How To Build A Whelping Box
by WCR/Bob Flynn
The purpose of this article is to help breeders and would-be breeders see what a professional whelping box should be about; not those plastic swimming pools or upside down dog crates, even card board boxes. A box, built correctly, will last a long time, provide safety and comfort...with the emphasis on safety to the bitch and pups. Let's face it, to be professional you must also look professional and if I see a litter whelped in a WalMart pool or a dog crate, I loose a lot of respect for that breeder right there. Commitment to excellence is what WCR is about and that goes all the way down to the littlest details, especially the whelping box that can become a death trap for pups. Commit yourself to excellence and spend the time and money to do the things that are what is best for the breed and to your pups health and safety. These words may come across as harsh, but as breeders bringing lives into this world, we are fully responsible and accountable for each and every little life, and starting it off with a death trap is not being responsible.. you can argue this with me as long as you want, but a swimming pool is not a whelping box, nor is a dog crate inverted.
After scouring the internet and talking to other Breeders, I came to the conclusion that I needed to design my own whelping box; one that was large, had easy access for the bitch and pups, sturdy, easy to clean and does not look like something thrown together plus generate safety issues.
The directions given on this box are from a design I made many years ago, the original box is still in use today and has a great many years left within it. Short of some teeth gnawing on the corners, it is in excellent condition after many uses and puppies have been through it. The problem with most whelping boxes is the opening for the bitch is a door -vs- a drop down gate. I prefer an unimpeded entrance/exit and one that provides safety and functionality. Though this project is not difficult to perform, it does require some good base knowledge of tools and general woodworking/cabinet crafting. This box is designed to look nice, stay looking nice and last a decade easily.
The box measures 4 feet x 5 feet x 18 inches, uses 3/4 inch thick ACX plywood and easily accommodates my biggest bitch, whom at whelp was 126 pounds. This size box has easily handled litters of 13 pups and has a full drop down front that makes into a ramp, so when the pups are capable of walking they can freely get into and out of the box. One thing we have noticed is that once the front is lowered down, the pups enjoy crawling underneath it and is not uncommon to find 8 or more pushed together underneath in their make shift cave.
Cleaning the box is simple: the wood has 3 coats of Marine Spar Varnish, so the coat is highly durable and easily cleaned with a cleanser and towel or just water. After every litter, the box is given a light sanding and then given another coat of Varnish to keep it new and sealed. Within the bottom of the box, we use a 1 inch think rubber horse stall mat, this stuff is damn near ballistic, a great insulator and will outlast you and your ancestors. You can put a fitted sheet over the pad if you choose or, we just use heavy towels and lay them in two abreast and then another two 90 degrees to the prior so they all overlap. We do use fleece in the colder months along with a large water bed heater underneath the fleece. During the warmer months here in California, we find it very manageable to just use two heat lamps, placed approx 3 feet above the box, they keep the temperature quite toasty for the newborns. We also will utilize a separate and smaller box that is heated, has fleece and can be kept next to the whelping box to keep the new born's very warm, or if the litter is large, to separate into feeding groups.
Some Breeders want a separate area to use as a potty, which I find takes up valuable room. We use X-Pens around the whelping box plus an additional outer floor space. Viscuine ( a heavy plastic sheeting) is laid out on the floor and heavy towels are placed upon the plastic. The pups use the towels and are easily potty trained to towels, once the time is appropriate. We can also put up sides on our X-Pens and that allows the usage of cedar chips if we wish. Fortunately our floors are stained concrete, so we have no worries and ease of cleanliness is built in. A funny thing you will note, once the pups start walking, they prefer being outside of the box to sleep and will use the box as their potty ...maybe is is because of our concrete floors are very cool to lay upon but, I do find it amusing that every litter has done this reversal.
With regard to heat for the box you can make a hole through the side to feed your electrical cord or, we just drape it over the side because the heating pad is not need for very long. We use a water heater pad and temperature probe from a water bed, which comes with an adjustable temp gauge, You can also use heating pads but, most have the "auto-off" feature and that can be troublesome if not disastrous. If you wish to use the heating pads, we have found that the really inexpensive Sunbeam brand has no "auto-off" feature. You will however need to test the temperature of the pads at each setting to get an idea of what the actual pad temps are. We have found "Low" and "Medium" to be perfect, "High" was way too warm.
Tools we used:
Circular Saw, Tape Measure, Square, 3 foot straight edge, Chop Saw, Drill Motor w/bits, Counter Sink, Sander, Paint Brushes, Clamps, Finish Nailer, Random Orbital Sander.
3- 4x8x3/4 Sheets ACX Plywood. ACX is preferred over CDX due to a finish side on the ACX.
