Life on the frozen tundra of South Dakota Life on the frozen tundra of South Dakota

Project Completed March 2001

Project Completed March 2001

This was my first "real" woodworking project. We obtained our first guinea pig (Chocolate) in March of 2000. (Well, my first guinea pig; my wife had had them prior to our marriage.) Soon after, we added another pig (Ortega) to our family. They lived in our living room in the standard, plastic store-bought cage that gave them little room to run about. I had a dream about constructing something larger for them to call home...

The end of my 14 year secondary education was looming. I had always held an interest in woodworking, and had a few small tools (circular saw, drill, jigsaw, plunge router) but I had never really commited to learn the techniques. I decided that after I graduated I would like to take up woodworking as a serious hobby. In preparation, I purchased (what I thought was) a good table saw in January of 2001. This saw served me faithfully for the next three years and allowed me to hone my skills until it was time to upgrade.

Soon after (a couple of days) I purchased that table saw, the itch got too bad and I had to try it out. There wasn't any way I could wait until summer to begin my woodworking adventures. I then designed my first "real" woodworking project - this guinea pig cage.

I knew nothing about joinery. I new nothing about furniture construction. I new nothing about wood selection. I didn't know anything more than the fact that I wanted to work with wood and create something with my own two hands. I began the project by going to Menards and buying a load of pine (hey, nobody told me that wood is expensive!) Once the construction was underway, I realized that the dimensions I had on paper looked much larger in real life (and I had shrunk them down from the original dimensions I came up with!) At this point, the frame was taking shape and there was no going back. It was going to be huge. When my father saw the project underway, he called it the Hog Confinement System. I shortened the term to HCS and added the number 3000 out of reverence to the greatest TV show of all time, Mystery Science Theater 3000. Thus the HCS3000 was born.

I had drawn all my measurements out on paper, and was cutting pieces as the plan dictated. Through the course of the project, I discovered that not everything was lining up correctly. Oh, the things I am learning! A blade has width (what's this "kerf" thing?) and you can't saw directly down a line and expect the piece to be the right size. You should always measure the actual project dimensions when cutting a piece that will fit into another assembly, as just going by the plans won't be accurate enough. Sneak up on lengths and widths. If it's too short, recut the piece - don't just squeeze things together with a clamp! Oh the pain of the memory...

I completed construction towards the end of January, and learned another one of many important woodworking lessons: constantly sand the pieces as you go. I came to realize how much effort finishing the project would be, as all of the pieces were still rough. I procrastinated for about a month, then finally bit the bullet and sanded the whole project (by hand - I didn't have a power sander yet.) Then I stained and finished the cage. I thought I was being smart and saving time by using a combination stain/poly mix. Another lesson learned.

Some of the design elements were sound. The panels slide out for easy cleaning, and a center divider slides in two grooves to split the cage into two smaller chambers, if desired. The sliding panels are all groove and tenon construction. The linolium covered hardboard bottom sits in a groove cut in the bottom frame with mortise and tenon braces that span it underneath for additional support.

Other design elements aren't sound and make me cringe when I give them thought. The frame of the base is joined at the edges with half-blind dovetails. There is no good reason for doing this, other than the fact that the dovetails look cool and at the time it seemed like a good idea. Rather than the posts running the whole height of the cage and the frame joining to them with tenons, the frame goes all the way around and the posts join to the frame; not the strongest method. Why six legs? who knows. Apparently I didn't think four legs would be strong enough (and maybe they weren't considering how I designed them.)

The construction isn't very square, and the finish has noticable runs and blotches. Still, I learned a heck of a lot while building this project. It was my step beyond the simple what-not shelves and butt-joint nail together speaker boxes that I had previously built. Best of all, it was useful and fun. The pigs love the space they have to run, and they like to gnaw on the pine corners.

Fast forward to the present. Chocolate is still with us (four years old at the time of this writing) and is slowing down and losing his sight. Ortega passed away October 2001. Two other pigs have come and gone: Bobo and Charlie. Rodney is now Chocolate's roommate which is proof that Chocolate has mellowed in his old age as he used to not share his space with anyone. The cage is still holding up despite it's flaws, and I have a daily reminder of how much I have learned in the years of woodworking since.

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This page last updated on 06/28/2018