DIY Beekeeping Equipment: Top-Bar Hive

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DIY Beekeeping Equipment: Top Bar Hive

By Tony Pisano

Beekeeping equipment is expensive, but it’s easy to make your own! In Build Your Own Beekeeping Equipment (Storey Publishing, 2013) Tony Pisano’s step-by-step illustrated instructions show you how to build everything you need, including hive bodies, supers, covers, hive stands, frames, swarm catchers, feeders, and more. You can choose among different hive styles, and many of the 35 projects can be made using hand tools. The following excerpt from chapter ten, “Specialty Hives,” will teach you how to build your own top-bar hive.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Build Your Own Beekeeping Equipment.

Top-Bar Hive

If you’re interested in giving beekeeping a try on more of a shoestring budget, a top-bar hive might be for you. The whole idea behind a top-bar hive is simplicity, so it can be made with the least amount of materials and tools when both are scarce and hard to come by. Not everyone likes simple, but I do. It’s kind of like my 1988 Dodge Ram pickup truck. It has a bench seat and a radio. You have to crank the window down to adjust the mirror by hand and push the buttons to lock the doors, and that’s the way I like it.

This hive can be built in a weekend, and you can leave it basic (like my old truck) or fancy it up as much as you want. I’ll show you how to add viewing windows, which are optional. We’ll also explore a few different roof options.

• Table saw
• Circular saw or handsaw
• Combination square with protractor head
• Drill and combination drill/countersink bit
• 1/2″ and 1/16″ drill bits
• Jigsaw
• Sandpaper
• Router with roundover and flat-bottom bits (optional)


Hive Body
• One 4-foot pine 1 x 6
• Two 6-foot pine 1 x 12s
• One 4-foot 2 x 4
• Sixteen 2″ deck screws
• Twenty-two 1 3/4″ deck screws
• Waterproof glue

Top Bars
• One 8-foot pine 5/4 x 6
• One 3-foot pine 5/4 x 8
• Windows (optional)
• 1/8″ Plexiglas (or similar clear plastic glazing; size as desired; see step 4)
• 5/8″ wire nails
• 1-by pine material (for door; see step 6)
• Two 2″ x 1 3/8″ hinges with screws
• Scrap wood and screws (for door latch, see step 6)
• One 2″ window latch with screws

• Three 8-foot pine 1 x 4s
• Sixteen 2″ deck screws
• One 24″ x 48″ piece 3/8″ exterior plywood
• Forty-four 1 1/4″ deck screws
• One 4″ x 48″ (minimum) piece of flashing
• 3d galvanized box nails

Preparing the Hive Body

In this first stage of the project, you will cut and prepare the main parts of the hive body; you’ll assemble the body after making the top bars and roof. The body is built around a single bottom board, so be sure to start with a nice, straight piece of 1×6 for the bottom. One side of my hive has two viewing windows made of Plexiglas. These are optional and can be any size that works. I made mine with two scraps of Plexiglas about 5″ wide x 12″ long; both are about 9″ from each end of the hive body. If you’d like to include a viewing window or two, step 4 will help you determine the size and location. You’ll also need a door to cover the window(s), and this is outlined in step 5. The reason for the door is twofold: It provides insulation from the cold that the thin plastic can’t provide, and it keeps the interior of the hive dark, which is normal for the bees.

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1. Cut the bottom. Cut a 4-foot 1×6 to length at 45 1/2″. Tilt the
table saw blade at 25 degrees, and set up the saw to cut the 1×6 on-edge; use some scrap pieces to set the fence so that the beveled surface is 3/4″ wide. Also be sure to use a featherboard or other method of holding the board firmly against the fence. Cut the angles along both long edges on the top face of the board, as show above.

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2. Cut the ends. The two end pieces are full-width 1x12s cut at 25 degrees on each end (cut one end from each 1×12 board). Lay out each piece by drawing a centerline across the width of the board (perpendicular to the length). Using the centerline to measure, mark the length of the bottom edge at 4 1/16″ and the length of the top edge at 14 7/16″. Cut along the lines with a circular saw or handsaw.

