Steel Birdhouse

Or Possibly An Artisan Solar Bird Oven

Every so often I get the urge to make something ridiculous. During a conversation with a regionally famous goat-herder, the notion of a birdhouse made of steel popped into my head. For some reason, it made me laugh. I couldn’t get the idea out of my head- it seemed so absurd, that the world would be a more interesting place if it existed. I decided to make it exist.

I don’t talk a lot about metalworking on this blog, but it is a secret passion of mine. If it’s something you’d like to see more of here, by all means let me know in the comments. If you’re mostly here for the electronics, I’d encourage you to try something like this. It’s good to get out of the lab and get your hands dirty making something for the ages. This birdhouse, coincidentally, turns out to be an excellent starter project if this is something you think you want to try. It’s easily built with a $20 grinder and a cheapo 110V wire-feed MIG welder from the hardware store. There’s nothing structural, so it doesn’t matter if your welds are terrible. There’s pretty much no way to screw this up. Watch a few YouTube videos, then give it a shot!

For a project like this, I like to start with a plan on butcher paper. This is a simple 5″ cube with a 45° roof. That makes for a small number of different parts, all of simple shapes.

Next, I lay the templates out on the steel, and form a cutting plan.

The steel shown here is 1/4″ steel plate from a local recycler. Go make friends with your local recycler or scrap yard. They are probably in a terrifying part of town, but they’ll have an off-cuts and remnants area where you can get small pieces for projects like this very inexpensively. It’s at least four times cheaper than what you’ll get at Home Depot, and there are way, way more options. I got a 4×8 sheet of 1/4″ steel plate for about $50, and for an extra few bucks they sheared it in half so it would fit in my car (and so that a mere mortal could lift it). The industrial shear they used was the size of a small building. I’m pretty sure I would vote for it if it ran for public office, based solely on the terror of what it might do to me if I didn’t. I, for one, welcome our new industrial metal shear overlords. A working metal recycler is the closest preview you’ll get of a Mad-Max-esque dystopian future, and it’s always a fun trip.

When laying these pieces out on the steel, consider your cutting method. You can cut steel with a cut-off wheel on a grinder, a plasma torch, a hacksaw, a bandsaw, a water jet, a shear, or various other fancy ways. Each method has a different precision and kerf (the amount of material converted to a giant black mess in the cutting process). A cutting disc on a grinder has quite a large kerf, so I tend to cut one piece at a time and lay them out in sequence. A standard Sharpie, conveniently, has about the same line thickness as a cutting disc kerf, but the end result won’t be very precise if you cut everything at once. The more precision you achieve here, the easier welding will be later. You want all your joints tight and square.

Here’s the pieces, ready to be assembled into something approximating the world’s silliest birdhouse.

Note that the floor of the house is in two pieces there. That’s because I accidentally used the wrong template when I laid out the floor, and it was a bit too small. The great thing about metal is that everything is fixable and recoverable. Much more so than wood, plastic, or other materials. In this case, I can weld a piece on the end, grind it smooth, and it’s a solid piece of metal again. What really separates metalworking from other fabrication is that the joinery method (welding) actually creates the same material you are working with. It’s as though wood glue dried into actual wood. That’s why you can fix mistakes like this, and it really is as though the mistake never happened.

A quick weld and a not-so-quick grind, and it would take an x-ray to know this wasn’t a single piece of steel. Done correctly, there’s no loss of strength or material properties in a repair like this.

There was one unknown for me when I started this project- how to drill the hole for the bird? That’s a larger hole than I’ve ever needed to make in steel before, and this is pretty hefty plate. I don’t have a drill press (someday) or a plasma cutter (someday), so what to do? Well, the junk pile coughed up a Milwaukee general-purpose hole saw, and it claimed to be usable on metal. I was highly skeptical, but I had nothing to lose, since I didn’t particularly need the hole saw. I was pleasantly surprised to find out how well it worked.

I did a test drill in some scrap to see how well this was going to work, and to see which side it would be best to drill from. I used a generous amount of cutting oil, and ran my drill about as slow as it would go. As always with drilling metal, I center-punched the location and drilled a small pilot hole first. The hole saw has a 1/4″ centering bit, which is too big to start with on a hand drill.

Using the experience gained from the test hole, the real deal went very well. I drilled a small pilot hole for the centering bit in the hole saw, went slow with firm pressure, and used lots of cutting oil. That Milwaukee hole saw impressed the heck out of me. It looks as though it could do that a hundred more times without breaking a sweat.

Also note that I’m using a corded drill for this. Cordless tools have come a very long way in the last 20 years. However, for really tough jobs, especially those needing low speeds and high torque, I think there’s still no substitute for being plugged in.

Now for the funnest part- assembly! My welder is a middle-of-the-road Hobart 220V wire-feed MIG. A basic 110v Lincoln from Home Depot would do just fine for this. I’m using flux core wire. It’s a bit trickier to get clean beads, but so much more convenient than using shielding gas.

