Wednesday, June 23, 2010

What I did this summer vacation

Started yesterday morning and finished about six hours ago.

Okay, okay it's still June and therefore much too early to be composing the obit for the summer, but if in September I'm asked to respond to the standard prompt, I can always say that I built a loft bed for my daughter. The day before yesterday, Beth said, "Why don't we build a new tree house this week?"

I didn't bite, just kept chewing on my cereal. That evening, Beth and Tess sat down and doodled some bedroom design ideas. I got up early the next day and played some golf while my family slept. When I got home, Tess hugged me and said, "Are you feeling up to building me a loft bed?" I mused over the wording of her question and glanced at Beth who smiled inscrutably.

Clearly it was time to make something...first step, Google "loft bed". Beth and I find a website with something that looks like it will work. Tess and I hop in the bus and go get lumber at Miller's. Once there, Tess sniffs out the free popcorn while I order the plywood and the other lumber. I love that we can fit a sheet of plywood into our VW Westfalia.

Before noon I had lumber stacked in the front yard, tools on the porch, and a tape measure in my hand. My process as a builder might be called methodical if there were more method to it, yet in terms of pace it is quite methodical, even in terms of visuals it qualifies, as at any given moment you are likely to observe me contemplating what lies before me.

I'd like to think that all my thinking saves me time having to undo bad decisions or erroneous measurements and bad cuts. A good example of this is my finally coming to the realization that I could not move a fully assembled bed from the porch to Tess' bedroom. I'm sure most people would have seen that one right at the start... not me. It came to me in a flash of insight just as I was about to bolt the eight foot 4x4 beams to the box. Even so, not all of my mistakes got caught in time. I had to dismantle the bed twice, once to re-size the box, and once because after bolting the beams to the legs (inside the bedroom), I discovered that I didn't have enough ceiling clearance to turn the bed upright. Throughout the entire building process, Beth was largely absent, occupied with Farmers' Market. When she did drop in, I found myself bristling at any remarks that I construed as critical of the design.
"I didn't think it would be that small."
Part of my problem, is that I am borderline competent and I'd prefer not to be reminded of that fact.
"Is that going to be strong enough?"
I'm not really competent to respond in a meaningful way; instead, I sulk and mutter, "I'm just following the plans." I don't have the lightness of spirit that I wish I did sometimes. I want to be Keebler elf, merrily swinging my hammer and bantering with onlookers instead of a grim faced man barely holding his own with a process he sees but darkly. Beth gives up and stalks away. I know that we'll sort it out later; in the meantime, I fold my arms and consider whether what she has said can in any way be incorporated into the design.
The kids hung about intermittently as did a couple of neighbor kids. Occasionally I was able to put them to useful work, balancing the box or fetching tools or the like. The neighbor girl, Mandy, says, "I was wondering if you could build stuff."
I pause a moment. "Really?"
"Yeah, I was wondering if you could build us a dog house."
"Yeah....but we found somebody to do it."
I am so relieved.
As the bed goes up, so do the kids' expectations.By the end of day one, the basic frame is standing in the middle of the room. It's unbraced and has no ladder yet, not to mention accessories like shelves and the desk. I have to warn the kids to stay away. That night, I sleep fitfully, tossing around possible bracing schemes in my mind. Finally at two-thirty in the morning I get up and go sit under the loft bed and try to visualize the finished product. Beth is leaving later in the morning for a two day retreat, and I want to have this thing done before she gets back. Actually, I had thought of getting in another early morning round of golf, but sleep deprivation is turning that idea into a long shot. Colm wanders by on his way to our bed. I decide to trade places with him. Before I go to sleep I compose a shopping list for the building supply store.

I wake up and gather my list, Beth comes in and looks at the frame. Her eyes turn again to the bracing that supports the mattress (and the child who will lie on it). The doubtful look on her face restarts our exchange from yesterday, almost word for word. She wants to be sure there won't be some catastrophic failure; I want to be believed, and I want to believe myself. I stalk out of the house and go to the lumber store. I come back, my head cleared. I can see the finish line.

Beth helps me hoist the plywood into place for the wall that will be opposite the desk. We then say goodbye to Beth and then the kids and I hit it. Tess dutifully clears out her room and her desktop to make room for all the maneuvering that's going to have to happen in a cramped space. She boxes up items as if preparing for a move. The first thing I do is use a skill saw and a jig saw to customize her desk so that it will fit between the posts of the bed. Next it's time for the ladder, but I'm stumped by the challenge of moving this thing from one side of the room to the other. It's an incredibly unwieldy (and heavy) thing to move about the room by myself.

