Monday, July 7, 2014

Making Top Bars

Updated: Corrected error. Added a link to post on making wedged bars.

Lately, it seems that I've lived, breathed, and dreamed about making hives. So today, I figured I'd talk about making top bars. There are so many ways to make them, that I thought it would be helpful to talk about a couple of issues, including:
  • Width
  • Comb guides


When it comes to width, I've noticed a few different styles:
  • 1 1/4" brood bars with 1 1/2" honey bars. Some people use two different sized bars -- 1 1/4" bars in their brood area and 1 1/2" honey bars. 1 1/4" bars encourage bees to build smaller brood combs and have more combs in their brood nest. This means that at any given time, the bees will cover more brood. On the downside, a lot of people find this system kind of confusing/inconvenient because they aren't sure when/how to insert the honey bars, or they feel confused when bees start storing honey in the brood nest.

    Personally, if I used 1 1/4" bars, I'd skip making a different size honey bar. Instead, I'd just make 1/4" spacers and add those when I saw bees building out honeycomb.
  • 1 3/8" bars. Some people split the difference between 1 1/4" and 1 1/2" bars and use all 1 3/8" bars. I confess that I'm one of these people. For me, it's just easier to cut bars all to the same size, and I don't worry so much about losing a finger while cutting 1/4" inserts.

    Personally, I haven't had any issue with this size, though I've heard that with wider bars, one gets more drone comb and fewer brood combs. 
  • 1 1/2" bars. I've heard of some people going with all 1 1/2" bars. As a personal observation, though, it appears that they've also mentioned a lot more cross-combing and crooked comb. Perhaps, if you have a different experience with this size, you might drop a line in the comments and tell me how you think it works out.

Comb Guides

Comb guides are an important feature of top bars because they give the bees an indication of where you'd like them to build. They don't always take the hint, of course, but stilll... 

Line of Wax

Some people make comb guides that are as simple as a line of wax poured onto the underside of the bar. From what I've heard, though, the wax doesn't always adhere very well to the bar.

Waxed String

This method is just a variation on a line of wax. Some folks dip a length of string in wax and then set that on the underside of the bar. Again, this is a quick and easy comb guide. However, I've heard of at least one person who said that his bees just chewed up the string and spit it out! That doesn't really surprise me, though, because I've noticed my own bees chewing rough patches of wood in the hive to smooth them out. They're a bit anal that way.

Image from:
Personally, I like how this guy does his strings. He put the string on the bar and uses a soldering iron
to melt wax over the string.


Some people use a kerf as a comb guide. Unlike wax lines/waxed strings, they help the bees understand exactly where to build, but they're still very easy to do. Just make a shallow groove with your table saw down the center of your bar and glue in some popsicle sticks. Other folks melt a bit of wax foundation into the groove. 
Image from:

Although I don't use this method, I like that the kerf gives the bees a lot of surface area for attaching comb. Greater surface area = stronger comb attachment.

The only drawback to this method is that you need to make sure that the kerf is attached very tightly because otherwise they can fall out. When this happens with a full comb, the resulting mess is not pretty.

Wedge Combs

Personally, I like wedge combs because like kerfs, they provide greater attachment area and they provide the bees with a very definite idea of where to build. There are two ways to get a wedge onto your bar.

Attach a wedge: One way to get a wedge onto your bar is to staple/nail/glue wedge-shaped pieces (some people use half-round trim instead) onto your bar.
Create a wedge: The "gold standard" in top bars are one-piece bars that are created with a wedge. I like using this kind of bar, and surprisingly, they really aren't that much work to do. It's a little tedious making measuring the angles and making adjustments to get all the cuts right, but once you set the blade, you just have to run all your bars (all 30+ of them), through the saw.

To create one-piece wedged bars, this is how I do it (though if you have a different method, please, feel free to share). Sorry I don't have pics (forgot to take them), but hopefully, these diagrams will give you a good idea of how I make them:
  1. Find the center point on each side (red lines).
  2. Draw lines (blue lines) from the center along each side to the bottom center. 
  3. Angle your saw blade and cut along the lines (blue lines).
  4. Using a stacked dado head cutter, I nibble out the ends of the bars so that they sit flat on the hive.
I've provided more detail and photos on my process in this post on making one-piece wedged top bars.
Oops. Step 3 should say "angle finder," not "compass."
You don't have to do any hiking to make these bars.


  1. This post documents our procedure for making batches of top bars.

    The bars supplied with our first hive had a shallow angle of around 10 degrees from flat and a wax groove down the center. The bees largely ignored the hint.
    Our own bars have a much more pronounced profile and our second hive produced beautifully straight comb. With so little data it could be that the second bees were just not as perverse as the first.

    1. Bees? Perverse? Never heard of such a thing! (wry laughter)

      They really don't pay any attention to the rules, do they?

      Good point about making sure that the comb guide is pronounced. I've heard a lot of people say that they've had trouble with just wax or waxed string for the same reason -- the bees just didn't pay any attention to it. Finicky little things.


Thank you for your comment! I can't wait to hear what you think!