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Basic Cage Building 101
By Clay Davenport (A.R.B.)

Tools  Materials  Heating  Ventilation  Doors  Lighting  Applying a Finish  Building Tips

Building cages is not usually as difficult as most think it to be. However, a certain level of ability with tools and the material being used is required. This page will list tips and tricks I have found over the years that may make your cage building ventures a little easier. It will change, probably a lot, before it is complete. I’ll be adding things as they come to me, and rearranging things until I think the page will be of benefit, and retain at least a resemblance of being organized.

First off, we need to get cage building in perspective. Three main things must be considered when designing or building a cage – function, design, and aesthetics. Let’s look at these and how they will affect your cages.

The challenge here is to find a balance between these three things. Keeping in mind that the needs of the reptile have priority and cannot be compromised. Now on to the cage building.

Questions to be answered

There are a few things to ask yourself before you set in to cutting the wood.

  1. How will the cage be heated?
  2. Will there be any supplemental lighting?
  3. What type of doors will be used, and how will they latch?
  4. How will the cage be ventilated?
Decide the answers to these questions before you start building, so you can make allowances to accommodate them.
For instance, if the doors are to be sliding glass, then a place to mount the track will be required. If the method of heating is by a basking light, then either permanent protected fixtures will be needed, or a screen in the top for the light to shine through will have to be incorporated into the design.

Tools

There are a few tools that are basically required to do any real cage building, and others that are a great benefit, but can be done without. A basic list of tools I use are:

Electric tools

Table saw – can’t beat it for making good cuts, and ripping boards to a narrower width.
Circular saw – You’ll pretty much have to have one of these, although a handsaw can be used to a certain extent with much difficulty.
Jigsaw – Great for cutting out square vent windows. Can be done without it, but these are not expensive saws, I recommend getting one if you intend on doing much cage building.
Palm or belt sander – If you want a good finish on a stained cage you will find one of these to be extremely useful, particularly after you’ve hand sanded a cage or two.
Hand drill – this can be either cordless or not, but either way it is invaluable, and required when screwing a cage together. Most woods do much better when you pre drill holes for the screws, and then the screws are much easier to put in with a drill rather than a hand screwdriver.
Router – This is not really required, but for certain things you might want to do, there will be no other way to do them.
Compound Miter Saw – I use this to cut the 45° angles for some of my door frames and vent window framing. A miter box can be used instead. This is a box with a hand saw that is equipped with slots for 90° and 45° cuts.

Hand tools

Tri-square and 2’ square – making square cuts is essential when building cages you will want these.
Tape measure – this is just a given
Hammer – Another given
Hole saw – these are round saws that you chuck into a hand drill, or even better, a drill press. They make very nice vent windows to be covered with screening.
Nail set – this is a tool used to set finish nails deeper in the wood so they can be puttied over for a better look. I like to use them on the trim work.
Countersink – use these to set the heads of screws in flush with the surface of the wood. To get real fancy, there are special countersinks used to cut a deeper hole for wooden plugs to be used over the heads of the screws.
Tinsnips – great for cutting hardware cloth or other wire mesh
90° clamp - This is a clamp used to secure two pieces of wood cut on 45° angles. I use one to make my door frames.

The more of these tools you have available, the easier your cage building will be.

Materials

What are you going to make the cage out of?
Your choices are varied, and each has different pros and cons.

There are other materials that may or may not be available to you. Various plastics like PVC sheets, and High Density Polyethylene (HDPE). The majority of people do not have access to these materials, so I won’t go into them.

Heating

There are several methods available for heating cages. What species the cage is for will determine in part what methods are appropriate.
REMEMBER Always check temperatures, do not guess. You would be surprised at just how far off you can be when trying to guess temperatures by feeling them with your hand. A digital indoor/outdoor thermometer with a probe works best for constant monitoring of the ambient cage temperature. In addition, I use a Raytec temperature gun to spot check the temperature in different points of the cage quickly. These temp guns have come down alot in price in the last few years and can now be purchased for around $100. Believe me, if you can get one you will find them very useful. I recommend getting a model with a laser, this helps get you exactly on target. Nothing is better for checking the temps of a basking site, and getting a good idea of the temperature gradient in the cage quickly.
Some heating options are:

