Saturday, June 15, 2019

Little Tree Library

Our little free (tree) library, in the evening with the lights on (and before being filled for the first time).

Last night we held a grand opening party for our new little free (tree) library. Yesterday was also the last day of school for the kids and the last day of finals for YVC (grades due Monday, so guess what I'm doing this weekend?) and we wanted to celebrate summer, too. So we invited some friends over to show off the new library and maybe help us stock it.

My daughter arranging the first books.

My husband, Sean, has been working on the library since early May after I went out and bought a cabinet from the Habitat for Humanity Restore. The process involved a lot of learning and adjusting of plans. When I bought the cabinet, I thought we were going to cut a hole in the tree and stick the cabinet in. But the cabinet I bought had two doors, so Sean decided to cut a hole all the way through the tree (which was a great idea, but required a lot of work).

The hole goes all the way through. I think Sean is blowing out the sawdust from inside.

The idea sort of began a year ago when the large old maple tree in front of our house died. It still had leaves, but they were tiny, and after talking to a few tree experts, it became clear it wasn't going to get better, but it might drop a limb on our roof, our neighbors, or a vehicle, so we hired some folks to cut down the tree.

Our dying tree last year.

We decided not to pay for the stump to be removed, and we spent the next year thinking about what we wanted to do. We thought seriously about hiring someone to carve the stump into a sculpture, but we couldn't really come to an agreement about what we wanted, so we put it off.

Our stump after the high branches were cut down.

I can't remember when we first started talking about making the stump into a library, but when Sean decided to take some serious time off of work (he quit his job), it became a real possibility. At the tail end of Spring break, I went to the Habitat Restore thinking I'd look at options, and I came back with a cabinet that was larger than I'd anticipated, but with attractive doors.

Sean's first cut for the library.

Not long after, Sean measured the cabinet, plugged in his chainsaw and started teaching himself how to cut a hole in a tree. I don't know how the experts cut a hole in a tree, but Sean's method was pretty smart. He cut a set of gridlines in the front of the tree and then used a crowbar to pop each square out of the tree. Once one set of blocks was out, he could cut deeper gridlines and pop them out.

The grid of chainsaw cuts after a set of blocks were popped out.

It took him several days to get through to the other side using this method, and at this point all three of us took turns hammering out the remaining cubes of wood so that we could see through the tree. 

Popping out blocks from the hole in progress.

Sean had started with an electric chainsaw, but thought perhaps a gas powered version would do better. He borrowed a gas chainsaw from a friend, then, not wanting to damage the friend's chainsaw, he ended up buying one. And then another.

Using a hammer to pop out the last center blocks from the back to reveal the hole.

An inexperienced woodworker cutting through a tree can be pretty hard on the machines, I guess. It wasn't clear whether the first gas chainsaw had something wrong with it or if it was used and abused. Presumably they aren't designed to cut large holes through the middle of large tree stumps.

After the center blocks were popped out.

It took about three days of hard work to get through the tree, but then he had to expand and even out the hole for equal sized openings on both sides. By this point, I think, he had decided not to use the cabinet, but to remove the doors and install them in the tree directly.

Cali didn't actually enjoy being placed in the hole.

Our landscaping had also changed at this point, with little blocks of wood edging the entire length of our front yard fence almost as if the wood blocks were a poor attempt at bark mulch. The kids, however, had some fun building dams with the portable and very stackable blocks of wood.

The kid was happier about going inside the library. Also, that's a big little library.

The next step in the process was to make the inside look nice. I would have been happy with getting rid of the lines in the floor from the chainsaws. (I even thought it would be fun to leave the cuts and use them to stand up small paperbacks, kind of like built-in slots for book display.) But Sean has higher standards for his tree hole library projects.

The floor and door frame after sanding and before varnish. The wood grain and tree rings are easy to see.

It was difficult to keep the chainsaw level inside the tree, so Sean bought an angle grinder with a chainsaw blade to smooth out the inside. It is such a terrifyingly dangerous tool, that I'm not even going to link to it. It worked okay, but would then kick back. Since it had such force, that kick back could get really dangerous. Luckily it was cool weather so Sean was wearing a sweatshirt. The blade bounced off his watch band and then got tangled in his sweatshirt sleeve before hitting his arm. The watch band and the fabric slowed down the blade so it didn't cut far into his arm. 

