Backyard High-Rise

Winnie the Pooh's friend Owl had one. So did the shipwrecked Swiss Family Robinson. Now I have one, too - a treehouse, of course.

Or, to be precise, I should say that my daughter has one that I built for her and her friends this summer. I am usually allowed to come up to visit if I ask permission.

I knew my daughter would love it. But I'll confess that a big reason a treehouse is squatting eight feet up in an oak in our backyard is simply that I wanted to build one.

My wife nailed me on this point about mid-treehouse. We were coming back from a Saturday shopping trip and without thinking I said, "I think I'll work a little on my treehouse."

"I see," she replied evenly. "Then it's really your treehouse isn't it?"

The jig was up.

So for ordinary folks setting out to build a treehouse (and here I mean mainly adult males coping with a Norm Abrams complex), I advise having a few good rationalizations handy before heading off to Home Depot.

I owe my treehouse bug to Jeff Brown (my best friend when I was 6), who invited a bunch of us to his treehouse to camp overnight. It was the closest thing we could find to living just like Tarzan on Saturday morning TV.

Desire is not enough, however. What really got my daughter's arboreal high-rise off the ground was a postmodern phenomenon: the World Wide Web.

I had been thinking about building, but didn't know how to go about it. So I decided to look on the Internet. As with seemingly all such narrow topics, I found a surprising number of entertaining Web sites devoted to the subject. There were inspiring photographs of exotic efforts - including one by a heroic English chap who built his structure 60 feet off the ground.

Then I turned my Web browser to, searched for "treehouse," and found David and Jeanie Stileses' book on treehouses "you can actually build" (see story at right) - as opposed to popular adult models requiring thousands of dollars. The book was key.

Up to that point, my wife thought the whole thing a Quixotic office-worker-turns-carpenter thing. After I got the book, though, both she and I were reassured that I probably wasn't going to waste too much money. The book would teach me the specific techniques needed. After that the project chugged ahead.

Tree selection is crucial. The Stileses' book gives a variety of design types good for one, two, or three or more trees. I chose a tree with three trunks emerging from a common base. Triangular structures are particularly strong. The downside was that the tree trunks had grown straight and true without supporting horizontal branches.

But the book showed me I could use lumber, attached with bolts to the tree, to replace horizontal supporting branches. So I quickly made measurements of the tree and drafted a plan on graph paper. Before long I had the first beams and bolts in place. Though lag bolts are not exactly good for trees, the book showed ways to minimize the harm. (I didn't actually put any nails into the tree but used several bolts.)

Soon I had established my weekend routine of mowing the lawn followed by setting up my treehouse construction camp - including lawn chair, cooler with juice on ice, sawhorses, and assorted power tools - in a grove about 120 feet from the house.

A few quick tips: If possible, build in a tree near a power source. Also, lay an old, light colored sheet or blanket on the ground to put your tools on so they won't get lost in the leaves and dirt. I built eight feet up mainly because that's how high I could safely reach from a step ladder.

Of course, even if your spouse gives the go-ahead, you will probably need to explain why spending hundreds of dollars and a bunch of weekends in a tree is a good idea. I found it helps to underestimate the project cost - just like the Defense Department. I don't counsel intentional misrepresentation. But I did think mine would cost maybe $200. I discovered, however, that if you use pressure-treated lumber, cost will double.

A treehouse should not be a rush job. The fun way is to take your time and build only when you are clear in your mind - or on paper - what's next. For me that meant building in stages.

First, I designed a triangle platform of decking, supported by joists, themselves supported by beams underneath attached to bolts - a conservative belt-and-suspenders approach. But I couldn't envision the rest of the treehouse. So I waited until the muse struck (several weeks) and, again using a design idea from the Stileses' book, forged ahead.

Treehouses take on a life of their own. The platform I built was larger and stuck out farther at one end than the one I designed on paper. But that was OK since I ended up building an enclosed lookout perch with a sloped roof on that part of the platform.

Along the way, I induced my wife to hold some rail pieces while I stood on a stepladder and screwed them in, which greatly speeded things up. As the book advised, I used deck screws for much of the construction.

One great reason - if you screw up, just unscrew them and try again. Also, they're stronger than nails.

One thing to watch out for is treehouse mania.

Late one summer evening, for instance, as the sun dropped below the horizon, I realized I couldn't see the small screws I was trying to attach to tiny hinges for the "secret windows" my daughter could open to peek out - but not be seen. Also I wanted to get the pulley attached so she could haul toys and stuff up in a bucket. I was on the final lap.

So I trudged across the street and borrowed a work light from a neighbor - to finish a few details. I thought I had kept this backyard obsession pretty well hidden. But he had heard the hammering and knew all about what I was doing back in the woods. He was happy to lend the light.

I think he understood.


* World Treehouse Association.

* Adult-size dwellings: "Tree Houses: The Art and Craft of Living Out on a Limb," by Peter Nelson (Houghton Mifflin, $15.96).

* Child-size: "Tree Houses You Can Actually Build," by David Stiles (Chapters Publishing Ltd., $14.40).

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