Zen and the Art of Tree House Building

It began as an obsession. You see, I have a way of diving into things until I’ve learned everything I think that I can, and then I’m satisfied. So, when I decided I wanted to build a tree house (instead of wasting money on one of those pre-fab things) it was all too easy for me to get lost in the prospect.

It began as an obsession. The first step was investigating the pre-fab option. I couldn’t bring myself to spend the same amount of money on a kit that I could spend building something out of scratch with my own two hands. It was an easy decision to make. I always choose the option that forces me to learn something new. After looking into books I could order on Amazon, I checked out every book in the local library I could find that had to do with building tree houses. There were four.

Months. I spent months reading about how to properly bolt a 2″x8″ to a single tree so the weight of the platform didn’t cause the board to stress. I researched what would be considered “acceptable” depths to sink posts (should it come to that) to support the platform. I studied single tree support systems and the best way to attach a knee brace to the trunk so the structure itself didn’t touch the ground.

Simply put: I. Had. Fun.

As the summer grew closer and the time for my son to arrive for his nearly nine-week stay with us, I could hardly contain myself. I couldn’t shut up about it. Everyone I talked to, I felt compelled to explain my entire plan. The excitement was overwhelming. It was only reinforced by the fact when I told my wife the plan her eyes grew as big as saucers and she wanted in on the action.

My son and I planned details over phone conversations and I shared drawings over Skype. We counted down the days until we could start our summer project. I drew the plans over and over again on scrap pieces of paper. I made spreadsheets and priced out every piece of material we would need. I salivated at the thought of new power tools. It was wonderful.

When it came time to begin I was like a kid in a candy store. Right off the bat, before I’d even cut a piece of wood, we hit the first snag. The tree I wanted to suspend my masterpiece in, also happened to be covered in the largest poison ivy vine I’ve ever seen. Not the ideal place for a child’s summer playhouse. In fact it was so large, I was convinced it wasn’t poison ivy at all. But, reason ruled the day and we had to abandon my plan before we started.

Not to be deterred, I investigated another tree. As luck would have it, it turned out to be a much better option. There was more shade around this tree. The view from the platform I hadn’t yet built, was perfect. Truly, though it almost killed me last year, the poison ivy in the tree was a blessing in disguise. (That seems to happen a lot lately.)

Not to brag, but all the research and reading I’d done made the new plan simple. I stared at the new location of the tree house briefly, let the vision of my vicarious childhood dream appear before me. I crossed my arms and with a nod of confidence to no one, went to work.

Laughably, all that excitement and anticipation was stunted by the fact that I had to set posts in cement.


It was even more laughable when I realized that this was precisely the wrong first step in this kind of plan. You’re supposed to center the main support beam first, then build out and set the posts to make sure the whole thing is square.

Instead of getting frustrated, I got excited. This is the heart of me. Problem solving, building things, fixing things… It’s who I am at my deepest core. Here was a project I’d spent months planning and organizing, only to have it completely wiped away. Now I was “winging it”. I had the night to let the posts set, and then I’d have to begin. I put my son to bed, and went back to the drawing board.

I’d recently helped (I use that term loosely) a friend begin their first building project. Through the process tensions ran high, my patience ran thin and friendships were pushed to the limit. My mantra to my friend was, “This is what happens when you build things.” Mistakes happen. All you can do is adjust or correct, and move forward.

I ate my own words the rest of the week as my family and I built our tree house. I kept making mistakes but I kept going. It turned out, setting the posts first didn’t really make a difference. As we cut and assembled the frame I laughed every time we held up a square and checked for level. Without really trying the pieces literally fell into place.


I smiled through nervous teeth as my wife let my son hang off of the frame. Despite all the reading and planning I wasn’t quite sure I’d built in enough support. But I swallowed my self-doubt and kept moving forward. The more we finished, the more confident I became.

The stringers were a pain. I opted to cut them myself rather than try to buy pre-cut boards. Honestly I couldn’t find any tall enough. But we measured and cut, measured and cut. Almost making it up as we went along.


It was around this time I realized the three of us had never worked on a project like this together. Usually it’s just the boy and I, or just me, or my wife and my son. We’d never tackled anything like this together.

Together, cooperating, having fun. We didn’t argue. My eight year old never had a meltdown. I showed him how to use a jigsaw, power drill; he hammered nails and arranged the boards to make the floor. He helped me assemble the wall frames. I taught him how to measure things with the 3-4-5 rule to make walls square. When something turned out to be “not quite right” we just shrugged and said “it’s a tree house”.

It began as an obsession. It turned into the most fun project I have ever worked on in my life. And, I was able to enjoy it with my family. It’s ours, we built it together. We worked together. Somewhere during that week I like to think we all learned things about each other, and ourselves. It was a familial summer rite of passage.

The process wasn’t easy. We all made mistakes. We worked at least six hours a day, for seven days. It was hot. I probably should’ve fallen off a ladder once or twice. By the time we finished, we all stood back and said, “We built that.”

The three of us came together to build something really fun. We made some awesome memories. Now we all know what we’re capable of when we work together. I smile at the thought of what we’ll take on next.


2 thoughts on “Zen and the Art of Tree House Building

  1. Onya mate… (thats oz’e slang for; good on you) Me and me son in law built a tree house for my 2 grandchildren, cost about 150 bucks. My son in law has never built anything before. I told him what to do and lent him my tools… and lent him a hand; but I wanted him to do it, or most of it. Its changed his life… and the children love it. Have a look at my blog/ ‘building in the past, building now and building in the future.’

    Liked by 1 person

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