Wooden Frames That Don’t Fall Apart

The following was written while I was lying in bed with the flu for a few days last winter. It’s long for no reason other than I was sick and had nothing better to do than try to write the longest post in the world. You’ve been warned. I could condense the whole thing down to two or three sentences, but what’s the fun in that?

Subtitled: How I Sometimes Assemble Beehive Frames

Ever pull a big frame full of honey from a hive, only to have it fall apart on you? You know what I’m talking about: one of the sidebars disconnects from the frame and the heavy comb of honey pops out of the frame and just sort of hangs awkwardly from one side while you try to maneuverer it so you don’t crush any bees? Yeah, that. (Am I the only one who had a hard time reading that with this animated GIF distracting me the whole time?)

This usually happens to me with prebuilt frames I’ve picked up from commercial beekeepers who only drive nails into the tops or bottoms of their frames, straight down or straight up, but don’t bother to drive any nails in sideways. Rebuilding a frame full of honey or full of brood and bees is usually the last thing I feel like doing when I’m pulling frames from a super. Assembling the frames with horizontal nails is such an obvious solution, it drives me a little crazy when someone gives me a frame (or several dozen frames) that aren’t built this way. Let me draw you some pictures because my drawing skills will blow your mind.

How are thin little nails supposed to hold the weight of several pound of honey? They don’t.

Frames that are built with horizontal nails, as shown in this lovely diagram, are much less likely to fall apart:

Frames can fall apart because sometimes wood just breaks. But my frames, the way I assemble them as shown below, have never come apart. So here we go. This is how I build frames. It’s going to be amazing.

Warning: I don’t use a frame jig. (Do a search on YouTube to see what I’m talking about.) Frame jigs are great. I’ve know about them since I started beekeeping. I just never bothered to build one. I’m never really in a rush to build frames anyway. I smack them together one at a time like a chump. But no doubt, a frame jig speeds up the process in a big way. So fill your boots with a frame jig if you can swing it. But for hobbyists who don’t have the time or money or anything fancy on hand (that’s usually me), this is one way to do it. All right ramblers, let’s get rambling…

I grab myself some foundation. In this case, I’m using foundation for deep frames, but in regards to building the frame itself, the foundation doesn’t matter. It could even be a foundationless frame. Whatever turns your crank. It can be wax foundation, plastic foundation, Rite-Cell foundation, black, white, green — it doesn’t matter. I’d prefer to use black for everything because black foundation makes it much easier to spot brood eggs and larva (white brood on a black background). I’d be more than happy to toss all of my white and light green foundation. I just don’t see the point of it. But that’s a minor quibble.

I do something unconventional with my deep foundation: I drill a hole it in, every single piece.

Theoretically, it creates a corridor between the combs so the bees can move more easily between honey frames in the winter. I even wrote a post about it: Comb Corridors for Wintering Bees. Here’s the video that explains the rationale behind it:

So the first thing I do is grab a rusty 3/4-inch (19mm) drill bit…

…and I attached it to my cordless drill that I got as a bonus gift from one of my credit cards that gives me points for stuff like this:

The drill bit can be almost any size. The bees will fill in the hole to the appropropriate bee space anyway. (The revered “bee space,” for those who don’t know, is the space required for a bee to comfortably walk through a hole. That’s my definition. Anyone who’s ever looked at a honey bee closely can see that the width of the bee’s body is about 1cm, around a quarter of an inch. Bees die all the time. When I was new to all this, I used to examine dead bees just to get a sense of how big they are — how much space they take up. The bees will usually fill in any space in the hive that’s larger than “bee space,” or roughly the width of their bodies. That’s why they often make a mess of frames that aren’t properly spaced in the hive.) So… I drill a hole through as many sheets of foundation as I can at the same time. It’s probably easier if you can clamp the foundation in place on something made of wood instead of using your knees to weigh it down on a concrete floor. (And by “you,” I always mean me.)

Then I clean out all the little plastic bits hanging off the hole. I just pick them off with my fingers. I probably don’t need to do this, but I don’t want potential bits of plastic in my honey.

Then I sit back and admire my work.

I drill holes and clean away the plastic from as many sheets of foundation as I can.

Then I get ready to build the frames by collecting all the pieces — the top bars, the side bars and bottom bars.

