Build the Treehouse You Always Wanted (For Your Kids)

Huckberry Ambassador Isaac Johnston reconnects with his inner kid to build his daughters the treehouse of their dreams
June 15, 2019Words by Isaac JohnstonPhotos by Isaac Johnston

How often do you look back at your childhood dreams? Maybe they’ve faded with age, or perhaps they’ve stuck with you into adulthood. Some were simple. Some were simply outrageous. But they weren’t limited by feasibility or utility. They were driven only by an unfettered stoke that placed landing a backflip on the same playing field as becoming an astronaut.

Emlyn and Isla Johnston

As a father, realizing my childhood dreams isn’t just for me anymore.

I’m 34 years old now, but I don’t think we ought to limit ourselves to what “makes sense.” I have two daughters, and I want them to feel the same boundless opportunity I felt as a child (and still strive to feel each and every day). As a father, realizing my childhood dreams isn’t just for me anymore. Emlyn and Isla’s excitement pushes me to create things for them that I always wanted. And that is why I recently found myself hoisting lumber up the stump of the old elm tree in my backyard. Some dreams never die, and we’re never too old to realize them.

Isaac Johnston's treehouse

I live in Northern Montana, on the beautiful banks of the Swan River. Years back we constructed a dock. A few years later we added a wood-fired hot tub. But there was still one backyard project I’ve wanted to build since I was a child: a treehouse. I rather lucked into the perfect spot when a fallen tree left a solid stump with spectacular views across the river. Location, just as with real estate, should be front-of-mind when drawing your plans. You’ll need to make sure it’s structurally sound, and a few well-placed beams can anchor a secure base.

Isaac Johnston builds a treehouse for his kids

Isaac Johnston builds a treehouse for his kids

Next came the creative part. Most people get hung up trying to create a bombproof narco-style compound. I say, dig up those third-grade scribbles. Seriously, start drawing something that looks the way you always wanted, take some inspiration from Pinterest (I love gabled alpine cabins), then sketch the skeleton to match your exterior design. You can learn a lot of simple framing from YouTube tutorials and other online resources.

Isaac Johnston's sketch for his treehouse

The creative process is about experimentation, not perfection.

Don’t forget: You’re building a treehouse, not a weatherproof structure meant to last 100 years. Piece it together, and if it doesn’t turn out the way you like, rip that part off and rebuild. Imagine building with Legos. The creative process is about experimentation, not perfection. Building a structure off the ground may feel intimidating, but I temporarily screwed together 95% of my frame on the ground and then reassembled it in the tree. Once I had a solid platform of sandwiched two-by-fours for the foundation (I invited some friends over for a barbecue, and they helped me raise the heavy floor), I was able to disassemble the rest of the frame and haul it up a single ladder piece by piece.

Isaac Johnston builds a treehouse for his kids

I spent $94 to build the treehouse of my dreams.

In the end, I spent $94 to build the treehouse of my dreams—$42 on paint, $16 on screws, and $36 on plexiglass. All the lumber was salvaged wood, and you don’t have to live in Montana to find some for your project. You can check your local Habitat For Humanity RerStore or, if you live in an urban environment, try building sites and houses under renovation and ask if you can collect from the scrap pile. Small rejected pieces from a home may be perfectly sized for your treehouse.

Isaac Johnston builds a treehouse for his kids

Isaac Johnston builds a treehouse for his kids

The most important part of the process was rekindling the stoke I had as a kid. If more folks just did the wild things their inner kid gets excited about, they would experience all the joy that comes as a result. A child’s enthusiasm offers an important lesson in our adulthood: It doesn’t always have to make sense; it can just be fun for fun’s sake and still be valuable.

Isaac Johnston's dream treehouse

When I look up in that tree, I feel the excitement I had at 10 years old, and I owe that to my girls. I want them to look back on this treehouse with the feeling that they can build anything they dream. 

Emlyn and Isla Johnston

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