Lessons Learned in the Playhouse

It’s taken about 18 months to complete my son’s playhouse. Aside from putting down some pea gravel, the structure is ready for him to use and enjoy. I’ve captured pictures and tips along the way for anyone else attempting something like this.

First, this ended up being a more ambitious project than I had planned. Not just from a complexity perspective, but primarily in terms of time. Keeping to any sort of schedule is nearly impossible with a large project like this, with delays, whether from weather, family or work commitments.

Here are some of my takeaways from the project. Some of them I anticipated, some I did not.

Design With the Future in Mind

Your child isn’t going to be 48″ tall forever. I built the short-side of the playhouse 60″ tall and the door roughly 6 feet tall. This is tall enough for him to have some headroom (pardon the pun), and short enough to access the roof without a helicopter.

Having said this, your child will outgrow the playhouse, so there’s no need to design in 8-foot ceilings and crown molding.

Invest in Making Things Square

I got frustrated early on because I didn’t think it would take so long to get the corner posts of the deck set. If it’s any time to let perfectionist tendencies reign, this is it. Setting batter boards and plumb bobs is tedious, particularly if the site is sloped. The materials for this step are mostly throw-away. However, the effort will pay dividends throughout the project.

Size the Project in Two-Foot Increments

Dimensional lumber is sold in 2-foot increments. So, if you want to make the most of your lumber, plan the dimensions of your deck/floor in 2 foot increments. Slightly smaller than that is fine, but not slightly larger. For example, if you want a deck 10 feet in width, plan forĀ edge-to-edge dimensions of 120 inches.

This means when setting your posts, don’t let yourself get confused into making center-to-center measurements meet the 2-foot increment. This was the mistake I made, and I had to buy a bunch of 10-foot decking and saw it all down to 8 foot, 5 inches. Oops.

Overbuild, Especially at the Foundation

I had a few moments of self-doubt when I was loading 6×6 pressure-treated pine posts for the playhouse. It was well worth it. Wood is flexible, and at a total height of 16 feet, I’m glad to have the extra girth at the base.

Another source that lit the way was the American Wood Council’s Prescriptive Residential Wood Deck Construction Guide. That guide also lays out the proper spacing for frames and joists.

Choose the Right Materials

At a bare minimum, parts of your project that come near or in contact with the ground need to use rot-resistant (like cedar) or pressure-treated pine materials. I chose pressure-treated pine for all of the deck frame and railing, and for the decking itself.

Pressure-treated (PT) lumber is about twice the weight and cost of its untreated counterparts. So far, my choice to use standard (not pressure treated) lumber on the playhouse itself, seems to be a fine tradeoff between weight, cost and durability. I applied a coat of Thomspon’s Water Seal on the surface to protect it from the elements and give it a nice color.

Fasteners

After just one season, even high-quality galvanized fasteners start to show white oxidation on the protective coating

When it comes to nails and screws, the only safe andĀ cost-effective option for outdoor construction like a playhouse is to go galvanized. Bright steel – while cheaper and sometimes glossier than galvanized, won’t stand a chance. Even cheap or damaged galvanized fasteners and connectors will rust after just one season.

The exception I made was for the deckboards themselves. I used coated screws by Deckmate for that job.

If you are building near salt water, or just want to spend as much on fasteners as on lumber, you can find stainless steel nails and screws, but not at the big box home improvement stores.

Choose the Right Tools

…and don’t over-purchase either. Buy quality though. Here are the tools that I reached for nearly every time I worked on the playhouse:

  • framing square
  • speed square
  • cordless impact driver
  • trigger clamps
  • circular saw
  • bubble level
  • hammer

Nail Guns

At first, I resisted the thought of using a nail gun. “How lazy is that?” I’m so glad I bought borrowed a nail gun (2 actually: one for framing, the other for finishing) from a wise friend. I still got the satisfaction of hand-hammering plenty of nails despite the nail gun doing most of the work for me.

Final Thoughts

I’m not the most creative soul. As I moved through the project, I got little bits of inspiration from my son helping me and just horsing around while I was building the thing.

At the end, my wife and son promptly decorated and put finishing touches on the playhouse. Like this dinner bell triangle. Little things that made the whole project worth it.

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