Magical Duck Coop?

Somehow, my six year-old daughter Josie, got it in her head that she wanted a scarlet macaw. Y'know, the giant rainbow-colored parrots that cost $3,000, stink up your house, bite your finger, squawk, and live so long that you have to write them into your will? My wife and I were not on board with this idea. So we did what any reasonable parents do: we gently ignored this obsession, hoping it would go away. 

It did not.

Six months later, we needed a plan. Enter parenting strategy #2: the Bait and Switch.

Josie needed a pet. Mind you, we have a lovable, cuddly dog, but Josie needed her own pet, preferably a bird. My wife had ducks as a girl. We'd always talked about getting chickens or ducks at some unspecified time in the future, but we have a dog, two kids, no time, and enjoy having the ability to leave for a weekend. I did some research.

Chickens were out. Why? Because they're vindictive feathered dinosaurs with brains the size of sunflower seeds and eyes that stare into your soul. 

Ducks, however, I find cute. Like chickens, they live outside, but ducks don't scratch up your garden. Instead, ducks eat snails and slugs. Ducks will snuggle with you. And most importantly ducks lay eggs. BIG eggs. Lots of eggs.

How about ducks, Josie?

The response was a resounding yes.

So we ordered ducklings...through the mail. It's strange, I know. As the day of their arrival neared, the excitement in our house grew to a fevered pitch. On the Wednesday of their expected arrival, I was laying in bed when my phone rang began to ring in the living room. Bleary-eyed, I glanced at my alarm clock. It read 6:00 exactly. I rolled over and went back to sleep because there was no way that the U.S. Postal Service was calling me at 6:00 am. It was an east coast telemarketer.

It was not. The voicemail was quite succinct: "Good morning. This is patty over at the post office. Come get your ducks." So we piled into the car at 7:30am and rushed over to the post office. I will tell you this. I've never seen postal workers so happy as I did that morning, handing over a chirping box to two very excited little kids.

So, while they settled into their box beneath a heat lamp, I began construction of the magical duck coop. It's a bit of a stretch to include in the Magical Playhouses portfolio, but Magical Playhouses is all about whimsical backyard structures, so why not? It's not like I was going to build a plywood box, right?

Because this would be for my family, this project would be a great project to use up all that scrap wood in my workshop. Carpenters are all pathological hoarders of wood, and there's nothing that makes us happier than finding a use for all those short pieces of wood. And then there was that small landscaping pond that's been taking up space under the deck ever since my daughter began to toddle around the yard well enough to stumble into it.

Ducks don't need a water body to play in, but they love it. The problem is that ducks are messy to begin with. Add water to the equation and you're asking for a poopy quagmire that would make a mother pig proud. To combat this, I saw some pictures online of duck tubs placed on wire mesh for drainage. I didn't have wire mesh, and it's a little unsightly if you ask me. What I did have was a bunch of mahogany I scored from my local reclaimed building supply store awhile back. It was stitched together like it was once the bottom of a futon frame or something. Tropical hardwood decking!

The duck pond was one of those little black plastic, two-tiered Home Depot deals. I filled the bottom part with concrete and set a drain in the bottom (which I cover with a rock, since the ducks like to pull it out), which flows downhill under the raised salad bar to a garden hose, which I can move around and fertilize the garden with. There was no way that I was going to be bailing poopy duck pond water every few days. Gravity is my best friend.

Next came the duck coop. Except for the hardware, mesh, some PVC for the automatic feeder and the back egg door, I had all the material in my workshop already. The back egg door I'm particularly happy about - the way I hinged the stick that props it open, and inset a magnet in it to keep it out of the ducks way when it's closed. And what duck coop would be complete without stained glass? I know, I know, I can't help myself.

Finally, the mobile coop. The last thing we wanted was to end up with one of those outdoor runs that are bare mud. It's depressing. We would let the ducks run amok in the yard on their own, but we have lots of hawks and eagles around and our yard is very open. So I made a mobile coop that they live in during the day, which is light enough that the kids can move around the yard. And when we leave for the weekend, the mobile coop mates to the duck pond, giving them some extra space and a "salad bar."

The ducks are nearly full grown now (and finally outside all of the time). We are falling into a routine, and we couldn't be happier with Saffy, Luna, Juno and Ruby. We are taking bets on who will lay the first egg later this summer. In the meantime our yard will be well watered and fertilized.

And most importantly, since those little balls of feathers arrived in the mail, there has been no mention of a scarlet macaw.

Shhhhhh.....

