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Well, little darling, it was a long, cold winter in the Northeast. Record cold. Record snow. Broken record
But spring is here at last. The sap is running, the goldfinches are starting to turn gold and my Newfoundland has rediscovered that ponds are for swimming. There are few joys that equal the rush of spring.
As part of the support package that comes along with all Peacemaker treehouses, I took a ride to see an old friend today — the Bond’s pirate ship treehouse — to give it a thorough once-over during its annual inspection.
Old treehouse project partner Ed Bond met me in the driveway and led me around to the back of his house, telling me tales of taking video when the treehouse was snow-covered and how his son Jack has cemented plans for a slide to be attached outside the emergency exit he asked me to add at the end of the project last summer.
The conversation stalled, however, when we turned the corner and hit the yard. Our host tree, a 50-70 year old Norway maple, has a large and dense crown. It’s part of what made the pirate ship treehouse experience so wonderful — from the deck 10 feet up in the canopy it’s hard to see the horizon, so it’s easy to get lost in the motion of the leaves and imagine yourself at sea. Since most of the construction took place last year after the leaves had burst out and enclosed the site, the late-winter visitor is treated to views never before seen.
The whole treehouse is visible now, from stem to stern, offering a brand new perspective on Jack Bond’s “Serpent Slayer.” The most intriguing vantage point is about 50 yards off the bow, where a full head-on view of the tree-borne pirate ship triggers outright intimidation. We modeled the Serpent Slayer on the lines and dimensions of real and model pirate ships, part of an effort to include enough authenticity to make an 8-year-old proud, but this was the first time we realized that menacing prepare-to-be-boarded feel had come through in translation as well.
Neat stuff, and a treat that will become an annual rite. Sometime between the snowmelt and the spring bloom, neighbors and passers-by will do more than a few doubletakes in this corner of New York’s Southern Tier.
As for the inspection itself, it’s an annual Peacemaker Treehouses ritual. With notebook and camera in hand, I go over the entire project from top to bottom. All connections, materials, supports, finishes, every odd detail is given the once-over — from the bolts that anchor the main ledger to the tree to the flexible collar that lets one trunk pass through the roof without a drop falling on the pirates inside
The Serpent Slayer passed its first winter with hardly a scratch. Measurements showed no change in height at base or bow. Tree connections look strong, with the tree showing no evidence of rot or sap loss and plenty of evidence that the healthy trunks are beginning to develop reaction wood — a natural step that will further strengthen the treehouse support. Moving parts still move with ease, painted and stained finishes look clean and bright. Aside from a good sweeping, and a repair to one solar light that seemed to have caught the business end of some falling ice, this ship is ready to sail into its first full season.
It was good to see Ed and the Serpent Slayer again. I’ll be back later this year to help Ed install that slide Jack has been demanding, then I’ll see them all every March hence as we all — Ed, Jack, the Serpent Slayer and me — age with grace and add some new stories to tell.
It’s good to see an old friend doing well.
That’s how it felt last Friday, when I stopped by the Bond home in Horseheads, N.Y. for the “Christening” of their pirate ship in a tree. With upstate classic fare — cold beer, wings and sheet pizza — on hand, family and friends of the Bonds gathered to officially kick off the era of The Serpent Slayer. After a few energetic swings of a water balloon on a rope, Capt. Jack finally sent his ship off into the blue.
It is, of course, always good for a designer and builder to see a crowd of people with wide eyes and big smiles. It’s just an added bonus that the Bonds were so much fun to work with, and now it’s clear the fun belongs to them. Go luck to all, and happy sailing.
The sound of drills, saws and hammers stopped at the Bond’s treehouse site mid last week, but the activity is just getting started.
On Sunday I stopped by to get a round of final pictures for the pirate ship treehouse photo gallery (you can see the entire Horseheads treehouse photo gallery by clicking here, or by going through my Web site, www.peacemakertreehouses.com) and the new addition to the backyard maple tree already looks like part of the family fabric. Jack, the 9-year-old force behind the project, has added a few of his own touches – from a hammock in the captain’s cabin to a bucket on a rope tied to the rail to make hauling water balloons up to the deck a little easier. Ed finished the rigging and made some adjustment to the rope ladder, while the whole clan works on getting the mulch ground cover in place.