Flexwatt heat tape – This is my preferred method of providing substrate heat. Flexwatt has versatile uses, and can be used inside or outside of the cages. I prefer to use it inside the cages myself, and this method normally requires the use of a thermostat of some sort. Flexwatt also requires you to do the wiring yourself, it is not difficult however. It provides an efficient method of heating, and is fairly economic. Another consideration when using flexwatt inside cages is electrical shock. Make sure the contacts are well insulated and protected from moisture. The metal contacts openly conduct electricity and will shock you to the touch. A spilled water dish will, in essence, charge the whole area so make sure the contacts are insulated.
For directions on how to wire flexwatt heat tape, look at my Flexwatt Wiring Page.

Heat pads – There are several commercial heat pads available. Some are adhesive, as with the ZooMed UTH (under tank heaters), and some are not, such as the Cobra heat mats, manufactured by T-Rex. These are most suited to use with aquaria, but can have a certain degree of usefulness with custom built cages.
Human heating pads can also be used with herps in certain situations, and when you must heat a cage for a while unitl you get another means. When using these check the temperature with a thermometer to determine which of the three settings is best.

Heat lamps – lamps are best used for arboreal species, particularly basking diurnal lizards. Snakes that are strictly arboreal should also be provided with a basking lamp. These are less efficient in their electricity usage, but with some species, there are few other acceptable methods of heating.

Ceramic heat emitters – I haven’t used any of these heaters myself, but they are basically ceramic “bulbs” that screw into a light socket and give off radiant heat, but no light. I personally haven’t found a lot of use for them, since with diurnal baskers, a heat lamp provides both heat and the necessary light source. With arboreal nocturnal species however, I do see where these heaters could be quite useful.

Radiant heat panels – This is another method of heating I haven’t tried, but I have heard many good reports about them. They are fairly expensive initially, but they are reported to have a very long life, which makes them economical in the long run. They are reported to be especially useful for larger species.

Heat rocks – The usefulness of these things is very limited. I normally discourage anyone from buying one, but if you already have one on hand they can be used in certain circumstances. They are best used buried in the substrate, or otherwise shielded from the animal coming into direct contact with them. There are dangers associated with the use of heat rocks. They are known to develop hot spots, which are small areas on the rocks that reach extremely hot temperatures. This poses the risk of thermal burns to the animal. I have personally seen hot rocks reach such a temperature that the rock itself cracked apart. Another risk I have seen personally is the risk of electrical shock. A long time ago I was using a hot rock to heat a snake cage. The snake had overturned the water dish and I was going to change the bedding and clean the cage. I picked up the hot rock, which was wet, and it shocked me. I inspected the rock closely and found no cracks or any observable damage, it was just conducting electricity through the rock itself. I suppose during the molding of that particular rock, the wire was very close to the surface. Even though the snake had only spilled the water a couple of hours before, I cringed at the thought of it getting shocked while attempting to warm itself. That was the last day I ever heated a cage with a heat rock. Fortunately, commercial heat pads were becoming available, and not long afterwards I discovered flexwatt.

Ventilation

There are several ways to ventilate a cage, some are better than others.

Wire mesh – I have used various forms of wire mesh for many years. Most commonly I have used ¼” hardware cloth, and recently have begun using black aluminum window screening because I like the looks of it. Care must be taken using wire though, and anytime you put a snake in a cage containing wire screen you should observe it closely for the first few weeks. Some individuals are prone to nose rubbing, and when this is done on wire, serious injuries can result. Some snakes will nose rub regardless of anything you try, but keep in mind if you have a snake doing this that sometimes it is just a sign that the animal is not content with it’s surroundings. It could be that the snake is not comfortable with its temperature choices, or feels insecure from a lack of hiding areas it finds suitable. Sometimes evaluating the cage conditions can cure a snake from constantly looking for a way out.

   

Pegboard – this can make for a very good vent covering, particularly if the animal being housed is prone to nose rubbing. The wooden pegboard however can leave a lot to be desired aesthetically, but I have recently seen white plastic pegboard that is a little more expensive, but I think would look very nice in a cage. I definitely intend on experimenting with the use of this plastic pegboard. If using the wooden pegboard, I would recommend getting the ¼” thick board rather than the thinner board that is available. The thicker board will hold up better.

