Fort building, pt. 3

On to the last few photos of the fort!


Here we had added the roof support (the part that stick up across the middle). I’m going to sew together a large piece of ripstop nylon which will go from one side, up over the support, down to the other side. And once the roof support was in place, we could use the vertical support for that to attach the fire pole. We used the post-holer again to dig the hole, then widened it a little with the shovel.Once we had the pole set in the hole we bolted it to the fort.


Then we added the last of the cement, and let it cure for a couple of days. The kids did very well about leaving it alone until we told them they could play with it, although I could tell it was just about killing them!


Our last step, aside from the roof, was a picnic table. Lowe’s sells these kits for $98. You can get it pre-assembled as seen here, but then you have to transport it that way. And we wanted to sand and stain the components before assembly. So we got ours in a box with the table top, benches, and leg supports already assembled. I took a few days to get it all sanded and stained (in the garage, because the outside temperatures were too low overnight for the stain to dry properly) and then we took it out on the back porch and assembled it. We left it there because it was late and dark and rainy… and then we decided that actually wasn’t a bad place for it. So there it remains.


And here were are inaugurating the table with a hot dog dinner.

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Fort building, pt. 2

So, Tuesday and Wednesday we installed posts and stained the lumber. Thursday, the aforementioned wonderful neighbors came over to help with actual construction. Yay!! Technically, I think we could have built this ourselves. But I think we’d have made a lot of minor mistakes that would have added up to make us very frustrated, and the end results would not have been as nice as we’d hoped. I also think we would have gottenĀ  grumpy with each other when things weren’t going as smoothly as we’d planned. So while the help may not have been absolutely necessary, we appreciated it more than we can say.


Here’s one thing we learned from Jason: although your math may all make sense, you should not pre-cut everything to the measurements you’ve calculated. It works in theory, but not in the real world. So Jason brought his saw over and we did all our cuts as we went along.



Probably the longest part of the building process was getting the four initial deck supports placed even and level. It was a painstaking process, but in the end we have a nice, level platform and I think it’s only about 1/4 of an inch off from the 4′ height we planned. Pretty darn good, especially since the ground there is not level.


Still working on that first horizontal piece.



And there it is!



I think Erin was holding one end in place while the guys secured the other.


IMG_20151231_113415129I think they’re checking to make sure everything lines up properly.



And here we have all four pieces on. Huzzah! From here on it was a little easier, because we just had to make everything fit relative to these pieces.


Here they’re adding some additional support to the center of the platform. We used one of Jason’s modifications here: we didn’t realize we could get metal hangers for those, which is much more structurally sound than just screwing the wood into place.


Using the jig saw to cut out a slot for the support posts in this decking piece.


Puppy snuggle break! Livi kept herself busy running off with tools and scraps of lumber. After a few hours she got cold and tired and wanted a nap in her crate inside.


Most of the deck is on and Aaron is running a bit of sandpaper over the corners.


Cutting out corner slots on the other end.


The deck boards are tied down at each end, and here they’re screwing them down along the center supports as well.


Here the decking is complete, including a 2×2 around the outside edge, and we’ve added the 2x4s that will make up the top railing. Now we’re in the process of adding the 2x4s around the top that will be the attachment point for the roof.

IMG_20151231_153602666Here’s another suggestion by Jason. It hadn’t occurred to us to think about what we used to frame the openings for the ladder and fire pole; we were just going to use the 2×2 railing pieces all the way around. But Jason pointed out that people will grab the door frames for support going in or out and 2x2s won’t hold up well to that kind of use. So, we used 2x4s around the openings instead. Definitely a good idea. We got those into place and then called it a day.


On Friday we spent the morning and early afternoon in Bastrop, but when we got home in the afternoon Aaron and I went out and finished up the ladder and the railing pieces. This is what it looked like after a couple of hours of work.


And here it is with kids in it! At this point it was done enough to play in, and we were waiting on the fire pole we had ordered. We also needed to add our roof support, but since we had used extra 2x4s around the entrance/exit we had to buy another 2×4, cut it, stain it, and let it dry for 24 hours. So this is where we left it for the time being.

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Fort building

In my last post, I said that our fort plan was a bunch of square and straight lines: how hard could it be?

