A well-built chicken coop will protect your flock long into the future.
Building a chicken coop is higher stakes than building a shed or a bookshelf, and extra care should be taken to make sure it is built correctly. After all, this is the structure that will house your hens for years to come. A well-built coop will protect them against disease, predators, and general unhappiness, discomfort, and stress. Care and caution should be your watchwords in this process; it takes more time to do something twice than to do it correctly.
The steps below will help you tackle this process in the most methodical, practical way possible; you should have a safe, sturdy coop ready to house healthy, happy hens in no time.
1. Determine your needs.
Knowing what you and your hens will want out of the coop is crucial. Are you getting bantam hens, who can get by with relatively little floor space but need more vertical room? Will you need extra ventilation to cool down a breed prone to overheating? What will you need to access the coop for cleaning and maintenance? Figure these things out first, so you’ll be able to tell if a coop will work for you or not.
2. Choose the right plan.
Which coop plan is right for you will depend on your birds, your yard, your region, and many other individual concerns. Fortunately, there are many free chicken coop plans available online, so you can browse as many of those as you need until you find the perfect one for you and your flock.
3. Find your materials.
If you’re building your own coop, you’ve already settled the fierce debate about wooden versus plastic coops, but there is still a wide variety of woods available to use. Most people would recommend pressure-treated lumber for an outdoor structure, but the very treatment that makes it so durable also fills it with toxic chemicals like arsenic and copper compounds, which over the years can leach into the soil and harm your hens. Use a tropical hardwood or softwood treated with a non-toxic sealant instead.
4. Choose your spot.
As with coop plans, there are a number of variables to consider in choosing a coop location. Some concerns, like accessibility and compliance with local ordinances, will vary from person to person, but many are universal. You want your coop built on solid, level ground, ideally elevated ground that will keep it away from floods and moisture. If you can, build it with the windows facing south, which will allow your girls the most heat in the winter and spare them the direct sunlight that could overheat them in summer.
5. Prepare the area.
Check if any plants in or around your planned coop location are poisonous to chickens; if they are, pull them up and keep an eye out that they don’t resurface. Fence off any gardens, roads, or neighboring yards that you don’t want the hens to access; chicken wire is perfect for this. Clear away any woodpiles, large rocks, or low shrubs that could be a tempting hide for predators. You can consider cutting down any large overhanging branches that could be a perch for hawks or owls, but keep in mind that this may deprive your flock of much-needed shade in hot weather.
6. Construct the coop frame.
This is, fortunately, as straightforward as any carpentry or building project. It is also the backbone of your coop, and a faulty frame can undermine the strength of the whole project. If there’s any place to put in a little extra care and attention to detail, it’s here, since mistakes in the frame can’t be fixed without rebuilding the whole thing.
7. Build your run.
The run frame doesn’t have to be as sturdy as the coop frame, since it won’t have to hold up exterior walls that can withstand strong winds and hold up under an onslaught of snow or rain. The run frame likely only needs to hold up wire fencing and maybe a sun shade. However, the same principle applies here as with the coop – the frame is the place where it will be hardest to fix a mistake once it’s made, so build carefully.
8. Furnish the inside.
Chickens don’t need much in the way of furniture; the key things here are perches and nesting boxes. Perches will be where your chickens roost and sleep at night. As such, they should be the highest available surface in the coop; chickens have evolved to sleep in high places to avoid predators. The easiest way to build a perch is with a simple 2×4; plan for about 8-12 inches of space for each hen. Nesting boxes, on the other hand, will be where your hens lay their eggs. They can be hand-built boxes, repurposed milk crates, or even just a low shelf on the coop wall. Fill them with a soft bedding, like hemp or wood shavings, and make sure you have at least one for every three hens.
9. Add the coop walls and the roof.
Coop walls can be made of wood, plywood, or even old pallets; the roof can be made of wood or metal. Weather and climate are probably the main considerations in choosing between these options. Pallets would be great for a coop in a hotter region where they will need a lot of ventilation to stay cool; a metal roof might be ideal for a cooler, rainier area. Like with the frames, there are no special tricks here; all you need are basic carpentry skills and a good drill. One thing to consider, though, is accessibility; some coop owners make one of their walls removable or put it on a hinge or slide. That way they can easily access the coop for cleaning and egg collecting.
10. Cut your vents.
Proper ventilation is one of the most important elements of a chicken coop, as it will help keep your hens cool and also protect them from disease. Chickens are very prone to respiratory infections like coryza and Newcastle disease, which can spread more easily in unventilated spaces, and ventilation also helps clear out the moisture and dust that can sicken your birds. The easiest way to add vents is to cut two in opposite walls, below the ceiling but above the perches. These will remain open year-round without creating a freezing draft directly on your hens. You should add other, closable vents throughout the coop to help cool the hens in the summer months.
11. Attach the run fencing.
Many chicken coop plans recommend using chicken wire to enclose your run, but it’s actually not the ideal product for this job. What you want is hardware cloth, also called hardware mesh, which is tougher and has much smaller holes, making it impossible for predators to weasel their way into the coop (or at least, much harder). At least the bottom three feet of your run fencing should be hardware cloth, and more hardware cloth should be buried at least 12 inches into the ground around the structure, which will protect your hens from almost all ground-based predators. You can use regular chicken wire for the rest of the fencing, as it is very good at keeping chickens in.
12. Secure hardware cloth and predator deterrents.
Hardware cloth is your best tool against burrowing or ground-based predators like snakes, skunks, mice, and rats. The entire floor of your coop should have hardware cloth tightly secured underneath it. This will keep out any burrowers who get through your fencing, walls, and other defences. Predator deterrents can be any number of things, but perhaps the most common are distractors hung up to scare off hawks, owls, and other birds of prey. These are commercially available, but you can also make your own by hanging reflective tape or old CDs around your coop, anywhere they will twist in the wind and catch the sun to create the flashes that frighten the predators.
13. Double-check and reinforce as needed.
This is your last chance to make sure your coop is as sturdy and as safe as possible, so don’t waste it. Check the stability and durability by standing and jumping on and shaking the structure. Look for leaks by dousing the whole thing with a hose or buckets of water. Use a windy day or a large fan to check for drafts and observe the ventilation. It will take less time and energy to do this and fix the problems now than to find out when your hens get sick or injured.
The good news is that, while there are many ways to mess up a chicken coop, there are also many ways to get it right.
Any reasonably competent builder willing to put in the time and effort can build a chicken coop that will more than get the job done in terms of housing and protecting a flock – all it takes is planning, patience, and a careful attention to detail.
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To see our selection of pre-built coops, see Backyard Habitat & Coops.