Introduction: Tree House Bed

Kids love a cool bed.  Somewhere to not only sleep, but to also play.  A lot of the "cool" beds on the market are either basic beds with Cartoon Characters on the sides, or enclosed forts which are difficult for big people (i.e., the parents) to get into.  There are some really neat custom beds out there, but they go far beyond a weekend project and require serious skill and money.  The tree house bed was designed to be friendly to both the kids and their parents. Kids love tree houses, sleeping outside, and climbing.  This bed channels that.  It's also open, so parents can look in, and crawl in without too much trouble.  Due to the materials it's made from, its pretty budget friendly as custom furniture goes.  The bed was designed to look more like a tree house more than a piece of furniture.  To accomplish that, it's built it with materials and techniques that are used to build decks and real tree houses.  Since you will be looking at it up close, a few liberties were taken to give it a bit more polish.  It helps to have a few less common tools, (e.g., router, pocket hole jig) but It can be built with the basic tools any good DIYer should have in his or her arsenal.

2 x 4
2 x 6
2 x 8
2 x 10
4 x 4
Deck Screws
Pocket Hole Screws
Polyurethane or Polyacrylic to finish

*Do not use pressure treated lumber or cedar. 

Recommended Tools:

Circular Saw
Table Saw
Jig Saw
Pocket Hole Jig
Power Sander

Useful Tools:

Radial Arm or Compound Saw
Dado Blade
Impact Wrench / Driver
Counter-sink Bits

I didn't provide a the number of boards that you'll need, since not all boards are the same.  A 8'  2x4 will give you two 3' boards, where you might squeeze four out of a 12 footer.  However, when you get to the lumber yard, you might find the 8' boards are in much nicer shape than the 12' ones.  It might also be cheaper to buy two 8' boards than a single 16', so I'll leave this to you to decide what to buy based on quality and price available.  What type of wood you buy is largely a matter of personal taste.  However, I will say do not use pressure treated wood, even if you have a bunch laying around.  Most of you know this, but pressure treated wood is pretty toxic.  It's toxic to the touch and off gasses into the air.  I wouldn't rely on a finish to make it safe either.  Just don't use it for this project.    

The list of tools is also just just a suggestion, there's many ways to accomplish the same thing.  I personally used all the tools I listed. You could probably get away with just circular saw and drill, but I wouldn't recommend it.   

Step 1: Get Your Lumber, Finalize Your Plan

Our bed was designed to have small deck around a twin mattress.  If you want a different sized mattress, or more / less deck space, the plans are pretty easy to modify.  You'll also need to make adjustments for your boards' true width.  Not all 2x boards are the same.  Wood from one lumber yard might be a 1/16th of an inch wider than wood from another.  If you were building a house, this would get covered with drywall and no one would notice, but with this bed, it would end up looking sloppy.  I've attached my SktechUp file which you can modify and get your new dimensions and help with your planning.  I found a few mistakes in my original file.  I tried to fix them all, but I can't promise I did, so be smart and double check the measurements before you start cutting (measure twice, cut once!). 

The boards sizes were chosen for aesthetic purposes, not for structural reasons.  As designed, it's built like a tank.  If you want to go smaller, I don't know what the minimum board size you need is.  I suggest looking up deck codes if you want to know this.

Here are the basic steps to start: 

1) Decided on the basic dimensions you want for your bed.  This one is 86" x 56" x 51 high" Take things like ceiling fans into consideration as you go up.

2) Decide what boards you need to buy.  Basic materials used in the plan:
- Posts 4x4s
- Top Rail 2 x 6s
- Balusters, 2x4s
- Decking 2 x 10s
- Fascia / Joist 2 x 8s
- Ladder, 2x4s

3) Buy your lumber.  

4) Measure the lumber width and thickness. 

5) Modify your plans as needed to account for the lumber's true width.  For example, if you expected your 4x4s to be 3 9/16 x 3 9/16, but found out instead they were 3 7/16 by 3 7/16, you'll have to increase the lengths of your joist or decrease the length of the top rails and balusters to accommodate this.

