Make a Chicken Brooder Out of Cardboard Boxes

An easy-to-make chicken brooder for growing chicks has a few other benefits, too.

Completed chicken brooder

The completed single-story brooder waits for the chicks to move in.

Paul Gardener

Content Tools

Recently, people’s attitudes and ideas have changed about how we could be living our lives. Activities that might have seemed crazy just a few months before the economy tanked – like raising chickens in the backyard – suddenly seem like perfectly logical choices. It’s one topic that has, for a number of reasons, become a hot item. Anytime there’s renewed interest in something like raising chickens, an inevitable barrage of products arrive, tempting us to spend our money.

Humans and domestic fowl have a shared history that goes back nearly to the dawn of time and spans every continent on Earth. Raising chickens is not a new phenomenon, nor does it need to be difficult. The needs of chickens are relatively few: food, water, shelter and the ability to get up off the ground to roost.

Young chicks, on the other hand, have a slightly different set of requirements. In addition to food and water, they need to have an adequate heat source and to be protected from drafts. Here’s the catch. Baby chicks grow really fast, so you have to make sure your housing solution is large enough to handle them comfortably for the first few weeks. I’m going to show you one way to meet all those needs with a lightweight, low-cost alternative to commercially available rearing systems. It even gives you easy access to the birds and won’t leave you with a bulky brooder to store until your next batch of day-old chicks arrives. I’m talking about building a chicken brooder from cardboard boxes. 

Recycling at its best

To build your cardboard box chicken brooder, you’ll first need to get some cardboard boxes. Ideally, you should start this project with at least two boxes of the same size. Three is even better. These can be just about any kind of cardboard box; the only really important part is that the boxes should be as near to 24 inches square as possible and 15 to 18 inches deep.

Check with a local furniture store, liquor store or supermarket for boxes, or even buy them from a self-storage place, if push comes to shove. Boxes sized 24-by-18-by-18 inches are a standard moving size, will work just fine for six to eight birds and shouldn’t set you back more than $10 or $12. For the purposes of this article, this is the size of box used. I was lucky enough to obtain my boxes for free – I found them in a dumpster.

You should build your brooder sometime before the chicks come home with you; they don’t do well for long in the small shipping boxes in which they arrive.

To make this explanation as clear as possible, I’ll refer to the short sides of the box as 18s and the long sides as 24s.

To get started you’ll want to first fold up the bottom flaps of the box. With the box upside down, fold the two 24-inch flaps first and tape them in place with some strong packaging tape. This way, when you turn the box over and check the inside, you will see the 24s have come together to make a single seam. This will also be taped as a seal and will keep the bedding that will be added later from getting trapped inside the folds of the box.

Next, fold the 18-inch flap that touches the box’s factory seam over those 24s you just taped and tape that down as well. This will assure that you have a stronger brooder later on. The other flap can remain loose for now. Repeat this process for one more box until you have two folded boxes that are open at the top, with one flap hanging loose and a single seam on the inside bottom. 

Building with boxes

The next part requires close attention. You will need to cut down the side of each box at one corner that meets the loose 18-inch flap. It doesn’t matter which corner you cut, as long as you cut the same corner on both boxes. I find the easiest thing to do is lay the boxes next to each other with the long sides touching and the loose 18-inch flaps hanging out on the same side. This removes any confusion and helps me be sure that I cut down the same corner, either right or left, on both boxes.

After making the cuts, turn the two 18-inch sides of the boxes that can now be opened like barn doors so that they face each other. With the loose 18-inch flaps folded under and the sides opened out, you should be able to line the boxes up together so they fit like two puzzle pieces. Slide the boxes together so the two 18-inch flaps overlap the 24-inch flaps that were taped together on the inside on the first step. At this point, go ahead and thoroughly tape down all the flaps and seams on the inside of the box, making sure not to leave any loose clumps of tape. The chicks will find these, pick at and eat them, I promise. 

Finishing touches

At this point, you now have the basics of your cardboard box chick brooder. When the brooder is finished, you will have a heat lamp at one end and the food and water at the other.

On the food end, cut off all the top flaps. They will only get in the way of accessing the food and water and, after all, we want the children to be able to reach in and easily get to their chicks, right? On the other side, where the heat lamp will be, trim off all but the two 24-inch flaps; these will hold your heat lamp.