The rails for the router sled inside the tree.

As a safer solution, Sean looked up how to make a router sled. Though a router sled isn't typically made to go inside a tree, he made this one work. The wooden sled has a space for the router and the length of the bit can be adjusted to go through the gap in the sled. The sled moves along two rails which can be leveled and attached, in this case, to the tree itself. The router moves side to side in the sled and the sled moves forwarded or backward along the rails to take off even strips of wood over a large surface.

Sean standing on top of the tree to show the router sled in action (and I'm glad I wasn't home for this vertiginous photo op).

The router sled allowed him to level the floor of the library, and he later used it to level to the top of the tree. Using the router also increased the height of the (already fairly large) space inside the library. He couldn't use the router to get all the way to the edges of the interior, because the router itself would bump into the walls, but it was easier to do this part by hand once the rest was flat and level.

The tree top when nearly finished routing. Notice the sky light is visible on the far side.

Sean didn't use the router on the walls of the library space. It would have entailed some awkward positioning and I'm not sure he even considered it. He smoothed the walls with a combination of chainsaw, angle grinder with a rough disk, and the terrifyingly deadly grinder until that tool was officially retired and dismantled to avoid any future temptation to use it "just this once."

The inside of the tree, showing smooth floor but rough walls.

There were also many levels of sandpaper involved in smoothing the walls and the floor. Because they weren't leveled with the router sled, the walls gently curve and undulate. I love this feature, because it highlights the organic surface of the tree. Whereas the floor is controlled and fully functional, the walls remind us that the tree was a growing changing thing. And really pretty, too.

The doors placed temporarily. I like the way the light comes through the window glass and shows up on the wall.

The smooth surfaces of the floor and the walls were nice, but the wood grain was a bit hard to see. Sean wanted to protect the interior of the library, so he applied a durable two-part varnish. Once he began to apply it, the wood grain shone out just beautifully. It's very glossy, so the texture is a bit hard to capture in photographs (at least with the amount of effort I intend to put into it today), but in-person it is stunning.

The grain of the wood on the wall is particularly visible in the bottom half of the photo. The pattern is the wood, not a texture from the cutting.

Before he applied the varnish, my daughter and I marked the rings of the tree. We weren't really sure what we were doing. Sometimes a ring appears to stop and start. Sometimes one dark ring appears to have a bunch of faint rings before the next dark one, and sometimes we disagreed about what was and was not a ring, but we did our best. By our count the tree was planted in about 1929 (though this did not quite match my earlier count of 1938).

Our tree ring markings are visible, even if the tree rings aren't as clear.

With the varnish on, and the wood cracking as it dries, the rings are much harder to see than when we were marking them. The marks are also difficult to read, but still visible. I'm glad we marked them, since they are so hard to see now. The most recent ring dates can be seen outside of the library door on the sidewalk side. Then it might be necessary to move the books to see the line of numbers as they move towards the middle.

A shrink wrapped tree hole, as the varnish dries.

While the varnish was drying, we discovered that any water, dust, or debris could mar the finish, so we ended up plastic wrapping the tree between coats. This was the first time I'd ever plastic wrapped a tree. I think our neighbors must have thought this was the strangest part of the process.

The library hole with much of the tree still above.

I'm telling the story a bit out of order, in part because some things were happening in overlapping time frames. Once the hole was cut, Sean also wanted to cut down the top. The original plan was to make a castle/playhouse on top, but we have some concerns about safety if people might choose to climb up on a structure in our front yard.

This lego model of the little free library shows earlier plans for a castle top.

The chainsaws were probably more appropriately put to use to cut down the top sections of the tree, than the interior, but getting up there was a challenge. Speaking of safety, scaffolding in the back of a truck is a thing that is possible, but I'm not sure it is actually advisable. Sean took down the chunks of wood in fairly manageable sizes and didn't hurt himself, so we're going to call it a win.

Scaffolding in the truck bed to reach the top of the stump for cutting.

