Operation Playhouse

May 10, 2015 | 17 Minute Read

I'd wanted to build something. Poking around Instructables I saw a couple of awesome pirate ship themed playhouses. After fantasizing for a couple weeks about building one I decided to scale back and go with something a bit more traditional. I knew I wanted something with a little porch out front and knew I didn't have the know-how to design it myself. Eventually my search for plans hit. It had the porch, plus it had a slide and swings and was elevated. The slide and swings were big pluses and the idea of a raised playhouse made it feel like a treehouse (especially in our yard). I purchased the plans and set about gathering a game plan.

I have a family that includes my wife and two young kids. They're still at the age where they want our attention so it's not possible to go off and work on something all day. Work and family time (including dinner and baths) during the week means there's no time during the week. That leaves weekends. But only part of them, usually during the kids' nap times. Leaving a grand total of between four and six hours per weekend. Gathering material takes a couple of hours so that tended to happen Saturday and I worked Sunday. With such a small time window I did a lot of planning during the week. I'd decide on a section to tackle, write up a materials list and a cut list then walk through the work in my head. When it came time to build I knew exactly what to get and how I was going to mill and join it. Things didn't always work out, but it helped a lot.

Location was the first decision to make. There was a corner in the back of our yard that was a bit of a dead space. It had a fig tree that was just holding on and was otherwise just ground cover. Putting it back there meant we didn't have to dig up much of the yard and the playhouse would be out of the way. Originally the plans call for a vertical ladder up the back and a slide down the front. Thinking our one and a half year old wouldn't be able to climb that for a couple of years I thought stairs might be better. Given the space constraints, however, it meant the slide had to go and the stairs would take its place. That'd also cut down on cost (plastic slides are big ticket items). That would be the first of a few design changes.

Now that location was set I staked out the foot print and set to work leveling the ground. The plans call for simply setting the structure directly on the ground. However, the previous homeowners had left a set of four concrete footings so I decided to use those on the corners instead. That meant I'd only have to worry about leveling four points rather trying to get everything leveled out. I leveled the ground enough to start seeing the footprint. Then I started digging the holes for the footings. The process is straightforward but tedious. I measured the height of the footing, dug down, placed the footing, the leveled it. Leveling is the tedious part. It requires tamping the footing in to place, checking for level (in both directions) and either filling or digging under. Each time I filled I was sure to tamp it down so once it held weight it wouldn't sink. After getting the first one leveled I measured over to the next location and tried to keep them parallel to the fence. Then the leveling process is repeated with the addition of leveling it relative to the first footing. That simply requires running a flat 2x4 across them and putting a level on it. Number three gets placed by measuring out from one of the footings, then triangulating from the other. I mis-calculated my hypotenuse the first time so I triangulated the last one, then went back and fixed the other one.

Next came the deck frame. I went with pressure treated lumber that was rated for direct contact with the ground. The upper supports didn't need that, but I wanted them all to match. At this point the only power tools I had were a couple of drills and a circular saw. The saw wasn't quite big enough to go through a 4x4 so I had to cut one side, flip them over, then cut the other. The plans call for a dado and a rabbet on the front two posts and rabbets on the back two. That way the beams transfer force directly to the posts rather than through bolts. I cut those by making small slices then chiseling out the waste. Assembly went very smoothly. I used treated lag screws and pre-drilled the holes. You can see in the video that the supports stood upright on their own before being tied together. Meaning everything was square and level and joining the cross beams was easy. Finally, I toenailed the posts to the footings.

Building the deck was an exciting prospect. It would be the first real sign of something usable. The plans called for 5/4 deck boards, but I couldn't find any at the big box store. They carried a synthetic deck board that I didn't like the look of. So I went with 2x8 redwood boards. Redwood weathers really nicely. I really like the look of it. I used 2x6 dougfir for the support beams. The beams were attached with brackets. Then I laid out the deck. Each edge was screwed down flush with the sides of the deck frame. Remaining boards were spaced about evenly between. I eyeballed it rather than trying to get too detailed about it. From there I snapped chalk lines over the beams and started screwing things down. I use screws mostly because that's what was always drilled into me, but also because it makes correcting a mistake easier. For decks it means not having to worry about nails getting loose and rising later. Every screw was first counter sunk then drilled down so it was recessed into the board. I put in three screws per board (though two probably would have been fine) coming out to a grand total of 996 screws. My drills are battery powered and I don't have the bigger batteries for them so they died a couple of times during this process. The completed deck felt like a huge accomplishment. Now I had a nice big raised platform that felt solid under my feet.