It turns out that we were partly right: it was pretty simple and very doable, but it would have taken us a lot longer (and probably a lot of frustration and grumpiness, and possibly money wasted on silly mistakes) had not our wonderful neighbors volunteered to help us out. Jason and Erin live around the corner, and they’re some awesome folks. Jason builds stuff all the time — and not only that, but I can now tell you from personal experience that he’s incredible at teaching people to build stuff. When we conceived this crazy idea, Jason agreed to look over the plans for us and let us know if he saw any glaring mistakes before we started building. He did that, and gave us some very useful suggestions. Then we asked if he might be willing to help us by picking up the corner posts in his truck, since they wouldn’t fit in our van. He did better than that: he checked over our bill of materials and then went to Lowe’s with Aaron and helped find everything we needed, including teaching Aaron how to pick out lumber. Then he offered to come over and help build it later in the week. Do they make neighbors any better than that?

In the meantime, Aaron and I (mostly Aaron) got the posts set in concrete so they would be solidly in place before we started building, and I pre-stained the lumber to make sure all the hard-to-reach bits would have protection from the elements.


Aaron put together a frame to show where the holes for the posts should go.


Nathan helped carry the wood from the garage to the back yard.


Does it look like a fort yet??


Digging the holes using the frame corners as a guide. Actually, he started making them first with a post-holer we borrowed from some lovely friends, then widened them with the shovel. The post-holer helped a lot with accuracy, and also made the digging easier.


The next step was adding concrete mix to the bottoms of the holes to provide a solid, level surface for the poles to sit on.


Then Aaron got to mix concrete. A lot of concrete. We used four or five 80-lb. bags.


Here are all four posts set in the ground and propped upright and level.


Then we took apart the frame and reassembled it farther up the posts, holding it in place with clamps, to help stabilize the posts as the concrete dried. At this point, the boys declared it already an awesome fort.


And this is what I did for most of the day on Wednesday. It took five or six hours to get all the lumber stained.


More lumber. I thought those little railing pieces would never be done, but eventually I got there. I’m glad I did the pre-staining — Aaron chose a high-quality “lifetime” stain, and with every last edge and corner stained we shouldn’t have any issues.

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Christmas project

This year, we did something a little different for Christmas. Many of you will have already seen this on Facebook, but I’m going to document it here anyway.

Starting… probably before Thanksgiving, but I didn’t keep track, the boys started bringing their Lego catalogs in the car with them and constantly telling me (as I drove) which sets they wanted and how much they cost. The real kicker was that it wasn’t the same one or two sets. It was pretty much everything they laid eyes on in the catalogs. Anyone who knows us probably knows we’re big on Lego around here, but this was just over the top. They weren’t picking out things they truly loved; they just wanted anything they didn’t already have. To be clear, they weren’t being horrible and it was nothing any kid doesn’t go through, but we didn’t like it. We don’t buy the kids a lot of stuff in general, so usually we’re excited about buying them stuff for Christmas and birthdays. This year, we just weren’t feeling it. And they have a huge bin of Lego already; it’s not like they’re lacking in pieces for their creative building endeavors. Before Christmas I went through closets and sorted through clothes, then we gathered every toy in the house and sorted through those. Some got sold, some were given away, some were stored for visitors or (God willing!) grandkids, and a well-curated collection was put back for use by the kids. Having done all that, we were even less enthusiastic about buying more stuff. Additionally, since we paid off the house this summer Aaron and I have done some fun spending: I got my dog, and he got some Lego sets and other goodies. We didn’t really have any major Christmas spending we wanted to do for ourselves.

Around the time we were processing all of this and trying to decide how to handle it, the boys started asking for a treehouse. We don’t have any good trees for that, but I told them maybe some sort of playhouse might be possible. I’d always thought some sort of swing set or play structure would be fun, especially since we like to encourage outdoor play. I started looking into that, and OUCH. Talk about pricey. Not to mention that between the size of our backyard and the placement of trees (several scattered throughout the yard), it was going to be difficult to find a good spot for a commercial playscape or even a basic swing set. We started thinking about what WOULD fit. Since the kids wanted a treehouse, an elevated platform was a no-brainer. And if we were going to do that, it was going to be big enough to fit all the kids and a reasonable number of friends. We settled on 6’x6′ as the ideal size. We ruled out swings because of the trees. A slide would be doable, but would take a big chunk out of what open space we do have and we doubted they’d love it enough to be worth it. But the boys have recently gotten the hang of sliding down a fire pole, and that seemed like a space-friendly alternative for a quick exit from the fort — and of course every good fort needs an emergency exit. While we were still looking at commercial playscapes the boys asked for one with a picnic table underneath, which I’m heartily in favor of. It’d let us take our schoolwork outside more easily, and while we don’t have much space for patio furniture I could see us eating at a picnic table.

