Thrill the kids or grandkids with this two-weekend project.
By Ken Collier, Projects Editor
As the handyman in my family, I must confess that there are a lot of jobs I'm not crazy about: the drain that always needs unclogging, the squeaky floor that I've struggled with for months, the perennial battle of the bulging gutters. You've probably got a similar list of your own. Satisfying though these jobs can be when you finish, no one, not even the most hard core among us, would call them fun.
But here's one that's different, a project that's pure delight—the icing on the handyman's cake. The work is easy, and absolutely nothing beats the feeling you'll get from watching kids having a blast in the playhouse you've made.
I designed this playhouse so it can be built as quickly as possible. Two beginners could put it together in a couple of weekends, including the painting, and an experienced do-it-yourselfer could build it alone in about the same time. It's a no-worry type of project, too, with few chances to screw up, and without much need for precision—a perfect project to get the kids to help on!
Skills and Cost
"No experience required" could be the motto for this playhouse. You need to be able to use a circular saw and a jig-saw to build it, but the cuts are simple enough (and the project forgiving enough) that even if you've never picked up these tools before, you could learn while you work. Besides a jigsaw and a circular saw, you'll need a cordless drill with a Phillips-head bit for driving screws, a chalk line, level,
rafter square (the big one that's about 2 feet long) and a stepladder. A power sander is helpful but not essential.
The materials for our playhouse cost $350. You may be able to knock about $50 off by using plywood with the grooves farther apart, but it won't look quite as much like a real house.
Step One: Cut out the parts first. It's easier to cut the plywood on the ground like this, supported by a 2x4 or two, than to cut it on sawhorses.
Cut a Bunch of Parts at Once
Get out your circular saw, don your safety glasses and dive right in by cutting the parts of the playhouse to size. When you cut the treated lumber, wear a mask so you don't breathe in the dust. You can cut parts A through L now, Download the PDF but wait until later to cut the remaining pieces.
To save time and prevent mistakes, cut the lumber to length on top of sawhorses, where you can cut several pieces at once (called "gang cutting" by carpenters). This is especially useful when cutting the floorboards (E). Mark the angled ends of part C with a protractor (a 79 cent school model is fine), or use an angle-cutting guide for your circular saw.
The plywood is easier to cut on the ground, using a piece or two of lumber to raise it up. Use a chalk line to mark the cutting lines. Cut straight, but don't worry if the edge isn't perfect; every cut edge will be hidden in the finished playhouse. You'll notice that the edges of the plywood aren't square; they have a little lip on them so one sheet fits into the adjacent one. For this project, don't worry about this joint. Just cut the plywood as shown in the PDF and everything will fit.
Prepare Your Site
A playhouse doesn't have to last forever, so forget about concrete blocks, mortar and a complicated foundation—you can build this playhouse directly on the ground.
You need a fairly level spot, about 6x6 feet. Use one of your boards (like part D) and a level to check the slope, and dig and pack the soil to level it out. Your spot doesn't have to be perfect; it's easy to slip a few scraps of treated wood or a patio paver under a corner of the finished house to get it level (See Photo in Step 5).
Step Two: Nail together each wall while it's on the ground. If the plywood is cut square (check it!), the wall will automatically be square too.
Assemble the Front and Back
Now the fun begins—nailing parts together! The first step is to assemble the front and back walls, one at a time. Lay out (on the ground) the three 2x4s (parts A and B) that support the end wall. Place the plywood parts G and H on top of the 2x4s, and make sure that the edges of the plywood fit together. Then nail the plywood to the 2x4s, measuring in from the edge to find the location of the middle stud, part B, which is not centered (Step 2). If you have trouble hitting this piece with the nails, here's a tip: Snap a chalk line across the face of the plywood to mark where the middle of the 2x4 is, then nail on the line. When you're done nailing, screw on the rafters (part C) from the inside of the wall (Step 3).
Step Three: Screw on the rafters from the inside, using galvanized deck screws. For longevity, we've used treated lumber throughout.
After you've completed one end wall, carefully lay out the other one to avoid a very easy, and absolutely maddening mistake—making both walls exactly the same. They need to be mirror images, a front and a back, rather than identical. So measure for part B from the left on one wall and the right on the other; otherwise the house won't go together correctly. I can't even count the number of times I've made this aggravating blunder.
Step Four: Connect the walls with the plywood sides and the floor joists. Leave off the last side piece so you can get inside to work.
Attach the Sides to Make a Three-Sided Box
Whistle for your helper because now it's time to raise up the front and back walls and connect them (Step 4). Prop up one wall on your level site and screw the floor joists (D) to it, making sure they're square to the wall. Then screw the other wall to the joists. Screw part F to its respective joist, then nail on the plywood for one side (parts J and K). Nail on part K on the other side, but not the larger piece of plywood (J). This allows you to get inside the house to work. (Remember, there's no door yet!)
This is a good time to put blocks or shims under the corners of the house to get it plumb and level (Step 5), because it's going to get much heavier from now on.
Step Five: Level the playhouse now, before it gets any heavier. Use scrap pieces of treated lumber to lift the corners where needed.
A Solid Floor That Can Take Abuse
The floor on this house is built sturdily, like a miniature deck. The first step in building it is to attach the two small support blocks (N). If you have trouble with them splitting, use a smaller nail or drill pilot holes and screw them on.