However, some strange things started happening as he reached the lower sections of the tree above the library. There was a crotch in the tree between branches and we knew something was rotten there, but while cleaning out the dead wood and mold, Sean discovered some pieces of metal and glass and an old cell phone. Apparently someone had tossed it up into the tree, then left it there to rot into the hole. It was rediscovered when it dropped through the hole. Unfortunately the metal bits were first discovered with the chainsaw blade.

Sean inside the library, with the skylight above.

Sean wanted to create a flat surface on top of the tree and hopefully protect the wood from weather, especially since the hole in the tree would let the rain in onto the books. He could have simply covered the top with something, but a little free library with a working skylight is great fun, so Sean cut some holes in the aluminum sheet (the one he cut precisely to the size and shape of the top of the tree stump) and installed some plexiglass windows. We used silicone to attache the entire metal sheet to the planed top of the tree. The idea is that the silicone will prevent mold.

The two circles on the roof are the plexiglass skylights.

The more Sean worked on it, the more impressive the little free library plan became. As long as there's going to be a skylight, why not actual lights, too? So Sean rigged up some solar lights (the kind that light up people's sidewalks or garden paths) inside the library. They turn on automatically when it gets dark and the glass looks beautiful lit up like this.

The little free library at night, without the lintel in place.

This idea was initially a suggestion from some people visiting our neighbor's yard sale while Sean was working on the top of the tree. The lintels that Sean installed to frame the top edge of the doors block casual view of both the lights and the skylight, but we couldn't resist pointing out the skylight to friends who visited on Friday. We made most people peek inside the library, but our tallest friend was able to just look on the top.

The little free library in the evening with the solar lights on.

Since Sean had removed the doors from the cabinet, he needed a method for attaching them to the tree itself. He cut a slot in the wall and ceiling of the interior so that he could put boards into the slot (and not have to mess with brackets or another method). Since the walls and ceiling aren't perfectly square, the slots also allow the edges to match up nicely without gaps. The side boards are the mounts for the door hinges and the magnetic latch. The top (lintel) board serves to close up the space and to block the view of the lights and the rough ceiling.

Doors in place but no lintel, before varnishing.

The doors are both inset into the body of the stump quite a ways, which leaves an overhang that should protect the doors and doorway a bit from the elements. It also hides the openings from the side view.

The little free library view from the side (with both doors wide open).

I kind of like the idea that someone could be walking down the street and not know there was a little free library until they were next to the tree. This isn't great advertising, I suppose, but its charming, like a secret library that the adventurous kids in the story only find on magical nights when they're walking through the woods. Except it's on a sunny street next to a high school and a hospital.

The little free library before the books.

Other practicalities needed to dealt with because this library isn't in a magical forest. Our sprinklers spray on the tree, so Sean put weatherstripping and caulk all around the door and the opening. He also beveled the bottom lip of the floor, the part that is outside the doorframe so that water will run off the edge and not into the library.

The little tree library, street view, before varnishing.

As of Tuesday of this week, we are an official little free library with a charter number and a sign. As of Thursday, we're on the official little free library map. And thanks to donations from our friends and neighbors Friday and Saturday, there are plenty of books in the library today, though so far I'm not sure anyone has taken any books.

Our official sign.

Since the library has two openings, we had to choose a side for our one sign (you can't buy two at once), so we're thinking of making our own sign for the sidewalk side. Until then, the street side is marked with a fairly small sign. I think the sign is easily visible from a standing position, but I'm not sure what it looks like for people driving by, especially since there are always vehicles parked on the street.
The little free library, street side, after varnishing, but before the sign.

Most of the people who've put books in are friends and neighbors who know that it's a little free library. A sign above the sidewalk door may help passersby feel more comfortable investigating and taking a book. For now, we're still enjoying the novelty.

The double doors mean that we currently have a kid side and an adult side with books for the respective audiences facing opposite doors. This organization system subject to changed as the kid reorganizes the books for fun.

If you're in Yakima, stop by our little free library and pick up a book. I'm tempted to add, stop by before someone vandalizes the windows or the lights. You can find us on the official little free library map. We're charter number 89066.

my daughter organizing the books in the library before the party