Josie and Luna

Operation Tree House Rescue

When Gale built this tree house for her kids 13 years ago, she never expected the tree to grow this fast or this big. It was just a sapling back then, poking up through the deck. Go ahead and make what arboreal metaphors that you will between trees and kids, but the truth of the matter is, just as kids slowly take their toll on the resell value of your home, young trees have a tendency to destroy tree houses.

Large, healthy trees are really the best candidates for tree houses. Not only can they bear the weight, but their annual growth rings are very small compared to a young tree. And the slower they grow, the longer you'll have before you they begin to squeeze and pull and bend at your supports.

By the time Gale called me, this ornery pine clearly had it's mind set on destroying her tree house. See that board underneath the tree, the one that is bowed? That's a 2x8, deflected a whopping four inches in a vertical orientation. And here's what's really troubling about that: that board is the rim joist, which is supporting all the rest of the joists, which in turn is supporting the tree house.

If it goes, the whole structure comes tumbling down.

 

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So, after taking out a life insurance policy, crossing myself several times, and filling my nail bags with four-leaf clovers, rabbit's feet, and other lucky talismans, I set to work building a temporary wall beneath the joists to support the structure.

Because at some point I was going to have to cut out that rim joist...with a sawzall. And doing that is the stuff of YouTube disaster videos.

But I'm not a redneck DIYer with a sledgehammer. I'm a professional, dammit! So with a loud CRACK! I cut the rim and, lo and behold, a thousand pounds of tree house did not come tumbling down on my head.

After our hearts regained their normal rhythm, we decided the best plan would be to free the tree totally from the deck. So once the rim was off I began jacking up each joist individually to try and level out the deck, which as you can guess, now sagged about four inches over the 12 foot span.

I ran into trouble though because the upper part of tree was resting, in part, on the tree house's roof, effectively pinning it down. Without removing it, I couldn't jack up the structure to level. After consulting with Gale's wife, Katie, there was no way that we were going to cut that part of the tree off too. I'd already removed a large limb that had grown right at head level on the stairs, and any more was going to cause some serious marital drama. 

Trees are emotional touchstones, as any homeowner will tell you. We get used to them in our backyards, and even though they may become ornery, or old, or diseased, we have a hard time letting go.

Now, I'm a carpenter, so I pride myself on building straight, level and plumb (well, okay, a lot of what I build at Magical Playhouses is NOT straight, level or plumb, but you get the idea). But I'm a husband too, and after Katie left the backyard nearly in tears at our suggestion of beheading her beloved pine tree, Gale turned to me and said, "You know, maybe the deck doesn't need to be level..."

"Agreed," I said.

I like making people happy with my work, and if making something straight and level is going to cause marital distress, I'm not for it. And besides, their youngest is now 13 herself, so this tree house only needs to make it another four years. So I built a very un-level deck, the tree house was saved, and when Katie saw the end result she was thrilled.

I was too: they were happy and I was still alive.

 

Carving

Okay, so I just found this post in my drafts folder, but for whatever reason, I never published it. Have I mentioned that I'm a better woodworker than a webmaster?

Here we go:

Now that the rafters are up, it's time to carve the dragon head and tail, since they will support the fascia.

I don't think there's anything I enjoy more in playhouse construction than the carving. First I need some real big hunks of cedar, which thanks to my neighbor with a bandsaw mill, are easy to come by (though heavy to lift). I start with the tail. First, I cement my status as an Olympic Peninsula artist/woodworker by grabbing my chainsaw.

I use a chainsaw mortiser to make that hole below so the tail can mount onto the tenon projecting from the curved ridge beam. Then I start roughing out the tail.
 

Now for the scales.

Next up is the little guy for the dormer.

And then comes the big boy up front. I mortise and tenon two cedar 8x15s together at a slight angle for proper grain direction and then it's time for the chainsaw mortiser again. I use every tool at my disposal, starting with the chainsaw, which gets me to here.

I don't have quite enough width for the frill, so epoxy on some more cedar. It's a real balance, carving a dragon for a child's playhouse: you don't want it tol loo too menacing, but you I also don't want it to look like Puff the Magic Dragon. I feel like this guy strikes a nice balance. Eventually I'm using carving gouges, detail sanders and test fitting the Texas longhorns I bought on Ebay from a taxidermy outfit.

After some painting, I'm done!

The head is removable, because with it on, the playhouse is too tall to travel down the highway on my trailer. In retrospect, I would have designed it lower, but live and learn, right? It all worked out in the end.

Remodeling a She Shed

I've been remodeling a 12'x12' 'she-shed' for a couple here in a Port Townsend. If you're not familiar with the term, a 'she-shed' is the woman's equivalent to the 'man-cave,' or as the husband who is funding this remodel describes it, "A place where my wife can have her friends over, drink wine, and complain about us [their husbands].".

