How to Build a Rustic Decorative Birdhouse
Rustic Birdhouse Designs
Decorative Birdhouses Built for the Birds
Birds are quite fussy when it comes to finding a suitable nesting site to raise their young. Cavity-nesting birds such as bluebirds, wrens, nuthatches and chickadees look for a hole inside of a tree or other natural crevice to build their nests. When natural nesting sites are scarce, these cavity nesters will take up residence in a birdhouse—but only if the nest box meets their high standards.
Many functional nest boxes that are designed to meet the bird's requirements are just basic boxes with a utilitarian appearance. While these birdhouses may be well made, the basic nesting box is bland and not very interesting. Commercially available decorative birdhouses may look good, but they often fall short on meeting the bird's nesting requirements and are less likely to attract birds.
I've made many utilitarian birdhouses over the years, attracting a variety of cavity nesters who successfully raised generations of baby birds. And I've also built several rustic birdhouses with added design elements to increase their visual appeal in the garden, and the birds like these too. Starting with a basic nest box that meets the bird's requirements, I add a bit of whimsy along with a few recycled bits, and the resulting birdhouses can be both functional and decorative. The rustic birdhouses in the photo are built to the specifications preferred by Eastern bluebirds, then painted and decorated with pieces of salvaged wood to resemble picket fences and posts. Rusty pieces of old barbed wire and a star-shaped entrance guard adds character to the rustic birdhouse design.
The Cutting List:
These birdhouses were made from inexpensive pine boards that are readily available from the local home center, and from leftover pieces of wood from the scrap box in my workshop. Rustic birdhouses can be made from pine, cedar, redwood or just about any pieces of salvaged lumber. Cedar, redwood, and hardwoods such as mahogany and teak are naturally resistant to insects and weather and tend to last longer when exposed to the elements. Pine stands up well and will last for several seasons, especially when the exterior is painted or stained. I like to use weathered wood whenever possible, to add interest and character to the finished birdhouse. Best of all, the cost for salvaged wood is often free!
Cut pieces of wood to the following dimensions:
- Front: 11-1/2" L x 5-1/2" W
- Back: 11-1/2" L x 5-1/2" W
- Sides (2): 10" L x 4-1/2" W
- Floor: 4-1/2" L x 4" W
- Roof A: 6-3/4" L x 5-1/2" W
- Roof B: 6-3/4" L x 4-3/4" W
Cut the peaks for the roof on the front and back sections at a 45-degree angle.
Birdhouse Entrance Holes: Size Matters!
Using a 1-1/2 inch diameter bit, lay out and drill the entrance hole in the front section of the birdhouse. Measure up 8" from the bottom edge, centering the entrance hole across the width of the front section. Use a Forstner bit, hole saw or paddle bit to drill the entrance hole.
The size of the entrance hole is very important for attracting cavity-nesting birds. Too small, and the birds cannot get in. Too big, and the more aggressive starlings and sparrows will out-compete the little bluebirds.
Eastern Bluebirds fit easily through a 1-1/2" entrance hole. The larger Mountain Bluebirds prefer 1-9/16" diameter entrance holes.
Repeat the steps with Entrance Guard. This simple entrance guard is 3-1/4" square and helps keep predators from reaching into the nesting box. To quickly find the center of the square, line up a straight edge on a diagonal across two opposite corners, and make a pencil mark near the center. Then, line up the straight edge across the opposite two corners, and draw another line near the center. The resulting "X" marks the exact center of the square.
Do not add a perch to your birdhouses. Cavity nesting birds don't need a perch to enter a birdhouse, and a perch may only make it easier for a predator to get inside.
The Right Tool for the Job: 1-1/2" Forstner Drill Bit
This is the drill bit that I use to cut the entrance holes for many of my birdhouse projects. The Forstner drill bit cuts a clean hole, and does not wander across the work piece like a twist or spade drill bit.
Add a Bit of Whimsey!
The entrance guard protects the baby birds inside, and it looks good too! A simple pattern such as this star shape and some colorful paint adds a bit of pizazz to the entrance. Sketch out the design on a piece of wood, drill the entrance hole, and then cut out the piece.
The star shown here is about 5" across from point-to-point. Lay out the pattern on a piece of wood, drill the entrance hole, and then cut out the star shape using a band saw or jigsaw. Be careful when drilling small pieces; the large spinning drill bits like the Forstner bit used here can bite into the wood and send it flying. Starting with a large piece of wood makes it easier to clamp down and hold smaller pieces safely in place while drilling.