WORK TIP: If the angles are off slightly, don’t worry. The bees will fix our little mistakes with propolis. Set the end pieces on the bottom, and if the flats match up they should work. Being too narrow is better than too wide because you can trim a little off the bottom edge to make the board wider at that point. Don’t fret about the height, because it’s going to stick up above the sides anyway.

3. Cut the sides. Cut the two remaining pieces of 1×12 to length at 45 1/2″. If you aren’t going to include a viewing window, the sides are done.

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4. Make the window cutouts. Determine the size and location of the windows: Each window cutout should be about 1″ smaller than the length and width of your Plexiglas. The top of the cutout should be at least 2 3/4″ from the top edge of the side board. Keep in mind that the door will overlap the windows all around, and the top of the door should be about 2″ below the top of the side, to allow access to the latch when the roof is on.

Use a combination square to measure and mark the cutouts. Drill a 1/2″ hole inside each marked outline for inserting a jigsaw blade to start the cut. (I drilled holes in all four corners, making sure to stay within the lines; this makes it easier to turn the corners.) Cut out the window openings with the jigsaw. Clean up the inside edges with sandpaper and round over the outside edges of the cutouts with sandpaper or a router and roundover bit.

5. Install the window glazing. Place the side board that has the windows facedown on your work surface; the glazing will be on the inside of the hive. Center a piece of Plexiglas over each window opening and trace around the glazing onto the wood. Using a flat-bottom bit in a router, set the bit depth equal to the thickness of the Plexiglas. Clamp some scrap pieces on your board to act as guides for the router, and cut the recess for the glazing, staying inside of the traced outlines.

To mount the Plexiglas, drill 1/16″ holes in it around the outside edges and fasten the glazing with 5/8″ wire nails. (I used three nails on the short sides and four on the long sides of each window.) If you use different fasteners, make sure the pilot holes are slightly larger than the fastener’s shank; if the holes are too small, the plastic will crack.

6. Create the door. Cut a piece of pine about 1 1/2″ to 2″ wider and taller than the outsides of the window openings; one door will cover both windows (I used a piece of scrap wood that was 6 1/2″ wide and 30″ long).

Lay the board on a flat surface with the “out” side facing up and the bottom edge facing you. Set the hinges so that one side is against the edge of the board and the other is flat on the table, and mark the hinge screw holes. Drill pilot holes and mount the hinges. I mounted mine about 2″ from each end.

Center the door over the window openings so the hinges are at the bottom (the door swings down), and mount it to the hive side. Cut a block of scrap wood to size at about 1 1/2″ x 5″. Glue and screw the block above the center of the door, then mount the window latch to the block so the latch barrel extends down over the door to hold it closed. 

Making the Top Bars

There are many different ways to make top bars. Some beekeepers cut strips of wood with a slot down the middle and attach a strip of foundation, or glue in pieces of Popsicle stick. Others leave a small ridge down the middle and prime it with some beeswax. In the past I’ve made two-piece frames with a triangular-shaped ridge nailed on, a method I found on Michael Bush’s website (a great source of information for all aspects of beekeeping).

However, I took this style one step further and made the frames one-piece. I like this because I know from experience that the bees readily take to these frames and mostly build comb where you want them to. A one-piece design also ensures that the starting edge is centered on the frames.

For this top-bar hive, I made 24 bars at 1 1/4″ wide for brood and 10 bars at 13/8″ wide for honey. You can make them all 1 1/4″ if you like. I’ve also heard of using 1 1/2″-wide bars for honey frames.

Do some research and decide how you want to make yours. Whatever sizes you go with, make enough to fill the 44″ inside space along with some scrap for setting up. The method described here yields four 1 1/4″-wide strips from a 5/4×6, and five 1 3/8″-wide strips from a 5/4×8.