I hung around for a while, and tried to make myself as inconspicuous as a man on a 24-foot ladder can be. It was great to see the treehouse we all dreamed up now real, and becoming a very real part of a very wonderful family. Good luck to you all, and I’ll see you next spring for our annual inspection.
P.S.: Those of you who can’t get enough treehouse building magic, just jump over to the Ithaca treehouse blog. After a few days in the office and some design modifications, work begins there later this week. — jc
Well, it’s a little more than a year since I stood out under their maple tree in a steady downpour, but the Bond’s treehouse is done.
Cue the cherubs.
This week on site has been all about scratching items off the punch list. Cannon ports. Check. Block and tackle for side rigging. Check. Custom mounts for solar lanterns. Check. Fresh paint on all cut trim edges. Check. And so it goes.
By Wednesday morning the only task of great consequence that remained was installing the water-resistant collar and shroud around the tree branch that penetrates the roof of the cabin. The wooden collar was fashioned in advance from three layers of three-quarter inch exterior plywood. The oval ring was about 1 1/2-inches thick and 2 1/4-inches tall, and completely waterproofed for action. Putting this task to the end of the list was done as I searched for alternatives to the standard truck tire inner tube shroud that most treehouse builders rely upon. In the end I found an interesting option; a commercial-grade HVAC unit cover made from a translucent gray material. Manufactured to cover drum-shaped roof cooling units, it was easy to modify to fit around the tree branch and anchor to the custom-made roof collar. While it doesn’t allow a view of the leaves above, it does let light glow through and help the interior of the cabin feel warmer.
With the roof system finalized, all that remained were the “ups,” namely touch-ups and clean-up. Gold and red trim were given an inspection, and all cut ends or construction scratches were tickled with a wet brush. A few late steps in the project – namely Jack’s requested emergency cabin exit and some upper rail extensions made necessary by our mid-winter expansion of the upper cabin – required a little extra time. Still, in a few hours the lid was slapped down on the can of black paint and the last nail head had been drown. Work on the treehouse was over.
That other up, clean up, was next.
As I work I save every potentially usable scrap. As the project progresses, I make sure I take full advantage of the resource, whether as a replacement for new supplies or as an addition to the project that adds a special touch. A case in point this week, when Ed brought home a box of solar lights and asked if they could be mounted to the treehouse cabin, we didn’t have to go back out for wood or hardware. A small stack of five-quarter “off cuts” provided the lumber, and some screws backed out of temporary boards used in the construction process took care of the rest. A little cutting, routing and drilling and we were there — with less cost and more efficient use of our materials.
Being committed to using scrap means work often ends with a world of wood still hanging around in piles.
Here, Ed jumped in to help things along. Buoyed by his work helping with various parts of this project, Ed has decided to tackle a few smaller tasks around his home with his son, Jack. Even scraps that could be used for anything as small as model building now had a new value. I sorted the scrap stack and moved it inside the Bond’s garage (really Amy, that’s where Ed told me to put it), and used a snow shovel to scoop up the rest into a few heavy-duty bags. A few big toads we found in the scrap pile were escorted back under a nearby deck, and we were done.
With the treehouse site cleaned up, the work area swept and all the tools packed into my truck, it was time to say goodbye. For more than 12 months, the Bonds and their maple tree played host to this designer and builder, and always with grace. I’ll head back in a few days for some pictures (remember to check the photo gallery for those images), but then it will be time to leave a good family to the great treehouse they helped create. I’ll see them every spring during Peacemaker Treehouses annual inspection –- that’s a free service included on every project — and I hope they have lots of stories, pictures and memories to share of good times the entire clan found in the peace of the trees.
This was, to put it simply, a very good week for the Bond’s pirate ship treehouse.
