Branching Out: Build Your Own Treehouse

Ready to take on treehouse construction? Here are the basics for DIY builders.

Think you're ready to build your own treehouse? Take this quick quiz: 

I am: 

A. Experienced with carpentry and understand the elements of engineering.
B. Confused about the difference between a flat-head and Phillips-head screwdriver.

When I look at finished treehouses, I feel: 

A. Confident in my ability to pull it off and, if not, I can ask for help.
B. I can knock it out in a weekend.

A treehouse should be: 

A. Built methodically, carefully and with the safety of all inhabitants in mind.
B. Sturdy. And if not I'll just hammer a few more nails into the tree. 

If you scored B's across the board, swallow your DIY pride and check out our following guide for treehouse builders. Here's how to get started.  

The Main Ingredient

Professional treehouse builders may quibble about materials and methods, but they all agree on one thing: You don't pick a tree, the tree picks you. "The trick is not to force a treehouse on a tree," says John Carberry, owner of Peacemaker Treehouses in Ithaca, New York. "You need a strong tree with good spaces, nice views and a solid overall feel. Like love and good art, you'll know it when you find it." 

Got it? Good. Now call an arborist to determine if the tree is the healthiest host for your project.

"Some species aren't optimal, they grow in wet ground, shed branches or tend to be runny with sap. Those issues can make for a few good dents in your head," Carberry says. "Arborists are worth it because if you use the wrong tree, your whole project is for nothing." 

Space Out

Once the tree has been given a clean bill of health, the next step is to find the right space for your treehouse. "Get a ladder or a rope, get up in there and start dreaming," Carberry says. "Look around for a good height with open space and imagine what you can fill those spaces with." 

At this point, everything's a possibility, so let your imagination run wild. "On one treehouse I drew at least 20 versions, from a small shed to giant bongo drums," he says. "Just start putting your ideas on paper to see what they look like."

Trunk Show

Now things get a bit more technical: Make a detailed map of the location of all the trunks in relation to each other. 

"Once you have a map of the trunks, you can play with different locations for your foundation, and where you can connect your beams," Carberry says. "Then it's like building a deck, except it up in a tree that'll move in the wind." 

Big Moment #1

"This is one of the two moments in a treehouse project when you don't want to guess wrong," Carberry says. "You're building a floor between—and maybe around—tree trunks, so decide where you can put beams to support the floor, how you can arrange them so they span between good-sized trunks and how to line them up so you can install them with as few attachments to the tree or trees as possible."

If this part of the process makes your brain feel like it's been replaced by cotton candy, consult with a builder. If not, choose your hardware. 

Big Moment #2

This is the other moment to which Carberry refers to above. You are choosing the one thing that will not only attach your structure to a tree—a tree that will grow and change and move—but will support everything you put in the tree, including humans big and small.

Many different kinds of hardware can get this job done, but the majority of treehouse builders use a Garnier Limb, or a "specially design bolt that gives you a place to bear your load for the foundation of the treehouse," says creator and iconic treehouse builder Michael Garnier of "I call it an artificial limb because it keeps the wood of the treehouse away from the trunk to prevent rotting, and it also allows for movement."

The Fun Part

You've got your tree, your map and the one thing that holds it all together. "From here," Carberry says. "It's all just creative carpentry." 

DIY designs range from open-air decks and simple houses to multi-tiered, fully finished spaces complete with windows, doors, slides, secret hiding spaces, rolling roofs, plumbing and electricity (which often powers gaming systems!). Rectangular or square shapes are always safe bets, and the majority of professional treehouse builders sell custom or pre-made designs for every level of expertise. 

High Time

You may be alone in a tree in your backyard, but there is help all around you. From books and magazines to the Internet and a country full of consultants who've answered every question imaginable, there's no reason not to reach out if you find yourself stuck between a trunk and a hard place. 

"I'm very handy and love working with wood, but I asked for advice from someone who builds decks when I got to that part," says DIY treehouse builder Jonathan Tucker, who owns a landscaping company in Marietta, Georgia. "I've also had some family members hold boards along the way."

"The design and construction of a treehouse is similar to a house on the ground, so you have a lot of resources to draw upon," Carberry says, adding that DIY builders should take every precaution possible for their safety and the safety of those who will enjoy the treehouse for years to come. Use roofer's scaffolding. Use safety harnesses. Pay close attention while you work and don't rush the process; injuries often happen when builders are in a hurry. 

"You're a bit higher than most DIY folks are used to being, and the structure you're perched on will move underneath you from time to time—and not always at the moment or in the direction you anticipate," Carberry says. "But the upside is, it's one heck of a view."

Tip Sheet

Here are a few more tips of the treehouse trade:

How high should I build? 

Most arborists advise building a treehouse in the bottom third of a tree where the motion is more controlled. "I always tell clients that it depends on who's going in it," Carberry says. "If a five year old can stand over your head, they're in heaven. Don't build any taller than you have to for kids." 

How do I install a Garnier Limb?

This is easily the most common question that professional builders get from DIY clients. Carberry heard it so often he put together what is widely considered the consummate explanation on his blog, which you can find here.

How can I do the least amount of damage to the tree possible?

Drilling a hole into a tree is not the kindest thing to do, so do it right and don't do it often. "When you put a Garnier Limb in, it damages the tree," Garnier says. "They don't heal but they compartmentalize the wound and grow around it." 

How can I ensure my tree stays healthy?

The beauty of trees is that they require little to no care, but you definitely want to show your host tree special attention. Carberry advises checking on its growth periodically and giving it tree food to combat insects and fungus. "If you care for your tree, it'll become your advocate and protector," he says. "You're getting the better part of the deal because the tree does all the work."

How much time should I give myself? 

A good rule of thumb is to add one month to the time it would take you to build a shed. "If you can do a shed in six weeks, you can do a treehouse in 10," he says. "If it takes you all summer to do a shed, it'll take you a year." DIY builder Tucker agrees. "It always takes longer and costs more than you think" he says. "But that's true for any project."

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