Learning how to build a tree house can be a challenge because all tree shapes and branch structures are different.
The design process for tree houses is often a bit more freeform than it may be for earthly structures.
In fact, the traditional way of how to build a tree house (and a technique still used frequently today) is basically to climb a tree with boards and nails and start to hammer away – finding your creativity and inspiration as you go.
One of the great attributes in how to build a tree house is that there are very few rules – unlike homebuilding. But the rules that do exist are important to ensure your success.
Even experienced tree house builders spend time up-front learning and understanding the basic best practices, beginning with the needs or desires of the tree house occupants. If a tree dwelling is in your future, then consider these next 10 tips on how to build a tree house. After that…look to your trees.
1. How to Build Tree House Starts by Choosing Your Tree
Daydreaming aside, finding your host tree is the first real step in the how to build a tree house process. This is because the tree (surprisingly) will have the most say in the final design of your tree house. More ambitious design ideas require healthier trees to support the structure. In the end, if your host tree isn’t up to par, you’ll have to consider a smaller dwelling or add in some additional posts for structural support.
- Age – Mature trees are best. They’re bigger, stronger, move less in the wind and are not as impacted in inclement weather as the younger ones. They also have more heartwood (the hard, inner core of dead wood). When you drive a lag screw into a tree, it’s the heartwood that gives you the gripping power.
- Roots – For some reason people don’t like the sight of exposed roots at the base of a tree. Often they’ll disguise them with dirt and flower beds. Visualize it like burying someone in the sand at the beach and forgetting to stop at their neck. It actually suffocates the tree’s roots and can affect the health of the entire tree. If your tree’s surface roots have been buried from grading or gardening, take this as a warning sign that the tree might not be your healthiest option for a tree house.
- Trunk, Branches & Leaves (or Needles) – Before you start building a tree house, try drilling a test hole for future anchor screws. Pay attention to the wood chips pulled out by the bit…granulated, dusty material may indicate rot inside the tree making this an unsuitable candidate for a tree house. Look for clean spirals and tough flakes or chips.
2. Tree Behavior is Key in How to Build a Tree House
Get to know the tree. If there’s a wild branch that likes to swing like a scythe in the wind, you’ll have to plan around it, restrain it in a healthy manner, or (if necessary) chop it off. The problem of high winds is only compounded when you build in multiple trees where independent movement of individual trees can exert some nasty opposing forces on your little dream house.
3. What’s On The Outside Counts
Walls define the look and shape of a house and do more than any other element to create the feel of the interior space. A tree house can have solid walls for privacy and a greater sense of enclosure, or it can open up to the elements and let the tree define its boundaries. If you’d like both options, consider an awning-style wall with a hinged top section that flips open.
4. The Roof Over Your Head
A tree house roof is another key component in how to build a tree house. It can take on almost any shape and may often exhibit a combination of styles. Incorporating branches and trunks into the roof design makes for interesting, organic forms. A common approach to designing a roof is to start with a traditional style then improvise as needed to fit your house. Or, you might decide to skip the roof altogether, preferring the shelter of the tree’s canopy rather than boards and shingles.
5. Knock on Wood
The best doors and windows to use on tree houses are either found or homemade. It’s fun to design a wall or entryway around salvaged materials—maybe a reclaimed ship’s porthole window or a creaky, old cellar door. You could use new, factory-made units, but their large size and polished appearance don’t fit most tree house designs. Weathered and natural features certainly can add character.
6. A Secret Passageway
Perhaps the best thing about how to build a tree house is all the cool stuff that you don’t usually find in a real house – like trap doors and cargo nets and fireman’s poles. And who needs a front door when you can exit SWAT-style down a knotted climbing rope?
Okay, not everyone is the right age for the Ninja lifestyle. A sturdy ladder or even a staircase are also perfectly respectable modes for accessing a tree dwelling.
It still doesn’t hurt, depending on your ultimate user, to include a secret escape hatch and/or zip line… in case of an alien air assault.
7. What’s on Deck?
One of the most popular tree house designs includes a house covering about 1/2 to 2/3 of its supporting platform, leaving the rest open for a small deck or sitting porch. This is a nice way to provide both open and enclosed spaces for your lofty getaway. A small deck in front makes a good, safe landing for a staircase or access ladder, while a large deck can be the perfect spot for having a cocktail with friends while watching the sun set.
8. How to Build a Tree House Up In The Air
One of the many critical decisions in your design is to decide how high to set the tree house. If it will be used by children, it’s wise to keep the platform no more than 6 to 8 feet above the ground. Any higher may be dangerous, and kids will generally have just as much fun at 6 feet as they would at 12 or 20 feet. If your tree house is designed mostly for adults consider these points as you decide how high works for you:
- Will you need easy access? If you’re using the house as an office or studio, consider the difficulty of hauling up supplies (and lunch).
- How to build a tree house is based on construction feasibility. Building a tree house is generally the most hazardous aspect of actually having one. The higher the platform, the more difficult construction becomes.
- Who will have access to the tree house besides your immediate family? Will neighborhood kids have access? Take any legal consequences into consideration when planning your design.
9. Your Access Route
To help determine the means of access when you build a tree house, look again to the end users. More mature users would probably prefer stairs or an easy access ladder, while kids usually want a more challenging or fun route. Another consideration is whether you want a ladder or stairs easily reachable from your home or out of reach and out of view from the house?
Make sure any planned means of access is viable for the chosen platform height. One impractical method of access that should be ruled out are steps or rungs individually fastened along the tree trunk. Even when built properly—with threaded screws, not nails—these are accidents waiting to happen and require an unnecessary amount of hardware penetration into the tree itself.
10. How to Build a Tree House Means Framing Your Idea
Tree house “experts” may balk at the use of support posts, but this is nothing to overlook. Posts offer an effective way to compensate for trees that can’t solely support the weight of a tree house. When building between two trees, posts can also serve to shore up structural support with long spans between trees.
Keep in mind that using cantilevered posts places limits on the tree dwelling design keeping your platform lower to the ground.
Structural support posts will usually be bolted to steel banding at the tree’s base, keeping the platform essentially immobile when the branches move.
In mature trees, movement typically is minimal in the lowest 10-12% of the tree’s total height. In a 60 foot tree, for example, your least change of movement will come for a platform within 6 to 7 feet from the ground.
How to Build a Tree House – Top Rated In Print
- Tree Houses You Can Actually Build: A Weekend Project Book (Weekend Project Book Series)
- New Treehouses of the World
- Black & Decker The Complete Guide: Build Your Kids a Treehouse (Black & Decker Complete Guide)
- Treehouses & Playhouses You Can Build
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