Monday, March 23, 2015

DIY cat tree

As I mentioned last week, Brian and I have recently adopted two adolescent kittens into our home (our previous cat, our beloved Amélie, having died in February). We are still adjusting to the difference between one sedate, mature cat, who even in her youth was never much inclined to romp around or jump on anything above couch height, to two very active, energetic kitties under a year old. For instance, while Amélie would occasionally prowl around the legs of my chair and meow when she thought I was paying too much attention to my work and too little to my cat (who was clearly much more important), our new kitties, Gwen and Winnie, will simply hop up on my desk and place themselves between me and the computer screen. Of course, that's not necessarily a sign that they want attention, just that they want to investigate the contents of my desk and don't mind if I happen to be using it at the time.

One change we're not prepared to adjust to, however, is that while Amélie was pretty content with her homemade scratching post, Gwen and Winnie appear to consider the doormat and the back of my desk chair more suitable scratching surfaces. Before turning to behavioral therapy (such as the ol' squirt gun) to cure them of this habit, we thought perhaps we'd try offering them a new post that might be more to their liking. They're both a little bit bigger than Amélie, as well as more limber, so we figured they might need something a little taller that they could really stretch up against. And as long as we were getting a new post, we thought it might be a good idea for it to have some sort of shelf or perch on it where they could sit to look out the office window and watch the birds. (Amélie used to like being picked up and held up to the window, but the new cats don't seem to care for it.)

We checked out some of the cat "furniture" at PetSmart and Petco and found quite an extensive collection of taller pieces, but the prices were high as well—starting around $80 and ranging up into the high three figures. And aside from the cost, none of these pricey cat trees was exactly the right size and shape to fit into the space we had in mind. So the obvious solution was to take up tools once again and DIY ourselves a new cat tree, one specifically designed to fit both our space and the tastes of our new kitties.

After measuring the space, Brian took stock of his supply of scrap wood. The old post was made of two-by-fours, but Brian quickly determined that he didn't have any pieces long enough for the main "trunk" of the cat tree. He also didn't have a single piece of plywood large enough to make a base for it, since this new, taller post would require a much broader base to be stable. However, after hunting through the pile, he came up with a sawn-off branch that we'd scavenged from a friend who had recently taken down a tree, and he thought this would make a perfectly good trunk for the cat tree. Since it was irregularly shaped, we'd have to wrap it in rope or twine rather than using carpet samples as we had for the old scratching post, but that was okay; since our cats had already shown a taste for scratching our front entry rug, which was made of sisal, it seemed likely that rope would be more to their taste than carpet anyway, and it would probably hold up better as well.

As for the base, his original ideal was to take a wide, heavy plank, saw it in half, and join the two pieces together to form a rough square that would be sturdy enough to support the trunk. But after he fiddled around with the two chunks of wood for a while and couldn't figure out a good way to attach them, he abandoned that idea in favor of a three-piece stand, with two parallel supports joined by a crosspiece. He cut these pieces out of a plank of pressure-treated wood he'd bought at some point for an outdoor project and ended up not using. I was initially concerned about whether the chemicals in the pressure-treated wood might be bad for the cats, but he assured me that he was planning to seal the wood with a coat of polyurethane anyway, which should keep any nasty toxins at bay. (And, as it turns out, pressure treated wood these days is far less toxic than the old stuff anyway.)

Once he had the base assembled, he drilled five small holes in the center to attach it to the trunk. In the center, he put one of the extra-long screws we'd received as part of the hardware kit for our ill-fated yard-sale futon. Then he used regular wood screws in the other five holes to make it extra secure. He repeated this process on the top to attach the platform, made from a scrap slab of painted wood that was about the right size to accommodate one cat. Since we'd be covering this top surface with carpet anyway, looks weren't all that important.

The next step was to cover the post in rope. We'd bought two 50-foot rolls of sisal rope—the only component we actually had to buy new—for about $12 at Home Depot. However, after some rough calculations involving the diameter of the rope, the circumference of the branch, and the amount likely to be wasted in overlap at each end, he still wasn't sure that would be quite enough. Thus, he decided to start wrapping the post from the top end, near the platform, and work his way downward. That way, if there was any exposed wood left, it would be right at the bottom, where the cats weren't likely to scratch it anyway. So he smeared the post with glue along about a foot of its length, then began wrapping the rope around and around it (tucking one end under right at the top to keep it in place).

Once he'd covered the entire glued area with rope, he added a clamp to hold it in place while he smeared glue over the next section and continued working his way down. When he ran out of rope at the end of one roll, he started on the next roll, tucking the tail end of the first one in underneath. Eventually, he had the entire post covered except for a section about two inches long at the very bottom, which he decided to wrap in ordinary household twine rather than leave the wood exposed.

The next step in the process was to cover the top platform with carpet. A couple of years earlier, we'd stumbled on a stash of carpet samples at C. H. Martin, a discount store in New Brunswick, for a couple of bucks apiece. We'd bought several of them, figuring we could use them as needed to re-cover the old cat scratching post when its surface wore out, and we still had one left. Brian wrapped it roughly around the platform, trimming away the excess to make it fit as snugly as possible. At first he tried securing it with carpet tacks, but eventually he switched to the staple gun, which was faster and seemed to hold the carpet in place more securely.

After that, all that remained was to apply a coat of dark stain and a coat of quick-drying, water-based polyurethane to the base. By the next morning, the entire creation was installed in our office, right next to the futon and neatly lined up with the bottom of the window. The cats were quick to investigate it as they do with any new object, circling it and sniffing at it curiously, but they didn't seem to get the idea what to do with it. So, throughout the day, I gave them a couple of hints. When Winnie climbed up onto my desk and disrupted my work, instead of picking her up and dumping her onto the futon, I deposited her on the platform of the cat tree, which she explored curiously for a few minutes before successfully making her way back down via the back and seat of the futon. Later on, I gave both her and Gwen a quick demonstration of how to scratch the surface of the rope. Winnie gave it a brief try and walked away, but Gwen took to it more eagerly, quickly figuring out that with all her claws out, she could actually climb up the tree instead of just standing on the floor and scratching. By the end of the day, she had managed, with some difficulty, to climb all the way up onto the platform. Winnie seemed to be having some thoughts about jumping up from the top of the futon to join her, but instead she settled for sitting below the platform and taking swipes at her sister's tail.

It remains to be seen just how much use they will actually make of the platform, but as long as they're both willing to use the center post for scratching—in preference to the rest of the furniture in the office—we'll consider our DIY cat tree a success.

UPDATE (3/26/14): After the cats had used it for a few days, we concluded that the post was actually a bit too tall for them. They had a bit of trouble getting onto the platform from the futon, and the long post would rock back and forth a bit when they did. So Brian took the base off and cut the post down a little, removing that last two unmatched inches at the bottom. Now the reassembled post reaches just to the bottom of the windowsill, so the cats can still see out, but they have less trouble hopping up. He also added some felt furniture pads to the base to help stabilize it.
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