Here's the before photo:

I don't do a lot of remodeling anymore, so it's a good reminder of the quality of my own work. For example, this building has no exterior sheathing...y'know the sheets of wood that are nailed to the framing to keep your house from falling down in the event of an earthquake. Everything is out of level and the window trim was put on by someone who obviously had never done it before. There's a lot of things, actually, that look like the work of a homeowner who either was trying to save every penny or really didn't know what he was doing.

So you do what you have to do when you remodel. You shore up the sagging floor. You rip out all the terrible faux-panelling and roll up the carpet. You insulate the two rafter bays that were just 'missed.' And soon enough, this little building in their backyard takes on the feeling of a place you'd like to hang out in, throw a log in the (new) fireplace, and raise a glass of Cabernet with a few of your girlfriends...before you launch into a tirade over how every night your husband steals all the blankets. Every night!

The Northwest Flower and Garden Show

What a great show! I just wanted to thank everyone who paused to talk with me over the course of those five days at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show. The response the potting studio received was just tremendous. It inspired so many conversations about possible projects: potting sheds, boat houses, playhouses, tree houses, ranging from Juneau, AK to Orange County, CA. I'm really excited by the opportunity to work on so many interesting projects during the coming year!

On the last day of the show, a wonderful woman named Deb fell in love with the potting studio. She told me it was exactly what she'd been envisioning for her backyard. She had come to the show without her husband, so that night she wanted to go home and talk it over. In the morning she called and said, "We want it!" When I arrived at her house later that afternoon, she was so excited that she'd already been clearing sod and hauling gravel. A few hours later, she gave me a hug and, with a wave from my truck, I pulled my empty trailer away. Congrats Deb! I hope you love you're new Magical Playhouse as much as I enjoyed building it.

Many people at the NW Flower and Garden Show expressed interest in the potting studio, but wanted something about it to be a little different. This can be done! That's the best thing about working with a designer/builder: you get exactly what you want.

Looking forward to hearing from you,

Chris

The Potting Studio is Done!

As I write, the Potting Studio is on my trailer waiting for me to drive across the Hood Canal Bridge, over the Edmonds ferry, down I-5 right into the heart of downtown Seattle before driving into the Washington State Convention Center for the Northwest Flower and Garden Show! I can't wait to meet everyone at the show and talk to them about what Magical Playhouses can deliver to their backyards. I only hope my voice won't give out! That, and no rubberneckers will have an accident on the freeway as they pass me.


I also set up The Dragon at one of Josie's friend's house for a photo shoot. Since it travels without the head on, I realized that I didn't have any real good photos of it all assembled. So we set it up and invited a bunch of her little friends over for a playdate. I love watching little kiddos play in a space that is designed for them. The looks on their faces...

Ok, gotta get some sleep. Long days await.

Progress on the Timber Frame Potting Studio

I'm about 3/4 of the way through construction of a timber frame potting studio that I'll be hauling to the Northwest Flower and Garden Show, February 17-21 at the Washington State Convention Center in downtown Seattle. So far so good. I finished off the cedar shake roof the other day just in time for a series of winter storms. Today I put the cumaru decking down for the U-shaped potting table and seated the reused double-basin cast iron sink.

With 3 1/2 weeks to go to the show, all that's left is some shingling, the electrical, some wall T&G, shelving, window trim and the doors.

So swing by the show! I'll be located at booth 909, near the display gardens. Hope to see you there!

Bellevue Arts Museum ARTSFair

What a weekend! After winching The Dragon onto the trailer in Port Townsend, driving down the highway, floating across Puget Sound on the Kingston/Edmonds ferry, up I-5, down I-405, and clearing the first skyway between the Bellevue Square Mall and its parking garage by 2 1/4 inches, I made it. And as far as I know, I am happy to report that no rubbernecking motorists veered off into the ditch as they watched me cruise by.

The last few weeks have been a push. I'd wake up, eat breakfast, and work until darkness drove me back inside. The morning I left Port Townsend, I was literally stapling the last shingles above the door as the playhouse sat on the trailer. But it always gets done, and once I parked in the ferry parking lot, I realized what the weekend would be all about: smiles. Thousands upon thousands of them. The weight of all those 12 hour days lifted with each new adult who walked over with that childish look of delight on their upturned face.

With the help of friends of family, we unloaded The Dragon in my space at the Bellevue Square Mall, and thanks to some other vendor's car trouble, I secured an even better location than I had been assigned. I built the scaffold to put the carved dragon head on (it's too tall to go down the highway) and finished out all those other little details that have to come off for transport.

