How to Make a Reproduction Vintage Coal Miner's Birdcage

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Step by step plans to build a modern version of the vintage all-wooden Coal Miner's Birdcage as was used in the 1800s in coal mines. Canaries were used this way to determine if the air quality was fit for humans.

 

Seeking to Buy a Genuine Coal Miner's Birdcage

In a previous Factoid I wrote about the Coal Miner's Birdcage, its use, and that my father's barn back in the 1960s was a repository of many such birdcages. Lost to the ages, these vintage and antique objects are not an item seen too often. Rarely, a coal miner's birdcage turns up at Estate Sales, Curio and Antique shops. And lastly, auction/bid/buy sites and of course that bastion of internet commerce, eBay. I have seen several Coal Miner's Birdcages to come up for sale over the last few years. Even the ones with minor damage seem to sell rapidly and for surprisingly high prices!

I have been trying to acquire a genuine Coal Miner's Birdcage with the original stoneware pottery still affixed (they are sometimes found one sans the other) but until then I have decided to put my woodworking skills to the test and build one. Using modern materials to a degree out of necessity, I do have access to some excellent recycled hardwoods and a variety of modern power tools that shall be used in this project.

For the most part, the typical Coal Miner's Birdcage dimensions are roughly 5 3/4-inches tall by 5 3/4 inches wide, by 6-inches long. Apparently these birdcages were made by different companies or different sub-contractors for I have noted at least three size variations. Generally, the dimensions of height, width and length only vary by a half inch or so between the several varying models. These different dimensions could prove to be an interesting provenance each to their respective origin.

Working along these general dimensions and having noted different sizes cited for different specimens of the same general product, I shall try to be true to the spirit of the product while allowing myself to take certain liberties. This shall be a reproduction, not intended to be an actual copy. I shall probably be rounding to whole and half-inch measurements where possible to keep the math simple.

Recycled Hardwood

Using an electric jig-saw with a custom-made edge jig, we cut half-inch wide strips of wood from the half-inch thick hardwood stock

In the spirit of genuine vintage, frugality and etsy, I am trying to use recycled and era-specific materials as much as possible. To this end I have discovered that discarded household clothes dressers with drawers that are often constructed of actual hardwood planks. Not chipboard, laminate (plywood) or composite pulp, but actual cut and planed hardwood. Obviously these dressers are themselves either vintage or at least of a higher quality than their basic contemporary cousins. They suit my needs perfectly!

These side and end panels of these dresser drawers are approximately one-half inch thick which bodes well for my project.

I require many short square beams that are approximately 1/2 inches square on all four sides by approximately 5 1/2 to 6-inches long, depending upon the intended use.

I built a home-made jig-saw edger (image above) so that lengths of these half-inch thick hardwood boards can be edge-fed into the blade, creating the 1/2 X 1/2 inch dimensions.

For this project I rip-cut about a half-dozen of these from a particularly long and beautiful board which I hope will be enough to produce at least two Coal Miner's Birdcage frames.

We have a selection of cut hardwood beams that are as thick as they are wide, in this case, approximately one-half inch per side

Miter-Box Cut the ends for Squareness and Proper Length

Using a miter-box, we align multiple cut beams and secure them with the retaining pin under tension, and miter-cut the ends square. Turning the beams around and measuring for correct length, we again cut-off the ends.

I began by measuring with a ruler and using a carpenter's square to mark the length and cut the beams using my electric jig saw. I quickly found that even a slight deviation of the cut made the ends out-of-square and affected the exact height. The ends need to be perfectly square as they will be butt-joined to other perpendicular surfaces. Any slight angle will affect the true squareness of end-cuts on the beams as well as actual length. A beam that is just a few millimeters longer than the other because of an un-square end cut will make a notable difference in alignment. Points for accuracy.

So using a Miter-box as shown, I slightly shorted the intended lengths by just enough to square-off the ends. I decided to Miter-cut several pieces at the same time thus to ensure that they will be in agreement with each other for any build.

Even half the thickness of the saw blade difference will make a noticeable deviation but if all the beams are in agreement, no matter. With the Miter saw, the materials will be held in place and multiples can be cut easily. Each cage like the true vintage models shall genuinely be one-of-a-kind...

Drilling the Perfect Hole

a doweling kit (special drill bit, wooden dowel rod, depth guide and hole-markers) for wood-working

an extreme close-up of the tip of the doweling kit drill bit, showing the pointy needle-like guide tip

It may prove to be difficult to drill exacting, perfectly-spaced and vertical holes without the use of a drill-press or some kind of box-miter to guide the drill. But the use of a 'doweling kit' may offer some aid. I intended to use wooden dowels to secure all joints and in order to drill holes as perfectly as possible, a smaller pilot-hole 'guide hole marker' would be essential.

Doweling Kits for Perfectly-Aligned Dowel Holes

A 'Doweling Kit' offers a solution. These kits have the required special drill-bit that has a very sharp 'point' or 'guide' that you press into the pre-marked center of your intended drill-hole, thus ensuring accuracy. Along with the dowel kit are of course, the required dowels of the same gauge as the drill bit, a depth marker (the red collar in the package) that fits into the drill bit so you know to not drill too deeply.