3- 12 foot lengths 2x2 Pine
1/4 pound of 1-5/8 Deck Screws (if you decide to use screw -vs- nail gun)
2-tubes construction glue
1- Can of Marine Spar Varnish or Waterborne Satin
2-Large Wood Dowels (Same used for closets to hand clothes from)
10 feet Grip Tape
Sand Paper 80/180/220 grits
Several Tack Cloth
Total material costs where approximately $190.00 (2007) with a build time of 1-1/2 day.
Here We Go
The Bottom: Once you have your materials gathered, it is time to lay out your lines for cutting. As stated earlier, the size of the floor plan is 4 feet x 5 feet. Sheets of plywood come in 4 foot widths, so this will not require a 2 piece floor. Given the plywood dimension of 4 foot, only one cut is needed, so mark a line at 5 feet and cut: you now have your bottom. (Note) When cutting your wood, have the finish side up, facing you. This will help alleviate splintering on your finish side.
The Front/Back: The front and back pieces are the longest of the 4 sides, 5 feet. The height of the whelping box is 18 inches. At this time I find it much easier to mark out all for sides on the remaining ACX plywood sheets. Mark out 4 sides at 18 inches the full length of the 8 foot board and cut. The end lengths will be adjusted shortly, we just want to get all four sides roughly cut.
Once all four sides are cut to 18 inches x 8 feet, take two of the boards and cut at 5 feet, they will be the front and the back of the whelping box.
The Right/Left Sides: The left and right sides will be cut longer than the 4 feet that the bottom piece is; we need to make the sides longer so that they overlap the the front/back pieces at their ends. The plywood is 3/4 inch thick for each board, so you will add into your 4 feet another 1-1/2 inch, bringing your length 49-1/2 inches for each piece.
The Frame: The 2x2 pine is to be our frame which will be affixed to the sides of the box and then the box will be assembled.
Start by marking a line along the bottom of both side pieces 3/4 of an inch above the length of the bottom edge of the piece. The line indicates the floor thickness and nothing can be below this line. We will mount the two vertical frame pieces on each end of the side piece. (Note) Make sure the finish side is opposite of the frame side, the frame is to be inside of the box.
The two vertical frame pieces will be cut 18 inches minus the 3/4 inches for the floor, our length of each piece will be 17-1/4 inches.
The pieces will now be affixed using a construction grade glue and then either screwed or nail gunned into place. The glue gives added strength and is not necessary but it does make the box last many years longer. Apply the glue to the frame and place the frame piece at the edge of the side piece and on the line we drew to show the bottom depth. Clamp into place and use several scrap pieces to keep from dinging and marring the wood. Once clamp and all edges are flush, screw or nail from the finish side into the frame piece and do the other end the same way. Excess adhesive can be removed later with a razor blade.
Once both pieces have been affixed with their vertical frame pieces, it is time to affix the bottom frame rail. All you will be doing is measuring between the two vertical rails and cutting a 2x2 to fit tightly between them. Always cut a tad bit longer and whittle your piece in to fit for a nicer joint.
Both long pieces of the box is done the same way as the back piece of the box.
Remaining two pieces: The remaining two pieces require a bit more precision when it comes to marking your lines. You will obviously have the gap along the bottom of the pieces for the 3/4" floor but, you will need to make adjustments for the the other side wall thickness plus the frame. Luckily there is an easy way to do this, a simple jig. Take a scarp piece of 2x2 and a scrap piece of 3/4" ACX and either glue or nail them together, make sure the pieces are flush together on one end.
Next, take your side board and lay it down so the finish side is away from you and the unfinished side is towards you. Mark the bottom of this piece 3/4" above the bottom edge, this is your floor gap like the other pieces. Take your jig and place it onto the bottom corner and mark where the inside of the jig intersects your floor line.
This reference line will allow the other side pieces to fit nice and tight and have the proper overlap and nailing ability.
Now, measure the distance between the two marks and cut another 2x2 for the floor frame, the length should be approx 45". This will be the only frame piece for this board and the other remaining board.
Place your floor frame piece onto the line that denotes the floor gap and between the two vertical lines we just made. Glue,clamp and nail into place.
You can now free stand all four pieces and see how nicely they form a very solid box.
At this point we need to make the drop down front, so that the bitch can easily get into and out of the box, and later on when the pups are big enough, they too can enter and exit easily and safely. This requires taking one of our last sides we just completed and cutting it length ways, which then makes that side into two separate pieces; the gate and the side piece that is solidly affixed to form the side below the gate. The bottom half will be 6" tall while the gate will be 12" tall, giving us our combined side height of 18" like the rest of the project.