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1. Cut the top bar strips to length. Cut the 8-foot 5/4×6 into six pieces at 15″ long. Set the saw fence to 1 1/4″ and rip a total of 24 strips. Also cut a few extra pieces from scrap material for setup.

Cut the 3-foot 5/4×8 into two pieces at 15″ long and rip 10 strips to 13/8″ wide. Again, cut a few extra pieces from scrap material for setup.

2. Cut the triangle slots. Tilt the table saw blade at 45 degrees and set the blade height so the highest point on the blade is 1/4″ high (measuring straight up from the table). Mark the center on the end of one of the strips (or use a scrap piece of the same dimensions). Adjust the fence and make some test cuts so the blade just leaves the center mark. It’s easier to have the fence a little too far away at first and adjust it closer, taking cuts until it is set right.

Once the fence is set, make the angled cut from both ends of the strip, forming a triangular ridge on the bottom face. The point of the triangle should be even with the surface of the board. If it’s lower, your fence is a little too close; if there’s a small flat, rather than a sharp edge, on the triangle, the fence is a bit too far away, which is okay. Run all of your strips through the saw from both ends to cut the triangles.

Note: If you make two different-width strips, you will have to set up and run each one separately. The only difference will be the fence being farther away for wider strips.

3. Rabbet the strip ends. Square up the saw blade and set its height at 1/4″. Set the fence at 1 5/16″. Cut a 1/4″-deep x 1 5/16″-wide rabbet on both ends of each strip.

4. Trim the strip sides. Set the fence to 1/2″ and set the blade height at 3/8″. Set up one featherboard clamped to the fence to apply downward pressure on the work as it passes through the blade. Mount a second featherboard on the table to push the work against the fence. This allows you to feed the parts through the saw safely. Run the strips through on-edge to remove the material to both sides of the triangular center, as shown.

Note: If you have top bars of more than one width, cut the narrow ones first, then raise the blade to cut the wider ones. You’ll have to raise the featherboard to accommodate the wider top bar, but the fence remains in the same position. 


Constructing the Roof

You can find all sorts of roof designs for your top-bar hive. The simplest is a flat piece of exterior plywood big enough to overhang the sides, with strips nailed around the edge and a few in the middle to hold it off the top bars (to create an air space). This keeps the hive from getting direct sun on top.

You could also make a similar frame with the plywood, and attach a curved piece of flashing for the top, giving the flashing just enough curve so you can nail it to the sides without kinking.

The roof we’re going to build here calls for more material than some simpler designs. It’s on the fancy side, but the process is quite simple. Don’t be afraid to gather a few ideas and change or combine them to make your own design. That’s half the fun of building this stuff.

This roof is heavy enough that it might not need to be held on by any means other than its weight. To fancy it up, you could add strips of wood for decoration or even use cedar shingles. Use your imagination.

Click to view pdf.

1. Cut the roof connectors. Double-check the length of your hive sides; they should be 45 1/2″ long. The roof frame will overhang the ends. Set up a stop and cut four pieces of 1×4 to length at 45 3/4″; these are the roof connectors. Set them aside for now.

2. Cut the rafters and braces. Cut a 15-degree angle on both ends of a 1×4, then cut off each at 11″ from the longest point. Repeat the same process so you have four rafters total. Cut a piece from the remaining 1×4 at 12″. Rip this into two 1 1/2″-wide strips for the peak braces.

3. Assemble the rafter pairs. Set the two pairs of rafters on a flat surface with their angles together to form peaks. Mark the center of the peak braces, spread glue on one side face, then lay them across the rafter joints as shown in Roof with 15-Degree Pitch (the braces face inside the hive in the finished roof).

Use the head of a combination square to position each brace perpendicular to the rafter joint. The bottom of the brace should be flush with the point where the bottom edges of the rafters come together. Fasten each brace to the rafters with four 1 1/4″ deck screws.