Lots of loose ends were tied, and lots of dreamed-about details came to life – several even better than we had hoped. We even had the first days of unbridled play in the tree, and that is what it’s all about.
On Monday, my good friends at Rick’s Rental World in Ithaca once again made my day. Their store can be hard to find, tucked just off Route 13 along Ithaca’s waterfront, but it’s worth a little hunting. They run their shop the way I imagine I run my life – short on unnecessary cosmetics and long on hard work and honesty. Every tool I’ve rented from Rick’s exceeds expectations and surprises my accountant (in a good way), and this was no exception. This week, with just a little siding still left to be done, a one-day compressor rental fit the bill nicely. Thanks to this sturdy job site addition, by the end of the day all the siding in all those hard to reach places was in place. With a little by-hand work on Tuesday morning, the ship and cabin were almost fully sided, with just a little space on the cabin’s face made to wait for a few new boards to be painted.
While homeowner and eager project volunteer Ed Bond turned once again to painting new materials, work turned to installing and trimming the bow mast.
First, a question: How do you raise an 8-foot mast with two 4-foot support arms more than 15 feet off the ground, and keep it in place under the ship’s upper bow rail so it can be attached?
The answer sits atop the Chrysler Building.
I once saw a PBS documentary on the great heyday of New York City skyscraper building. As the story went, competition and secrecy were so intense as these spires rose into the sky that developers sometimes pulled tricks or hid details from each other and the world. In the case of the Chrysler Building, the tower that sits at its peak was built inside the upper floors to conceal its size, then raised through the roof and locked into place — making the final structure a surprise to those watching from below.
While the bow mast is more horizontal than vertical -– it rises at a modest 10 degrees, a matching angle to the rise in the cabin’s roof at the rear of the ship –- the same slide-it-out-from-the-inside method worked like a charm here. A small wooden jig was attached over the top of the bow’s upper point, and the first part of the mast base was added to the underside of the upper rail about two feet back. The mast assembly was then carefully guided out, its weight being carried by the jig. As it got further out, the balance tipped and the rear of the mast rose and locked right into the base. Once it was trued and bolted to the double 2×6 upper rails, the remainder of the base was installed and the bow mast could now stand on its own. A lower brace and spindle rod were added below the mast assembly, preserving the view and the light under the bow’s upper rail but making sure no one could slide a head out of the hole. Water balloons, of course, are another matter.
The bow beam was extended from below to catch and support the mast, and some gold and red trim were added to finish the bow’s exterior look. The final detail, running a rope through an eye lag at the end of the bow, provided a real-world field test of the structure’s strength. If it can hold a builder on a ladder at its tip, the bow mast will likely handle anything wind and rain will toss its way.
With Ed’s paintwork done, work Thursday turned to final assembly of the windows and door. Thursday also saw the return of my daughter to the job site, and she once again proved herself an asset. In addition to taking lots of pictures, her natural patience and sense for details made her a wiz at priming and touching up trim boards cut for the various window parts. Her good nature also easily diffused any of the otherwise routine frustrations of a day on any job site. This time, I even remembered to bring spoons for the yogurt I packed for lunch. Checking the expiration date on the applesauce, well, that’s another story.
By day’s end, seven windows and the main door were assembled and waiting to be brought into the treehouse. My favorite of them all might be the east side cabin window, which has a custom-cut curved lower half that follows the contours of three branches that emerge from the treehouse at that spot. Letting the tree come out through the window – rather than moving the window or entertaining the unthinkable and making unnecessary cuts to the tree – was a fun touch during the design phase, and it worked just as well come building time. The plastic shatter-resistant glass took the curve cut well, and a whole lot of branches and leaves survived to keep making our host tree stronger. Working with and around the tree just makes the effort more legitimate, and it’s one of the details that separate a well-built treehouse from a shed in the air.
