The Shed - - Front Page - By Coen Smit Pho­to­graphs: Coen Smit

In a world be­set by in­creas­ing reg­u­la­tions, build­ing codes, lo­cal gov­ern­ment by­laws, ve­hi­cle safety leg­is­la­tion, and the like, very few things re­main un­touched by the long, dead­en­ing arm of bu­reau­cracy. How­ever, one that has es­caped is the hum­ble mail­box.

While their sub­ur­ban cousins have gen­er­ally suc­cumbed to the pres­sure to have stan­dard­ized, mass-pro­duced mod­els avail­able from hard­ware chain stores, their ru­ral brethren have main­tained their di­ver­sity, and still re­flect their own­ers’ cre­ativ­ity and imag­i­na­tion.

In this era of in­creas­ing con­form­ity, the ru­ral mail­box stands out as a state­ment of in­di­vid­u­al­ity made by those of us un­will­ing to fol­low the com­mon herd. Al­though postal ser­vices world­wide are com­ing un­der con­tin­ued pres­sure from the new de­liv­ery plat­forms, the mail­box is still an in­te­gral part of any prop­erty, ru­ral or sub­ur­ban. A good mail­box should be thought of as a fine ex­am­ple of street art, a whim­si­cal state­ment by its own­ers per­haps re­flect­ing their pas­sions and in­ter­ests, while ful­fill­ing a util­i­tar­ian func­tion.

Street art

An added ben­e­fit of hav­ing a dif­fer­ent mail­box from the com­mon herd is its use­ful­ness when giv­ing first-time vis­i­tors direc­tions to your prop­erty and also to your near neigh­bours.

Al­most any­thing can be turned into a mail­box, as the ac­com­pa­ny­ing pho­tos show. The foun­da­tion of any good mail­box is its abil­ity to con­tain nor­mal items of mail and keep them pro­tected from the el­e­ments. Be­yond that the de­sign and con­struc­tion de­pend on the imag­i­na­tion and abil­ity of its cre­ator. It goes with­out say­ing that con­ve­nience of

use must tem­per your cre­ativ­ity by, for ex­am­ple, plac­ing the box roughly at car­door height. It has to be rel­a­tively easy for the mail de­liv­erer to open and in­sert the mail.

A note of cau­tion must be raised here. Some years ago I built a mail­box in the shape of a sit­ting dog with a lift up flap in his chest for in­sert­ing the mail, at the re­quest of my daugh­ter who was liv­ing in trop­i­cal Mackay, Queens­land, at the time. De­spite it be­ing ob­vi­ously a re­cep­ta­cle for the mail and placed where their mail­box was nor­mally lo­cated, the erst­while em­ploy­ees of the postal ser­vice were un­able to use it as in­tended and of­ten tried tuck­ing the mail un­der one of its ears or sim­ply threw it on the ground nearby. This con­tin­ued even after the dog was equipped with a sign list­ing in­struc­tions to “Lift the flap to in­sert mail”. This sug­gests that for some, the pur­pose of the mail­box must be ul­tra-ob­vi­ous, and its use re­quire ab­so­lutely zero thought or ef­fort.

Hav­ing said that, my own mail­box that I made from an old cream can to re­sem­ble a pink pig has been in con­stant

The ru­ral mail­box stands out as a state­ment of in­di­vid­u­al­ity made by those of us un­will­ing to fol­low the com­mon herd

use for some 30 years and re­lo­cated with us three times, with­out ever hav­ing stumped the posties who use it.

Con­struc­tion op­tions

For longevity, most be­spoke mail­boxes are made from metal, al­though well­main­tained wooden ones can be equally good. Plas­tic, on the other hand, even­tu­ally be­comes brit­tle and, I feel, does not lend it­self as read­ily to the cre­ative urges of the con­struc­tor.

The start­ing point for any be­spoke mail­box is the re­cep­ta­cle it­self. Al­most any­thing that will hold rel­a­tively small items and has the abil­ity to shed rain, can be used. Many a farmer sim­ply bolts a dis­carded plas­tic chem­i­cal drum to a fence post, al­though I think these are op­por­tu­ni­ties wasted. Not only do they lack imag­i­na­tion, but they also

pass up the chance to make a state­ment about the prop­erty and its own­ers. As you can see from the pho­to­graphs, oth­ers go to con­sid­er­able lengths to build and dis­play unique mail­boxes that de­light the passer-by.

A great way to get in­spi­ra­tion for your mail­box is to look at old items of equip­ment found at garage and farm sales or the lo­cal tip shop. Of­ten a suit­able piece will set you back only a few dol­lars. My daugh­ter’s dog mail­box was made us­ing the air re­serve from a small, dis­carded air com­pres­sor, which I res­cued from a bush tip one day while walk­ing my dogs.

