From Sticks to Studs

My youngest son recently discovered the woodcraft aisle at Hobby Lobby. I don’t mean discovered as in the way Columbus discovered America (by accident) or how my cousin discovered in high school that he looked pretty good with his head shaved (also, for the most part, by accident, very little of it my fault). He always knew it was there. Most likely he knew it was there before I did and, quite possibly, before the store itself. My kids have a sixth sense about hobby and craft stores. They can hear spray paint cans being shelved from miles away and will gleefully spend days browsing just the clearance section. No, he discovered woodcrafts the way a young man discovers girls. He knows they exist. He sees them every day and thinks nothing of it. Then, one day, a switch is flipped in his brain — one of the several hundred other switches that are activated at this time — and he really notices them: the smell, the touch, so much beauty just waiting, longing, for the young man to take hold of them and turn them into a birdhouse.

Here’s the problem, though. He’s ten. The sight of all that raw material sends his creative ten-year-old brain into overload, and we end up with a conversation like this.

“Dad, can I get some wood?”

“What kind of wood are you wanting?”

“I don’t know, just to build. Just some wood. How about those wooden stick things?”

“Yeah, those are cool. What do you want to build with them?”

“Um, I could, um, build some stuff. Like glue them together and make shapes and stuff. You know. So, can we get some?”

So, last week I made a deal with him. If he sits down, thinks about what he wants to build, and sketches out a rough draft, we will buy the wood and work on it together. Twice he came to me with an idea and started describing it, using large hand gestures and vague references to tape measures and glue (which, it turns out, is, minus the glue, a quite popular design strategy for homebuilders these days). I asked him where his sketch was, and he said he didn’t have one. I told him when he comes up with a rough sketch, bring it to me, and we would get to work — and before any of you start screaming about stifling his creativity, no, I don’t force my children to develop a five phase project plan every time they sit down to make something. I do, however, recognize a learning opportunity when I see it, and enjoy teaching them new things.

Design

On Saturday, he called me in to show me something on his laptop. He had taken my directive to “sketch something up” quite literally and had designed a house using Google SketchUp. He was quite proud of the result. He pointed out the windows, and how he slanted the porch roof. I asked him some questions, taught him about overhang and what those little triangle windows are called (dormers), and then we talked about scale. Since he would be using 1/4″ sticks as two by fours, we agreed on a one inch equals one foot scale to make the math easier. He also decided to ditch the dormers and go with a basic one room cabin design since neither of us had done this before.

Estimating

We talked about trying to figure out how much wood it was going to take. However, since I had requested just a rough draft, we didn’t really know how many pieces we would need, not to mention how many we would burn through in the learning process. We decided to start with five 36″ pieces and see where that got us.

Construction

Finally, it was time for the fun part. We set his laptop up on the corner of the worktable, and he measured out two 13’ header and footer studs and enough 8’ wall studs to make it look realistic. I explained how most studs were 18” or 24” apart, but since we were going for looks, and doubted Owens-Corning even made tiny 2-inch rolls of insulation, we decided to go with 30” gaps between wall studs and leave a 36” opening for the door. He cut the studs to length with one Dremel tool, and we sanded them using another — or rather, he sanded the first one, then I sanded the rest while he sat in the other room, comforting the dog, and hoping to one day regain his hearing.

Pro-tip: A Dremel sander makes a high-pitched sound, similar to that made by your pet rabbit when its foot got caught in the cage that time when you were 6 years old, only there are 18,000 rabbits, and they are all 6 inches from your face. Use some ear plugs.

Once the pieces were all cut and sanded, we laid them side-by-side and quickly discovered why they are $0.79 each for a 36” piece. Just like when grabbing 2×4’s from the lumber yard, apparently you need to inspect each piece of hobby wood before bringing it home. Our header stud had a, well, not so much a “bow” as a “jog”, where it went along straight for a while then suddenly veered off in a completely new direction. However, the pieces were cut, we were ready to build, and it was after 8:00 PM, meaning my ten-year-olds attention was drooping in tandem with his eyelids.

We marked the stud locations, applied the wood glue, then, using three hand clamps, two pieces of string, and a not insignificant amount of legerdemain, assembled all of the pieces for one 13’ wall and one 10’ wall. Next weekend, we hope to assemble the other two walls and bring them all together — a feat which will undoubtedly require more clamps and string than I currently own, necessitating another trip to the hobby store, where we will pick out the rest of the pieces for his cabin, and perhaps a few extras for the giant, Overlook Hotel-style mansion I’m envisioning as our next project.

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