Drainage Is Important
The floor section needs drainage holes to allow rainwater to drain away. A few 1/4" diameter holes drilled through the floor will work, but I prefer to cut away the corners. Cut each of the corners of the birdhouse floor, allowing any rainwater that enters the nest box to quickly drain away. Cutting away the corners also increases the air circulation inside the nest box, drawing cooler in through the floor and out through the side openings under the roof line.
A power miter saw makes cutting off 3/4" from each of the corners quick and easy. After positioning the floor on the saw to slice off the first corner, mark the location of the floor piece on the miter saw (I used blue masking tape) and then line up the edges for each of the remaining cuts.
Some Assembly Required:
Begin assembling the nest box by attaching the front section to one of the side pieces. One side of the birdhouse is fixed, while the other side is hinged to allow access to the finished birdhouse for periodic cleaning.
Line up the bottom edges of both pieces, and secure with weather resistant nails or screws. A bead of water-resistant glue helps to hold power of the pneumatic nails. Then, attach the floor followed by the back section with more nails or screws.
Note: the top edge of the side piece will not quite meet with the angle section of the front. When fully assembled, this leaves a small gap for air circulation to the nest box. The overhanging roof keeps rain from entering the nest box through the gaps.
Make an Entrance:
The second side is attached with just two screws, carefully positioned to form a pivot point and creating a door for access to the interior of the nest box. Measure down 1-1/4 inch from the point where the top of the side piece nearly meets the angle section of the front piece. Drill and countersink a hole, and then attach the pieces with a weather-resistant screw.
Finish attaching the hinged side by driving another screw through the back (B) and into the door side, forming a pivot point. Using a square or straight edge, transfer the location of the first hinge screw across the side piece to the back edge. Positioning the hinge screws in the front and back sections directly across from each other forms a simple pivoting hinge of the door for access to the interior of the nesting box.
Secure the Door
To keep to hinged door closed, drill and countersink a screw hole along the center of the bottom edge. Another short screw will secure the side in place, yet allow easy access for cleaning out the birdhouse.
Here's a view of the floor section, showing the cutouts for drainage and air circulation.
Attach the two roof sections together at a 90-degree angle with more nails or screws, position the 5-1/2" wide piece, so it overlaps the 4-3/4" wide piece, forming a peaked roof. Sand and stain the roof (if desired) before attaching the roof to the rest of the birdhouse.
Add the Finishing Touches:
Sand all of the birdhouse edges to round over the corners and smooth the joints. Breaking the sharp corners gives the birdhouse a finished look, and allows the paint and stain to adhere better. After sanding, paint or stain the exterior of the birdhouse, being careful not to cover any of the interior surfaces of the nesting box.
I stained the exterior of the nesting boxes with a light stain called "Willow" for a rustic, white-washed appearance. The light colored background is a good canvas for adding colorfully painted detail and contrasts nicely with the dark walnut stained roof. The star shaped entrance guard was painted using blue latex paint.
After the paint and stain dries, attach the entrance guard with glue and short brads. Use short, 1-1/4" nails that will not penetrate through to the inside of the nesting box and potentially harm the future residents.
Attach the roof sections with more screws and nails. The large roof creates overhangs along the front and both sides to protect the inside of the nesting box from the rain.
The Difference Is in the Details
The picket fence posts were cut from the slats of an old pallet. I ripped the pallet slats into pieces that are approximately 3/8" x 3/8" square, and about 5" inches long. The lengths are staggered at random lengths, with the top ends cut at 45-degree angles. Attach the fence posts to the birdhouse with glue and short brads.
The rusty barbed wire is attached with a couple of poultry staples and lightly pounded into shape with a hammer. The barbed wire is sharp, so be careful!
Variations on the Theme:
Birdhouses & Nest Boxes In Your Yard
Do you put up birdhouses for the birds?
Birdhouses Built for the Birds
Each of the birdhouses shown here are made using the same basic nest boxes and then customized with bits of found objects and decorative bits. My handcrafted birdhouses are made from new, reclaimed, recycled and re-purposed materials that give each piece its rustic folk art charm. Add some color and textures to the nest boxes in your garden by adding a few of your own rustic birdhouse designs. The number of unique possibilities is limited only by your imagination.
These birdhouses are built for the birds. The nest box dimensions are designed to attract bluebirds, but other types cavity nesting birds will move in too.
Questions & Answers
How do I stain or paint my store-bought decorative birdhouses to make them look old and rustic?
You can lightly sand the birdhouse in strategic areas to make the birdhouse look worn and weathered. Try sanding the corners and around the entrance hole to simulate wear. Adding a few rustic bits such as an old drawer handle for a perch or awning will help to dress up the birdhouse, and turn the store-bought birdhouse into your unique art project.
© 2014 Anthony Altorenna