From Retro 1950’s Freezer to DIY Incubator: A Homesteader’s Innovation

Guys! I built an incubator! And you can too! 

Let me give you some background. I’ve hatched birds for upwards of 10 years. We had chickens and ducks on our family acreage long before we got our homestead. I’ve found incubators are finicky. We had this old Hovabator that wasn’t awful but had a mind of its own but we made it work. Fast forward to 2021 I found a Little Giant on sale at Peavey Mart with all the accessories cheap, but still $350 for everything. Crazy I know! This all goes back to poor planning and no research that i talk about in my E-book. 

Now I managed to use it about 3 times during the 2022 hatching season and it did well. I also borrowed one from a neighbour so i could run two at a time. I hatched over tons of chicks and ducklings in 2022 but we needed to work on our efficiency and organization to keep hatching going smoothly.


Now comes spring 2023. I decided to start early as i already had customers putting in requests. I got basically new incubator out of storage and set her up. Because the Little Giants are a digital incubator it is suggested to use a thermometer/ hygrometer inside the incubator as well to make sure the inside temps are accurate.

We used this one:

The digital thermometer matched the reading on the incubator. Perfect! I put in some eggs and away we went. The orders kept coming in and I needed to catch up. So again i borrowed the neighbours incubator to help with the process. Threw some more eggs in and continued on. At one point i was running three incubators that each held about 42 eggs. The first few hatches were great minus the one from the third incubator i was using. I got two chicks, the rest failed to hatch. So i gave it back to my friend. So at this point we have hatched over 100 ducklings and chicks. As i continued on with hatching i noticed my hatch rate was getting less and less. Babies in every egg. But failing to hatch. What was happening!! 

I noticed over time the Little Giant was struggling to keep temp, we were about 5 degrees off. So I had to increase the temperature on the screen just to keep the “normal” temp on the inside. Basically i was fudging the temp to account for the difference just to keep it accurate. This is not the best way to go about hatching eggs. At this point I should have had around 300 babies hatch between March and May. But accounting for the losses i was looking at 1/3 of that. 

I decided to start looking for another incubator and i was so weary. With the costs i just couldn’t justify another dud. I looked into a commercial incubator and wow! That prices were extreme. I’m not saying they aren’t worth the money but just was not in the cards at this time. So i had to come up with something else. 

While searching facebook market place i came across a broken 1950’s freeze box locally for $150 and i thought it would make a perfect incubator. We picked it up and at that point she wasn’t pretty but i could imagine what the end result would be and i was excited. 


Now this is where the research and hard work came in. I had to figure out how i was going to heat it, regulate the temp and humidity and most important… where the eggs were going to go. So i started looking. We figured a heat lamp and fan would be the easiest ways to heat the incubator. So we bought a light fixture and heater fan to try them out. 

This is what we found:

We didn’t want to make anything permanent and we wanted to make sure it worked first. So we built a 6 shelf stand out of ply wood that would fit directly into the freeze box. And it fit perfectly. We decided to manually turn the eggs till we could create some motorized ones that would fit the shelves. We used wire shelving for each rack, and created a wooden frame for the eggs to sit on and when moved back and forth the eggs would roll. Each rack held about 25-40 eggs depending on the size and type of egg. 

We put the porcelain light fixtures in to test it out and they worked. We tried one and it just didnt get it up to temp. So we added the second one. At this point we hadn’t tried the heater fan, we used an old computer fan to move the air throughout the incubator. With the two lights and the fan it got up to temp. Great! But now we had to monitor it and regulate it. We didn’t want to cook the eggs. 

We found a thermometer and hygrometer that was wifi enabled so i could monitor and control from my phone… Bonus it even graphed the stats for both so you could see if there was any fluctuations. Here is what we got:

So as you would think… what do we do with this thing. We connected the thermometer to the light fixtures and the hygrometer to the fan. We programmed the high and low settings for both, so that way if it got too hot the thermometer would shut off the lights but the fan would keep running. It was really coming together. 

So now where are we at for costs: 

Freeze Box - $150

Wifi Thermometer/ Hygrometer - $110

Light Fixtures - $10

$270 so far… (The computer fan, wood and shelving we already had.)

