Building Our Backyard Castle with Wood Naturally
Today is the big ‘Castle Clubhouse’ reveal . . . don’t worry, we’re cancelling Christmas and birthdays this year because, well . . . our kids got a ‘Castle Clubhouse.’ We partnered with Wood, Naturally on this very unique project and it really is the gift that will keep on giving for years, and years, and years. Wood, Naturally is great resource to find inspiration and how-to plans for tons of softwood projects – big and small! But let me rewind and give you the whole process and back story.
We bought this house and the backyard was absolutely great, but we wanted to make it more magical (this was the dormant winter). Both Brian and I (as you know) were raised with huge backyards (in the country) and want to make sure that playing outside was a priority for our city-raised kids. We chose to invest outside instead of a playroom inside because we want to force them outside – remember in LA you can play outside year round. Could they play outside and explore nature without a castle clubhouse? YES. One does NOT need this in order for kids to be entertained, or for you to feel like you are a good parent. But with a good excuse to build one, we did.
When Wood, Naturally approached us to partner on a another project I knew just what we would do – a fort – and after pinning and pinning we found some inspiration that we loved:
We wanted it to be more ‘fort’ than ‘playhouse’ because we remember not loving our playhouses because they were indoors. We wanted something they could climb, with a few obstacles, and the feeling of openness. And we liked the idea of raising it up high to utilize the space underneath for hiding and exploring.
But I also fell in love with this vibe – something more english and overgrown:
As we sourced for more inspiration, I felt like we could make it even a bit more editorial and special. We thought of themes that both our kids would enjoy and stumbled upon these amazing castle fort images:
Now those are certainly elaborate and would not be covered in our budget. So we merged the two ideas – something that had a castle feel, but structurally was fairly simple – you know, no architect or general contractor needed. We certainly didn’t have the space for an insanely huge play structure (although this one is pretty big!) but as a designer I also did want to make it feel special. In a perfect world our kids would just find a bunch of sticks and rocks and make one like we did growing up, but we’ll save that parent guilt ’til we have a country house some day and MAKE FORTS THEY WILL 🙂
First – the initial rendering:
This was a good jumping off point for ideas. We put it out there on Instagram that we were looking for a carpenter that could execute it and got a few people interested. One quote was $10k, and the rest were around $5k (not including the slide). This seemed astronomical to us and we almost pulled out and decided to downgrade, but then we remembered ultimately that good work takes time and cost money. Oh to have married a carpenter!!!
Don’t worry – because in came Chris of Lumpkin Custom Furniture.
He tried to simplify the moldings to save on cost and did his own renderings:
Then my design team and his sat down and hammered out the details and drew up CAD plans (you know, as you do for your castle clubhouse) . . . My hope is that by doing these drawings you guys could recreate a version of this with all the design work done.
Having this rendering was crucial to making sure that all the proportions were perfect, and that we liked where all the joints were and how they were connected. We had to be fairly flexible after this but at least we had a great plan in place.
Chris recommended Pine for the walls and Douglas fir for the posts. Pine is super affordable and long lasting, plus it just felt right for a fort. Cedar is also a great choice, but we all liked how the finish of Pine felt more English Castle. One thing that we knew was important was to choose a real wood and not a composite or faux wood. The whole point here is to get them away from plastic toys, not playing on one all the time.
Chris and his dad got started with the footings. Now the drawings do look simple and while I’m sure many of you could recreate this, it should be said that making sure the castle was level took a lot of skill and math on these guys’ parts.
The plans said 4′ off the ground but the ground sloped 1′! I think it ended up being 3 1/2 at the shortest and 5′ at the tallest. They poured the cement and secured the footings so little Charlie and Birdie wouldn’t tip this sucker over.
Over the next week they built that lady out of that pretty Pine. They started with the platform and framed it pretty much like a normal house with studs.
I originally thought it would just need posts on four sides, but that’s why I’m a decorator and not a house builder. They made it super strong and even faced out the inside so it would have walls and not just framing.
We were getting so excited . . .
The castle structure was almost done and it was time to choose the stain and sealant.
While I actually loved how it looked as is, it did feel very bright and NEW back there, almost white at times (which isn’t a bad thing) and Brian really wanted it to be a little richer. Also we knew that the stain will eventually fade which would be a great thing anyway. I tested a few different stains and some colored stains as well – which really just looked like paint to me. We chose ‘Puritan Pine‘ and got started. It was just slightly darker – or so I thought. (in the photo above it’s the one between two blues). Since the Douglas fir is darker than the Pine I wanted the stain to marry the two tones, which didn’t work perfectly but it’s all good.
