Introduction: Hamster "Bin Cage" Tutorial

Bin cages are a cheap and easy way to make a highly-suitable living environment for all hamsters. Rather than spending $40+ on the atrocious Habitrail or Crittertrail lines (or similar set-ups), you could spend the same amount (or less!) on these wonderful cages. As another bonus, you don't have to worry about your hamster outgrowing the cage or tubing like you do with some pet store cages.

Step 1: Gather Your Materials

You will need:

One large storage bin. Clear bins are ideal because then you can see in, your hamster can see out, and you don't have to worry about making mesh "windows". (Windows, aside from being more work, can be dangerous because the hamster could climb them and fall. Some hamsters also LOVE to chew on bars and metal wires which could hurt them.)

You may wonder what size bin you should purchase. It should be at least20 x 30 inches . This is the minimum comfortable size for one Syrian hamster or two dwarf hamsters. The bin I'm working on in this tutorial is 20 x 30 because that is the only one we could find deep enough to fit the 12" Comfort Wheel (Syrian hamsters need a 11" or 12" wheel. Any smaller and they will need to lift their neck and arch their back to run.) The first bin I made has way more floor space (33 3/4" L x 19 3/8" W x 13 3/8" H), but isn't quite deep enough to fit the 12" Comfort Wheel (which is about 14" all together). That means I had to order the 11" Wodent Wheel online, which is fine, but not as convenient. I'm still glad my hamster has more floorspace AND a big enough wheel, but I knew my friend who I was making this for didn't want to special order the wheel and have to wait. 

Wire mesh.  It's also known as "hardware cloth" or branded under Yardgard. I just got a generic roll at Home Depot. If you're only making one cage you'll be fine with the smallest roll they have. It should be around 19 or 23 gauge . (I used 23 gauge.)

Nuts, bolts, and washers.  You'll need 16 nuts, bolts, and washers to affix the mesh to the lid. For those who will be totally lost going into the hardware store (*raises hand*), you need machine screws. I used 3/8 of an inch long eight thirty-two screws (8-32x3/8 ) and size 8 washers.

Wire. I didn't have to buy any because there was wire wrapping the wire mesh. A foot long length of plain ol' wire will work.

Water bottle. I like these All Living Things water bottles. You can get them at Petsmart in lots of sizes and colors for cheaper than online. Some people think they're leaky, but they shouldn't be, provided you follow the instructions they come with about forming a vacuum in the bottle. The first cage I made uses a 4 ounce bottle, this cage is uses 6 ounce bottle. Both work well. 

Wheel. This post illustrates the proper sized wheel for a Syrian or "teddy bear" hamster. When it comes to wheels, bigger is better. A Syrian really does need an 11" or 12" wheel. If the hamster is bending his back or neck to run, even a little, it causes enormous strain. It's kind of like an adult racing 40 miles and hour in a kiddie go-cart for five hours every night. Not comfortable at all. For a dwarf hamster, an 8" or 8.5" wheel would be best. Wodent Wheels (in 8", 11", and 12"), Silent Spinners (in 12"), and Comfort Wheels (in 8.5" and 12") are all good brands and sizes.   

Oh! And don't forget - you're gonna want a plastic wheel. The metal ones can be dangerous for little hamster feet and legs. It's not unknown for them to break a limb or to rub the fur off of their noses while running.

Step 2: Gather Your Tools

You will need:

A wire cutter to cut the mesh and the wire securing the water bottle.

A drill and drill bits. I used the size 11/64 to make the majority of the holes, and then a size 11/64 to make the hole for the water bottle's nozzle to fit through. The smaller drill bit just needs to be big enough to make holes you can thread the screws through. I also used that size to make the extra ventilation holes, but you could go a little larger on that if you'd like to.

A utility knife with a new blade, a heated knife, or some kind of saw.  If you use a Sterilite bin, you'll probably be fine with just a utility knife. For some reason, I was able to just trace the rectangle into the lid of my bin with the blade. Then, I cut through the corner of the rectangle. Once the first cuts were done and I had a grip, the plastic tore like paper on the lines I drew without cracking. It was awesome. The Rubbermaid bin (the one in this tutorial), was not so easy to cut. I basically had to guide the knife through it slowly. First cuts were the hardest but it wasn't too bad. Still, there's more than one way to skin a cat, and if you've got an easier method - use it. 

A permanent marker.

Step 3: Prepare and Cut the Lid

Cutting the lid is the hardest part of the project. Lay out the bin's lid in front of you. Have the bottom of it face up so you can see any weird plastic pieces. When you plan your windows, keep these things in mind:

1. It's best to have two windows because leaving a strip between them prevents the lid from losing too much strength; also, having two windows makes it easier to cut and work with the mesh.

2. You'll want to leave room (about and inch and a half on all sides but the middle strip, that should be around 3 or 4 inches) around the rectangles you draw on the lid. This leaves room for the (duh) screws!

