Frank Hyman shares plans and instructions for a practical (and cute) poultry nesting box.
Nest Box Necessities
A lot of thought went into the design and construction of our coop’s nest box. It’s such an important feature that my wife, Chris – the livestock manager – asked me – the facilities manager – to install a stepping stone path leading up to it. We wanted something inviting and cozy for the hens that would also be easy to gather eggs from and to clean. It had to be something that could be built from scraps of plywood, sheet metal and other bits we already had lying around. We wanted the neighborhood kids to feel like they could help take care of our birds, so access to the nest box needed to be hip-high for me and chest-high for them. And finally, the box had to be cute.
Nest Box Basics
Hens have some basic requirements for nesting boxes. They prefer one box for every three to five hens. It only takes half an hour for them to plunk down on the nest and lay that day’s egg. If the boxes are all occupied, most hens will patiently wait their turn.
Hens want someplace that’s dark and out of sight from predators. But you don’t want them to be able to roost over the nest box because they will poop in it at night, and the eggs laid the next day will be covered in manure. Each nest box needs to be big enough to sit in comfortably, but also cozy; a 12-by-12-inch cube that is open on the coop side works well. For what we had in mind, we would need to build the side walls, floor and ceiling of the nest boxes while the back wall would be the hatch door. For bigger breeds you might want to go as large as 14 inches and for bantams you may go as small as 8 inches. But many folks keep a variety of hens happy with all boxes built as a 12-inch cube.
Attaching a nest box to the coop means it will be a dark space during the day when hens lay their eggs. If it’s protruding from the coop’s outside wall, it won’t be under the roosts. Mounting the nest box on one outside wall of the coop also makes it more accessible for hen keepers; you don’t have to enter the pen or the coop to gather eggs. This is a great timesaving innovation. Plus, you won’t get chicken poop on your shoes as you walk through the pen and back into the house to cook up an omelet.
Sometimes hens may need a little encouragement to start laying eggs in a specific place, even in the best nest box. Put a ceramic or a plastic Easter egg in the nest boxes. Even a golf ball will work. Your hens will believe that some other, smarter hen chose that nest as a safe place to lay her eggs. Chickens have a culture of “follow the leader.” Sometimes you have to be that leader.
Before building our coop, we had attended many coop tours and scoured many coop building books and websites. Almost all of the constructions with nest boxes that mounted outside the coop provided access through a hinged roof, almost like a toolbox. But one hen keeper didn’t put hinges on the roof. Instead she had hinges on the wall of her nest box, like a breadbox. I call that kind of hinged wall a hatch (appropriate for hens, eh?). This hatch not only makes the nest box more accessible for kids and shorter hen keepers, but also creates a flat space for setting your egg carton while you gather eggs with both hands. This arrangement also makes clean up faster. Just sweep spent bedding straight out of the nest boxes with the hatch hanging down. For an added time-saver, we hang a whiskbroom on a small hook near the nest box, under the eaves. It stays dry, but it’s always handy when we see the nest box is due for a cleanout.
Our nest box is built with scraps of plywood and planks that are at least three-quarters of an inch thick. You can use thicker wood, such as 2-by-4’s, but I wouldn’t go thinner. You need that much wood to minimize twisting as the wood dries and to allow you to set a screw through the edge of the wood.
When you are ready to begin constructing the box, remember that screws will hold better than nails. And if you need to move the coop or want to enhance the nest box, screws will let you take it apart without butchering it. Mark the first piece of wood for the box with a pencil where the screw will go and pre-drill a hole that’s the same size or a very tiny bit smaller than the threads of the screw. The screw should slide firmly through the first piece of wood and bite solidly into the second piece of wood.
Since the nest box protrudes from the wall of the coop it will need its own waterproof roof. I used a piece of shiny, red, scrap metal on the roof of our nest box. But other roofing options will work too: asphalt shingles, cedar shingles, old license plates, flattened no. 10 cans, a miniature green roof, etc. I recommend thinking of the nest box roof as small-scale but highly-visible opportunity to dress up the coop and give it some charm and personality.
