart numerous shoddy cages, after loosing birds to wildlife. Predators are a constant problem for chicken farmers. Everybody loves chicken. I have lost chickens to hawks, fishers, raccoons, the neighbours’ dogs, and even a bear that bent a wall of shopping cart steel mesh in half.

I needed a solid, permanent chicken coop, with moth balls stored safely under the roof edges to deter the bears.

I was a struggling designer (still am) wanting to design buildings. I decided that if I built an awesome chicken coop, using a lot of reclaimed materials, it would be an affordable and practical beginning to my architectural career.

Designing an Architectural Chicken Coop

I designed and built, with the help of my son Jordan, and boyfriend James, a 9-by9-foot wood frame building with an extensive roof overhang. It was built on a 9-by-15-foot reinforced concrete floating slab foundation. The overhang would protect an outside caged area that would be finished with stone and heavy grill work afterwards. The four walls supported the roof, allowing complete flexibility for the interior layout. I could build the cages and make changes without affecting the structure.

I went with what I thought would be best. Months later, it was finished, and certainly more beautiful than the unfinished cabin my son and I were living in. The coop had glass on all four sides, and every cage had great views. I believe that if you’re going to put something in a cage, it better be a nice one.

Over the years, I’ve raised many chickens and quail in that coop. Breeding birds and selling the chicks proved to be the most lucrative endeavour, and certainly the most fun. My most productive year, I hatched out over 100 chicks, with the aid of Silkie hens (as I live without electricity).  Broody Silkie hens will incubate any eggs, not just their own.  I’ve even had a Silkie hen successfully hatch out tiny quail chicks the size of large bumble bees — although she unfortunately, stepped on a few.

Rain barrels collect the much-needed water for the birds.

Improving an Original Chicken Coop Design

I soon learned that my original coop design could use some improving. A nesting mother needs a private space, preferably under a shelf, that won’t be disturbed by other chickens. Sometimes a few hens will sit together to hatch out eggs, requiring a larger nesting area. Some hens prefer their own cage.

I wanted to encourage the hens to nest on the floor, but when inspecting eggs, one does not want to be on their hands and knees, groping in a dark corner, under a low shelf. I needed cages that were easy to clean, otherwise the job is easier to put off.  So, down came the interior walls, and new plans were carried out.

After a few more years of successful breeding, I realized I could improve my poultry venture even further.  I learned about the advantages of adding guinea fowl to my flock. Guinea fowl can free range with less threat of being eaten by a predator, as they can fly and will take to the safety of trees. They will let out a piercing shriek if there’s any sign of danger. Many people find their shrieks annoying, but I prefer having the warning.

I usually let the guineas run loose for a couple of hours in the afternoon. While they are out, they are consuming ticks and other bugs, reducing harmful insects and feed costs. Equally important, they are not pooping in my coop, which means less time spent cleaning cages, and less money spent on purchasing shavings. Guinea fowl are fairly large birds, so, down came the walls, and new plans were implemented.

So far, I have re-designed the interior of my chicken coop three times. I have learned to use a lot less screws. I presently have three large, one medium, and three small cages, as well as ample space for feed storage.  The wood shavings are stored in the loft. The three large cages have glass sliding doors, allowing the birds to go outside, weather permitting. We can have snow here for up to six months of the year, and the doors are usually closed for about four months, during the coldest weather.

A high ceiling and lots of windows are important elements.

How I Use Chicken Coop Cages

One large cage contains my Silkie rooster and usually five egg layers (at present, Leghorns and Ameraucanas). The second cage is for broody hens. The third cage is for guinea fowl. It also could be used to grow two batches of meat birds a year, which would only occupy the space for eight weeks each. Or, it could be used to breed heritage meat birds.

The medium-sized cage is often called into service while separating birds for inspection, sale or photo shoots. The three smaller cages are for smaller broody hens who prefer to be alone, when on eggs.

I also have three mobile cages (hamster cages) that I bring into my house, when necessary. I have had hens go broody in February, and rather than waste the opportunity, I have brought them into my cabin. I have also used these cages to house many chicks when it’s too cold in the coop. I usually keep a hen with her chicks for up to two weeks. Then the mother is returned to the flock — where hopefully she will want to sit on another batch of eggs.

East view: Potential earth-sheltered or outdoor cage site.

West view: Custom-built, medium cage by Henry Schaly.

Introducing Chicks to a New Mother

In reality, few things go as planned, and I end up moving various birds from cage to cage, trying to keep everyone happy. Sometimes a hen will hatch out a few chicks and then abandon the rest of the eggs. This happened twice this summer.

I didn’t have an available broody hen, so I put the chicks in a mobile cage with older chicks. I introduced the older chicks to the younger ones, one at a time. It takes just seconds to know how they will get along. They will either immediately warm up to the babies and let them snuggle underneath them, or they will peck at the youngsters.

In one case, a six-week-old Silkie/Ameraucana chick (a pullet, I guess) instantly fell to mothering eight newly hatched chicks and protected them when re-united with her siblings two weeks later. In the second case, four one-month old Silkie/Cochin chicks joined forces to raise eight guinea fowl two-day-old chicks. Not all of the older chicks were wanting to participate. I believe this helps in determining which of the older chicks are good candidates to become good broody hens; perhaps it suggests their gender. It certainly reveals their nature.

Having cages in a variety of sizes gives me the flexibility I need — things are always changing. Three guinea fowl went missing a couple of weeks ago. They never returned to the coop.  I never heard a thing. On the bright side, their progeny are chirping happily downstairs in my kitchen.

And life goes on, with always something new to be learned, new challenges to overcome and new miracles to witness.

The birds nestle in straw during the long, cold winters.

Jo deVries (Jo of the Woods) designed and helped build her off-grid Ontario home, where she and her son have enjoyed a pioneer-type life-style without electricity. She is the author of Does Your House Know Where South Is? and generously shares what she has learned during her on-going journey of turning a piece of bush land in to a self-sufficient homestead. Connect with Jo of the Woods and read all of Jo’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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