And thus, the fort concept came together. We decided to put all of our family Christmas budget toward to fort and ask family members to consider making a contribution to the fort as their gift if they didn’t have other plans. Aaron found an online tutorial on building your own backyard playscape that we thought we could modify to suit us, and it also occurred to me that these custom playscape places might be able to offer what we were looking for. I called to ask and sure enough, they could build exactly what we wanted. It was even on sale! For only $2,125, the modest little backyard fort of our dreams could be ours! Hmmm… maybe not. I drew up a plan and Aaron made a bill of materials and priced everything out, and we realized we could build it ourselves for less than 1/4 of the cost to have it done professionally. It was a no-brainer. Granted we don’t have much building experience, but it was a pretty simple structure. It’s a bunch of squares and straight lines — how hard could it be?

These were the initial plans as drawn in pencil.


And here’s the digital version I came up with later. The major modifications we made on the final build were that we put the pole on the front of the fort as seen here and that we made the ladder fully vertical rather than diagonal. Our expert consultant (aka our neighbor who helped us build) informed us that a diagonal ladder would take several hours to do properly, while the vertical version would take 30 minutes. Also, the picnic table is not built in and may in fact not reside underneath it.


Basic RGB

We had some major contributions to the fort fund for Christmas, and between that and a couple of good sales we were able to fully fund the plan as drawn. Plan B was to build the basic fort (platform and railing) and then add features later as budget allowed (picnic table, fire pole, maybe even the roof). But it all worked out perfectly: earlier this week I went to make the last purchase we needed (sandpaper for the picnic table) and came home with a dollar and change left in the fort envelope.

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Enchanted Rock

A while ago, it came up that Aaron had never been to Enchanted Rock. Between that and the fact that visiting a giant chunk of granite sticking out of the ground seems like an appropriate activity while studying geology, we put it on our to-do list for when the weather got cooler. We picked a weekend this month, which happened to be last Saturday. It turned out not to be quite as cool as we’d hoped, but we got the kids up early and made the drive out there and it was still below 80 when we arrived. Happily, the park wasn’t full so we didn’t have to turn around and take a shuttle. We started off with the hike to the summit, then hiked some of the trail around the park. We’ll stick to the summit portion for today.


Here’s the view as we were leaving the trailhead.


There go the intrepid hikers!


The first part of the hike (the summit trail and Echo Canyon trail) was a little rough for Margaret, but she made it.


Pretty views on the way up.


As things got steeper, we had to adopt a new technique: point out a spot ahead of us and tell the kids we’d stop and rest when we got there. They weren’t long rests, but they got everyone going again.


Getting close to the top!


More of the view.


Pretty as it was, I’m not sure that Enchanted Rock will end up on my list of favorite places to go hiking. It was really crowded, and that takes some of the fun out of it.


A view from the top. Although this is solid granite, there are little places where the plants have managed to get a foothold. It was really fascinating to see.


Aaron found the survey marker that indicated the highest spot.


Nathan wanted his picture taken on the highest point…


… and so did Evan!


Nathan didn’t like sharing his spot. His mood improved after we sat down and ate some lunch.


One more view from the summit.

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Lego Build!

Guess what happened Tuesday? Monthly Mini-Build! Aaron gave me these photos from his phone, and they’re in no particular order. Just cute faces and Lego.


Nathan with his completed model — a deep sea anglerfish.


Next month’s model — a shark!


This is the Christmas set for the year. Isn’t it cute? There’s even a light brick inside the toy shop to provide a cheery glow.


It looks like the choir guy got knocked over (on the left, behind the skier).


I think we’re going back in time. Here they are working away at their models.


And here’s Nathan working. Apparently the lack of Evan pictures is not due to favoritism. It’s because Evan whizzed through his build and took off to look at Star Wars Lego.

While the guys were thus occupied, Margaret and I had fun of our own. We went to Bush’s Chicken and split a meal. When I asked her if she liked her chicken she said, “Mm! I’m happy!” That made two of us. Once we were done we visited a new pet store in Round Rock to see what sort of stuff they have. Margaret was disappointed because there were no dogs present, so we stopped at PetCo next in hopes of getting to watch a dog being groomed. No luck, but there were cats available for adoption so we looked at them. Then we went to Sam’s and got a head start on our grocery shopping for the next day. When we were done there, we go a car wash and got home just a few minutes after the guys did.