6) Produce your cut list, a list of all the boards, their quantity and dimensions.

Step 2: Cutting to Length

Once you build the bed, there's no way to get move it from room to room assembled.  Obviously, it's less work to make all of your cuts upfront and assemble it in the bedroom than it is to fully build / disassemble / move / reassemble.  That said, you'll have to be very careful with your planning and cutting if take this approach.  If all of your cuts are 1/16 of an inch off, your bed won't go together right. This is where the SketchUp can really help. Think of it as your practice build.  You can use the tape measure tool to find exact dimensions and produce an exact cut list.  The next steps are listed assuming you'll make all of your cuts first and then assemble. 

Once you have the final length of all the boards planned, cut everything to length.  This is easiest to do with a chop (compound mitre) saw or radial arm saw, but a circular saw or even a jig saw will work just fine. 

Step 3: Rip Cuts

After the boards are cut to length, you'll need to rip a few to width.  Most people rip on the table saw.  Some people use other tools, but don't do anything you're not comfortable with.   

Unless you designed your bed to be exactly (6) 2 x10s wide, you'll have to compensate somewhere.  Ripping the decking board that will be installed closest to the wall to achieve the proper width is easiest.  Few people will notice it's thinner than the rest, especially since it will mostly be covered by the mattress, and fewer will care. 

Here's what you need to rip:

1) The top rails should be ripped to be just a bit wider than the 4x4 posts.  This is for aesthetics and to provide some grip.
2) Rip the baluster to the desired width.  The plans call for them to be 1/2 the width of the 4x4s. 
3) Rip the left most decking board.
4) Rip the ladder boards.

Step 4: Final Joinery

Finally, you'll have to make the dados in the post for the baluster to fit into and the cut outs in the deck boards for the posts.  The cut outs in the deck board can be made with a jig saw or hand saw.  The dados on the posts are best made with a stacked dado set on the table saw or a dado bit for a router.  You can also make multiple passes on a saw with a normal blade, but very careful when you do this. 

When making your dados, the baluster should be spaced less than 4" apart.  If you were building a deck, this would be required by codes.  Your kid's bed should be at least as safe as your deck. 

As your cutting the dados on the post, dry fit the balusters to make sure you have a good tight fit. 

Step 5: Rounding Edges

When you rip a board, you make a very square cut with sharp edges.  You'll want to round these over on any board that someone may touch.  This includes:

- Ladder Boards
- Top Rails
- Balusters

The cleanest way to round over an edge is with a router.  A 1/8 rounder over bit works nicely.  If you don't have a router or a round over bit, you can break the edges by sanding them down or using a block plane.  Some people can even achieve a round over look with sander if they have enough practice at it.  

Step 6: Sanding and Finishing

Before you assemble, you'll want to sand and finish all the boards.  It's much easier to do this now.  Not only that, but you can take the individual boards outside to control the dust and fumes. Because this bed is made out of rough wood, sanding will be an involved task but critical one.  Kids will play on, under, and around the bed so nothing can be left rough.  Any power sander will eventually get the job done (unless it burns out), but a more powerful one will do it quicker.  If your hand sanding, you can consider this step your workout for the day.  When sanding by whatever method you'll want to pay very close attention to knots and imperfections in the wood.  Sandy down the edges and inside of any knot to make sure it won't catch of fabric or skin.  Any place the wood is torn out will need to be sanded down smooth too.  Due to the nature of this piece, course and medium grit should be enough, as long as the boards are soft to the touch when done. 

Once sanded you're ready to apply the finish.  If you're using pine, you should consider a wood conditioner to prevent blotching, if you using fir, wood conditioner is not necessary. Once conditioned, the next step would be staining the wood if you want.  If you like a natural look, skip the stain and go straight to poly.  Poly is applied to protect the piece.  Either a polyurethane or polyacrylic will work well depending on your preference for oil based or water based finishes.  Since the bed is supposed to look like a outdoor tree house, a flat finish is recommended.  Its good practice to give everything at least 2 coats but you might be able to get away with just one for the surfaces that won't get touched much.  You need to apply at least one coat to all sides of all boards though to protect the wood from spills and other dangers.  Apply the conditioner, stain, and finish of your choice per the manufacturer's instructions.      