After a few hours of sleep, I was back, turning the corner off the sidewalk onto West Drive and holy cow, here were a lot of people! I knew this show claimed to draw 350,000 people, but its hard to believe a number like that when you're baseline for busy is the Port Townsend Farmer's Market. By the time I got to The Dragon there were already a dozen kids playing inside. And it never stopped! I wish I had a way to know how many thousands (tens of thousands?) of children played in The Dragon over those three days, but I was too busy to count. For twelve hours a day The Dragon and I were surrounded by happy onlookers. I fielded questions from parents, grandparents and adults. After Friday I began to worry that my voice would give out. I'm normally I quiet person, and in one day I probably said more words than I had in the rest of July combined. I'm also a very humble person normally, but when I heard, over and over, passer-bys trying to meet up with their friends say, "I'll meet you at the dragon playhouse," into their cell phone, I knew I was on the map. I wasn't the most talented artist at the show (by far), but I was hands down the most noticeable.

Kids, on the other hand, probably noticed little else, period. They'd come down the main aisle, probably having been told a dozen times not to touch anything in the other artisans' booths (my neighbor was a blown glass artist, whose fragile wares were displayed on a tablecloth - terrifying, as a parent, let me tell you).

Then they would see The Dragon.

Their eyes would light up. They'd let go of their parent's hand, pointing at the head, and free from their parental tether, they'd run, all out, right into the doorway. That little door just told them, This is for you. They'd disappear inside, opening and closing the door and window, flicking the lights on and off, and their faces would just glow from behind the door's stained glass window.

And can I just say, how good they were? Many of the kids asked if they could go in. Some even took off their shoes before entering, unprompted. And I never once had to go in and break up a fight, or tell someone to share. The only crying I ever heard, and I heard it often, was when their "Five minutes" had dragged on to fifteen, or thirty, or, in two cases, over two hours, and their parents' voices finally took on that serious tone, that this time 30 seconds really did mean 30 seconds...until it didn't and their mom would smile, cross her arms and shake her head, because for the first time that afternoon their little girl or boy wasn't dragging two steps behind them asking when they could have a snack. And besides, they were on break, and unexpected parenting breaks are like sunny days in January in the Northwest. You don't waste them. I'd raise my eyebrows at them and smile, saying, "It's easy to get them in," leaving it up to them to fill in the logical follow up sentence. They'd smile back and nod, and together we'd watch their kids open the window for the fifteenth time, waving their little hands wildly back at Mom.

The rain held off until the end of Sunday, thankfully. We packed up, and I caught the 2:10am ferry out of Seattle and rolled in to Port Townsend at 4:00am. The Dragon came back with me, as I expected. It would have been a pretty unique coupe who would have bought a $46,000 dragon playhouse on an impulse. But like I told people, this was my showpiece, my Lexus. I pulled out all the stops for the show, to have you come over and talk to me. I was more interested in commissions, and I'd say I had 10 serious conversations with couples, which, if half of them turn into commissions, would keep me busy all year. So it's the waiting game. They'll go home, look at their backyards, talk about their finances, and a few weeks from now, or when their kid's birthday is approaching, hopefully my phone will start ringing. I'll work within their budget and design something tailor made to their child's interests and their backyard. Dragons aren't for everyone, but I think those couples could see what was possible.

Now that I'm back home, I feel good. The company is new, but my talent is deep, and I handed out 2,000 business cards. If I had any doubt of the Magic in Magical Playhouses, it's gone now. I saw it reflected thousands of times in the faces of the children, that same unexpected wonder of Christmas morning, proving that, sometimes, in the boring world of grown-ups, there are still pockets of magic, just waiting for you, where you least expect to find them.

Crunch Time

The clock is ticking until BAM. I'll make it, but only thanks to the long light in the evenings. I need to confront the door, leaving Sarah enough time to make the stained glass window in it's arched top opening, but after that, I'm in the clear. The rest is as "straight" forward (pun intended) as a curvy Magical Playhouse can get: just the electrical, T&G, lights, window trim, a hidy-hole built-in, flooring, a chalk board cabinet door, assorted hardware, and lots of painting. So, okay, lots still left to do.

Oh, and somehow or other, getting this thing on a trailer. That will be the real adventure...

 

Patience

I get a lot of lookie-loos building The Dragon. People stop by all the time as they drive by, looking up from their window at me on the roof. They're all smiles, even though, half the time they don't even know what they're looking at.

"What is that?!"

"It's a playhouses," I say, pulling my ear protection off.

