One of the great pleasures of having kids and owning a home is that you get to build a fort, and this spring I did it. Instead of starting with traditional 2×4 lumber, I used the thinnest lumber, the 1×2.
After checking out the commercial version of a kid's backyard fort, I knew I wanted to avoid building a box. I wanted to give the fort a bunch of odd angles, which would hopefully give it a more organic appearance.
My design was a fort with a shape like a turtle shell, with flat 30" hexagons as the building blocks. I set up a jig on the miter saw, cut out a hundred parts and began screwing together a pile of hexagons. With 10 hexagons screwed together, the convex shell began to take shape. This was going to be cool.
But before long, I had a change of plans. Stacy pointed out that one of the essential elements of a treehouse or fort is having an elevated platform. I had to agree. My new plan was to start with an L-shaped platform, tall enough for a kid to walk under: 55 inches. What I didn't immediately realize was that a platform on spindly little legs would need a huge number of supports to feel sturdy.
I framed up three 4'x4' panels and cut a bunch of lumber to serve as mini-joists to support this floor. The panels were comically minimalist in their construction. I resisted the urge to switch to larger lumber, reminding myself that I could always add legs if the platform wasn't safe when I had it in the air.
Indeed, it felt dangerous. I added a web of legs and bracing, most of it at a 150° angle, giving the structure a tree-branch look. Even with a dozen braces, it was wobbly. Adding scores of cross-braces, I felt a little better, trying to remind myself that a platform which felt weak to a grown man might be fine for children.
In the end I wound up with 41 legs supporting the platform, with 74 of the branch-like braces. In some ways, each brace was a custom fit, so that spacing of the "branches" would be aesthetically pleasing. In reality, I cut a pile of the braces in many different lengths and just walked around the fort looking for a nice place to attach them.
Bracing filled in the area under the platform, but I kept some passages open, so kids would walk through or hang out down there
I enlisted some help from my kids, coaxing them into driving screws and giving them what they needed to help paint the network of bracing lumber.
With the platform ready, I had to reassess my collection of hexagons. I'd need about sixty to cover the entire structure in a dome, which no longer seemed like a great idea. Instead I decided to use some hexagons for the roof and walls, giving it a honeycomb look. Maybe the hexagons would look like pixelated leafy clumps on top of the tree-branch motif? I experimented.
Using a bunch of wooden hexagons for roof panels seemed like too much structure, so I made a lightweight version of that snowflake shape. They used much less lumber and they looked great! I sewed together two widths of green burlap to complete the panels.
Immediately after getting the burlap installed, I was hit by a surprise rain and hailstorm. As I hurried to get the fort covered in a tarp, I noticed how inviting the fort interior was when the walls were solid blue plastic sheets. It was much more cozy! This was an aspect I had overlooked. Kids want a hideout.
This revelation made me redesign the walls. Instead of open hexagons, I decided to tack two layers of burlap onto them, providing some privacy inside. For the rear wall, I used a sheet of plywood, helping to block this spyglass view into our neighbor's backyard.
One benefit to building your own fort is that you would have a hard time reaching the $1,000+ price tag of commercial playforts. Still, the cost of the fort crept up on me, coming to light in five $50 trips to the hardware store. In addition to $171 in lumber, I used $65 in screws, $51 in burlap and staples. The non-traditional construction required a lot of time and customization, reinforcing my desire to preserve it from decay. This motivated me to invest in $66 in weird blue stain from Ikea.
The forest of thin lumber had a huge surface area to paint. Compare painting a potato vs. painting an order of french fries. In retrospect, probably half of the construction effort was spent on painting and staining wood. Like many projects, when this one felt 90% complete, only about 50% of the work was done.
The thin lumber and burlap are both fairly susceptible to sun and water damage, but I'm confident it will last for a few summers before needing upgrades. It had to last long enough that I could avoid "hive collapse" jokes from my friends.
Commercial playforts are probably expensive because any company which builds them would buy a shield of accident liability insurance.
It was a great project and I love the look of the finished fort! My kids named it their "laboratory", which is like music to my ears. As I put the finishing touches on it my daughter commented, "It's like no other fort. I'm really glad we didn't buy one."
So am I.