Framing came next. Framing took the most planning. I haven't had to plan a cut list this extensive before so I'm not sure if there's a better way to do it. I just wrote out all the lengths and quantities I needed then tried to get a sense for how many 2x4's I'd need. The plans called for 2x6's for the stud nailers, but I thought 2x4's would be fine and it'd make planning a little easier. I ran into a small hitch with material. The plans called for kiln dried sticks. I couldn't find ten foot kiln dried so I had to use standard construction grade. Initially I thought I'd just get eight foot sticks, but after planning things out it was more cost effective and less wasteful to use ten footers. I found that the main difference was that kiln dried were much lighter (no water weight) and that they didn't seep sap. Unfortunately the frame is seeping sap. Putting your hand in the wrong place means getting sticky fingers. I figured I'd correct that by covering everything, but it hasn't been much of a problem yet.

Cutting everything down was going to be a big job with just my circular saw. I'd only be able to cut one stick at a time and I'd have to be very careful about measurements. I'd been wanting an excuse to get a miter saw and this was it. Armed with a new twelve inch compound sliding miter saw I set my stops, clamped my boards, and started cutting. Having my cut list ready and taking advantage of the stops and cutting capacity made the milling go very quickly. There was even time left to assemble one of the wall frames.

Since it's just me assembling and placing things I had to plan out where and how I'd assemble the frames. I'd need to do it on the deck itself. The deck is five feet off the ground. Assembling the frames on the ground and trying to hoist them up would have gone poorly. I wanted to assemble them with the exterior wall facing down which would make it easier to set the studs and nailers flush with each other. All that meant assembly had to feel somewhat upside down. Rather than assembling the frame that simply tipping it into place, I had to tip it up away from its location the slide it over.

Overall framing went very quickly (as it tends to). I made two mistakes. One was that I mis-measured during assembly of one of the side walls. Screws came in handy here as I simply backed them out, remeasured and screwed the studs back into place. The other mistake was forgetting that I'd used 2x4's instead of 2x6's for the nailers, throwing off the reference points of the back wall. That left a large gap between the final two studs. Not a big problem, but it was obvious.

Up to this point I'd spent my week really planning out every step I'd take when it came time to work on the structure. It'd been a few weeks and everything had gone smoothly, so I started to get a little cocky. The rafters were next. I spent less time really thinking through what I'd need to do figuring I'd be able to get it figured out on the job. Nope.

The ridge beam went up easily and I cut the rafters to the angle set in the plans. I thought I'd be able to put a rafter up, mark the bird's mouth, then cut everything to that mark. Nope. I managed to get one side up (later I found out this is the wrong way to install rafters. You're supposed to alternate so the ridge beam stays centered). Even with the one side, the bird's mouths were all off. Rather than thinking through the math, I tried to just mark and cut. I should have done the math. After the first side I started on the second only to find that the bird's mouths wouldn't even sit on the wall. So I had to go back and re-cut all the bird's mouths on that side. I go the rafters in place but seriously considered scrapping the attempt and starting over.

I learned two lessons: 1) do the math and the planning. 2) a speed square is incredibly useful when you know how to really use it. Buy one (it's crazy useful) then google "how to use a speed square." There are a couple good manuals and plenty of people on YouTube that explain all the tricks to taking advantage of it.

I broke the usual schedule and took advantage of some after-dinner time to install the banister around the porch. It'd been a month since starting the project and I was antsy to get it to a place where the kids could start using it a little. Here, I deviated from the plans. The plans called for fencing which would have created an opaque wall. I wanted something that we could see through so it'd be easier to see the kids on the porch. I bought 2x2 balustrades and screwed them to 2x4 runners. The spacing worked out so that I could use a standard 2x4 for spacing. The balusters are placed over the end of the deck. To make life easy I screwed a scrap piece of plywood to the bottom of the deck so that it stuck out from the end. Then I could place the baluster on that, space it with the 2x4, drill (with countersink), and screw into place. After they were all in place I went down the line with a hand saw and cut off the extra. The whole thing took about an hour.

One small thing I might've done differently: I thought it'd look nicer to have the oddly spaced balusters in the middle. Every tutorial says to go from one side to the other rather than from both sides at the same time. Turns out that's because having it in the middle actually looks like a mistake. It's not immediately clear that the intent was to be evenly spaced from both sides. In hindsight I'd have started from one end and evenly spaced them all the way across leaving the odd spacing at the very end.