"Did you carve that yourself?" pointing to the dragon head.

"Yeah."

"Looks like it took a lot of patience."

I nodded, and the man drove off in his pick-up with a wave. I sat there up there, looking at the two dragon heads and the tail, remembering all the hours it took me to make them (127 to be exact). I have always been a patient man, but before I had kids I don't think I was as patient as I am now.

It takes a lot of patience to make a Magical Playhouse. Swooping roofs mean every rafter is different. Every gable wall bird block is unique. Every woven corner shingle on a flared wall is one of a kind. Unlike the construction that makes the majority of the built world that surrounds us, there is very little repeatability in what I do. And that the magic of it, isn't it? The curves. The odd, subtle angles. It's what makes people who pass by my construction site smile. It's what makes me smile.

And as I sat up there, I made the connection between the shakes beneath my knee pads, gently curving away, like dragon wings ready to take flight. Anyone else with less patience would have called this crazy. But I'm a young dad. I've potty trained a toddler. Do you know how much patience that takes? And my son? I told him, hundreds of times a day, every day, for over a year, that what he was putting in his mouth was "Not food!" and he should spit it out. Which he did. Repeatedly. On the carpet.

My kids deserve a lot of credit for how I came to build playhouses for a living, but I never realized till then, that in raising them, I learned the most important skill that building them would require: patience.

Walls are up!

One week in to construction and the walls are up!

So far so good. All that time spent drawing has paid off in spades. I like the way the flare came out and I think the sidewall shingles will smooth it out even more. It's already drawing in passer-bys. I love that about building these things. People just don't get to see roof lines like these.

Now that the walls are up, my kids are already clamoring to get inside and goof off. That's Grant, above. He's almost 18 months and my daughter, Josephine, is four. She's reached an age where she can help me now. For instance, when I was framing up the floor, she could hold my tape when I was checking for square (though she was uncertain why it was so important that the floor BE square).

She's getting pretty good at wielding that hammer.

She's getting pretty good at wielding that hammer.

Now that the walls are up, it's time to look up and fill in some of that blue sky with some swooping rafters.

At a Magical Playhouses construction site bubbles are encouraged.

But before I get to those rafters, it's time to make a ridge beam. With such a swooping ridge I decided to make my own glue-lam out of some ACX ply. It's important it's strong, because it will project beyond the wall plane, becoming the supporting tenons for the dragon's head and tail.

With so many curves on this playhouse, this is going to be a familiar sight when I go to make the door and trim package. Time to invest in some more clamps.

Drawing

This is the best: standing over the large drawing pad spread out on my shop's workbench, a cup of coffee in one hand and a sharp pencil in the other. All things are possible now. My pencil sketches every absurd curve, whimsical window, every intricately carved dragon head...and what if I light up the eyes - red- with LEDs and, oooooh, what if I make it breath fire? Not REAL fire, mind you, but what if I mount an inline bathroom exhaust fan into a wall, and pipe air up to it's mouth, where I'll put another, brighter light to illuminate a curtain of red translucent plastic strips? Huh? Huh!

Anything is possible. 

And that's what 'magic' is, isn't it? Anything is possible. That's why, when I sketch, I do not edit. Sure, I'll erase windows, tweak roof lines, bend trim, but I do not delete because something looks too difficult, too expensive, too impractical. Those are adult concerns. Easy, cheap and practical have given us McMansions, strip malls, and those god-awful plywood sheds outside the Home Depot's garden department. Easy, cheap and practical do not describe anything a child, in any time throughout human history, has ever drawn. Why? Children don't draw in straight lines. Heck, they don't draw in the lines. Drawing inside the lines isn't fun, and if you've ever lived with a young child, you know that if it isn't fun, it's not worth doing. 

There's a quote by Pablo Picasso that goes likes this, "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up."

So I keep sketching, trying not to listen to the muffled protests coming from the duct-taped mouth of the little adult on my shoulder. He's loud though, so I put down my coffee and pencil and wind another couple silver passes around his mouth. There. Now I can draw. Beneath my pencil treehouses emerge that could be lifted out of the pages of The Swiss Family Robinson, cottages with thatched roofs and crooked doors sprout like toadstools, pirate ships set sail across green lawns, rocket ships stand on their platforms at the ready, and castle towers sail their rainbow of pennant flags.

Things will be cut when I price out the lumber order. Compromises will be made. But not now. Now, I'm eight years old, and I'm drawing, and my dream playhouse is going to have a fire breathing dragon, because, hey, how fun is that?

And if I can pull it off? Magic. Pure magic. So it stays. For now