Columns and stories of life from the Fredericksburg area.
Putting up playhouse no child’s play for dad
PARENTING: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE . . . GYM, THAT IS
BY JIM DAVIS
FOR THE FREE LANCE-STAR
THE NIGHT the derecho hit (which, coincidentally, was the same night I learned derechos existed), my wife returned home late from an electricity-challenged showing of “Magic Mike.” As she turned into our neighborhood and saw downed trees littering the road, her first thought was: “Oh no, the play set!”
The same thought crossed my mind earlier that night as the wind howled through the weatherstripping of our French doors. Our twin 2-year-old daughters were fast asleep upstairs, so I grabbed the flashlight and held a vigil at the window, hoping the unfinished structure I had already spent weeks building would survive the night.
The play set—and when I say play set, I don’t mean a pair of swings; I mean a two-story cedar clubhouse replete with café, crow’s nest, corkscrew slide, climbing wall, sandbox and swings—survived mostly because of my lack of progress. I purchased Cedar Summit’s Mountainview Resort from Costco in mid-March; here it was the end of June and the roof still had not been attached, so the wind whistled harmlessly through the skeleton of the structure.
Inspired by this near miss and my newfound free time (I’m a teacher and school was out), I buckled down and finished in a couple of weeks, during which my daughter Maggie learned one of her first complete sentences: “Daddy not done yet.”
Here are a few hard-won nuggets of wisdom learned after conquering the cedar beast:
FIRST STEP IS A DOOZY
The hardest part of building the play set may have been getting it home. I took my wife’s Toyota RAV4, a small SUV with heretofore clown-car capabilities. The play set, which comes in six massive cardboard boxes, was the first thing the SUV couldn’t stomach. The culprit was the longest (and heaviest) box, containing the monster beam for the swings. Way too long. After an epic failure at renting a truck at Lowe’s (you really should carry proof of insurance with you), I ended up renting a truck from U–Haul the next day to get it home.
DON’T BE A HERO
I have a motto: Friends don’t ask friends to help them move. I applied this motto to building a play set, because the last thing I would want to do is spend an afternoon or seven wrestling this beast. My next-door neighbor, a doctor who built a tree house from scratch, offered to help. My across-the-street neighbor, a motorcycle mechanic, said he’d be glad to help. My down-the-street neighbor, who owns his own business designing, building and installing metal gates and railings, also offered his assistance. Like an idiot I said no to all three, citing my motto.
You can do most of it yourself (it helps to be 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds with arms strengthened by 35-pound-twin-daughter curls), but swallow your pride and ask for help at key steps. Building the initial frame, assembling the roof and slide, and installing the swing beam were all steps when I needed help but somehow managed to stubborn my way through it. This also wasted a lot of time, as it took me more than twice as long to do many of the steps solo.
DIRECTIONS ARE NOT SUGGESTIONS
After using my picket fence to brace some posts, I had the basic frame of the play set assembled with four posts connected to four boards by four L-brackets. I was on a roll—until I went to install the frame for the door and found a board not long enough to reach the ground. Unfortunately, the board was plenty long; turns out I had installed the four corner brackets at the wrong height and would need to start over, nullifying five hours of assembly time.
I zoomed through the first two stages of grief (denial, anger) and got stuck in the third, bargaining with a higher power to help me balance the wobbly assembly as I attempted to lower the brackets and boards one by one instead of taking it apart completely. I was on the last corner bracket when the whole thing collapsed like a drunken baby giraffe. Not sure where that baby giraffe got the booze, but I needed some (having long since been abandoned by the higher power).
After taking a break and buying some pressure-treated lumber to replace a board that had been shredded in the collapse, I went back to see where I had gone wrong. One of the directions’ minuscule diagrams shows the proper place to bolt the brackets: one hole lower than I had installed them. Here, again, is where a helper would have come in handy, as an extra set of eyes to interpret the directions.
GET YOUR PLANKS IN A ROW
Usually I treat assembly instructions as a nuisance (see above), but I knew from looking at the thick booklet that I would need to read them ahead of time. The first thing it tells you to do is to organize the parts by step: all 50 steps. Each board had a barely legible number stamped on it telling you which step it belonged to. I spent the better part of a Sunday turning my driveway and front yard into a giant graphic organizer, using sidewalk chalk to number the driveway and sidewalk from 1 to 50 and unpacking the six boxes.
If you can’t build the play set all at once but need to pick at it a little at a time as I did, find a place to store the parts and keep them in order according to step. I used garbage bags and twine to collate the parts for each step, and used painter’s tape and a Sharpie to label them. Then I loaded each step back into the garage in numerical order, separating each 10 steps by a flattened piece of cardboard from the play set boxes. That way, I could grab a step or two after work or during nap time and finish it without having to haul everything out.
Once done organizing the wood, it was time to tackle the hardware. The number of bolts, screws, washers and nuts that came with the play set made me wonder if I wasn’t secretly building a nuclear submarine. The hardware was packaged and labeled in separate baggies, but I wanted it organized by step to speed up construction, so I spent a couple of hours during nap time sorting hardware into plastic sandwich baggies and labeling them with my trusty Sharpie. This was tedious, but a huge help once I got rolling with assembly.
IMPROVISE AND ACCESSORIZE
The first day of assembly was chaos. I had my directions, drill, tools, hardware and boards strewn across the backyard. It reminded me of my least favorite part of Christmas: trying to wrap presents while constantly hiding the scissors and Scotch tape from myself.
So I improvised: I took a changing table that had seen its last diaper and rolled it into the backyard. I put my directions and tools on the top shelf and the hardware on the bottom shelf. When done for the day, I left the whole thing in the backyard and used my grill cover to shield it from the elements.
Once construction was complete, I repurposed the cardboard boxes as a weed barrier underneath the swings. Good thing, too, because the first time I pushed my girls on the swings, Maggie—who was used to the bucket swings at the playground—promptly let go and hit the deck. I ordered some new, safer swings online and saved the big-girl swings for next year.
My final touch was to build a lid for the sandbox using an old piece of plywood and a couple of hinges. This will protect the sandbox during storms and allows me to keep the girls out of it (no easy task—they love it) when I don’t feel like de-sanding them before going back into the house. Bonus: When the lid is down, the sandbox doubles as a garage for their Cozy Coupes.
Time will tell if the blood, sweat and tears were worth it. So far, Maggie and Charlotte love the swings and sandbox, but are scared of the slide, which is fine with me because they don’t even try to climb to the second story.
Watching the girls build a sand castle together in the sandbox, I try to relax in a lawn chair but think of possible improvements: Wouldn’t those windows look cute with miniature flower boxes? Wouldn’t a few shrubs out front look nice? Wouldn’t this be a great spot for a patio?
A daddy’s work is never done, and we’d never have it any other way.
Jim Davis is a Colonial Forge High School teacher and a father with an aversion to L-brackets.