This busy Thursday brought Ed out of the paint shop as well. This time, he switched on his Boy Scout hat, and spent the morning in the treehouse working through all the spacing and other details needed to sort out rope rigging for the masts. With three types of rope and more than a few knot designs kicking around, you could see Ed was in his element. With his young son Liam in the treehouse offering encouragement, and a little inspiration for us all, Ed set most of the rigging in place. He even wisely added slipknots were needed to keep the ambitious from climbing the rigging for a better view. Pull with more than a few pounds of force and all the vertical ropes slip out and fall to the deck. Knowing that should slow a few potential first mates, and having to ask dad to reset the rigging should make the few who still try quickly learn the error of their ways.
Friday saw the windows and door installed in the cabin. The door and front window, which sit entirely over the treehouse deck, open fully. Side windows, which look down to the ground 14 feet or so below, are screwed in place and sealed tight. In order to keep air moving in the cabin, the bank of four rear windows was created as a compromise; they open, but only so far. The windows sit tight inside the outside trim, with an added inside trim piece placed at the base so they cannot be pulled in at the bottom. Latches were added to the top to allow them to be tilted in, but stop blocks screwed to the wall studs keep that tilt to no more than a few inches. Plenty of space for air, nowhere near enough space for a human of any age to venture out. It’s unlikely even water balloons could fit through that gap, although I’m sure that assumption will be put to the test. The bottoms of the windows can be unlocked and the entire sash lifted upward by an adult, should a few birds get the best of the glazing and tarnish the view of the tree’s canopy. With windows, as with all design, safety is in the details.
A rare Saturday on site allowed for some loose ends to be tied up, including some window trim installation and that last patch of front cabin siding. The gold inlaid siding boards were added to the upper rear of the cabin, and the red lower braces were attached to the lower rear. Lastly, half a dozen plywood squares were cut and offered to Ed for paint – his second to last paint job of the project. These will be the inner rings of six cannon ports that will be added to the side of the pirate ship treehouse. Here, water balloons are welcome. In fact, sizing was determined by the measure of Jack’s hand as he holds his favorite style of water balloon. My advice to all who venture to the Bond’s yard: Treat Jack well or steer well clear of his treehouse.
Ahead are just a few final details, some touch-up and some clean up. Then it’s all over but the laughter. Let’s hope that never ends.
The Christening is just days away.
After a solid week of work, the Bond treehouse is just a few turns away from being set to sail. Monday saw the final supply run of the project, with materials for masts and other final details being brought to the site. Roll roofing was installed on a wonderfully mild and sunny Monday afternoon. A double layer was put in place on the roof, just 70 square feet to cover so easily handled by a few rolls. The added protection will make sure things stay watertight up top, and the small surface means investing in the extra layer was a minimal cost. We added some 1×2 battens for the nautical look and increased protection against the wind, and the roof was complete.
After assembling the core of the main mast, using a few tricks I learned from timber framers, it was time to turn to the door and windows. During the design process last fall, we committed to custom-made windows and door in order to allow the design freedom needed to create that pirate ship feel. That decision allowed for unusual slopes and shapes, and for a window to be designed around one of the main branches of tree. The day began with a lot of careful measuring. The exact shapes were transferred to sheet of three-quarter inch exterior-grade plywood. Each window and the door were cut whole from a solid sheet, with two layers ultimately being joined together to make the final piece. In between the layers will be a sheet of Crystalite plastic glass, and the outside will be trimmed with the same 1×3 boards as the hull, except painted gold. That should produce a rustic-looking custom window that still keeps the rain at bay, and cutting from a solid sheet of plywood offered great design options.
Measuring twice (actually a few more times than that) and cutting once very carefully was a deliberate process, with the slicing being done by both a circular saw and a jig saw as needed. All the exposed edges were eased with my router and a one-eighth round-over bit before paint was applied. The folks at the local Sherwin Williams helped us out, matching the tone and color of a pocket watch Ed got from his dad.
The time needed for painting, as well as the meticulous cutting, was a great investment and everyone is happy with the choices the design freedom allowed. The windows look great and the project is on the edge of overall completion.