Note: It’s important that the two assemblies are identical because the braces will rest on the ends of the hive when the roof is in place, and it might not sit right if the assemblies don’t match.

4. Complete the roof frame. Drill two pilot holes through the outside faces (opposite the braces) of each rafter end, spacing them 2 1/2″ apart as shown in Roof with 15-Degree Pitch. Drill two more holes near the tops of the rafters, on each side of the peak.

Apply glue to one end of each of the four roof connectors (cut in step 1) and fasten them to one rafter assembly with eight 2″ deck screws. Flip the whole thing over and install the other rafter pair the same way (I found it easiest to start all of the screws in the rafters and stand up the connectors on the floor for fastening).

5. Add the plywood roof panels. Cut two pieces of exterior plywood to size at 12″ x 48″. Draw two guidelines for screws along the length of each panel, 1 1/4″ down from the top and 1″ up from the bottom. Set one panel on one side of the roof frame, overhanging each end of the frame equally (the panel edge should be at the peak of the roof). Starting from the center, drill pilot holes and drive 1 1/4″ deck screws in the top and bottom of the panel and into the 1×4 roof connectors, working your way back and forth about every 6″ toward the ends. This will take any bow out of the plywood (you can also clamp the plywood down on the ends while you work). Drive four screws on each end. Repeat with the second piece of plywood on the other side of the roof.

6. Construct the ridge. You can use metal flashing for the ridge or create a glued-up ridge cap using two pine boards. Another option is simply to fill the joint between the roof panels with exterior silicone caulk. To use flashing, cut a piece of flashing at 48″ long and at least 4″ wide, to cover the peak. Fasten the flashing with 3d galvanized box nails, bending over the nails on the underside of the roof panels.

Assembling the Hive Body

So let’s get that hive body assembled. The first part — attaching the sides and ends — is easier with a helper. Once the body is complete, you simply set the roof on the body to complete the project.

When it came to making a stand for my hive, I thought about building a cradle-type stand, like a sawbuck. But Doone’s Double-Hive Stand is the perfect height (and it’s inexpensive), so why try to reinvent the wheel? Instead, I cut two pieces of 2×4 to length at 19″ and set them 34″ apart on the crosspieces of the double-hive stand. Then I set the hive on top and drove two 1 3/4″ screws into each 2×4 from inside the hive. This makes the hive steady, and you can shim up the 2x4s if needed to get the hive level.

If you don’t have any bees ordered, consider setting up the hive outside and putting a vial of swarm lure inside. You just might be surprised one day to look out and see bees buzzing in and out of your new top-bar hive.

1. Assemble the sides and ends. Drill pilot holes 3/8″ from the ends of both side pieces at 1 1/4″, 41/4″, 71/4″, 10″ down from the top edge. Apply glue along one angled side of one end piece, and line up its bottom edge with the bottom edge of the side as shown, making sure the edges line up so the bottom will fit properly. Note that the end will be higher than the sides. Fasten through the side and into the end with four 2″ deck screws. Repeat with the other side piece, then add the other end piece in the same way.

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2. Install the bottom. Check the bottom for fit. The bottom is fastened with screws (you can add glue if desired, but I just used screws), and they must go in at an angle. Make the little jig shown by screwing together two scraps of 3/4″ material at a 90-degree angle. Place the jig on the hive bottom, set your protractor to 25 degrees, line it up with the center of the side’s bottom edge, and draw a line on the jig. Use the line as a guide for driving 1 3/4″ screws about every 6″.

Turn the hive right-side up, add the top bars, then the roof, and your hive is complete.

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Beekeeping Advice: If you want extra security from wind, install a few eye hooks on the peaks and ends of the hive and use bungee cords to hold down the roof.

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Reprinted with permission from Build Your Own Beekeeping Equipment by Tony Pisano and published by Storey Publishing, 2013. Photography by Mars Vilaubi. Buy this book from our store:Build Your Own Beekeeping Equipment.