To make a bracket from the leftover flaps to hold the lamp, take one of the 18-inch flaps that has been cut off and mark it in thirds lengthwise. Fold the piece like you would a letter until it’s an 18-inch-long, approximately 3-inch-wide strip; completely tape it along the seam. To hold it on the box, make two angled cuts into the folded (non-seam) side. Make the cuts nearly halfway through the width of the piece with the angles facing in. After making the cuts, slide the two remaining 24-inch flaps into them, and the bracket will sit steadily on top of the brooder. You can now hang your heat lamp from this on one end of the brooder and still have easy access to the food and water on the other. The chicks will lie under the light while they sleep or rest and venture over to the food as needed. You can slide the food and water closer to the light early on and then separate them more as the chicks grow. 

Growing space for growing chicks

If you decide to start your flock early in the year and you’re in a cold winter climate like mine, you may have them indoors for long enough that they will outgrow the maximum height of the heat lamp. There’s an easy fix to this – one I call the chicken condo. This is where the third box comes into play.

Remove the two 18-inch flaps from the top of the box, and one from the bottom. Slide this third box on top of the end of the brooder where the heat lamp was so that it looks like a big “L.” To hold the third box in place when you put it on top, tuck the 18-inch flap inside and the two 24-inchers on the outside. Cut off or tape down the 24-inch flaps from the original brooder (the third box will not require fasteners). The bracket to hold the light can now sit atop the third box, providing plenty of head room below to the growing birds. You can even put a couple of holes on the outsides of the box and slide a dowel through to give them a low roosting bar. You’d be surprised how early they figure out how to roost.

After your chicks have feathered out and are ready to go outdoors to their new coop, you’ll now have to figure out what to do with your brooder. It’s not something that you’ll want to keep; in fact, that’s half the beauty of it, you don’t have to. Since it’s cardboard, you can either compost it or, better yet, rip it into lengths and lay it under a new garden bed. It will help keep weeds down, break down into the soil on its own and all that chicken manure that’s been in it will help a future garden grow.

GRIT Blogger Paul Gardener maintains a large garden and his feathered friends on a quarter-acre lot in suburban Utah.

3/3/2011 5:26:31 PM

I agree with Dawn. This sounded like a great idea and I might try to figure one out myself but your instructions were so confusing with out pictures that I gave up even trying to read it all the way through.

jennifer steele
5/13/2010 2:45:35 PM

Paul, I think your idea is great, but I am absolutely terrified at the idea that people will likely put this brooder in their house or garage. Please people do not put a heat lamp and cardboard in your home or garage. Put it in a freestanding, non-flamable outbuilding. Just last week our family had a fire caused by a makeshift brooder (rubber tub and cardboard) and a heat lamp. We lost our woodshed full of firewood, storage shed, and one vehicle, none of which was insured, btw. We also lost our sense of safety as the storage shed was not that far from the house. The fire woke us up at 3am and we had to gather our children and pets and run from our home. We were very lucky that the wind was with us, blowing the flames and heat away from our house. Please, please, please, people, BE CAREFUL. I pray that none of you will ever have to go through something like this. We also lost 5 of the six 4-H baby turkeys in the brooder that caught fire. How the sixth, now christened Scorch, got out is beyond our comprehension.

5/4/2010 12:51:58 PM

I love low cost, DIY projects, but I found two very worrysome problems with this plan. 1) Heat lamps and cardboard boxes are a dangerous combination! 2) Cardboard is absorbent and can't be cleaned. Sure, you change the pine shavings, but odors, bacteria, viruses, and fungus spores will love the cardboard brooder! Here's another idea for a cheap brooder that solves these problems. I made mine for free by salvaging supplies. I got a big tupperware tub for the base. I put shavings in the bottom. Cleaning is just as easy as dumping the shavings into the trash. With the lid to the tub, I cut out a big rectangle in the center, and replaced it with chicken wire. This allows light, ventilation, and heat from a heat lamp securely hung above the brooder. It also protects the chicks from my two cats and lovely toddler (all three are proven predators). Once the chicks are big enough to move into the henhouse, you can disenfect the tub, and then store the brooding supplies (lamp, water/food dishes, perch, etc in the tupperware tub.

2/14/2010 12:48:58 PM

'Twas a confusing article but it helped me devise a simpler way. Here's how I built a 10 square-foot cardboard brooder for under $12 that's good for about 20 chicks. Costs shown are for new materials. Improvise to spend even less. Tape the bottoms of two extra large moving boxes (2’ x 2’ x 18” from U-Haul). Insert the open flaps of one top into the other top until the flaps just overlap. Tape all seams of these flaps, inside and out, on the 2’ wide bottom and 18” sides. Remove the remaining top flaps. Combined, the box is now 2’ wide, 18” deep and 4’-10” long. Cut away the top of the box, leaving a 4-inch wide perimeter. Line the bottom with paper towels then add 2” of dried pine or aspen wood shavings. Set the water and food dispensers (add about $10) on patio blocks at one end of the box. Center a heat lamp (another $10) over the other end, suspended so that it doesn’t touch anything flammable and and can be height-adjusted to regulate temperature in the box. Hope this helps. Email me at for pics plus instructions for a matching lid. Put "Chick Brooder" in the subject line.

