Several months ago, blogger EcoCatLady left a comment on this blog about how she had avoided buying new plastic when her kitties needed a climbing tree by figuring out how to build one herself with all secondhand materials. She wrote:
My most recent success was that I wanted to get my kids (meaning kids of the feline variety) a scratching/climbing kitty tree for Christmas. I initially was going to buy one, and I found them online pretty cheap… but the more I researched, the more I discovered that anything which cost under $400 was made from plastic PVC pipe. So instead of bringing more plastic crap into the world, I made a kitty tree from scrap lumber I had in my garage and some carpet scraps that I got on FreeCycle. I know in the broad scheme of things it’s not much, but it’s something… and something I probably wouldn’t have thought twice about before reading Beth’s blog.
Being the mom of a couple of fun-deprived kitty cats myself, I asked her to share with us her instructions for building the cat climber and how she made the decisions she did about what materials to use. Here is the “short” answer. The longer and funnier answer is on her own blog. My favorite part of the instructions below are reading how Cat analyzes all her choices to make the best one she can. We might not all come to the same conclusion, but the point is to think about the full life cycle and impact of the materials and products we choose, right?
How I built my Plastic-free Kitty Tree
(well… I suppose technically the carpet might be considered plastic… but those less cheap than I am could spring for wool)
The design of my kitty tree was pretty much dictated by the corner space where it was to go, and by the supplies that I had on hand. I didn’t really come up with a solid “plan” before I began, but I did do a bunch of research as to what was commercially available. I took inspiration from several models including these:
I wanted something that would allow enough playing, climbing and jumping opportunities to satisfy my rambunctious 2 year old boys, but also something that would be accessible for the less agile members of my feline family. I also didn’t want to work that hard, so I melded the design to the pieces of wood that I had on hand rather than the other way around. Stability was also a factor since I knew one certain romper catwould be launching his little body from every conceivable direction.
So here’s what I ended up with as the basic framework. Please excuse the diagram… I have no clue how you really are supposed to make those sorts of drawings…
The first thing I did was to cut all the 1×2 supports for the bottom and for the 4 main shelves. It’s 20 inches from the back 2×2 out to the side 2×4’s, but I had to screw the supports together in right angles so I cut half of them to 21 inches and the other half to 19 inches so that when attached they would end up equal… hard to explain, easier to visualize…
I then attached them every 15 inches to the upright supports:
And then put the shelves in place – the shelves were mostly already cut for me… it helps to have a house that was formerly owned by a woodworker who left a nice stash of scraps in the garage!
The tippy top perch is narrower, so I cut two 15 inch 2×2’s for side supports (use a miter saw or you’ll never get the ends at perfectly right angles, which was sort of essential). The 2×2’s are screwed into the tippy top perch and the shelf below. I made 1×2 supports like I described above to hold them all in place and make it more steady, but they, of course are about 5 inches shorter than the ones for the shelves below.
And a photo at about this stage… (in this photo the top shelf still isn’t screwed in place and there were no 1×2 supports for it yet.)
That was my original plan, but the rectangular shelves seemed to be a bit unstable, so I added metal L-brackets under the far edges to give them more support.
So, I was gonna leave it at that, but I decided that it really looked more like an off kilter bookshelf than a kitty tree, plus it really needed something to make it more climbable. So I added another 2×4 in the front with a perch on top… we call it the “diving board.” It was a tad bit unstable though, so I cut another chunk of 2×4 to fit between it and the shelf above. It was sort of difficult do diagram, but I did my best:
Then came the step of carpeting it and adding some sisal rope for scratching. I got the carpet scraps from FreeCycle, and… like the crazy kitty mom that I am, I actually washed all of the carpet before using it. All of the scraps but one were new, but thankfully they had been sitting in someone’s garage for a few years so they didn’t have any new carpet smell, but I was concerned about flame retardants and whatever else might be on them, so I scrubbed them good with soap (which I’ve read does a better job of removing bromine flame retardants than does detergent) and then hung them on the line outside and gave them a good rinse with the hose. Note: it might have been better to do this part when it was above freezing outside!
I thought about gluing the carpet, and even bought some carpet glue that was advertized as non-toxic and no VOC’s – but I took one whiff of it and nearly passed out… and then when I read the warnings about first aid for accidental inhalation, I promptly took it back to the store. I ended up using a combination of my staple gun, some poultry staples (they’re like U shaped nails that are sharp on both end and you tack them in with a hammer) and the easiest & best for the vertical pieces: 1 inch roofing nails!
The staple gun worked OK for places that wouldn’t have much stress on the carpet… like the underside of the shelves. Still… I had to pull back the pile to expose the backing in order to get the staples to seat properly and securely so they wouldn’t come out and injure a cat. The poultry staples worked wonderfully, but they were hard to get started without smashing a thumb, and I had a difficult time getting them to go in straight. The roofing nails were great for the vertical pieces which needed to be really secure so the carpet wouldn’t come down when the kitties scratched on them… plus I put the nails in the back side so they don’t show.
I may use the hot glue gun to stick down some of the carpet edges if they start to look like they’re gonna fray. String can be deadly to cats if they eat it, so it’s important to be sure there aren’t any frayed bits of carpet string that they could ingest. (I know, I know… glue gun glue is probably plastic too… but anybody got a better idea how to deal with fraying edges should they appear?)
And… a few pieces of advice: Carpet is much easier to cut with a utility knife than with any sort of scissors or shears (cut it from the back side). And, for the geometrically challenged like me, if you want to fold the corners under, just cut straight across the corner and that will leave your edges with the perfect corners for folding under.
I removed the shelves to carpet them, but the vertical pieces were all carpeted (or wound with sisal) in place. It required some gymnastics, but it was easier to do it that way because all of the support pieces needed to be screwed directly into the vertical beams, so it just made more sense to do it that way than to try to figure out where to leave gaps for the supports to attach.
I ended up using about 350 feet of ¼ inch sisal, which cost me $35 (the only money I spent on the whole project after returning the carpet glue). For securing the sisal, I found the best thing was to nail the end in with a poultry staple. I didn’t take any pictures of that part, and since the sucker is now attached to the wall, and the staples are on the back side, I can’t take any now… but this is sort of what it looks like:
And in terms of sisal… make sure you get actual sisal, not manila rope (which is coated with some sort of oil) wind it really tight, and be sure to wear gloves! And when I wound the sisal around the parts where there were irregular edges because of the metal L-brackets, I used some carpet scraps underneath so it wouldn’t slip.
When the whole thing was done, I screwed it into a wall stud so it won’t fall over!
OK! And here’s the end result – acrobat kitty and all!