Build a classy, easy birdbath with vintage finds
Concrete is so cliche anyway.
Summer’s right around the corner, but the heat is already on. From unrelenting sunshine to sizzling grills, feeling hot (and cooling down) are part of the daily grind now. PopSci is here to help you ease into the most scorching season with the latest science, gear, and smart DIY ideas. Welcome to Hot Month.
If you’re looking to bring some feathered friends to your yard in time for Mother’s Day, a homemade birdbath is the perfect weekend project to produce a unique, functional gift. Rather than just buying a concrete bowl from the store, consider building a birdbath from scratch with repurposed materials. A few household items are all you need to attract wild birds year-round.
No matter what inspiration you find online or where your imagination takes you, almost all birdbath designs boil down to some type of water basin atop some type of vertical base. By getting creative with these two main components, there’s no limit to what you can create.
- Time: 30 minutes (plus time for glue and paint to dry)
- Material cost: $15 unpainted, $35 painted
- Difficulty: medium
- Basin (more details below)
- Base (more details below)
- Waterproof outdoor glue
- (Optional) outdoor paint
- (Optional) waterproof sealant
- Permanent marker (or some other writing implement)
- (Optional) sandpaper
1. Choose a basin. Picking the right vessel to hold your birdbath’s water—and its visitors—is crucial to your project’s success. The good news is, a wide variety of everyday items can be used as birdbath basins. Crafty gardeners have fashioned birdbaths out of dinner plates, bundt pans, serving bowls, trash can lids, flower pots, buckets, an old sink, and more.
While the possibilities are nearly endless, there are a few key qualities to keep in mind while searching for a suitable basin. Try to find a vessel with the following:
- A large circumference. This will allow multiple birds to bathe at once.
- A shallow depth. Your basin should only hold 1 to 2 inches of water to prevent small birds from drowning. You can also fill a deeper basin with rocks to create a shallow bathing area—just keep in mind that this will add weight and may make your birdbath top-heavy.
- A narrow lip around the rim. This important feature will give birds a place to perch and preen.
- A suitable material. Your basin will hold water around the clock, so a porous material like wood won’t work. Avoid metal if you live somewhere sunny, as it can get too hot for birds’ delicate feet. Try to find a slightly rough material like weathered glass, ceramic, terra cotta, or concrete for your basin. The textures of these surfaces are easier for birds to grip.
You can let the basic proportions of a standard backyard birdbath guide you, but don’t feel beholden to any exact size or shape. As long as your basin offers an area both large and shallow enough for a few small birds to relax, you can customize your DIY birdbath to suit your own yard, taste, and budget. We recommend a basin smaller than a kiddie pool and larger than a cereal bowl, but if you construct a birdbath outside these parameters, please send photos.
2. Choose a base. Once you’ve chosen a basin, it’s time to find a base to set it on. Technically, this part of the process is optional: quails, juncos, and some other birds prefer to drink and bathe in water at ground level. Still, most birdbaths elevate their basins 2 to 4 feet off the ground to make them easier for humans to see and harder for other wildlife to access. Once again, the characteristics of your birdbath base are largely up to you.
Propping up your birdbath can be as simple as placing the basin on a convenient stump, or as complex as building a homemade stand from scratch out of salvaged materials. Bases can be made from everyday outdoor items like flower pots, bricks, a stepladder, or tomato cages, or constructed from vintage finds like antique glassware, table legs, candlesticks, or dishes.
[Related: How an old oven became a sink]
Anything that was originally built to prop up another object is a good bet for a birdbath base. Vintage lamps, decorative plant stands, and side tables all fall into this category: they’re sturdy, well-balanced, and can easily be modified to support your basin. Make sure your base isn’t overly top-heavy—if it is, you may want to attach it to a simple ground-level platform that can be weighed down with rocks or other hefty objects.
3. Find the center of both your basin and base. This step will help guide you when you attach these two parts together. Focusing on the very top of your base and the bottom of your basin, trace the shape of each component onto a piece of paper. Next, cut out the shape and fold the paper in quarters as precisely as you can. Cut off the very tip of the innermost folded corner and unfold the paper—there should be a tiny hole in the exact center. Place the paper back over each component and use a permanent marker to mark the center through the hole.
For uneven shapes, or narrow components like pipes or thin lamp bases, you’ll have to use your best judgment on where to attach the two halves of your birdbath. Try balancing your bowl on its base and tracing the outline of the smaller part onto the larger one—once you attach them, there’s no going back!
