Hive building workshop


Full speed ahead! (Photo credit: Ann Welch)

On 23rd April 2016 this group ran its first meeting where people built hives. 20 people constructed 14 Warré hives from pre-cut parts supplied by well-known Warré hive maker Matthew Mercy, at a workshop facility run by the Sylva Foundation in south Oxfordshire.

Participants met other natural beekeepers, learnt about tool use, and left with a high quality 4-box windowed cedar Warré hive.

In addition to the hive-makers, Brian, David, and Helen, all highly experienced woodworkers in our group, very generously offered their assistance for free and helped out as less experienced people hit snags.

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We made initial plans in our December meeting when we discussed how to organise such a day, what was important to us about the hive design, and agreed the advantages of cedar outweighed its extra cost.

Hive and tutor

For the suitability of design and wood used, we approached Matthew Mercy, several of us already having some of his hives, and asked if we could hire him to tutor us and supply his hive in kit form –  using Western Red Cedar due to its weather resistance, insulation qualities, lightness etc. (The WRC comes from managed sustainable plantations about 20 miles from Matthew, so is pretty ‘green’.) Despite never having done this before, and the fairly tight timescale, Matthew agreed and speedily arranged for the cedar to be harvested as it would need a long time to dry to a point where it would be ready for cutting . We agreed a date for the workshop in late April to allow for this drying time and still be in time for us to have the hives ready for this swarm season.

Design variant –  depth of rebate and top bars

Modified bar option - sharpened lower edge, reinforcing dowels

Modified bar option – sharpened lower edge, reinforcing dowels

At our request, Matthew kindly cut these slightly thicker than usual, 12mm instead of 10mm, and cut the rebate they fit into the same depth. This gives us flexibility in how we use them. We can either simply lie them flat across the top of each box as usual, recessed into the rebate, with a line or wax guide; or by cutting and shaping with a router we can lie them on their side instead, to give a thin bar with a sharp edge

Different top bar styles

Different top bar styles

hanging down as a comb guide. Also, because they are 12mm thick there is enough width to drive a 6mm hole in to take 6mm dowels, which form a kind of semi side frame.

The picture to the right shows a mix of top bar types. One advantage of a thin bar with a sharp edge is, no need to wax the edge to show the bees where to build; another is that as the bees look down, they see more space than wood, which seems to help them realise they can build more comb downstairs, and have no need to swarm.


We then needed to find a workshop space where power tools could be used and were able to work with Sylva who were able to offer us a discount to hire their impressive workspace with workbenches and power, an on-site First Aider etc. They only moved into these premises a year ago and most of that time has been spent renovating them to a point where small businesses can operate in side rooms and use the common facilities. A tool room with some serious kit like full-size bandsaws and a monster table saw will soon be up and running; some of the artisans who work here were in on this Saturday, which added extra interest.


We solicited sign-ups to the workshop within the group – with more interested than the workshop space and wood available allowed – with 14 hives being booked and deposits paid we were able to go ahead.

The Workshop

Matthew and his brother-in-law Mark arrived from Dorset with a car and trailer full of an impressive >2000 pieces of kit, including cut cedar, screws, window glass etc.

They started by showing us how to assemble the simplest part, the quilt box. Gradually we worked up, via the roof and base, to the complex windowed boxes. Along the way those of us not experienced with woodworking learnt about wood glue and joints, proper use of screws and power screwdrivers, how to correct minor misalignments and screw problems, when to use brute force and which details to leave to the more experienced course leaders!

The hives went together pretty quickly because Matthew had pre-cut and pre-drilled the wood, and uses techniques like half shoulder joints to allow sections to be rapidly screwed and glued together with minimal need for clamps and jigs. An unexpected bonus was that two people sharing a workbench automatically helped each other – having an extra pair of arms in a pinch can be really useful.

A bring-and-share lunch was delicious and added to the friendly, group atmosphere.

There were a couple of glitches during the day. Matthew had forgotten to bring one jig but it only took Brian a few minutes to knock up a replacement with the compound mitre saw he’d taken along. And we ran a little short of time at the end, with some finishing  off at home .But the end result is 14 smart new Warré hives – roll on swarm season!

The end product

One of the new hives, with glass in place but window shutters to be completed


Ours was the first course to be run on Sylva’s premises; and, as mentioned above, it was the first course our group had organised; and it was the first time Matthew had taught a class or made hive kits; so we were all pleased that things went pretty smoothly all considered. We collectively learnt a lot about organising events!

Matthew asked participants for post-meeting feedback which highlighted that it would have been better to start with complete individual kits rather than sections being handed out throughout the day, start somewhat earlier (9AM instead of 10AM) and we could have avoided bottlenecking at the single table saw by starting windowed boxes earlier in the day. This would have avoided the need for some final assembly of the windowed boxes at home. However, all said how much they enjoyed the day, how much they learnt, and how pleased they were with their new hives.

Thanks to all involved

Many thanks to all who helped along the way – Sal Pearson and John Haverson with their initial advice on how they had approached similar workshops; Paul Orsi of Sylva for addressing many of the bureaucratic issues like insurance, health and safety, and risk assessment; Brian, Helen, and David who mucked in and helped skilfully in the background; and of course Matthew (and Mark) for preparing the kits and teaching the course.

This entry was posted in Hives, Meetings, Warré, Workshops and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Hive building workshop

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