Wednesday, July 07, 2010

It's a Tree! It's a House! It's a... Treehouse!

July 5, 2010. No, it's not, as rumored, the date Doc and Marty go forward to in Back to the Future II (That'd be October 21, 2015; we still have a few years to find out if we get hoverboards.) Around here, July 5, 2010 was Treehouse Day.

It was one of those ideas that was ready to happen. When Paul asked me my plans for the day off, I admitted the only thing I'd thought of was that it might be a good day to build the treehouse. Turns out that he was calling to suggest the same thing. I've been making plans and accumulating pieces for several years, but everything came together this time.

One of the remarkable things about this project was how little I spent on it. On the actual building day, my total came to $8.05, which included four medium-sized bolts and a chocolate bar I bought to appease Deborah. Nearly everything else was provided by one means or another: old shipping pallets from work, extra 2x4s from other projects, the ladder I'd built for our bed when Deborah was pregnant, and — perhaps most amazing of all — an entire pier's worth of heavy-duty treated lumber that washed ashore during the big flood of '09 which no one would claim, and no one would take away. We're talking twelve-foot 2x10s. The kids' wagon got a real workout that day, bringing that back. It's been sitting under my carport for more than a year, ready and waiting.

Laying out the pieces.

I've been planning this treehouse for a very long time, but when it came down to it, the pieces and the tree itself all pointed to something very different. I knew the general principles of how I wanted to build it, but the specifics suggested themselves as I went along: the width of the pallets, the angle of the branches, the height of the ladder, the amount of good wood on this board. The design I ended up with was much simpler than what I'd set out to create, but left plenty of room for expansion.

Good help is invaluable with a project like this.

I had the morning to myself, oddly enough — observed holiday or not, the kids still had swimming lessons, piano lessons, lunch, and nap time, which meant I had a chance to work on it without interruption until early evening. This was excellent, especially since the early stages involved a lot of shifting pieces around and staring off into the distance as I contemplated how things would work together! Paul showed up in the early afternoon, and that made things go much more smoothly. He confirmed my math, helped me thread pallets onto 2x4s, braced boards, measured, and asked his usual insightful questions.

When there's only one of you, you have to get a bit creative if you want to hold a board in place and screw it on. I wound up using a lot of clamps and straps until Paul showed up and lent me a hand.

A good treehouse design takes into account the fact that you are not just building a house, you are building it with a tree — a beautiful, amazing, living thing. Trees grow, and sway in the wind. They get sick if not cared for. They don't appreciate having their circulation cut off any more than you do. When it came down to it, I used the absolute minimum attachment points I could — three — made them rock-solid, and made them so that they could move and grow with the tree.

I used spacing blocks and a flexible design to leave the tree room to grow. I removed the blocks, and I can also back the bolt out later as the tree grows.

I blanched when it came to actually putting the bolts into the tree (these weren't tiny nail-holes!) but all the research I'd done said that this was the best way to maintain both the strength of the tree and the treehouse. I felt awful drilling into the solid walnut (a poem on the experience is here) but the tree had already started to heal by the time I ratcheted each bolt into place. You have to work quickly with healthy trees, as they start sealing themselves around the intrusion right away!

Implements of construction. I wish I'd stuck something in here for size reference; the bolts are about as thick as my fingers (and I have thick fingers!) and weigh nearly a pound each.

Getting everything to work together was an interesting challenge — I didn't have a good reference point to measure from, the terrain sloped a bit, and the trapezoidal frame was playing tricks with my eyes. I finally had to use my level at both ends of the main boards, and across the diagonals, until everything read out as level... and then hoped that nothing shifted while I was drilling the holes for the bolts!

Squaring things up. Golly, it doesn't look right at all...

...but the level says it's right on, all the way around. Trust your tools, trust your tools.

If Daddy can't play on it, can't nobody play on it. That's not selfishness, that's safety! Even with the temporary uprights held on by clamps, the cross-beams support me quite nicely. I jumped up and down on this thing before I let the kids come up!

Perhaps my proudest moment came when I finally had all the uprights in place. Paul and I had both done the math, and came up with the same answer as to where to cut the boards, but I was still apprehensive that we had left some value out of our calculations.... nope. Perfectly level. For someone who struggles with math as much as I do, this was a victory.

Putting on the finishing touches. The upper railing/table/bench came pre-carpeted — originally to protect a boat, but now to protect little ones.

I was screwing down the final boards when the kids came out, still a bit bleary-eyed from their naps, and bemused by the transformation that had happened in the back yard since they had last seen it. They climbed aboard in awe and wonder.

All this happened while we were napping?

OK, we'll let mommy up, too.

Paul had anticipated Treehouse Day well in advance, and had a present for the occasion waiting in his car. What does a tree fort lookout need? Why, a pair of binoculars, of course!

Close your eyes and hold out your hands....

I see you!
(This is my favorite picture of the day. Love the lighting and the expressions.)

The rest of the evening was clean-up. I still need to seal and stain some of the boards, but I'm not terribly worried about it. The nice thing about how I made it is that all the supports are treated wood; the flooring is completely (and easily) replaceable with a new set of pallets.

All this, and friends, too! Ava, from two doors down, became the first guest in the new treehouse.

So this is Stage I. There's more in the works — we need a pulley and basket, some windows, a hose-phone, and there's still that large crate lurking on my trailer, underneath a tarp, promising all kinds of potential. For now, though, it feels wonderful to have this up, and to hear the kids' excited voices. It makes so much work so very much worthwhile!


Marti said...

Andy, that is awesome! And the pictures don't convey just how hot that day was. What an accomplishment! I'm sure the kids love it. Make sure you post pics as you add to it :-)

tumbleweedgirl said...

we built one from discarded stuff, too! but yours is far more advanced. we're working on a pulley set up as well. i love seeing how big the kids are (:

Jonadab said...

I never had a tree house as such, but when we moved to Canal Fulton, there was a huge pine tree that had to come down, because it shaded the entire back yard, and we needed a garden. (That was a good-sized yard, too.) Dad hired an Amish man to cut down the tree, and to avoid having it fall on and damage any buildings he brought it down in segments, which I'd guess were around five or six feet long each. Dad kept four of the segments that were pretty equal in length, from the top half of the tree (perhaps a foot or so in diameter) so their bulk was at least somewhat manageable, and used them as base pillars for a free-standing fort.

The floor he mounted on them was just a sheet of plywood, but with the cross braces (which did double-duty as ladders) and railing made from smaller left-over pieces of the tree (like, long straight branches as thick as your arm), it did have some charm. I was in second grade at the time.

We had that fort for about a year, and then he took it down, much to our disappointment, when we started trying to sell the house, on the dubious theory that nobody would want to buy a house with a fort like that overlooking the garden. (It didn't help. The house didn't sell until I was in seventh grade.)