4. Glue the base and basin together. Mass-produced birdbaths often have internal support structures, like a pipe that links all the components or a metal skeleton sealed within concrete. But the vast majority of DIY birdbaths use a much simpler technique: a liberal amount of industrial-strength glue.
Which type of glue you use will depend on the materials you’ve chosen for your birdbath, but make sure your glue is waterproof, weather-resistant, and approved for outdoor use. It’s also helpful to choose a glue that dries quickly, especially if you’ll have to hold your basin steady atop a thin base while the adhesive dries.
[Related: Adam Savage’s definitive guide to every kind of glue]
If you’re attaching two smooth surfaces, rough up the contact areas first with some sandpaper to help the glue stick better. Press and hold the surfaces together for the recommended amount of time before letting the glue dry naturally. If your birdbath looks a little crooked, don’t worry—the ground is almost never completely flat, so your birdbath doesn’t need to be perfectly straight. Finally, make sure the glue has dried completely before putting the birdbath outside.
5. (Optional) Paint your birdbath. This step isn’t strictly necessary, but it can help give your birdbath a cohesive look. Sand any excess paint or exterior glaze off your birdbath and wash away dirt and particles with soap and water. Once it’s dry, paint your entire masterpiece with any paint intended for outdoor use. If you’re applying spray paint, use thin, even coats, and only use it outdoors with proper face and eye protection.
If the dish of your basin is already waterproof, there’s no need to paint it—simply fill it with water and let the birds enjoy. If you want to paint it for aesthetic reasons, go over the paint layer with a waterproof sealant. Most clear weatherproofing glazes that are approved for outdoor use should be safe for birds to touch once they are completely dry. Don’t set out your birdbath until all paint, glaze, and glue has had ample time to cure and set.
6. Pick a location. The most important consideration when choosing a location for your birdbath is safety. Keep birds away from reflective glass windows and potential predators by positioning the bath at least a few yards away from your home. It’s also a good idea to choose a location near some foliage, giving birds a handy place to flee if they sense danger. That being said, try not to place your birdbath directly underneath a tree or feeder to keep debris and plant matter from falling into it. This will help keep the water clean. You should also clean your birdbath regularly to help prevent the spread of avian illnesses.
7. (Optional) Add fun features. Show your backyard birds a good time by adding some of these extra-special features to your birdbath:
- Rocks or colored glass stones: If your basin is deeper than 1 or 2 inches, you can make it safer and more colorful by adding small rocks or glass pebbles to your birdbath. Take care not to add very small colored stones that birds could mistake for food.
- Landing perches: Birds feel more comfortable when they’re able to gauge the depth of a birdbath’s water. Let them get a close-up look by adding large stones, sturdy sticks, or tiny overturned clay pots for them to stand on.
- Fountains: Now we’re getting fancy. Electric or solar-powered fountains will get your birdbath water moving, making it far more appealing to birds than a stagnant pool. This movement will create a sparkling effect that will attract birds’ attention, as well as keep algae and mosquitoes at bay.
- Copper elements: Adding a small piece of copper to your birdbath’s water can help prevent algae and bacteria from proliferating, as long as the copper is 100 percent pure. Copper coins, pipe fittings, and jewelry all fit the bill. Just be sure not to use tiny objects that birds could choke on.
8. Fill your birdbath with water and wait. It may take a few days for birds to discover your new birdbath. Don’t despair: they’re just getting used to a new fixture in your yard and will likely stop by for a splash soon. Top up your birdbath regularly so birds grow to trust it as a reliable source of fresh, clean water. If you still have no success attracting feathered visitors, try moving the birdbath to a different location or adding some of the features listed in Step 7.
How we did it
We built the birdbath featured in this article out of a $5 antique table lamp from a used furniture warehouse and a $4 ceramic serving bowl from a thrift shop. We removed the lighting fixtures from the lamp and sanded a small patch on the bottom of the bowl before finding its center.
We tried to glue the bowl and base together with E6000 glue, but it wasn’t well-suited for this project due to its long drying time. We re-glued the components with two-part Gorilla Epoxy, which needs to be combined and mixed before use. Fifteen minutes after application, the epoxy was dry. Then, we filled the basin with water and set it out near a lilac bush for birds to enjoy.
The glazed ceramic bowl was already ideal for holding water, and the base looked fine as it was, so we opted not to paint this birdbath. If we had, we would have used Rustoleum 2X spray paint for its wide variety of colors and clear Gorilla Sealing Spray to protect the basin against water damage, both on the recommendation of a Home Depot employee who said these products would cause no harm to wildlife once dry. We’re now waiting patiently for the local chickadees, finches, and sparrows to give their new bathing spot a try.