Once all of your parts have been made, it is time to put all the pieces together. I start with the two longest sides and the piece that does not have the drop down front. Heavily glue the pieces, clamp and nail. Take your time here to assure all of the pieces are aligned and true. Allow these three pieces adequate time to set and make sure the box is on a flat surface, otherwise is will set crooked.
Once the three pieces are done, it is time to affix the front bottom 6" piece. Again, heavily glue, clamp and make sure this piece is square to the frame, then nail. Allow to set for a good period of time.
Well, it is now time for the bottom piece and if you have measured and cut correctly plus put the box together square, the bottom will fit tight and perfect. Turn your box over and test fit your bottom piece, if it fits then all is good. If it does not, you will need to trim but, before you trim, put a square to all the corners to make sure the box is square before you make adjustment; a box out of square will only compound the problem, so push the corners in the direction needed to square the box, then refit the bottom.
Once everything fits, remove the bottom and heavily glue the entire perimeter, set you bottom piece and nail into place. Your box is now super strong.
Sand and Finish: All the hard work now needs to have a finish. For this part we need our finish, in which I use satin, a brush, putty, sand paper, a sander and a tack cloth.
First, all the nail holes and gaps need to be filled with putty, I use a neutral color with latex for fast drying. Take the putty and press into the hole, it should be ready to sand in 1 hour. The box needs to be sanded inside and out, we start with 80 grit paper and go over the entire box. Take the time and round all of the edges with the sander, this limits injuries to the bitch and puppies. Once sanded, check to see if more putty is needed and take care of that. We jump up to 180 grit and resand everything, check for putty needs and finish off with 220 grit.
Once everything is sanded, if you have and air compressor, blow off the dust. If not, use a soft brush and sweep it off. Once completed, use a tack cloth to remove the dust completely so as to not get caught in your finish.
Time to apply your finish and make sure your finish is well mixed. Pour into a paint pan and with your box upside down, you can use the bottom to hold you pan. I am using a square pad brush and before it is used, it make sure all bristles are removed that are loose with duct tape. Dip your pad into the finish and apply with the grain and work quickly and keep track of any runs.
This box I used a waterborne satin which dries in 10 minutes. After applying two coats to the outer box and given 30 minutes dry time, take the sander and a fresh 220 piece of sand paper and sand the coats you applied. This removes all of the highs and unevenness. Wipe down with the tack cloth and apply two more coats and call it a day.
With the inside of the box, you can apply the same techniques, but I would add another two coats and sand between every two coats.
Do not forget to do the gate piece also and round all of the edges,
The Gate: The gate is simple and easy to do; put the box on its back so the gate end is upright, this will make it easy to install the hinges. Take the gate and place it on the box against the 6" piece. Make sure you take the time to match the wood grain from when this was all one piece, it gives a much nicer appearance.Once the gate is fitted, we need to mark or hinge distances and then affix them. For this project I am using 1.5 inch ornamental nickel plated hinges. When you affix your hinges, make sure the barrel (where the hinge binds) is right on the split between the gate and bottom wood piece. Note the distances I have placed all three hinges
Once the hinges are mounted onto the gate, affix them to the box and that will complete the majority of the box.
Pig Rails: Now it is just a few items for safety and the box is ready to put into use. The pig rails will help in keeping mom from squishing her babies if they get behind her along the wall of the box. Everyone has their own idea of what distances work, the numbers we use have been the distances used here at West Coast Rottweilers since our first ever litter. We are using large diameter hardwood dowels, the same used in bedroom closets to hand you hangers from. The first thing we need to do is measure accurately and tightly the lengths for all 4 rails and then sand and coat them. Take each measurement separately and do not assume that your box is totally square, you will find out you can have quite a difference in the lengths from one end of the box compared to the other.
Once you have them finished, I make a paper jig that I can use for all my pig rail settings easily. It starts with a piece of paper, a full size sheet. Put a crease in the paper and the creases bottom will be your reference point that all the holes will be based off of.
Take the paper with the crease and wrap the paper around the corner of your box, the creased paper will contour to your box as seen in the first photo above. Mark the corner as seen in the second photo because this jig will be reversed to fit the opposite corner. In the first photo you can see several holes I have made, one has an arrow I drew pointing to it, including an arrow on the reverse side of the paper. The hole is 4.5" to the right of the crease in the photo and is 4.75" up from the outside bottom of the box ... ALL MEASUREMENTS ARE MADE FROM THE OUTSIDE OF THE BOX, otherwise you will be off the thickness of the wood sides and floor. Take a sharp pencil and pierce the spot on your paper and this is your jig for the longest pig rails, which are the gate end and the opposite end. While holding your jig in place, take the pencil and push it into your marked area of your jig and mark your box. Go to the other side and you will notice the jig will not work, unfold your jig and fold it backwards, now it works and mark your hole and the opposite box end holes.