I walk next door and knock, nobody home. I call John, not home. I go back in there and think about it some more, my signature process. Once upon a time, I managed to hoist a camper shell up onto my pickup all by myself. It was touch and go and could easily have ended badly for me and the shell, yet I somehow got it done. Another time I carried a full-size futon sofa frame, with folding out hide-a-bed attachment, from Colm's bedroom across the house, through the kitchen and mudroom, and down the basement stairs. It took me a half hour, but I made it. In both cases the difference between completing task and screwing myself up was small enough to appear negligible to some. Compared to those two examples, this bed was a piece of cake. The more I thought about it, I was almost embarrassed about having gone next door to ask for help. Once I had it where I wanted it, all that was left was to drill and bolt the cross pieces for climbing up and then using some scrap lumber to fashion a shelf for the desk and another small shelf on the headboard. Colm got a charge out of tightening the lag screws with a socket wrench; Tess got into the act too. I worked straight through the day. Tess fixed a lunch of cold cuts, crackers, cheese, and berries, and cold cereal for herself and Colm. It was endearing to see how well they fended for themselves, with hardly any put me in mind of the Truffaut film Argent de Poche where the two kids fix breakfast while we hear the song Les enfants s'ennuient les dimanches. When they finished eating, they came back in and helped some more.

When I finally allowed them up on the bed, they were elated. The task of putting the bedding back on the bed was an utterly novel and delightful undertaking...perhaps for the last time.

As I put away tools and cleaned up, I heard them already experimenting with the bed as a stage for some new play acting with their Kramer in that famous Seinfeld episode...they had discovered the intrigue of "levels".

Tonight they are sleeping together in the loft bed. It's only right since both of them helped to make it. The loft bed will impact our night time routines. I've been up there and found it comfortable, but I doubt I'll join both kids up there any time soon. Sammy is completely at a loss over being unable to jump up on the bed with Colm or Tess. When they leaned down over the rail to kiss me goodnight, they could barely reach the top of my bald head at first, but with practice we managed to touch noses. As I write, they are sleeping high above the ground, who knows where their dreams may land.

My work is largely done. It's all squares and stock pretense to being furniture grade. I've decided to install a couple of handles on the posts to make getting up and down easier and safer. Beth will take up paint and brushes and involve the kids in a whole other level of creation. I've built a bed; she will make a dwelling place.

post script:

Just in case there are some carpenter-types out there checking the blog, I'm posting a couple of photos taken from underneath the bed of the support system for the mattress. It is recessed into a box made of 2x6 lumber. I've attached 2x2 strips, screwed in with 2 1/2 inch screws at ten inch intervals (approx) over which I've laid the plywood and then the mattress. The plywood is slightly smaller than the box (the primary source of concern for Beth...and me). The minimum coverage of of plywood over 2x2 is 7/8's more than that in most spots. I've screwed the plywood down into the 2x2s to prevent it sliding. If you see a problem, please comment. I'd appreciate it.


Blogger Erin said...

Dad, that's so cool! It's amazing how just raising a bed can spark the imagination. What new adventures will occur to T & C... I like the stuff you build- if I ever settle down I would love a set of those neat 1/2 picnic table/bench things you used to build!

8:03 AM  
Blogger Melissa said...

This is so sweet! What a fantastic space-saving solution, too. Man, the kids must *love* it!

9:42 PM  
Anonymous Jerry said...

I spent a ton of time designing loft beds for Ari and Piper (even went as far as doing a computer 3D model so I could be sure they would work in the room). I know the value of thinking through your project before you start working ;-) After all that effort thinking about it I ended up just buying lofts rather than building my own. So you get much respect from me for doing it yourself.

I think your bed looks plenty sturdy. The plywood should be supported just fine the way you have it. If you end up making one for Colm you might want to think about using slats instead of a big plywood piece. Slats will let the mattress air out more. Just get a bunch of 1x4 boards and chop them to size.

Oh, if Tess is like Ariel she is going to demand a shelf up top so she can keep her books she is reading by her head.

10:59 PM  
Blogger Sharri said...

Kudos for building that, Kevin! We bought Emily a loft bed that Georgia now uses. Some of our accommodations: When Emily had it, she designed a carpeted ramp for our cats that leads from a table to the loft. The cats still love it! We have a bookshelf on one end that faces inward and goes from floor to ceiling, so that there are shelves below and shelves above for nighttime reading. Curtains hanging down from bed offer the option of a fort!

8:48 AM  

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