Friday the main mast was raised. First, a few steps back, as a portion of the floor was lifted to allow for added 2×6 support where the mast was set to be placed. The mast itself was assembled from two 4-inch round fence posts, trimmed and spliced to a single piece just shy of 14 feet long. A little more than 2 feet of that mounted below the deck – getting screwed into deck joists and the beam below before being locked into the front foundation header with a half-inch carriage bolt. The structure provides plenty of stiffness for the mast, with the added benefit of locking the treehouse tight to the header. With the addition of some 2x4s and round collar to help stiffen the mast above the deck, the ship moved that much closer to setting sail.
Next week we install the bow mast, mount the windows and door, and then clean up some unfinished odds and ends. No time predictions from an honest builder. Let’s just say that it won’t take long, and it will be done right.
Heavy rains interrupted this week’s progress, so I’m taking some time to add a mid-week update.
Exterior corner trim was put in place on Monday and Tuesday, with persistence and my DeWalt saw overcoming the angles and the short blasts of rain and thunder that are typical for New York’s Southern Tier in July. What was imagined on paper is coming alive, with trim and rail lines joining together to create curves and reinforce angles. In spite of an understandably flat foundation, our tree-borne pirate ship seems to rise at the bow and stern, and offers a great curved hull line when looked at from the ground below the bow.
By Tuesday afternoon the siding for the upper cabin walls was taking shape, with the rear wall being tackled first.
A wild midday storm on Tuesday dumped lots of water and sent me under the patio roof for some prefabrication work. More than 20 identical accent pieces were cuts from leftover stock. After some added paint, they’ll go atop the upper window trim and add a little 18th century character. Decorative lower braces were also cut from existing 2×10 stock. They will get installed under the rear cabin bump out, again re-creating a look common on sailing ships of the great pirate era.
Since the Bond’s family dog Wanda has been such steady company throughout this project, I added a little bit of her to the treehouse: The semicircle cut into the lower braces was made by tracing the rim of her water dish. Here’s to you, Wanda.
Thursday will be a big day for the project, with the installation of the rope ladder and hatch meaning Capt. Jack will be free to play under supervision in his nearly completed ship. Cabin siding should also wrap up, leaving just a few items left on the project punch list.
One of those will be building and installing the bow and main masts, due to take place after a supply run on Friday. It’s all glamor work now.
As any carpenter can tell you, it’s the trim that takes the most time. Add to the mix the complications of working with multiple angles on multiple planes – and doing it all 10-20 feet of the ground – and that classic maxim is all the more true.
The good news is it’s all coming together wonderfully. Plenty of depth and shadow lines. Lots of character with big spaces and soft edges being broken up and given definition.
The bulk of the early part of the week was spent installing roof and window trim on the cabin. The trim here can be fairly complicated to cut – combining the roof’s 10-degree slope, the back wall’s 10-degree lean, the top rail’s 4-degree rise, the lower hull’s 10-degree pitch in and side walls that slope from 11 degrees in the front to 7 degrees at the rear corner. A good compound miter saw is a must, and I’m fortunate enough to have a trusted DeWalt slider to rely upon. It’s a fun stage because each step fills in a blank and makes the image we drew months ago on paper more and more a reality before our eyes.
After that, I jumped into building the custom hatch and installing a kick board along the inside edge of the hull. The hatch is constructed of standard 2×3 lumber, assembled into a 27-by-30 inch grid that’s equal parts open space and wood. The hatch is hinged in the back, and when it’s closed each side rests on 2×4 rails that are carriage bolted to the frame. Plenty of strength to spare, and still a neat window through the floor to the yard below. The kick boards were added to the edge of the deck at the inside of the hull as insurance against any little-footed visitor slipping and getting a shoe caught in the space between the foundation and the inside of the hull. With some extra five-quarter boards on their sides rising off the floor, there’s no chance of that now. The boards also help define the deck space and reinforce the intersecting lines that join to create a great rising bow.