We liked that it was darker but more brown than red. They stained for a couple days then sealed it afterwards so that it’s safe from rain and the elements.
The stain took to some of the planks differently so there is more variation than I thought there would be. Part of me still loves it as raw Pine, but having it darker and richer does feel more old world and finished.
Oh I’m sorry… I forgot to tell you about the pebble pit/moat. Well, I was going to save this for the landscaping post but here’s the gist – most of you suggested a pebble pit instead of a sand box and we loved the idea of boulders for them to climb all over and hide behind. So we created the moat out of pebbles and boulders.
Now, the rock dude put WAY too many large rocks near and under the slide so we moved a ton into the back corner so the kids wouldn’t fall from the slide and hit them. He didn’t have kids and had never done a pebble moat before (who had?) so even though we were super, super, super clear that we wanted a couple boulders and mostly pebbles he showed up with a dump truck of big rocks. After he left we moved them into the back corner. Eventually when we do the front yard we’ll move 1/2 of those in the corner up there so it’s not so rock-heavy. We kept some big boulders around the perimeter of the moat for visual interest and for climbing. We are pretty big on the kids taking moderate physical risk in a safe space so while boulders might scare you, they don’t scare us. For instance on the drawbridge they can certainly slip and fall down it landing on grass, but they can’t fall out the sides and land on rocks.
We joked about putting electricity out there so we could have real sconces and a power source for a boom box. And by “joking” I mean I got a quote for it (because our electrician was here doing other things) and it was $1800 (mostly because I guess our power outside was in an aluminum pipe which was rotting or something). Obviously we didn’t do that as it would have been insane. But I did tell Brian that I was considering putting in plumbing so we could have a mini-kitchen and for one split second he believed me (with horror).
So here is how it looks as a finished product without any toys or styling on the inside:
We added a slide (from Wayfair) and it’s a great one – I read a lot of the reviews. Many slides had reviews that said they were too fast, and many said too slow, but this one is perfect. It’s fast but doesn’t have a drop off at the end. We also replaced the swing seats in the same green and they look pretty pulled together.
I found these two flags in Roundtop, from a real castle. I brought them outside and within 1 day they were virtually ruined. I’m going to repair them and frame them inside (in Charlie’s room) but learned my lesson that they needed to be made out of Sunbrella fabric. So we had the flags replicated out of Sunbrella and put H’s on both sides. I hired a seamstress because I didn’t have the time, but this would be VERY easy to DIY – we got the flag poles on Amazon.
We added a handle at the top of the slide just in case they needed the extra brace. Before we moved all the boulders we were definitely worried about the kids falling off the top, especially other people’s kids if they didn’t know the rule of no horsing around at the top of the slide. But once the boulders were moved and it was all pebbles underneath we didn’t worry.
As a quick note if you are into this pebble moat idea – at first we dug way too deep and we ended up taking all the pebbles out, adding more dirt, putting in a pond liner, putting holes in that pond liner for drainage, and then adding about 6-10″ of the pebbles on top. They can’t make sand castles but they play, and play, and play down there with trucks and buckets. Plus we have a lot of jewel hunts.
So lets give some details:
The castle is 6′ x 6′ and overall its 10′ tall. It’s made of 90% Pine with Douglas fir posts and railings. There are a lot of faux wood building materials out there, but they look like that – faux wood. It is constructed like a house – with a cement foundation, and solid framing. We added and L shaped moulding on the corners and the turrets to help it look more finished and to hide some of the screw holes.
Lumpkin furniture did a FANTASTIC job and Chris and his dad were so great to work with. Building a castle isn’t exactly a normal request and they had to trouble shoot many things along the way – the windows, the height/safety of the ramp, etc. For instance to help them climb up we originally had 1×2 pieces of Pine but it didn’t give them enough grip so they took those off and added 2×3’s.
Here is how it broke down cost-wise:
Cement footings/post bases = $125
Lumber(Douglas fir/Pine) = $1200
Stain/sealer = $40
Labor = 9 days total for 2 experienced carpenters. Essentially two weeks with two guys.