Metal vents – There are available round metal vents that are louvered. I think these would make a very nice vent if an acceptable method of using them is figured out. I haven’t tried them yet, but I am currently trying to figure how best to incorporate them in a cage. They come in several diameters, I have seen up to 4” vents in the hardware store. The main drawback I see with them is they simply pop into a hole cut with a hole saw. While they have raised knobs on the section that goes into the wall, I do not believe they will withstand the pressure of a snake determined to pop them out. Either a screw through the ring, or perhaps a bead of silicon will be required to secure them into place.

Holes in the side – another option is to just drill holes directly into the cage itself. I only mention this as an option, but probably wouldn’t do it myself. This would be quite labor intensive, and unless the holes were drilled in a perfect grid pattern they would look bad. Creating this perfect grid is possible, but harder than one might think.

Doors

There are numerous ways to fashion doors for reptile cages, and from the feedback I have had, this remains one of the most difficult aspects of cage building. Some of my earlier door designs were cumbersome to make, and many were not much to look at. Over the years though, I have refined my door making and come up with a few styles that suit my purposes of usable, and basically easy to make.
There are a few pictures included in this section of the different types of doors I use on my cages.

Sliding glass doors – This is a popular type of door used by many who build cages. I have only one cage with sliding doors though. I find them more difficult to deal with than the standard hinged door. slide_lock.jpgSliding doors require the track to be installed fairly exactly, and also need special locks to secure them. I couldn’t find any satisfactory method of latching the sliding doors other than the use of locks made for the purpose, and that required the use of a key to access the cage. I quickly determined that this was not the way I wanted to go with future snake cages so I abandoned the method. These problems though are mainly when they are used in snake cages. Sliding doors used in tall cages housing day geckos for instance would not need the locks to secure them since those animals would not be able to push the door open. Care must be taken however in this setup to make sure you get the door completely closed and not leave a gap for the gecko to crawl through.

fr_glass.jpg Framed glass – I like this type of door. Simply cut the door frame like you would a picture frame, on 45° angles. On the backside of the door make a recess with a router for the glass to lay in. You can use silicon to hold the glass securely in the recess and renforce it with small pieces of wood over the corners, in such a way that they are not visible from the outside.
In the picture to the left, you can see the recess made with a router for the glass to lay in. The glass is 1/4" thick, and the recess was routed the same depth, so that the glass fits flush.
A bead of silicon around the entire recess holds the glass in place.





Plexiglass – I like plexiglass, particularly in certain situations. You can use it in different ways, with or without a frame. It drills easily, and you can attach hinges directly to it.
Plex does scratch easily, and for that reason it is not a good choice for cages housing clawed lizards like bearded dragons or monitors. Some care must also be taken when cleaning plexiglass doors. Plain water works best, as some cleaners seem to have a bad effect on plex making it look cloudy. It scratches easily when cleaning too, so keep this in mind. See the Building Tips section at the bottom of the page for some things to remember when working with plexiglass.

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Plex can be screwed to a door frame to avoid the need to use a router.This is the same door from the outside. It is latched with hook and eye latches. The piece it is hinged to doubles as a substrate dam.
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Plex used without a frame, hinged inside the door opening. Notice the peg behind the corner of the door to keep it from closing too far into the cage.The same door from the outside. Wooden tabs that pivot on a nail hold the doors closed in this unit.
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This is another method of latching unframed plexiglass doors. I simply cut the corner out of the door and used a barrel bolt to hold it closed.
I like this method very well, but if you use 1/4" plexiglass, you will have to put a spacer under the barrel bolt to raise it slightly so it will slide over the door.
In this instance I used a metal washer and tightened the bolt down on it.
Solid doors – I do not use solid doors myself, but in rare circumstances they might be preferred. For instance if you have a particularly irritable snake that strikes at any movement, or an excessively nervous snake, a solid or opaque door may be good to isolate the snake from outside distractions. For most people though who keep their snakes for enjoyment, a solid door would not be desired, because it will make it impossible to view the snake normally.
These doors have other drawbacks. They are obviously not practical for things like venomous species, since they would prevent you from knowing the whereabouts of the snake prior to opening the door. This would be a recipe for disaster. For such specimens, if a solid door was desired, it would be highly recommended to make a door within the door that opened to a covered window, so you can check the location of the snake before opening the cage. Interior lighting would also be required for cages with solid or opaque doors.