Before you drill your holes, you need to decide how to affix your pig rails. For us, the pig rails come out after the bitch has weaned the pups, which for us that is 4 weeks of age. You can use deck screws if you wish but, I like to make it fast and easy for my rails to be removed, especially if an emergency arises like a stuck puppy. Also, with the rails removed we gain quite a bit more room. For this we are using plastic handles with long steel studs; though we have the ability to insert threads into the pig rail ends, we want fast and easy removal so we will just drill holes slightly oversized to the studs.All we will have to do is just pull the handles out and the rails come out that fast. The studs are long enough to set in deeply into the pig rails plus I cut my pig rails to fit tightly, so I will have no problems with movement or weakness.
With your holes drilled on both ends, drill into the ends of your pig rails; once completed install these two long rails.
Once the long rails are complete, it is time to do the short rails, which will sit above the long rails. For this we will use our jig again with a hole being made at 6.5" from the bottom. The distance from the side is still the 4.5", all you are doing is moving the new hole straight above the old hole so that our short poles will be above the long poles. Drill your holes and affix your rails.
Misc: From here all that is needed is the rubber mat in which we will install, grip tape to the gate to give traction for the bitch and puppies, plus threaded handles to secure the gate in the closed position. The rubber mat is a great insulator, we use horse stall mats which ar 1" thick and weighs approx 60lbs for a box this size. Grip tape is definitely needed for traction or when you are doing your finish on the gate, you can add play sand to the finish or buy silica from a paint store to add into the finish, much like sand. Regardless, you will need to do something.
With respect on how to keep the gate held up in the closed position, I will cover this soon. The gate can remain down for quite some time until the pups start to roam about, then you can put it up. The height of the box sides does allow the bitch to get over it easily with the gate up, if needed.
Legs: This box was designed to be flat on the floor, the addition of legs will cause the gate angle to increase thus rendering it useless. The addition of legs makes the box taller, hence the greater gate angle plus the strength will only be where the legs are, therefore you will need to place multiple legs underneath to distribute the load or make stringers and go the full length underneath, which I would have three stringers. Again, this box was designed to be at floor level.
Bedding: As you can see, we use large heavy cotton towels. The are very durable, not overly bulky where a pup can get lost or hidden and laid upon. We lay two abreast going length ways and then two abreast going width ways. With a rubber pad underneath, it holds the towels firmly and creates a great moisture barrier.
Heating: Undeniably you will need some form of heat for the newborns; with a box this size you can utilize a corner as a warmer and/or station to hold pups and keep warm if you need to rotate pups in/out due to a large litter. A heating pad can be placed into a corner, cord draped over the side or make a hole in the wall at floor level and pull the cord through. We are going to an overhead ceramic heater (Thanks to Blauenberg Rottweilers/Chip Foster for the idea), so no cords will be in the box, eliminating a serious hazard. With respect to the warmer station/holding area, I take a back corner and put a heater underneath the towels or fleece, check the floor temperature, and then take a towel and roll the towel along the long edge into a "snake" and make a horseshoe into the corner. The corner of the box gives you two sides and the horseshoe makes a berm that the newborns cannot squirm over. It is down and dirty and woks great in the immediate need for an area to keep track of the pups plus to keep them warm while you work with the whelp.
Personal Touch: We will also affix a box to the outer side of the whelping box to hold all of our whelping tools and materials, so it is readily available at all times The plastic First Aid boxes from the pharmacy work great and can be mounted with screws or even velcro strips.
As you can see, this box EASILY accommodates our top Serbian import girl,United States Rottweiler Club North Western Regional Youth Siegerin, Multi V1 Rated Naja Earl Antonius, 61 days pregnant, carrying over 9 pups and weighing in at a dainty 117 lbs.
NOTE: That night after completion, we put it into full use when Naja whelped 10 beautiful pups from Timo vd Scherau. WHEW!!! Too close for comfort.........
You will notice the "Dam" built in the corner from a towel that is rolled, here I can place the pups upon a warmer that is beneath the towel until the warmer box is set up. The plastic bag is clipped onto the X-Pen so I can use that for placenta's, etc and is within easy reach. I have plenty of turkish hand towels around the perimeter so I can grab one at anytime to dry a pup or to grip one to assist in the birthing, especially if breach.
This box size is exceptional; very large, lots of room to work around in, you can lay within it and as the pups grow and the rails are removed, they have plenty of acreage to roam. I would never make a box smaller than this, it is absolutely ideal.
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