Tree House Page
Welcome to my tree house page.
So many people have found “dovetails” by searching the words “tree house” or “treehouse”, that I thought it would be a good idea to collect most of the posts from this site about tree houses in one place.
Most of what you will find here are illustrations, posts, and photographs of the magnificent tree house my friend Peter built. I hope everyone who is interested in tree houses knows about his book Treehouse Chronicles. If not check it out—I have vested interest in that I illustrated the book.
October 20, 2006
A few years back a friend announced that he was going to build a tree house and that he was looking for help; who wouldn’t want to help? The concept that he started out with was a small platform in a tree with four walls, a roof and one window. What he ended up with was a two-storey timber frame tree house twenty two feet off the ground, with two decks, twenty one windows, a drawbridge, and a room dedicated to the playing of chess. It also took almost four years to build.
What can I say? it was a blast. At least it was for me because I got to help, but was not paying the bills. You only have to look at it to see that Peter’s tree house is really cool and he, and his friends, (including me) had a LOT of fun building it.
The project ended up being something inspirational, in part because a lot of really neat ideas came together really by themselves. For example there are no bolts or nails in the tree and a great deal of the structure was built of “found” or recycled material. I don’t think there was ever a very conscious effort to make this an environmentally friendly, or deliberately green, tree house, but I think Yankee thrift and pragmatism eventually led to the same place. The tree house is hung from cables run through PVC conduit through a large natural fork in the tree. The thinking was practical; the tree is the foundation therefore nothing should be done to damage the foundation, but the end result is still better for the tree.
Sometimes the challenge of putting the tree first resulted in a much more interesting design as well. There was a branch that was going to pass right through the chess room and rather than cut it off (it was a really nice branch) we built windows around it with canvas gaskets that keep out the weather but allow the branch to sway freely in the wind. It would have been much easier and been a lot less work to just cut off the branch, but the living branch running in one window and out the other is one of the best features of the second floor.
Peter ended up writing a book about the whole project; Treehouse Chronicles. Two central themes of the book are to follow your dreams, or as Peter’s mother told him, “You need to put feet on your dreams, they are no good stuck between your ears”. The other is explained in the front cover of the book: “This is the story of what happens when adults decide to be kids again and they have tools and lumber”. The book was has also been fairly inspirational and has won seven national book awards. If you are interested, check out Peter’s tree house blog, or you can check out his book Treehouse Chronicles.
October 28, 2006
I am a terrible chess player. I have some good standard opening moves, and my endgame has a lot of potential. However, after the excitement of the start of the game, my mind wanders. My problem is that thinking about how the game works is far more interesting to me than playing the game. Perhaps if I spent less time thinking about why the knight moves the way it does, and a little more time actually watching the knights, I would stand a better chance.
While my playing ability is questionable, the game still interests me, and I have great respect for gifted players. It should come as no surprise then, that I have made several unique chess sets. In each instance, I had an opportunity to create something with minimal constraints to time and scale. In short, the only real limitation was that the end- result still had to be recognizable as chess.
The first of these projects looks rather tame and conservative to me now. The opportunity arose when a wonderful friend and neighbor, decided to clean out, reorganize, and re-invigorate her pottery studio. She does not like working in her studio alone and encouraged me to start some sort of project. Not too long before this, while on a trip to Italy, I had seen an interesting chess set in Venice. The pieces of the set vaguely resembled African animals, and the board was made of ceramic tiles with jungle scenes painted on it. I liked the idea, but not the execution.
The more I thought about it, the more I thought it might be fun to expand on the idea. The result was the ceramic “Jungle Chess” set. The King and Queen would clearly be a lion and lioness, the dignity of the silverback gorilla lent itself nicely to the Bishops. The unusual move made by the Knight, and the awkward nature of the rhino seemed to go together. The mass of the elephant seemed an appropriate representation of the Rook.
As I roughed out my ideas in clay, the pieces presented a certain “gravitas”. In contrast, I thought it might be fun to have the pawns present a contrary theme. I settled on monkeys. The main pieces of the set stare straight ahead; are grave, and dignified. The pawns (monkeys) on the other hand, are all extroverted individuals. Some monkeys make faces while others gesture wildly, moon each other, and basically; behave badly.
I really liked what I had come up with so far, but was not sure what to do with the board to make it interesting. The idea of tracking animals through the jungle gave me an idea. I made stamps out of soapstone for all the pieces King through pawn. Then, when I had made all the individual tiles that would makeup the chess board , I laid these out and stamped them as though the pieces had been running back and forth all over the board. I liked the result. Some of the more rigid features of the game had become barely contained chaos.
Tree House Chess:
Another opportunity presented itself when my friend Peter, announced that the second floor of his tree house would be dedicated to chess. I immediately thought that a chess set with a tree house theme could be “way cool”. What was more, since the whole idea of a grown man building himself a tree house appeared to throw people off balance, I thought it might be interesting if what would happen if what I created was less obviously a chess set. What I hoped to do was to make something that visitors to the tree house would be drawn to purely by form and shape without first recognizing its purpose.
In this case, the concept for the board, or table, came first, and the design of the pieces would come later.