Old gas bot­tles also make good mail­boxes. Be­fore de­cid­ing to use one of these as your foun­da­tion, please read the pre­cau­tions that I have in­cluded at the end of this ar­ti­cle as these re­cep­ta­cles have the po­ten­tial to be­come bombs very eas­ily!

Of course you do not need to get tan­gled up with haz­ardous con­tain­ers at all. One of the more strik­ing mail­boxes I have en­coun­tered was made from over­lap­ping plough discs to form an enor­mous ball. An­other used a ce­ment mixer bowl to

The erst­while em­ploy­ees of the postal ser­vice were un­able to use it as in­tended

Oth­ers go to con­sid­er­able lengths to build and dis­play unique mail­boxes that de­light the passer-by

create an emu-like bird, and oth­ers have been built en­tirely from scratch. The only lim­its are your imag­i­na­tion, the ma­te­ri­als at hand, and the avail­able space to site your fin­ished ar­ti­cle.

My mail­box project

For the mail­box con­structed to il­lus­trate this ar­ti­cle, I sourced an old, round, stain­less-steel bar­beque as the body of the box. I re­tained the grill to keep the mail off the bot­tom in the event that any wa­ter finds its way into the unit. On the orig­i­nal bar­beque the lid sim­ply sat on the lower half. To avoid it be­ing dis­lodged or blown off in windy weather, I hinged the two halves and at­tached a small stain­less-steel han­dle to al­low the postie to more eas­ily lift the top half and place the mail or larger items in­side the unit.

To en­sure that the mail­box isn’t ad­versely af­fected by high winds, I mounted the bot­tom onto an old dis­cbrake ro­tor. This gives it added weight as well as strength and fa­cil­i­tates a va­ri­ety of mount­ing op­tions us­ing the stud-bolt holes that held the wheels on the car in its pre­vi­ous in­car­na­tion.

For ex­am­ple, it can be sim­ply screwed to a wooden or con­crete gate post. Or if you would like to have the mail­box dou­ble as a weather vane, you could also use the ap­pro­pri­ate stub axle and bear­ings so that the mail­box, if fit­ted with a ver­ti­cal fin, will al­ways fol­low the wind as it changes di­rec­tion. Be aware, how­ever, that this fea­ture might an­noy the mail-de­liv­ery per­son if they have to spin it around to in­sert the mail. 

Let your imag­i­na­tion run

My next task was to give my imag­i­na­tion free rein to turn it into some­thing more whim­si­cal. I felt that the bar­beque on its own, while still per­fectly func­tional as a let­ter box, needed some­thing more to catch the eye and give it that wow fac­tor. As you can see from the other ex­am­ples I have in­cluded, in­spi­ra­tion comes from a wide va­ri­ety of sources, rang­ing from an an­gel made of beer cans and a con­crete mush­room, to a farm bike made us­ing bull­dozer sprock­ets. Some are sim­ple, oth­ers in­tri­cate and com­plex, but each has a unique char­ac­ter. It’s this unique­ness that makes build­ing one of these such a plea­sure in it­self.

I de­cided to con­struct a styl­ized ver­sion of the black egret to sit astride the mail­box and give it its in­di­vid­ual char­ac­ter. (The black egret has a unique way of catch­ing small fish by us­ing its wings as an um­brella to shade the area it is fish­ing. Pre­sum­ably, small fish are tricked into think­ing that the shad­owed wa­ter pro­vides a safe haven.) Its weight, while not great, will also help hold

My next task was to give my imag­i­na­tion free rein to turn it into some­thing more whim­si­cal

the lid of the mail­box down in windy weather.

I also think that an in­te­gral as­pect of mak­ing a be­spoke, whim­si­cal mail­box is to use and re­pur­pose the bits and pieces we all have ly­ing around in the shed to make some­thing truly unique. For me, it’s this ex­er­cise of the imag­i­na­tion that makes the project in­ter­est­ing. Oth­er­wise, why not just too­tle down to the lo­cal hard­ware store and buy some­thing off the shelf?

Ac­cord­ingly, an as­sort­ment of steamer bas­ket ‘flaps’, a dis­carded ride-on mower roller, some wood, and a cou­ple of bits of 6mm rod were pressed into ser­vice to be­come the black egret.

Cocky mail

A man’s best friend

Above: Swag­man mail­box

Be­low: Plough-disc mail­box

Right: Sas­safras mail­box

Above: Mail … Mail … Mail! Left: Pony ex­press Be­low: Toady mail

Roasted rooster mail

Chain mail

My daugh­ter’s dog mail­box that con­fused the Mackay posties

Biker mail

A very keen gar­dener

House mail

Left: The black egret — fish­ing for mail Above: Wom­bat de­liv­er­ies Be­low: Hi, guys! Any mail for me?

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