It turned out to be a good thing that we did the Sam’s trip, because when we went to get in the car the next morning we realized Aaron still had Nathan’s car seat. Oops! He came home for an early lunch, and we took a late trip to H-E-B. It would have been a crazy day if I’d still needed to go to both stores, but since I didn’t it worked out pretty well. I’ve been struggling to come up with a good grocery shopping method, as lately the kids have gotten out of hand. No one of them is especially terrible, but when you multiply it by three I’m pulling my hair out before we’re halfway through the store. This week I tried a new tactic: I made grocery shopping their job. Evan drove the cart. I minded the list. Nathan and Margaret put stuff in the cart. It wasn’t perfectly smooth, but there was no fussing. Evan informed me that when he can drive he’ll take Nathan and Margaret to do the shopping and I can just stay home. Sounds like a plan!

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Phone pictures

I went digging through the photos from my phone and found some fun stuff that I don’t think I shared yet, so prepare for randomness!


This is the proper way to relax around the campsite in the evenings. I read The Martian during the first half of the trip, and Aaron read it when we got back. Since it was good, we’re going to see the movie this weekend. Date night!


This is what bedtime stories look like in a tent. Margaret is just out of the frame to the right — I couldn’t quite squeeze her into the shot.


Here we’re eating lunch at the Grotto on the Seven Hollows Trail. I think the area with all the ferns often has water in it.


Coming back to our camp site from the restrooms. We really did have the place to ourselves.


Margaret was very tired after the Seven Hollows Trail. Here she is with her bunnies waiting while Aaron cooks hot dogs for dinner.


This is what my kitchen sink looked like. Yes, the camp stove is part of it — that’s where the hot water comes from. :)


Here’s my refrigerator, looking a little empty toward the end of the week.


This is my kitchen cabinet.


And this is the pantry!


Here’s another look at bedtime — a little earlier than the last picture because everyone was so tired.


This was the view out of our bedroom window first thing in the morning.


For their junior explorer badge, the boys had to do a project. One option was to draw a picture. Nathan drew this one of our family in our campsite. I think that left to right it’s Daddy, Nathan, Mommy, Margaret, and Evan. But I could be wrong. You can see our campfire and our green tent, along with some trees and rocks.


This is Evan’s picture of the cottonmouth we saw on the Seven Hollows Trail. It’s next to a big grey rock, and I think Evan took advantage of artistic license to show a creek next to the trail. He made a few different efforts at this one, and this was the version he liked best.


Since the batteries on the good camera died at the CCC Overlook, this is what I’ve got that shows a little of the structure at the site.


Each of the kids got a little souvenir money for the trip. Nathan’s purchase at Petit Jean was this mug. He was excited to drink his hot cocoa out of it on our last morning.


Here’s Margaret with her cocoa.


And Evan with his. You can see his Crater of Diamonds hat that he purchased there.


We were just as glad we left when we did. On Thursday night, these folks moved in next door and across the street. The one on the right was huge. The A/C ran all night, and at 10 p.m. we went and knocked and asked them to please turn down their movie so that we couldn’t hear it at our campsite. I have to confess to wondering what the point of camping is when you do it that way. I might go for a pop-up or something, but who wants a TV on a camping trip?


The kids had to help roll the tent up again before we could leave.


Aside from Nathan’s mug and a magnet Margaret picked out, the souvenir of choice from Petit Jean was a bandanna printed with a map of the park. When we got in the car I gave each kid a few plastic army guys and they explored the park.


The first part of our drive home looked mostly like this. It was lovely and still felt like we were on vacation. Then suddenly we intersected with the interstate. Vacation over. Sigh.


When we left Petit Jean we drove straight to Allen to spend a night and a day with Dad Rhinehart. We got there a little before he got home from work, so we made ourselves at home and made use of the bathtub and shower. The next order of business after a week of eating out of a cooler was getting GREEN FOOD. We took Dad with us to the nearest Souper Salad, and it was delicious.

We spent Saturday with Dad and my brother Ben, and after dinner we hit the road for home. We got in around 10, if I remember right, and put the kids straight to bed then unloaded the car and went to bed ourselves.

And that, folks, was our vacation!

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