As far as I know, this procedure is identical whether I’m building shallow, medium or deep frames. Some people use Rite-Cell foundation, or a variation of it. It’s a thicker, sturdier plastic foundation with deeper cells imprinted on it so the bees, in theory, don’t have to use as much wax to build on it. Here’s a sample of some medium-sized Rite-Cell foundation:

Again, I don’t know why they don’t make it all black. Some people use light coloured foundation in their honey supers, but what difference does that make? At any rate, because the Rite-Cell foundation is so thick, it doesn’t bend as easily and it can be a headache trying to twist it and stick it into the completed frame. I don’t have any time for that. I’ve never been sold on the Rite-Cell foundation. If the colony is strong and there’s no shortage of nectar, the bees will quickly build comb anyway. Most of the time, they’ll build it even faster on foundationless frames (because bees love filling in space). Rite-Cell might be wonderful fondation, but if it doesn’t have much of a wax coating on it, the bees will be reluctant to build on it. I wrote a post about that too: When Bees Won’t Draw Out Comb on Plastic Foundation. Here’s the video I made about it:

Now I start nailing everything together. I also use a bit of carpenter’s glue (I shell out for the good stuff), but I often forget about the glue because I’m forgetful. So even though there’s no glue in these photos, let’s just assume there’s glue.

I also use a compressor nail gun these days, but that’s a very recent purchase. A small light hammer and small thin nails works well too. The compressor is kind of overkill.

I set the pressure on the compressor tank almost as low as it’ll go because the nails don’t need to go in far. In fact, it’s easy to assemble several frames (and supers) and realise afterwards that they’re barely holding together because the thin nails were shot so far into the wood that they went right through the outer piece of wood that you want to attach to the inner piece of wood (if you follow me). You end up with a hole in the outer piece and a nail in the inner piece, but they’re hardly attached, or not attached at all. So in a way, a hammer and nails might be the best tools to use.

My compressor. Not the absolute cheapest one I could find, but not too expensive either. These things supposedly last forever, so buying a used one should be just as good, I assume.

I won’t go into how the frame pieces fit together because they only go together one way. It should be obvious. I won’t show the gluing process either, but when it comes to glue, less is usually best. If the glue squirts out when the pieces are pushed together, that’s probably too much glue.

Assembling frames with horizontal nails provides them with magic strength to withstand the weight of honey.

The above low-res animated GIF shows where the nails go in. The last shot compares the magic frame to a frame that doesn’t have horizontal nails. Ta-da! Here’s a photo:

As you might think, it can be a little tricky. There’s not much room for error. That nail has go in as straight as you can make it. Otherwise it can easily miss the mark like this:

Missing the mark like that won’t bring on the apocalypse, but you just have to watch what you’re doing. And just for fun, you can still drive a nail down through the top bar into the side bar for extra umph. Two horizontal nails aren’t necessary. One will probably do the job.

I just realised that one of my diagrams is slightly in error. It’s this one:

The horizontal nails on the bottom don’t go in the same way. There’s a 90° difference. The diagram should show the heads of the nails on the bottom facing us straight on, not sideways. Again, driving a nail straight up the bottom bar seems to be the traditional way of assembling frames. The weight-bearing nails are the ones up top. However, I’ve seen bottom bars disconnect from frames as well, so it probably doesn’t hurt to drive a nail in like this:

Also on top like this, if you really want to go all-in:

Both are probably unnecessary, and the nail on the bottom bar, if it’s from a nail gun like the one I use — the nails can poke right out the other side of the bottom bar. Tapping in little tack nails, or even using a regular staple gun, might work best for that.

Either way, the horizontal nails attaching the top bars can make help prevent some serious headaches down the road.

    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
    I took the one less traveled by,
    And that has made all the difference.

— Robert Frost

I believe Mr. Frost was talking about horizontal nails.

Now good luck trying to bend a piece of Rite-Cell foundation into this frame.

2 thoughts on “Wooden Frames That Don’t Fall Apart

  1. By the way, do you put the foundation in after you’ve made the frame? I find it easier to put it in before I nail in the bottom bars.

    Phillip’s Response:

    I was going to mention that possibility in the post, but I didn’t because I’ve always had problems doing it that way. My hand-to-eye coordination is off. I’m not sure. Regular thin black foundation isn’t a problem though. It’s the thick plastic Rite-Cell foundation that’s hard to work with. I have a 100 sheets of the stuff which I’ll probably never bother to use.

    (The blog software — on my own blog — won’t let me leave a comment. So I’ve had to edit this comment and add my response. The internet is broken again.)

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