Thursday, August 2, 2012

Our Summer Project: Building a Boys' Fort (a.k.a. "The Mini Man Cave")

Every once in a while, boys (whether they are three or thirty years old) need to retreat into their own space.  Call it a man cave, mantuary, fortress of solitude... whatever the terminology, I get it.  In fact, I welcome time spent in the man cave, because it means I'm off duty and can finally take a nap.

But until now, the boys have not had a proper "mini man cave" in the house.  Last year, they came up with the ingenious idea of pitching a tent in the living room.  My husband, who is the de facto leader of the boys, was thrilled.  Before I knew it, he moved the furniture aside and erected a 16-foot camping tent that occupied nearly the entire length of the room.  To make the sleeping arrangements more comfortable, the boys "borrowed" two mattresses from the beds upstairs and positioned them side by side in the tent, and then tossed in a few sleeping bags and pillows. 

They were overjoyed.  Like squirrels storing nuts for the winter, they brought in flashlights, toys and books, ready to hunker down until Spring.  And for the next several weeks, they slept in the tent every night.  They congregated and held secret meetings there in the afternoons.  And whenever I couldn't hear them in the house, I knew exactly where to find them.

And then, a few weeks later, the tent was swiftly destroyed when my sons, along with three other boys, decided to see if they could climb to the top.  A support beam snapped, and the entire tent collapsed.  The boys begged me to keep the tent, but I finally had a reason to take back my living room.

That was Man Cave 1.0.  Its operating system literally crashed due to boy overload.

After they lost their tent, the boys periodically created makeshift shelters out of blankets and whatever furniture they could commandeer.  I often found them barricaded in their playroom, hiding in a lopsided fort made of two armchairs with a blanket draped over their heads.

Enter Man Cave 2.0.   

A few months ago, my husband rushed over on a mission.  He had that look on his face which I know means that nothing I say will dissuade him from his next big idea.  He'd found the Eli Fort Bed at Pottery Barn Kids (pictured at left). Well, I couldn't help but admit the bed was a great concept, and we both agreed the boys would spend every free moment in that fort conspiring as pirates, cowboys or space rangers.  In addition, our fourth son will need his own bed soon.  

However, at $1800 (shipping and tax included), the bed is rather pricey.  So he decided he'd build one himself, even if it takes him all summer to complete it.

Well, naturally, being the pesky wife that I am, I had a ton of questions: "When are you going to find the time to work on this?  How are you going to calculate the weight bearing capacity of the top bunk?  Can you imagine the older two boys jumping on the platform and the whole bed crashing down on the younger two boys?  Are we going to end up with hundreds of dollars worth of lumber taking up space in our garage for the next several years?"

Just a wee bit annoyed, he replied matter of factly: "I have a graduate degree in engineering and you think I can't build a fort?"  (This was the point in the conversation when I knew I'd have to apologize later for my lack of faith.)

During the first week, he spent his evenings sawing, staining, drilling, and hammering. He finished the platform structure, which looked like a giant table on four legs.  He proudly assembled it in our playroom, and the boys (dad included) enthusiastically tested out the load bearing capacity by jumping up and down on it for twenty minutes.

The project languished for the next several weeks while we traveled and took the boys to the neighborhood pool.  During this lull, there were a few trips to Home Depot to buy power tools and various other manly acquisitions which I was not entirely certain were absolutely necessary for the project at hand.   

And then one night, my husband sprang into action.  He shifted into full-blown mad scientist (or rather, mad carpenter) mode, and knocked out the rest of the fort in a few consecutive evenings.  Without any building plans to follow, he came up with his own design inspired by the Pottery Barn Kids fort bed.

I may be biased, but I think his version turned out even better.  The entire fort is reinforced with L-brackets and secured into the support beams of the house.  The structure isn't going anywhere.  It can withstand earthquake-like rumblings from four boys jumping up and down on the top bunk.
Instead of a ladder, we opted for a sturdy flight of stairs with a handrail, which is easier for our 1- and 3-year old to ascend.  He also positioned the stairs on the side, rather than the front center.  This allowed us to add a wall frame to the front of the bottom area, which gives the boys another semi-enclosed space in which to huddle and make plans to take over the world... or whatever boys do when girls aren't around.
After finishing the structure, my husband assigned me the task of decorating the fort.  The Pottery Barn Kids version featured ocean and surf-related accessories that can be purchased separately. But we wanted to make our fort true to the style of an old-fashioned boys' treehouse.  So I created my own wooden signs using cedar planks, stencils and acrylic craft paint.  Now, every club requires some level of exclusivity, so a "Keep Out" sign is mandatory. 

I came up with the idea for this next sign, after I found a brass plated plaque with the phrase "No Girls (Except Mom) Allowed" and a skull and crossbones motif, in a store.  I wasn't enticed to spend $70 for the plaque, and I also wanted the sign to be wooden and rustic in style.  So I borrowed the phrase and made my own sign.  And I added "Boys Only"... as if we need any additional explanation.

Well, our clubhouse would not have been complete without a pirate-themed sign.  Again, using stencils and acrylic paint, I created the "Beware of Pirates" sign on a cedar plank, and then decoupaged little pirate graphics (which are actually party invitations sold at Target) using Mod Podge glue.

We tossed around a few other ideas for the front of the clubhouse.  A sliding window?  A porthole with a mounted telescope?  A bucket attached to a pully system to carry loot from the ground level to the top level?  Well, in the end, we decided to keep it simple.  We made a wooden mailbox... perfect for delivering notes written in code, treasure maps, and instructions for secret missions. 

Although we decided against enclosing the clubhouse with a door, we added a working doorbell... because you know, boys love pushing buttons, figuratively and literally.  You can buy a remote doorbell at any home improvement store.  The one we purchased was plastic and didn't fit the rustic style, so I painted it to match the rest of the fort.  The button was mounted with double-sided tape, and the "bell" part is plugged into an outlet inside the clubhouse.  I'm not sure if we'll regret the doorbell someday... but the beauty of this option is that I can remove it anytime if the incessant ringing starts getting on our nerves.  

I love how the fort turned out.  The boys adore their new digs, and they currently only emerge for bathroom breaks and meals.  My husband is a genius.  And now that our summer project is finished, he too can finally relax in his own man cave.  As for me, it appears no one needs me at the moment... I think I'll go take a nap.


  1. LOVE this. Roughly how much did it cost to make? Does your husband have more specific design plans he can share? I'm not an engineer, but would love to make this for my sons too.

    1. Thank you! I'm so sorry we don't have any plans to share. He literally built it one section at at time, scribbling measurements on scrap paper and then going back and forth from the playroom to the garage to tweak the lengths. It was a rather haphazard process of trial and error! Basically it started as a giant table, then he made the stairs and railing, added the posts on the side of the top bunk, and then added the two wall fronts on top and bottom.

      There is another parent who built something similar, and she has more detailed instructions here:

      For our project, I think the lumber cost about $400, but this depends on what kind of wood you want to use. I think we ended up spending a lot for stain (maybe another $100), because we didn't realize how many coats it would take to get the right shade. It would have been cheaper to leave it the natural color or maybe use paint instead. Most of our expenses came from buying all the power tools we didn't have.

      Thanks for writing. Sorry I couldn't be of more help... I would love to see what you come up with!