I had an image in my mind of each square of the chessboard at a slightly different level, supported from below, by a small-scale forest. The squares would be almost like the leaves of the diminutive trees. Mind you, figuring out how to do this provided a bit of a challenge, but in the end, it was just a question of time spent in the woods looking at branches. Eventually, I achieved the look I was going for; it just took many gluing and varnishing sessions. Like so many projects, the only real demands it made of me as a person, were the patience and discipline to keep at it.
While working on the board, I began to think about the pieces. More complex than the Jungle Chess pieces, I wanted to stay with organic tree forms. My concern was that if I made all the pieces from branches, I still needed to distinguish the pieces from one another, as well as the two sides from one another. The solution I chose was to have the core of each chess piece made from a branch, or branches glued together; Faux cherry for the black pieces and Beech for the white. Where ornament was required, I would use acorns, pinecones, or bark. Where detailed ornament was required, I chose to use metal cut in leaf forms; silver for the white, and copper for the black.
I think the end-result is a success. A game played on such a three dimensional board is full of surprises.
Here are some more pictures, mostly from inside of Peter’s Tree House:
March 9, 2007
Somehow, writing about making toys with my nephews and niece reminds me of making the spiral staircase for Peter’s tree house.
There needed to be a means of getting from the main floor of the treehouse up to the chess loft (see chess sets). We decided the best route to go was some sort of spiral stair. We had found a white pine tree with unusual branch formations. Peter cut it down and dragged it out of the woods, it turns out this was quite an epic, but you can read about it in Peter’s book Treehouse Chronicles if you are interested. Peter had also cut down a large dying fir tree; come to think of it, there was a story behind cutting that tree down too. Anyway, we cut slabs out of the fir trunk and stripped the bark off the white pine; the latter was a particularly nasty job. The idea was to take the naturally upswept branches of the pine and use them as natural supports for the outer ends of the treads of the stair.
In order to get this right we had to haul the now de-barked pine tree up into the tree house and locate it, a process that created a somewhat bizarre sight and nearly caused a car accident as passing drivers witnessed the hoisting of one tree up into another. Once in place we were able to rotate the trunk of what would become the stairway to take best advantage of the support branches that nature had provided. With trunk in place, we could concentrate on the final shaping of the treads. Peter had cut up the fir into slabs with a chain saw; we now finished these off with drawknife and plane. On the inner end of the tread, I cut a large dovetail, in the trunk I then cut a matching wedge shaped socket.
Finally, the upswept branch that was to be the support for the outer end of the tread was cut to the right height and the tread was driven into place with a mallet. The ends of the upswept branches were set into sockets drilled in the underside of the treads. The finished stair is strong, simple, and to use a phrase that Peter coined; has lots or “organic funkiness”.
While I will admit to having a general concept in my mind for the spiral stair, we had to invent a lot of the process as we went along. I think that combination of imagination and invention is what reminds me so much of making toys.
November 28, 2006 Over the Thanksgiving weekend, my friend Peter had more than fifty visitors to his tree house. At one point, there were seventeen people up in the tree. Peter had not planned the weekend that way, but several people decided to cash in on open invitations. Everyone was enchanted and I guess I should not be surprised; I was watching a new show a week ago on HGTV; “Look What I Did”, which featured Peter and his tree house. I found myself getting sucked into the story and forgetting that I had been part of it.
I don’t know what it is about tree houses that so many people connect to, but the connection is there. Peter’s book, Treehouse Chronicles, the story of building his tree house, has won seven book awards. Part of the reason for this is that Peter is a wonderful storyteller and photographer, and I flatter myself that my illustrations bring something to the book as well, but it is more than that. There is some sort of inexplicable draw to tree houses. There have been a number of newspaper articles in the last few years that have dwelt on the trend of adults who are building themselves tree houses. They speak of adults trying to return to childhood, of “midlife crisis”, of the innocence of a simpler time, but I don’t think that’s it.
I am thinking of another tree house adventure that took place more than a decade ago. Some friends who live down in the town asked me to build their children a tree house in a large pine behind their house. The idea was that once I got the basic platform up, their children would help with the construction of the rest of the edifice. Since they live in a populated neighborhood, I suggested that we side the building in tongue and groove pine, rather than plywood, so that if other neighborhood children wanted to help, there would be plenty of nailing to do. I pre-fabricated the structure for the platform and quite a lot of what would become the stud walls. The last thing I did before heading down to their house was to stitch up eight or nine simple nail aprons out of old canvas and collect every hammer I could find. Sure enough as soon as the platform was up and the hammering began, neighborhood children began to appear out of the woods as if by magic. Usually they would stop and stare, utter something like; “Whoa’, or “Cool”, and then came the inevitable question: “Can I help”? By the end of that first day, virtually every kid in the neighborhood was involved and I had run out of nail aprons and hammers.
These children were not having a “mid-life crisis”, and they certainly were not looking back to childhood, they were there. Not all of them knew me before the project, but everyone of them, boy or girl, from the shy kid who never spoke, to the neighborhood tough-guy; wanted to be part of building a tree house. So what is it? Is it being off the ground? I don’t know, but I do think it has something to do with escape to a “safer” place. I remember one of the themes of that neighborhood tree house project was that the kids all seemed obsessed with how we would keep “other” kids out of the tree house. I thought this was odd at the time because I could not imagine who these “other” kids were. Perhaps there is something primordial about coming together and creating a place of safety, or perhaps it has to do with hiding in the trees. I don’t know, but I can tell you one question I never heard from any child throughout that whole project: I never heard the question; “Why”?