Now comes the walls. I don't (yet) have a truck. Our Subaru Outback's sheet good capacity is 3'x6'. Preferably I'd be able to fit full 4'x8' sheets. Alas. To overcome this limitation I had the guy at the hardware store rip the 4x8 sheets of siding down to 2x6. That lined the rip line up nicely with the lines in the siding. Plus the wall height is only 5 feet anyway. An unforeseen and happy side effect of these smaller sizes was that it was much easier to handle. I don't think I'd have been able to hold up larger sheet with one hand an nail it in with the other. These smaller sheets were a breeze.

I bought a small nail gun and air compressor because I'd known that I'd be using them for several projects. They came in very handy when hanging the walls. I lifted a sheet in to place and shot a few nails into the studs and nailers. Then I was free to climb the ladder and run a line of nails all the way up. The nails hold the walls really well. I put a couple screws in key places where I thought the kids might bump against the walls just to be sure they didn't push the nails out and fall through the wall.

For the windows and door, my plan was to just get the sheets up and cut things out after. I'd rough cut everything then come back with a router and flush trim bit to finish everything off. That turned out to be a bad idea. Doing all that vertically and often on a ladder was dangerous and difficult. My brother had been a professional carpenter for a few years and when I told him that'd how I'd done things he laughed at me.

One of my prouder accomplishments was the stairs. The plans didn't call for stairs so I had to design them from scratch. I ran a tape measure from the top of the deck to the ground at a point that looked like it might work. That gave me a hypotenuse, one side (deck to the ground) and an angle (90, between the wall and the ground). From there I solved for the rest of the triangle. I set the height of the steps based on the stairs in our house.

Building them out was straightforward after having all the angles. I used the miter saw to cut the angles on the ends of the runners. Thinking it'd be easier to place the treads and that it'd better at transferring force from the treads to the runners, I made dados in the runners with the miter saw. I set a stop block and cut the treads. Assembly was fast and easy. Just place the treads in the dados, drill pilot holes and screw in the bolts.

To hang the stairs I bolted a 2x4 to the deck beam, cut a notch out of the runners, and hung them on the 2x4. I toenailed a couple of bolts in just to hold the stairs to the platform.

I went back and forth on the roof style. The plans call for cedar shingles. I thought they'd look really nice but be a huge amount of work. I debated cedar vs asphalt shingles vs prefab metal or plastic. Ultimately I went with the asphalt shingles. The cedar would have been too much work and the metal/plastic prefab would have been really ugly. Installing asphalt shingles is actually really simple and goes pretty quickly when you're only working on an 8'x8' roof. Plus it was an excuse to buy a new hammer.

The rafters are 16 on center so I had the sheathing ripped down to 48"x32". That made it easier to handle and once again meant it could fit in the car. I set it on the rafters and used the nail gun again to secure it. I rolled out the roofing felt and secured it with staples from the staple gun. The shingles went on in the standard way: starter course then offset every other row all secured with roofing nails. The roofing nails poke through the sheathing. The kids are short enough now that it's not a problem, but I'll probably end up clinching them over pretty soon.

I got some video of putting the roof together, but I'm not happy enough with it to post.

By this point it looked nearly complete and I was starting to feel a little fatigued with the project. I slapped a bunch of red paint on the walls and bright white on rafters. That ended up helping to motivate me getting the trim on. Having the paint on it gave it that "looks nice, but it's missing something" feeling. I cut and measured the trim out of pre painted plywood (so I wouldn't need to try and mask and paint once it was on the walls). Finally it looked done.

In it's current state it's effectively complete. The kids can play safely on it. It looks nice sitting in the backyard. There's a swing set that should come out of the front over the porch. Eventually I'll add it, but it hasn't been a priority.

The kids don't seem to be playing in it much. I think that's mostly because there hasn't been anything in it. I built a small table and set of benches. Those have attracted some use. I think some cabinets and a play sink will go a long way to make it more appealing. As the kids get older, I'm sure they'll start to find other uses for it. If not, I spent a couple months building something I'm proud of.

Overall, I'm really happy with the whole project. It was a bigger undertaking than I'd ever attempted and it came out really well. It's level and square and sturdy and should be able to stand for at least the next decade. Thanks for following along!

Update: I finished it.