paul gardener
9/30/2009 5:26:09 PM

Hi all, At the very least I'm happy to know that there's been some interest in my idea for the chicken brooder. If you had a hard time understanding the directions I appolgize. To tell you the truth, it was a little challenging for me to try to put all the steps into words. Luckily, as Matt and Gaylene pointed out, there is an image gallery available at the top of the article. I'd really love to make sure that if you decide to try this out that your as successful as I was with it. Please, if you have any questions feel free to either drop me an email or stop by my personal blog and I'll get back to you as soon as I can. You can find a link to both at the bottom of any of my posts on my Grit Blog page. Best of luck to you all with your chicks! Paul Gardener~

9/30/2009 3:22:06 PM

If you want to see pictures, click on the Image Gallery in the article tools box. They are very good pictures, and ARE in fact included in the article. I used rubbermaid containers, and covered the bottom with brown paper that I purchased from Lowes in a big roll. Sat the whole thing on top of my chest-type freezer, which always puts out heat from the motor, and added a heat lamp. Did the same with my turkeys, and they are all fine big birds now, ready to start laying within the next couple of weeks. Don't forget to cover the top of your brooder with chicken wire, they learn to flap pretty early. My husband found one of our chicks walking down the hallway. Good thing he got to her BEFORE the dog did!

9/28/2009 7:23:58 PM

It is an awkward location that took me some time to find several months ago, but to the right of the article title on each page are links. The first link is for the image gallery. For this article there are seven pics that can be seen. Probably has to do with keeping their bandwidth to a minimum.

9/28/2009 7:21:13 PM

It is an awkward location that took me some time to find several months ago, but to the right of the article title on each page are links. The first link is for the image gallery. For this article there are seven pics that can be seen. Probably has to do with keeping their bandwidth to a minimum.

9/28/2009 7:20:49 PM

It is an awkward location that took me some time to find several months ago, but to the right of the article title on each page are links. The first link is for the image gallery. For this article there are seven pics that can be seen. Probably has to do with keeping their bandwidth to a minimum.

joe perod
9/28/2009 12:45:16 PM

I been raising rabbits in the city for some time now, anyone needs info on that just ask away. Joe

gerald wlosinski_2
9/26/2009 3:36:03 PM

this is interesting but where are the plans for it. and city people can't rase chickens so how about some information on rabbits

mike burnett
9/26/2009 1:21:12 PM

I agree with the above comments. I can't imagine from reading the article what this brooder would look like. Like the old saying goes, "A picture is worth a thousand words." I have been brroding chickens in cardboard boxes for more years than I can count, but for the life of me your brooder description baffles me.

9/25/2009 8:42:50 PM

I wish when people have good ideas like this that they would show pictures of the steps or at least the finished project. I can't even begin to imagine what this looks like let alone figure out how to make it. Also, do you clean this thing or just keep adding litter to the bottom? Just exactly how bad does it smell after awhile? I raised chicks inside the house in boxes before and the stink got so bad I ended up taking them out to the barn after a couple weeks. The best brooder I have found so far is an old metal drinking trough. You can find leaky ones at auctions for a few dollars that work great. The bar across the top is perfect for hanging the heat lamp. As for cleaning, just use a kitty litter scoop to clean the shavings, place them in a paper bag and then put down fresh ones. Add the shavings to the compost pile. Make sure to put wire mesh across the top to keep barn rats, cats and other nasty critters from getting to the chicks. Young children shouldn't be handling them without adult supervision anyway so access to the chicks shouldn't be an issue.

9/25/2009 5:51:13 PM

I got a good chuckle out of this article. I've been building brooders for my chicks out of cardboard boxes for a while now!! It's such a simple and disposable way to create a brooders. I've used wardrobe boxes, TV boxes, and old moving boxes. They work great because you can expand them as the babies grow. All I've ever done is tape the box together, cut the top off, put paper towel in for the first few days and then swiched to shavings, and attach a brooder lamp to either the side of the box or a stool placed next to it.

cynthia hope clark
9/25/2009 2:40:50 PM

I'm disappointed with this article. I tried, honestly, I tried to follow the directions, but you needed a picture at least of the completed project, if not steps along the way. I have chicks coming in another week, and I was hoping to take advantage of this advice. I'll have to keep looking.

jacqueline ryckman
9/17/2009 3:40:03 PM

This is a great idea. I am thinking of starting a flock of chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys this spring and I believe that I will use your instructions in making a low cost brooder.