Step 7: Pocket Holes and the Frame

This is where the bed deviates the most from a real deck.  The joining of the joists to the post is accomplished with pocket holes.  Using pocket holes keeps all of the fasteners out of view.  It makes a very clean look on the front and doesn't require expensive brackets.  Put 4 pocket holes in each board end, two at the top, tow at the bottom.  This created a very strong joint and prevents the board from twisting.  You'll need a special pocket hole jig and drill bit to make the pocket holes, but these are sold by several companies now so a kit shouldn't break the bank too badly.  The are other options to make the connection including brackets and simply screwing at an angle, but the pocket hole are nice, easy, strong, clean, and cheap (assuming you own a jig).   

Once you've drilled pocket holes into all the joists, it's time to assemble the frame.  If you haven't moved everything into the bedroom. Do it now because you won't be able to move it though a doorway once the frame is assembled.  Start assembly by connecting the outside joists to the post.  The order doesn't matter, whatever is easier for you.  Since the connection is a basic butt joint, someone will have to hold the boards in place while someone else drives the screws into the pocket holes.  If you don't have someone to help you, you'll need to rig up some way to keep the pieces aligned while you drive the screws.  Long clamps should do the trick.  Once all the joists are connected to all the post, connect the inside joists to the outside joists.  The frame is now complete and it should stand on it's own.  Move it roughly into position now.  It will be heavy to move very far once the decking is down. 

Step 8: Decking, Railing, and Ladder

The decking goes on next.  Make sure cut outs in the left and right deck board align with the post properly.  If not, you'll have to adjust the cut outs before you go on.  There are two ways to attach the deck boards to the joist.  1) Put pocket holes into the joist and screw up from the bottom, 2) drill down from the top of the decking into the joists.  If your decking is warped, you'll probably have to take option 2.  Now, if you do drill from the top, keep in mind that this is going to be the top of your bed.  Your kid will be sleeping on this and your mattress resting on it.  You won't want the screws exposed above the boards.  They will have to be driven into the wood.  The easiest way to this is by counter sinking your holes before you drive your screws.  You can get cheap counter sink bits and it will make life much easier.  Also, using an impact wrench / impact driver will help ensue the screws are set deep enough.  When driving deck screws deeply into wood using a normal drill, they will occasionally want to strip out before they are fully set.  An impact wrench will help prevent them from stripping.  If you've never used an impact wrench for carpentry, try it.  You may never go back.    

Once the decking is down, assemble the railing.  The choices for attaching the Top Rail are the same as for the decking.  Pocket holes in the post or drilling down from the top.  Drilling from the top is probably the least noticeable option in this case.  The baluster go next into their Dados, but don't screw them in yet.  Set the middle post so that the balusters run though the dados in all three posts.  Attach the middle post to the bed by driving screws from the bottom of the deck boards.  Two or three screws should hold it nicely.  Finally, screw the balusters into the posts.  There's no good way to hide the screws so just counter sink and drive them in.

Finally the ladder needs added.  Drilling from the back into the ladder rails and rungs hides the screws and makes a pretty strong joint.  Place the rungs where appropriate for your child.

Step 9: Finishing the Room

- If your kid is young, get a thin mattress.  It will look much better than big fat pillow top, and until they are older and heavier, they won't notice the difference.
- Cover part of the bed with a fabric tent, a leaf, or something else.  This will make the bed feel more inclosed and will further the tree house feel for the kids.
- Keep the tree theme going and add a tree wall decals.  They can be found all over the internet these days.
- The bed shouldn't be fun for just the kids.  Have some fun while designing and building it.   

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