Okay, time to whip out that permanent marker and draw your rectangles , or at least corner guides, depending on your planned cutting method. I didn't measure and both of my bins turned out fine, but if you'd like, grab your ruler and measure to your heart's content. The lid of the first bin I did tore easily so I didn't bother drawing lines with the marker. I used the blade. For this bin, the lid wasn't as cooperative so I drew lines and tried to stay on them while I was cutting.

Once you're sure you have enough room for the screws (and remember, the screws should be at least 3/4 inch from the rectangle to prevent cracking), go ahead and cut out the windows .

Step 4: Cut the Mesh to Fit the Windows

I eyeballed the mesh, cut it , and then trimmed it after cutting it . Like in the picture, you'll want about an inch of mesh overlapping the plastic. You can do a little less, too. Just make sure there are at least four mesh holes bordering your window so you have enough room to drill the holes for the screws. Drilling too close to the window could cause it to crack.

After cutting your mesh, you should either file down the sharp edges or cover them with duct tape . It's not imperative if all of your toys are very small (like mine are compared to the height of the bin), but if you have a large house / toy or you add levels later, your hamster could potentially cut himself on the edges if he climbs things that can reach the top.

Step 5: Attach the Windows

Pick a side to start on and grab your permanent marker. Place the mesh over the window and center it properly. You're going to be filling in the squares where the drill holes will be with the marker. Start with a square in one of the upper corners before filling in all of the boxes, though. As you tighten and stretch the mesh to fit, the square where the drill hole will work best may change.

After drilling the first hole, thread a screw through the hole from the inside. The reason we want the shortest screw is for your safety; after all, they are facing towards the outside. Once the screw is through, flip the lid over and put the washer on, and then tighten the bolt on (you can do this by hand).

The process is simple - color in a box, drill a hole, thread the screw in, and repeat. Do this until you have a drill hole in each of the four corners and then a hole on each edge of the window. 

After you complete one window, move to the other side and repeat the process.

Step 6: Drill Ventilation Holes

At this point, your lid should be completely finished. Set it aside. The next task is to drill holes in the bin for added ventilation . Although this step is not strictly necessary if your windows are large enough, it's still a nice way to give your hamster scents and breezes from the outside. 

I drilled holes in two places. First was along the top of the bin, perhaps an inch from the lip. I did this on both of the long sides. You could repeat this pattern more than once on your bin (especially if it's a tall one!) for extra ventilation. I also drilled holes about 3" up from from the bottom on both long sides in just a line for air at the hamster's level. Don't drill holes below 2-2.5" because your bedding material needs to be at least an 1-1.5" deep. 2" of bedding is better, and you don't want the holes covered. (Heck, I've even seen people do 10" of bedding so their hamster can build burrows. If you want to do that, I suggest making a second "burrowing" bin to attach to the main bin.)

If you're concerned about the plastic cracking (it didn't for me), you can always go slowly. Honestly though, I wouldn't worry about it.

Step 7: Attach the Water Bottle

To place the water bottle, you're going to just have to eyeball it. It's hard to give hard and fast measurements because every bottle is different. The spout should be about 1" - 1.5" up from the bedding (and the bedding should be at least 1" thick once patted down, but preferably even thicker). Remember that the spout will be lower that the hole you drill for it, depending on how angled it is.

Lay the water bottle flat against where the want it placed. You can turn the spout out when you do this. Draw four dots; two on each side of the bottle. They would make a rectangle if connected. The dots on each side of the bottle will probably be about an inch or so apart. 

The smaller dots are where you're going to drill holes to thread the support wire through. You will also need to draw and drill a larger hole the spout can go through. Make it more of an oval - allow it to be a little taller than you need to you can pull the bottle out easily to refill it.

Once all of the dots are drawn, go ahead and drill them out.

It's time to take your length of wire and thread it through the holes. Shape it into a U and push it into the upper holes. Then, pull each end through the corresponding bottom holes. Twist one of the wires over itself a few times to strengthen it, and then form the end into a loop. Do the same to the other side, but make a hook. Fill the water bottle as per the directions and attach it to the cage.

Step 8: Set Up the Cage

The bin is almost ready. Wipe it out with a wash cloth so there isn't any plastic on the bottom. Fill it with bedding (untreated wood shavings or paper fiber like Carefresh) and pat it down. Add the wheel, food dish, and cubby or house for your hamster to sleep in. You should also add toys for your hamster - they love things like cardboard "tunnels" and egg cartons.

This is a picture of the finished bin, and some pictures of the first bin I made. 

Step 9: Sources and Further Suggestions

Thanks goes out to the amazing people at Hamster Central . If you have a question about anything hamster or rodent related, they probably have the answer.

I used this tutorial to make my cages, and edited it only to fit my needs.

Some people add levels to their cages by using safe woods and screwing pieces to the side of the bin or by building free standing pieces. This is a good way to add more space to the cage, but make sure to add "guard rails" to the levels. You don't want your hamster taking a tumble... they're not very good at recognizing heights! Also, if you do add levels or high pieces, remember to file down the edges of the wire mesh or cover them with duct tape.

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