Labor costs will vary based on location and skill level. This is certainly something that many handy people could attempt on their own. We were happy to hire this team that was experienced because we did have a deadline and a sponsor involved. While I would always suggest hiring someone experienced, I also know that not everyone has their play forts sponsored. This design could absolutely be simplified or not elevated to help save costs and still be lovely.
Now on to the accessories:
–The slide was $390
-The flags – oh how did these flags add up!
–Poles $13.95 x 2 = $27.90
–Pole brackets $7.99 x = $15.98
-The fabric was $180 and labor $150
TOTAL FOR FLAGS: $373.88
GAH. I basically handed off the flag task to someone else to execute and honestly had I known those flags were going to cost that much I definitely would have found something readymade and customized them. I’m honestly not sure why the fabric was $180 (it’s Sunbrella, but still). And if I had time I would have sewed them but I didn’t, so we farmed that out. We installed them ourselves. I do love them, but man …. 🙂
We played like this for a month or so and we kept noticing that they were dragging things from inside into the clubhouse to play. On the weekends we would watercolor up there or bring up throw pillows and read. So for the final shoot (and for the summer, since it doesn’t rain here) we stocked it full of activities – an art station, some costumes, a bean bag and books for reading. We put a chalkboard on the wall and attached bins to fill with supplies. We didn’t want a lot on the floor that would create a tripping hazard so we tried to have everything installed on the walls.
We had some friends over for the big debut and the kids went pretty nuts.
They literally destroyed it with water soluble paint within an hour and we couldn’t have cared less.
It’s their space to totally explore and have fun. Nothing is precious or fragile.
We DIY’d some flower crowns and capes, and not surprisingly the girls were into the crowns and the boys were like “what are these hipster capes out of vintage plaid with ball fringe on them? Where is the Spiderman cape??” I told them that Spiderman capes weren’t Pinterest worthy and they understood (JK).
They painted the easel, the walls, the bunting that we had made, the floor, and of course they are painting the rocks.
They use the slide and ramp as a track and just race around all day and night. I literally feel like I’m living out a fantasy.
And when friends aren’t over Charlie and Elliot play alone, or the two of them play together really well. Remember when I had that big post about ‘how do you entertain a toddler?’ Well, once we set them up with these activities they really do entertain themselves – not just in the man made castle but all over the yard – looking for bugs, digging through dirt, etc.
On Friday nights (or all weekend) friends come over and it’s like a frat house for parents – we relax and hang, and for the most part they play. Obviously with multiple boys there is some breaking up of fights (there is a reason we didn’t stock the castle with foam swords and shields:)) and sometimes they have issues sharing, but having a backyard with a built-in activity for them really has made parenting easier.
Now hopefully we have outlined well enough how you could possibly make this, but I also wanted to give options to those of you who don’t have the time to execute this or the budget, of course. So we pulled together a roundup of readymade forts (that you have to assemble) that I was pretty tempted by, and which are fairly simple and affordable.
I’m not sure #3 is for outside so double check this. You could even take something like #2 and put it on posts and raise if off the ground. They are all made out of soft wood – Pine, Douglas fir, or Cedar which you know I appreciate for its durability, affordability, and appeal.
For those of you who are interested in something more elaborate – here you go:
A big thank you to Lumpkin Custom Furniture who do far more than furniture. They can pretty much execute any built-in or carpentry job possible. I’m excited that we have found a company in LA that we can rely on in both quality and customer service. They’ll tell you secretly that I push for fast results and will change my mind despite having a really solid plan if something doesn’t feel right, and they were absolutely willing to make changes and just so lovely to work with.
I’m so sad that Jeff (Chris’ dad) isn’t in that shot. They were both so fun to have around and are invited over any time. If you are in LA and have any interesting or basic carpentry projects (they even do fences) check out their work and contact them here.
A huge thank you to Wood, Naturally for partnering with us on this. Like I’ve said before, there are a lot of faux wood building material options out there, but opting for the real stuff (which is also more sustainable) is very important to me – both indoors and out. If that castle were made of one of the composites it would have an absolutely different feel and appeal. The look of the Pine helps it feel more organic, natural, and grounded.
If we can’t raise our kids in the country, the least we can do is surround them with as much nature as possible – and that includes plants, flowers, butterflies, trees and yes, real wood. Let us know if you have any questions on the process but in the meantime here is a little video showing how it all came together:
**This post and project are obviously sponsored by Wood, Naturally – a campaign that lets me build things and create content out of a material that I obviously love – Softwood 🙂