Monday, May 31, 2010

Pulling Your Weight

Today the youngster and I stopped in at the Harbor Freight store. Not for anything in particular, unless I saw a good deal on a bench vise, perhaps, but mainly because I'd never been before. It's an impressive collection of tools they have there, at equally impressive prices. Too bad the quality is not equally impressive. Still, I'd shop there again for things where price was the most important factor. And it's not like it's all horrible crap, most of the stuff is fairly good, and a fairly good deal at the price.

While there, I saw a winch. A hand-cranked winch. A hand-cranked winch with cable for less than twenty bucks. A hand-cranked winch with cable for less than twenty bucks that would be just dandy for a certain Secret Clubhouse application - the retractable ladder. Sold!

Let's see how it looks:

It does the job. I think I need to work on a housing, or it'll be rusted in no time.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Secret Clubhouse

First, a disclaimer. The clubhouse is not a secret. Its name is "The Secret Clubhouse."

The youngest member of the family has been clamoring for a clubhouse for a couple of years, at least. The play fort atop the big play structure just wasn't cutting it. I suspect it started with a Berenstain Bears book, No Girls Allowed. The book describes a clubhouse built by the boys with a door and windows and intriguingly, a drawbridge to keep out the girls. Many drawings of clubhouses were made, all with drawbridges and windows. I'd regularly get asked if we could build a clubhouse "right now" and I was always putting the kid off. We had sufficient play areas, after all, but they weren't what he wanted.

Last month, I'm not entirely sure why, I agreed to build a clubhouse. Some of the reason, of course, is the recapitulation of my own childhood in what I see of my child's activities and interests. I wanted to have a clubhouse again, too.

When I was small, my dad built a succession of sandboxes for me and my siblings, but the first ones were mainly for me. There was a tractor tire to start with, and when we moved to Cody, Wyoming, Dad built the first wooden sandbox. We moved back to Boise, and Dad built a bigger sandbox, then later enlarged it. It had several sizes over the years, larger and then smaller again, but at its largest it was easily the biggest sandbox I've ever seen in a private yard, and I've only ever seen one park with a bigger sandbox. Maybe sixteen by twenty feet or thereabouts, big enough for a swingset with lots of room left over. He had the sand delivered by dump truck, taking down a fence so it could back into the back yard and drop several yards of sand in directly. There was a LOT of sand in there. On a couple of the iterations, Dad put up some 4x4 posts, with the intention of building some kind of elevated play space like a clubhouse on top. Our neighborhood was built on former farmland, and there were no mature trees that would make for a good tree house in our yard or for several blocks for that matter, so the posts were actually a pretty reasonable idea. Unfortunately, posts were as for as we got for several years. Those posts were there with nothing atop them, until they rotted at the bottom and got pulled out. Dad finally built us an entirely different sort of playhouse on a telephone pole he had installed in the back yard, which was pretty cool. That's a story for another time.

Remembering the posts, and having some spare ones when I was building the play space in my own back yard, I put up four of them in the corner, spaced about eight feet apart. I thought that corner would make a good sandbox, and I'd put up some sort of roof to keep the sun and the rain at bay. I still think it would make a good sandbox, but I decided to put the posts to another use - a Secret Clubhouse.

The first thing to do was to make a deck. Some might say I should have made a plan before I made a deck, but I figured I'd need a deck regardless, so I started with that. I've got very little experience building decks, but I helped on a couple, and it didn't seem that hard. I cut the corner poles to the same height, about five feet above the level of the wood chips in the play space, hoping to minimize the potential fractures and lawsuits. I put some boards around the outside, put joist hangers on them every 16" and hung the joists, then screwed down a bunch of cedar deck boards on top. Voila, instant deck, pretty close to 8' square.

Next, I needed a design for a clubhouse. Searching online was not especially helpful. Unlike most info on the internet that wants to be free, practically all the interesting playhouse/fort/clubhouse plans were ones that they wanted money for - all you get is a mediocre photo. So I doodled up one of my own. It was really simple, roughly a six-foot square with one corner lopped off where the door would go. Big enough for a father and son campout, basically, with a couple extra feet of deck on two sides for play. I decided on a shed roof, and a sloping height from five feet to about six and a half, so I could stand up in there without whacking my head in part of it, at least. I would frame it with 2x3 studs and use some sheet siding for the exterior. I did a little bit of calculating for the angles, and came up with a framing plan.