Also included are steel drill-hole marker plugs. These shiny steel drums are put into a drilled hole and the drilled wood stock is pressed against its intended mate and the pointy tip leaves an indentation. The indentation marks the exact center for the matching dowel hole to be drilled. This would be most useful if used with a drill-press, which would ensure true vertical drilling. For manually-drilled holes I find this to not be of much help however.

end panel and vertical beams for coal miners birdcage are drilled. The drilled holes A & B in the beams correspond to the holes A & B on the end panel board

I did try this option but I find that I would rather clamp the two pieces of wood stock together and drill one contiguous hole, apply glue into the hole and insert the dowel rod all in one operation. This method is a little more crude but it is working.

The 1/8th inch dia. holes for the reed-like bars of cage have been pre-measured and drilled, and test-fitted. Assembling the two vertical beams to the flat 4 5/8th by 2 1/2 inches end panel first, then drilling and attaching the top horizontal beam forms the basic framework for one end of the birdcage. The framework was clamped in place until the glue cured, then the seven vertical 1/8th-inch diameter wooden dowel rods were inserted and the excess is clipped off, as shown below. One end panel is completed.

excess 1/8th inch doweling rods are clipped close to top beam, sanded smooth The first end panel for the coal miners birdcage reproduction is finished

Doweling the second end panel in progress. Note that the vertical support beams are not attached yet

Repeating the process of creating another end panel, only this one will lack the flat board panel. Three 5 3/4-inch beams are marked and drilled to accommodate the doweling bars, which are being inserted in this image. After clamping and drilling each required joint and doweling, allow to dry. Sanding smooth the protruding dowel rod ends when the glue has dried and the end panels are finished.

I would at this time discover a mistake made in my measuring of the distances between the vertical bars.

Apparently I am about 1/16th of an inch too far to one side, and the left-most and right-most vertical beams show a marked variance from the end to their respective location. This err would in itself not be too great of a problem except that during assembly, I inadvertently flipped one of the horizontal bars, causing the vertical bars to not line-up vertically-parallel. While I could have (and probably should have) at this point pulled the top bar out and turned it around 1800 to reinstall it correctly. Because the drilled holes for the 1/8th-inch dia. dowels is a tight fit and it was an effort to get just this far, I chose to proceed as it was, even with this deviation.

This err proved to be more noticeable when drilling and doweling the horizontal beams to attach the vertical side beams. Only two of the three horizontal beams on either side would mate flush to a vertical beam, leaving the third horizontal beam with a gap. My solution to this was to drill a small pilot hole at each joint union on one side and with the use long wood screws, which would 'pull' the doweled web laterally. Then I could drill and dowel the opposite side properly as the three horizontal beam ends were now perpendicularly-aligned.

When the first three glued dowel joints were cured, l removed the three woodscrews and vertical beam on the opposite side and repeated the doweling and gluing. It was a round-a-bout way to correct for a measuring error that should not have occurred in the first place. Ah, this was entirely a learning experience for me too, folks!

I thus discovered yet another construction mistake and now know how to avoid it.

In the future I shall clamp my horizontal bars together and drill all of them at once. Remembering to mark all the butt ends of one side with a big black magic-marker strip to ensure proper orientation and then assemble them in this drilled orientation.

This way no matter what deviation occurs in spacing of the cage bars or angular bore of any hole itself, the spacial alignment of the holes will at least agree with each of its successive horizontal beam mates on any same side.

Coal Miners Birdcage end panel, created by author for this article

An image of my first end panel for this coal miner's birdcage is hosted on Flickr.

Two ends of a Reproduction Coal Miner's Birdcage

two opposing end panels for the reproduction model of a coal miners birdcage are made

While the end panel on the left appears to be crooked, out of square, oddly it is not. The frame agrees with the one on the right to within a few millimeters. It is the slightly deviated vertical doweling bars that gives this optical illusion of being warped. I shall proceed with the build and skip relaying the steps and discoveries made and when completed, shall post a follow-up image of the completed project.

UPDATE: Assembling the Coal Miner's Birdcage

A small wooden feed-box is attached to one end of the coal miners birdcage, and the horizontal beams are doweled to the end pieces, forming a square box framework

I opted to use nails to assemble the feeder-box. Originals I have seen did in fact use small nails for this.

The horizontal beams are being assembled to their end-pieces, forming a recognizable framework to which the spindle dowel bars are inserted, carefully tapped into place using a hammer. I have found it pointless to glue this at all as the wooden dowels being used as cage bars insert fairly tightly and remain firmly seated anyway.

Nearly Completed Coal Miner's Birdcage

 coal miners birdcage replica, created by author

another view of my coal miners birdcage replica, build by author

A thin flexible sheet of pine shingle is slid into the bottom and over the central beam, wedging the floor into place. This typically would not be removed for any reason. Removal of the watering cup for cleaning and for that matter, removing the dead canary, is accomplished by pulling several of the vertical dowel rods out and replacing them as appropriate.

3 comments

Launie Sorrels
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Posted on Jul 27, 2011
M 5446
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Posted on Sep 9, 2010
Kathleen Murphy
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Posted on Aug 28, 2010