Welding is one of those skills that is easy to do poorly. There is a very large experience gap between what you see here and what a professional weldor can do, but with a MIG and flux-core wire, anyone can weld well enough to patch up things around the house or make little toys like this. You won’t be repairing undersea pipelines or building bridges anytime soon, but a comical birdhouse is easily attainable with a weekend of practice. Definitely RTFM for your welder. Half the battle is getting the power level, polarity, and feed rate set right for your material and situation. You’ll get frustrated in a hurry if you’re trying to learn and the welder is burning holes in the floor because you have it cranked up to 11.

The basic process of welding up an object like this is to arrange all your parts first, get the joints as tight and clean as you can, then tack things in place. Right-angle magnets are the bees’ knees for this. Tacking is important because welding puts a lot of heat into the material, and it will deform unless you are very careful. You may weld up the first joint all pretty, only to find the others don’t line up anymore. Good insurance against that is tacking things before welding up the full seams. This also gives you a chance to change your mind easily, because tacks are pretty strong, but still easily removed by grinding or flexing.

We continue this process of lining up and tacking, then weld it up for realsies once everything is tacked in nice and tight. A tight joint is infinitely easier to weld than a sloppy one. If you’re having trouble getting good results while learning to weld, chances are your joints are poor. While it is perfectly possible to weld across gaps, this is way more difficult and you’re setting yourself up to fail. Take the time to get your joints and corners tight and straight. A little extra time with the grinder now will save much frustration with the welder later.

For the roof, I wanted it to be removable for spying on my new feathered neighbours. Being made of 1/4″ plate, it’s plenty heavy enough to stay put on its own. I opted to make these little braces to hold it in alignment against the inside walls of the house. That way it won’t slide off. The braces certainly aren’t needed for strength, because there’s no appreciable load on this.

Here we are, welding up all the seams now. I wanted a real industrial look, so I welded on the outsides of the joints so the weld would be visible. At this point, make sure to knock all the corners and edges off with a grinder. Freshly cut metal is sharp, and you want something you can handle comfortably when you’re done. I used a Dremel to make the inside of the entrance hole particularly smooth and nice. I don’t want the birdies getting cut on their way through!

For a perch, I opted to weld a nut on the front, and screw a bolt into it. Mostly because I thought this was funny.

Note that I’ve used a galvanized bolt there. Technically, welding galvanized metals is a big no-no. The zinc coating vaporizes, and you might breath it in. Breathing in zinc fumes is super turbo bad for you. There are a couple of approaches you can use to get around this:

  1. Buy mild steel unfinished hardware. There are bolts on the market intended for welding and such. They are kinda hard to find though.
  2. Grind the zinc off the area before welding. This is a good option for welding larger pieces, although it’s probably easier not to buy galvanized material in the first place.
  3. Use a P100 respirator. This is not a bad idea anyway, because welding and grinding make a lot of kinda nasty fumes and dust. I wear one while metalworking and find myself feeling much better at the end of the day as a result. Also keeps your Kleenex from turning black next time you blow your nose. #RealWorkProblems
  4. Hold your breath. You laugh, but this is honestly what most casual fabricators do. Unless you’re doing this a lot on big pieces every day, the exposure to the zinc can be minimized by simply not breathing it in. For the occasional nut and bolt like we’re doing here, just make like Clinton and don’t inhale.

For installation, location was pretty important. As alluded to in the by-line, a metal box sitting in the sun is going to be more bird-oven than bird-house. I have a nice all-day shady spot in my garden that I thought would work well. I didn’t want to commit to a location though, so I opted to mount it on a pole in a big planter with some sand and rocks. It’s easy to move, but still stable.

Look how welcoming! Build it and they will come, I hope.

You may have noticed I opted not to paint it or finish it in any way. That’s sorta the point. If you’re going to make something like this out of steel (a ridiculous choice of material), I say embrace it. I wanted it to rust naturally and acquire a patina all its own.

A few weeks later, and it is patina-ing (definitely a word) nicely. No birds have found it yet, but I’m keeping hope alive. One thing is for sure- it is so ridiculously overbuilt that it will outlive the humanhouse next to it.

I’ll keep you posted if anyone moves into the new bird-centric wing of Dunki Freehold. Until then, I have plenty of sweeping to do.

Metalworking is a messy business. Those “sparks” coming off the grinder are actually many many black dust particles that cover everything in a 10′ radius. Consider that when choosing your work area.

I hope you enjoyed this side-quest from our usual Blondihacks content. If you’d like more, let me know! Until next time, when stuff starts flying, do your safety squint*!

*Just kidding- please use proper and eye and ear protection when doing this stuff. I’m not your mom, but I shouldn’t need to be either.

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