Next came some trips to Home Depot. I had a fair number of things on hand, but I needed the siding and the studs. I started by cutting all the siding into the shapes I needed, then cut and screwed the stud framing together for each wall, and then screwed the siding onto the framing. The walls weren't too big, and I figured I could lift each wall onto the deck by myself in a pinch. After getting them put together, I hefted them onto the deck and screwed them down and to each other. It took a few evenings to get them all put together and then installed, probably a couple of days per wall all told. While working on the walls, I got the idea to install a trap door in one corner. I didn't want to cut into the deck, and the joists were fairly close together, so it was in a wall instead of the floor. Thus the Secret Escape Hatch was born.

After getting all the walls up, I worked on the roof next, putting together a frame of 1x3s and using some corrugated plastic, thinking it would be lighter, and possibly let some light inside. That last plan didn't work out; the stuff is surprisingly opaque. On the other hand, it was a lot easier to complete on the ground and lift up on top than a roof of shingles on plywood would have been. Getting it done took a few more days. Look at that, a play house that keeps the weather out. Unless it's really windy.

Next I put up a railing, so it would be safe enough to have kids over. The youngster had taken to jumping off the edge of the deck, so I figured it was time. I put together a rope ladder, but didn't anticipate a problem that it presented. Mr. Secret Clubhouse was very concerned that he be able to keep robbers out, thus he wanted a rope ladder that he could pull up, so the robbers wouldn't be able to get in. Unfortunately, a rope ladder wants to hang toward the center of gravity of whatever it's holding up when the bottom isn't anchored. That meant that as soon as he started climbing it, his feet would swing under the deck until he was mostly hanging from the ladder, and it was almost impossible to actually transition onto the deck. We stuck with using the regular ladder for a while while I considered the problem. I put together the bottom half of a dutch door and installed it next.

At this stage of completion we decided that the Secret Clubhouse was done enough and safe enough to have some friends over for an open house. The eager boy had been enthusiastically describing his new clubhouse and its progress to his classmates for three weeks or so, and now he could show it off. Some had been understandably skeptical. We emailed some invitations for the weekend, and prepared cookies and lemonade. I think we'd invited people to come between 11 and 4, and this turned out to be a bit too long - no one came until around 1:00 in the afternoon, so we were twiddling our thumbs for a while. I used the time to work on the top half of the door and get it installed. More and more kids came with time, and by the time the last one left, I think we'd had ten or more over. It was a big hit.

After the open house, I had an idea for a "drawbridge ladder" to get up to the secret escape hatch. This would satisfy the drawbridge urge and the need to keep baddies at bay in one swell foop. I put together a ladder with some thick hardwood dowels and some spare studs, and was thinking about how to make it liftable by a first-grader when the Exceptionally Competent Mrs. suggested swapping it for the rope ladder instead. This seemed like an excellent idea, so I shortened the ladder by one rung to fit on the deck on the other side. I made up some hinges out of lag bolts with nylon bushings and swapped out the rope ladder for the drawbridge ladder. The rope ladder had another rung added and went around to the secret escape hatch. I still haven't figured out a good way for the kid to lift it, but that will come.

The final addition has been windows. There are sliding windows inside in the back walls, and fixed windows in front by the door. They're all made of acrylic. The sliding ones have finger holes on either side and fit in slots cut in frames above and below the window openings. Having the windows in has cut down the draft a little bit, though there's still an airspace around the roofline. I got the last windows installed yesterday, so the Secret Clubhouse as planned is now complete. It could probably use some paint, but hey, it's a clubhouse.

Some say that kids should build their own clubhouses, treehouses, forts, etcetera, and I don't disagree. That usually comes a bit later, though, when they've mastered swinging a hammer. That time will come. For now, the Secret Clubhouse rules our back yard. Next up, some more garden boxes, like this one I've already finished.