Lighting

The majority of snakes will do fine with no supplemental cage lighting at all. They spend most of their days in hiding anyway, and room lighting is adequate for photoperiod concerns. Diurnal lizards however, benefit greatly from an established photoperiod, and bright light during the day.

Flourescent lighting – probably the best method of adding light to a cage without generating excess heat is to use flourescent lights. These come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Visit a Lowe’s or Home Depot to see what type would work best for you.

Incandescent lighting – these lights will work fine for cage lighting, but they will also generate heat relative to their wattage. For diurnal basking species, this is ideal, since you provide both light and heat from a single source. Caution must be used with incandescent lights though to make sure the animal doesn’t come in direct contact with the bulb. Most all bulbs, particularly those of wattages high enough to be used in a cage, will get extremely hot and will easily burn an animal unfortunate enough to touch it. Ideally, these lights should be placed outside the cage, but if used inside, should be shielded to prevent any contact with them.

Applying a finish

The only finish I have used is oil based stain with a polyurethane topcoat, so I will limit my comments to this only. Before applying a coat of stain, I recommend sanding the wood well to smooth any rough areas. This is where an electric sander, either a palm or belt type, comes in very handy.
Once sanded, dust it well. A tack rag is good for this. It will take some practice to become skilled in applying stain and to get used to how to work with it. Some woods soak up the stain much quicker than others. You will find a single coat will actually be different in color when used on different types of wood. Apply the stain lightly, especially with soft woods, and make sure you apply it evenly so you get an even coloration.
Remember, if the first coat is not dark enough, you can always add another, but if you soak too much stain at first and make it too dark, you can’t lighten it up again.
After it is stained, you’ll want to give it another light sanding, and dusting, before applying the first coat of polyurethane.
I like satin finish polyurethane. Gloss is just too shiny for my tastes, and satin gives a nice finish.
After the polyurethane has dried, sand it smooth and dust it before applying a second coat. I recommend at least two coats for a nice finish, and it will get better with more. Don’t apply a heavy coat of polyurethane, several thin coats results in a much better finish that one heavy one. On some furniture, I have used up to 5 coats of polyurethane for an excellent finish, but I normally stop at 2 or 3 with cages. A good finish can make a decent cage look great, but a bad finish can make a nice cage look terrible.
Remember when using stain and polyurethane to air the cage out well before putting any animals in it. I prefer to air a cage outdoors, in the sun if possible, for a minimum of 3 days. Five days to a week is even better, but if the weather is warm 3 days outside will usually do.

Alternative Methods of Sealing the Interior

You don't have to use a wood finish on the interior of the cage. There are other options available to seal the wood which can last much longer but can require more time and/or expense.

Sintra - Sintra is a ridgid foam core expanded PVC. Some of the commercial cage manufacturers use this material to build their cages.
It comes in varying thicknesses but you are limited to 3mm and 4mm for colors. However it can be painted. I haven't used this material yet, but it would make a good covering for the inside of a cage.
It can be glued or screwed, and the thinner pieces, like the 3mm can be cut with a razor knife.
You can find this material at a local sign shop.

Linoleum - Everyone knows what this is, it probably protects your kitchen floor. Linoleum comes in many patterns with widely varying price. It's easy to work with and can be secured permanently to the wood of a cage using contact cement. If it will stand up for years in a kitchen or bathroom, it will do fine in a snake cage, and I have used it myself.

HDPE - HDPE stands for High Density Polyethylene. This and similar plastics can also be used to cover the interior of a cage in the 1/8" thickness. It is however costly.

Vinyl Sheeting - Sheet vinyl is also used in the sign business. I believe it would make a fine cage sealant when applied properly. The only drawback I have with it is the glossy finish. I prefer more of a matte finish inside a cage. It is however availabl ein a multitude of colors, is self adhesive and easy to work with.
It can be purchased at http://www.beacongraphics.com/

Building Tips


©2001-2010
Clay Davenport
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