With rain threatening to swoop in late Friday and Ed, the eager homeowner and helper, itching to flex his skills, I spent what was left of Friday afternoon cutting and pre-drilling hardwood rungs for a custom rope ladder. Ed, a longtime scout leader, has studied more than a few plans for making a serious rope ladder, and doing it himself from hand-selected materials will allow him to create a 15-foot ladder that can bear up to 1,400 pounds (an unimaginable load for a kid’s ladder) for about half the price of purchasing one from a playground or sailboat supply company. I’m eager to see what it looks like on Monday, and I know Ed has been studying main mast rigging so he can jump to that rope-themed task next. That scout knows his knots, and one thing I learned while working on community-built playgrounds is always find a way to let the native skills of volunteers working on a project shine.
Some schedule changes for the family cut the week at the Bond’s treehouse site to two days, but it was a very good two days.
Thursday saw the completion of all flashing, and the application of 15-pound felt paper to all the outside surfaces of the cabin above the mid-hull line. Below that line the wall leans out 10 degrees, so any water that makes it over the 2×6 rail and down the side will naturally flow out and away from the cabin’s interior. To keep things light and simple, that section of the wall has only 1×3 hull boards as siding. The plumb midsection and the upper portion of the cabin – whose lean in varies from 7 degrees at the back wall to 11 degrees in the front corner – is another matter. Without careful flashing water will leak into the odd-angled corners of our triangular ship or under the red rails that are both structure and add detail. Wind and water could leak between the hull boards, so three-eighths-inch plywood was spread underneath the three-quarter-inch painted pine siding. The felt paper keeps any water that might leak between the boards from soaking into the plywood.
Once the system is buttoned up, is an effective shield. With trunks passing through the cabin the goal, of course, is not waterproof, it is water control. Keep the water from getting places it can cause trouble, and help any water that finds its way in along a trunk to find its way out in a similarly benign manner. In the end, the Bond’s pirate ship should handle heavy seas
Friday saw the start of trim detailing, which always looks a little odd until it’s all done. The four rear windows get a solid horizontal board above and below, with vertical panels between each opening. All of that is red, to contrast with the black hull. Above the top board will be small red decorative braces, in a style borrowed from a pirate ship we all saw at a miniature golf course in Cortland, New York. With the body of the ship black and the trim red, we had one more color to call upon before we started to induce dizziness. Again borrowing from classic 18th century ship design, we decided our last accents will be in gold. The color will be used sparingly to maximize its impact, including its main role as the color of the windows. That means the black hull, with its strong horizontal lines, will give way to bold and thick multi-layered red trim that will enclose a burst of gold. I even like the way it sounds. The window trim pattern continues around the corner to the side windows, and will be followed on the cabin’s front door and window, which open to the main deck.
It will take a few days to dress it all up, but the look will be worth the wait. After that, we get to the final details – masts, rigging, rope ladder, cannon ports, hatch and accent lights. All in all, we should be just a few short weeks from Captain Jack and the Bond crew heading out to sea.
Work at the Horseheads treehouse site resumed Monday, and from here we take it with just a few interruptions until this pirate ship is set to sail.
The first task was to start assembling the hull, at once a simple and surprisingly challenging effort. One of the innovations we came up with to create an authentic look was to use standard pine 1×3 boards and assemble the hull one course at a time. Early June was spent priming, painting and repainting the boards until they had a thick black waterproof coat. Then the boards were custom cut to match the length and angle of the side posts, as well as the natural curve that happen when the hull pulls together at the bow. In the end, we had the look we hoped for. Our new pirate ship had a weathered hull rich in shadow lines and curved to break the waves Jack will imagine he braves on his own open sea.
Recurring summer thunderstorms and a day off at the site to mark Ed’s birthday took a bite out of the week, but the lower hull took form and a good portion of the middle layer – including the rise at front and rear and a sidestep around one of two tree branches that penetrate the cabin – was put in place. When work begins next week, it’s time to skin the cabin and start putting together the trim that will give this pirate ship its final stamp of character. Well, maybe not final stamp, since we still have two masts to set and some rigging to raise. It’s getting to be fun time. Who wouldn’t love this?
I can’t wait to hear what the neighbors say in autumn, when the tree drops its canopy and a completed pirate ship emerges from its green shroud. Jack will own the neighborhood.