The hatch for our nest box has hinges at the bottom and latches on the sides. You could use gate hinges from the hardware store that are made for outdoor use and won’t get rusty. I saved a little money by making three “country” hinges from a scrap sheet of copper and brass screws (other screws may cause copper to corrode). With scrap sheet metal of any kind, pre-drill a hole in the metal that is wider than the screw’s threads. Then mark and pre-drill a hole in the wood only as wide as the screw’s shaft so everything will be snug. These “hinges” don’t move as smoothly as a gate hinge, but they are cheaper and work well enough.
The latches on your hatch have to be secure enough to deter raccoons without making things too inconvenient for hen keepers. Some people have resorted to using padlocks, but I think carabineers are tricky enough to keep raccoons out (or so I hope). The kind of spring-loaded latches commonly found on dog leashes are easy to use too, but some people say they are not raccoon proof. So it’s up to you to decide your trade-off between risk and convenience.
The carabineers on our nest box secure a pair of hasps that hold the hatch of the nest box snug when it’s closed, to minimize drafts. To attach the hasps, you may want a helper. One person holds the hatch in place and another puts the hasp in a convenient location. With a pencil, mark the location for the screws. Pre-drill these holes with a bit that is the same thickness as the shaft of the screw. That way the screw will slide smoothly through the holes in the hasp and the threads of the screw will bite soundly through the wood.
Arms for the Hatch
For the hatch to form a counter-like surface, you’ll need a wooden support arm that will swing out under the nest box. I used scrap 2-by-2-inch pieces of lumber, but any dimension will do. I cut the pieces about 10 inches long with a 45-degree bevel on each end for a more finished look. These cuts can be done with a circular saw if you want to be fast, with a table saw if you want to be accurate, with a jigsaw if you want to be quiet, and with a handsaw if you want to get strong.
Then pre-drill a hole that’s just wider than the screw threads through the middle of each arm. Chose a screw that’s short enough that it won’t come up through the floor of the nest box. Slide the screw through the support arm and screw it up into the floor of the nest box. But not so tight as to keep the arm from rotating. When the arm is put away it should be flush with the hatch when it’s closed. When I want to open the hatch, I swing the arm out 90 degrees, pop off the carabineers, open the hasps, and gently swing the hatch down to rest on the support arms.
The hatch keeps our hens safe from drafts and predators. When we want to collect eggs or clean the nest boxes, we have easy access and good visibility into the coop.
As a final touch we dressed up the nest box hatch with a drawer pull that has a cocky rooster on it. It’s merely ornamental as it takes two hands to unlock the hasps and open the hatch. But it fits one of the design goals: It’s cute.
- tape measure
- 4- by-4-foot sheet of 3/4-inch plywood
- Carpenter’s square
- 2- to 4-foot long level
- Drill with assorted bits
- 1 box of 1 5/8 inch exterior grade screw
- 1 pair of 4-inch hinges
- 1 pair of 2 ½ inch latches
- 2- by-2-inch scrap piece of wood, about 10 inches long
- Two 2-inch long screws to serve as support arm pivot
- Six 3-inch exterior grade screws
- One 26-inch-long-by-15-inch-wide piece of rolled asphalt roofing
- Utility knife
- One dozen galvanized roofing nails (1/2-inch or 5/8-inch)
- Needle nose pliers
—Hentopia, Storey Publishing, North,Adams, MA, 2018, p 133.
Frank Hyman is a carpenter, welder and stone mason with forty years’ experience in farm, garden and house construction on two continents. He has a BS in horticulture and design. Frank is also the author of the game-changing, low-cost, low-tech, low-maintenance book, Hentopia: Create Hassle-Free Habitat for Happy Chickens; 21 Projects from Storey Publishing.