Lay the full-length floorboards on top of the joists, then measure and cut the shorter ones that fit around the upright 2x4s of the walls. When all the floor boards fit well, nail them on (Photo 6).
Step Six: Nail the floorboards to the joists. You'll need small support blocks at the ends, where the floorboards are cut short to fit.
A Roof Like an Upside-Down Boat
Now for the roof, and a weird roof for a house it is—no shingles, no tar paper and no rafters. It's actually built more like an upside-down boat, with ribs (part M) and a hull of thin plywood strips (L). But it works, it's fast and it's perfect for a playhouse.
Step Seven: Nail the roof supports in place from the ends. For a good fit, it's best to hold these boards where they're going to go, mark them and then cut.
Begin by nailing on the "ribs" (M). Hold the board in position, mark the board for length, cut it and nail it in place (Step 7). This is easiest to do with a helper, but if your helper's off playing, hold the other end of the board with a nail.
Now attach the lowest strip of plywood, lining it up so it overhangs part C by 1 inch, and nailing only at the ends. When you lay the next sheet on top of it, line up the upper edge of that sheet with a rib (M), and then nail through both pieces of plywood where they overlap. Be sure the nails go into a rib. Snapping a chalk line across the plywood will help you know where to nail.
The ends of the plywood pieces may not line up perfectly, but that's something you can fix. Just snap a chalk line and trim the pieces with your jigsaw. While you've got the ladder out, run some acrylic caulk into the joint where the plywood pieces meet at the very top of the roof (the peak) to help keep out the rain.
Step Eight: The roof is made of overlapping pieces of plywood that serve as large shingles. If the ends are uneven, they can be trimmed with a jigsaw.
Doors and Windows Are Holes in the Walls
Take a step back now, get a cup of coffee and admire your work for a few minutes. You don't want to rush into this next step—cutting the openings for doors and windows.
Start with the door. From inside the playhouse, drive a nail through the plywood at the corners of the door opening, flush with the floor and the 2x4 uprights. From the outside, wrap your chalk line around the protruding nails to mark where the door opening is to be cut. Pull the nails, drill a 1/4-inch hole at each nail hole and saw out the door opening with your jigsaw, using a fine-tooth blade (Photo 9). Clean up the edges with a rasp or sander.
Step Nine: Cut the door and window openings with a jigsaw. The corners are marked by driving a nail through from the inside.
Once the door is cut, nail on the last piece of plywood (J). Cutting the windows is easy; simply mark the openings with pencil on the outside and cut them out. We made three windows, one in front and one on each side, but you can add more or make them larger.
Add Some Snappy Gingerbread Trim
Carpentry is like life—sometimes you need to follow a strict plan and sometimes you need to go with the flow. Adding trim to your playhouse is a time for the latter. Rather than strictly following a cutting list, you'll get better results if you hold each piece of trim in place, mark it and cut it to fit. If you miss the mark and cut a piece too short, either use it somewhere else (I cut the longest pieces first whenever possible), or fill the gap later with caulk. Download a PDF of the trim details.
Step Ten: Nail on trim around the door and window openings after it has been cut to fit. We tacked on the trim temporarily, then removed it for painting.
Don't worry if there isn't a 2x4 to nail into in some places; screw the trim on from the inside wherever necessary. Tack all the trim pieces in place with just a couple of nails, and don't drive the nails in all the way because you'll want to remove all the trim for painting. It sounds crazy, I know, but it's a lot easier than painting the trim once it's on the playhouse.
Start with the vertical 1x4 corner boards (P) on the sides of the house. Then move on to the front corner boards, the horizontal boards and the vertical piece around the door (Photo 10). Build the little caps for the tops of the window openings, nailing part U onto part T. Then cut the other window trim. With a jigsaw and drill, cut the decorative roof trim (V), give it a test fit and sand it smooth.
Painting Is the Final Touch
You're probably dying to start painting at this point, but try to hold your horses for a minute. You should first round off, using a rasp and sandpaper, any sharp edges and corners that kids might hurt themselves on. Pay particular attention to the roof corners and the edges around the windows and doors. Treated wood is often somewhat damp, so give it a few days of good dry weather before you paint.
Now you can paint (hooray!). Remove and label all the trim before painting. Paint the roof before the sides, so you won't drip (or bump into) the wet paint. A roller with an extension handle will make those flat surfaces go quickly.
For a more cheerful playhouse, it's worth painting the inside walls and ceiling white. For all the painting, use an exterior primer, then two coats of paint. We used a latex floor paint for the roof because it had a good deep color.
Nail and screw the trim back on, touch up the paint, and your playhouse is ready for the kids to move in.
Gussying It Up
There are lots of improvements you can make to our
basic design. Here are some ideas:
- Make the paint on your playhouse last longer by putting a partially buried concrete block under each corner, enough to raise the playhouse a couple of inches off the ground. Just don't raise the front more than a few inches, or the step will be too high.
- Put on a shingle roof. If you want to do this, use 5/8- inch or 3/4-inch plywood for the roof, so the tips of your roofing nails don't stick through on the underside, a real hazard for the kids.
- Add curtains, or even mosquito screens, to the windows. If attached with Velcro or screwed-on strips of wood, the screens are easy to remove and repair.
- Embellish with fancier trim. Use a jigsaw to cut your own gingerbread design, or buy some commercially made trim.
- Add a light. You probably don't want to mess with buried electrical wiring, but battery-powered closet lights or camping lanterns work fine.
And most important, have fun!