Not bad though! So now we needed to test it. We turned it on and let it run, making sure the temp and humidity held. Unfortunately I couldn’t get my humidity to stay up. I was using a container of water with a sponge and it just wasn’t doing it. So i added a second container of water and i used a cloth to wick the water from one container to the other. This kept the cloth damp at all times. And it worked perfect. 

We now had a perfectly functioning incubator. But did it hatch any babies.. Well we didn’t know. So time to put it to the REAL test. So we started simple and put in some chicken eggs.

By day 10 we candled the eggs and to my surprise.. I wasn’t sure why i was surprised… but it worked! We had some embryos growing. Yay!

BUT what was i going to do once it was time to put them into lockdown??? I can’t have chicks hatching on a wire shelf. So i went to Dollarama to look for some baskets. Now next problem they needed to be a certain size and i need to be able to fit one big one or two small ones but fit all the eggs. I brought my handy dandy little tape measure and found the perfect baskets. I did find a container as well with a lid that fit so we took that too. Once home I preferred the basket more than the container. For this hatch i only needed two. But i did need to go back for more to fill the rest of the shelves. 

Day 18 and these eggs needed to go into lockdown. What is lockdown? This the 2-3 day period prior to hatching where the eggs no longer need to be turned, you will remove the eggs from any turning devices and lay them on their sides. This is also the time where we increase the humidity to help with hatching and we don’t open the incubator. This can cause the membranes of the egg to dry out or as we hatchers call it “Shrink Wrapping.” Basically as it sounds, when the membrane dries up it tightens around the baby drying to its feathers and they are stuck and will die without intervention.

Eggs going into the baskets for lockdown

So this is where our handy thermometer and hygrometer come into play as my incubator doesn’t have a window yet. I can monitor the temp and humidity from my phone. When a baby hatches the humidity spikes which can help start the hatch process for all his little friends too. I left the chicks in the incubator for 24 hours to dry off. Any earlier than that and you risk the baby dying. Wet chick going from a 99F space to a lesser temp is hard on their little bodies. They do fine in the incubator. They absorb their yolk sack and all is well. This also weeds out the sickly ones through natural selection. If they don’t make it the 24 hours they probably wouldn’t have made it out of the incubator either. 

When I opened the incubator after 24 hours and i had the cutest little Lavender Orpington chicks peeping at me from the baskets. Out of the full rack of 32 eggs i placed; 28 hatched on their own, 2 needed intervention, and the other 2 had stopped developing early on. I usually candle more frequently but after day 10 i had stopped checking. So much to my surprise my DIY incubator had a 94% hatch success rate and my Lavender Orpington breeding group had a 100% fertility rate which is amazing for a breeder. Which means i can sell hatching eggs to customers as well. Which can be a great way to generate income as a small hatchery and breeder, as is how i earn an income on our homestead.

Now it was time to fill the incubator again. I filled every rack with chicken eggs and again got amazing numbers from my Lavenders. My Buff Orpingtons not so great, my rooster was not doing his job. BUT whatever. The incubator works and that’s all i was worried about. 

Well not the only thing. My incubator was ugly and i wanted to paint it. So i found the prettiest Tiffany Blue/ Teal ish colour and planned on spray painting it when i had the time. But the incubator was never empty after that initial hatch. So now that we know the incubator works we are going to tweak it a bit, remove the stand and have the shelves be built directly into the incubator, which will give us a bit more room for eggs. Create new frames that we can attach to a motor for automatic egg rollers. And paint her! 

 So pretty! And i think it will give our 1950’s Freeze box a new lease on life. Keeping it looking vintage and aesthetically pleasing in our house. 

And that’s it! Less than $300, worked great. I hatched hundreds of chicks, ducklings and turkeys in the final months of hatching season. And I can’t wait to do it again next year. I do plan on getting a commercial one as i don’t think this girl will be able to accommodate the large amount of requests i already have for next year. But I’m happy with the turn out! 

Try building your own incubator and if you do let me know how it goes! I’d love to see how yours turns out. If you have any questions regarding the products I posted let me know. 

Happy Hatching! Take Care! 






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