Barbara Butler uses heart-grade or better redwood lumber to construct ornate playhouses
Know What Products Your Children Are Playing on
Barbara Butler doesn’t construct your typical outdoor products. In fact, this South San Francisco
builder of children’s playhouses and tree houses constructs products that are anything but typical.
Butler usually uses heart-grade or better natural redwood lumber from second-growth well managed forests to construct these playhouses.
“We are open to using other lumber products, but will only use pressure-treated wood for floor joists upon client request and they must be covered in natural wood to protect children from ever touching them,” says Butler.
Depending on the size of the project, Butler says her projects usually take six to ten weeks to build, carve, stain, pre-assemble in her shop (to ensure perfect fit), detail, disassemble and load to ship. Typically, a one-story playhouse is six weeks; a two-story fort is eight weeks and a custom design is ten to 12 weeks.
Most of Butler’s customers find her via the Internet or they are referred by a landscape architect who is familiar with her work.
“Interested clients then e-mail requesting a brochure and/or call our shop to talk with our expert staff,” Butler says, “We review options and help them decide if they want a pre-designed playhouse or play fort, or if they want a custom design play structure.”
Butler’s pre-designed playhouses start at $3,800 and her pre-designed two-story play forts start at $9,910 plus delivery and installation. Custom play structures and tree houses generally start at $20,000.
Several celebrity clients helped bring attention to Butler’s business: Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates commissioned a large play structure for their summer home in the Hudson Valley of New York. Robert Redford commissioned Barbara to design a global village play area, and Jada Pinckett-Smith purchased the Storybook play house with carved animals all over it. Producer Lou Adler decided on a dramatic lighthouse for his Malibu beachfront property.
Safety is Top Priority
Butler says that safety is a primary concern. “We make all our structures sturdy enough for kids and adults to play on together for many years,” Butler says. Butler’s primary goal is to design a fun structure that is safe and stimulating to children, as well as architecturally beautiful. Some of the extra steps she takes for safety are: grinding smooth all sides of the redwood lumber to prevent splinters, making sure there are plenty of handles and railings to keep kids from falling and the company encourages parents to install resilient surfacing material around the structure (such as rubber bark chips) to protect kids from injury in case of fall.
For Butler’s public-use structures, the entire structure is designed and built to meet and exceed the CPSC and ASTM Standards for public-use play structures.
Butler says they only use high-quality non-toxic tung-oil stains with artist quality pigment. “We make our own 59 beautiful colors to choose from and will custom develop a color upon request,” Butler says. “To protect the play structure, we add two coats of clear tung-oil before delivering. These stains are not harmful to children or the environment and are very beautiful. They are applied by hand, left for ten minutes and then hand-rubbed to bring up the sheen and to let the beauty of the natural wood grain show through. This is very labor-intensive but well worth the beautiful look. Also, stains just mellow with age and do not chip, bubble or peel like paint, which can be a potential hazard to children.
Happily Ever After
With proper care, Butler says her structures will last forever.
Wood is an incredibly durable product—look at the number of wood houses that are hundreds of years old and still in existence,” Butler says.
Butler has been building her play structures for more than 20 years and often goes back to visit them, keeping an eye on what works and what doesn’t. It is still her opinion that wood is the perfect material for kids and play structures. It is strong yet soft when you bang your head against it. It is a natural product and easy to work with: we can repair it, replace damaged pieces, re-stain it, renovate it, add to it and move it.