Monday, May 19, 2014

Portable Pens

If there's one thing I've learned having animals around, it's that there's always going to be a need at one point or another for some temporary housing. Whether it's a sick chicken in the laundry room or a house bunny who needs a little sunshine and fresh air, there comes a time when you end up looking around and thinking "Oh, crap. Now what?"

Yes, you can scoot on out to your local pet store and pick up a folding wire kennel... but they're not cheap. And, in the case of said bunny, I don't really trust anything with "collapsible" in it's name. It seems to me like that should be a warning, not a feature. (Just Saying.)

With a some basic carpentry skills and easily sourced supplies, you can put together a 2'(ish)x4' portable pen that's not only sturdy, but is also easily moved to where ever you need it. It can also be broken down into its component panels for storage, when not in use- say over the winter or what-have-you.

Here's what I used:

6 - 1x2x8 furring strips. ($6 total)
1 roll of fencing wire. (Prices vary on what you buy. I picked up a 50' roll of fencing like this for $30 to use on another project, so since I had it here, that's what I used. You could go with a smaller roll, but you'll want at least 13 feet of wire for this project.)
2.5'' wood screws ($8 for a box of 50; always handy to have around)
heavy duty stapler and staples
drill with a bit slightly smaller than the screw diameter
tape measure
hand saw
wire cutter
gloves/eye protection

A word on fencing, before we get too far in: chicken wire is not terribly sturdy stuff, but it is less expensive. If you are building a pen that doesn't need to be predator-proof, by all means feel free to use that. I need to use something a little more substantial here, so I use a heavier gauge welded wire fencing.  There are plastic fencing options that also work well, and the plastic is a little less fussy when it comes to cutting and attaching. I have plastic on one of the pens we use for the chicks, and I haven't had any issues leaving them in there during the day. I don't think I'd trust it as their sole protection at night, but that was never the intended purpose anyway. Use your best judgement here, based on how you're going to use your pen.

Alright... so, with the exception of the furring strips, I had all of this stuff lying around. If you needed to buy all of the supplies (not the tools) outright, you'd be looking at under $50- still cheaper than a folding wire pen. I'd be willing to bet you have most of these things stashed around, too.

I chose the size of the pen based on a combination of my height and the size of the animal(s) who would be using it. There's nothing worse than having a pen that's of a size where you can't easily reach the animal inside. I also factored in the fencing I was using- I wanted to use the grid of the fencing itself as my cutting guide, so that had a secure edge for my staples to attach to. All told, I wanted the finished pen to be 28" tall- low enough for me to step over, but still nice and roomy.

Once I had my measurements more or less in mind, I got to work. I knew I was making four panels; the sides being about 4 feet long and the ends about 2 feet. Since the furring strips are 2" on edge, that meant my first cuts were going to be 24" for the uprights. I'd need 2 uprights for each of the four panels... so that's 8 total. You can cut them all at once, or just work on 2 panels at a time like I did.

I clamped the furring strip to the tailgate of our truck so that it didn't move around when I was sawing. If you have a helper, have them hold it. I was flying solo that day so this is what worked for me. If you have a chop saw, by all means, use that. Those things are perfect for making small work of jobs like this.

I like working with hand tools, though, so that's what I used. If that's not your thing, feel free to use a circular saw or whatever your wood-cutting tool of choice is.

I cut four 24'' uprights; two for each of the two end panels. Next, I lined them up so they all look like they're different sizes before taking a picture. Sigh. (They're not. They're all 24 inches... I promise.)

Then, I cut the four top and bottom pieces for the end panels. They're each 28 inches long, due to the layout of my wire fencing. It's not surgery, so there's room to be flexible. Just keep it consistent.

From here, I took my cut pieces and assembled the ends. Laying the two tops and bottoms out on a flat surface, I put the shorter uprights on the insides. This will make a square that is 28" on each side. I attached the pieces at each corner using the wood screws, screwing down into the uprights from the long pieces.
I find it best to pre-drill the holes for my screws, so that I don't split the wood. I also just used one screw at each corner, which left the panels a little floppy at first. Once I attached the wire, it was more solid. You could use two screws at each corner, if you prefer.

Here comes the fussy part. Working with rolled wire is a bit of a pain, in my opinion. I think it has more to do with me than the wire, though- I can never seem to get it as flat and neat as I would like it to be. It doesn't have to be perfect, though- just get it mostly straightened out and put the square underneath to be sure that you're cutting in the right spot. I ended up with a strip about 8 inches tall, after clipping each panel to size. Don't throw these away- you can use them to make short cages for your plants by bending them back into a circle and folding in the long ends.

I stapled the wire to the frame, keeping things square but pulling the wire as tight as possible so it would lay flat. I used one staple on every other wire, for the most part, except at the corners. There, I wanted one staple on each side of the wire where the wood joined.

Once the two end panels were done, I repeated the process from the beginning for the long sides; this time cutting four 24'' uprights and four 4' top and bottom lengths. (Alternatively, you could just cut everything at once... totally up to you.) I joined these pieces into rectangles, again keeping the uprights inside so that I'd have a 28" tall frame.

Then I fussed with the wire again, so that I had four complete panels.

To finish, I took a side and an end, lined up the pieces, then screwed the panels together at the top and the bottom making sure to keep the screw in the center of the wood. Pre-drilling here helps as well. It's also easier if you have someone to hold these steady for you while you drill and then put the screws in, but it's not impossible to do it by yourself. Once you get the first corner done, it starts to stabilize itself.

I repeated this at the top and bottom of all four corners. I also added a third screw in the middle of each, thinking it would add stability, but that didn't seem to make much of a difference.

One thing that I didn't do originally, that I should have, was add corner braces. I felt it needed just a little more stability in the corners, for our needs. I put them on about 2 weeks later, with the odd bits I had leftover from the original build. I attached them to the corners and used a saw to cut them flush. There was no measuring here; it was just an on-the-fly adjustment- but it took the last little wiggle out of it, so I'm happy.

And it's done! It's light enough to be moved, small enough to easily reach into it or step over the rails (that's how I move it- I step inside, lift it by the long sides, and just walk) and still pretty darn sturdy. All in all, it's a pretty handy little pen.

Time for one more test, though:

Works Great!

Once you get the hang of the basic box construction - that's really the jumping off point - you can customize these any way you need. I don't leave Bentley outside without shade, so I have a little piece of corrugated plastic roofing that I put on there when he's in. You could also attach some more fencing to the bottom, if you have a digger or if you need additional predator-proofing. The possibilities are endless.

If you have any questions about how this went together, please let me know. I'd be happy to provide more details and/or pictures to help you make yours. I think it took me about 3 hours to put together, and that was including taking the photos as I went.

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