Inside Chris Axling, there’s an overgrown kid just waiting to get out.
And he’s got the treehouses, playhouses and crafting sheds to prove it.
Axling, who grew up on Bainbridge Island, is an artist and a woodworker. His creations speak volumes about what goes on in his mind and about his ability to imagine.
“I was a stay-at-home dad for four years,” Axling said. “That gave me time to think about what I wanted to do. I asked myself, ‘I have these skills. What can I do with them that I would love?’”
His answer was his company: Magical Playhouses.
He makes playhouses for children, potting sheds for gardeners, treehouses for anybody — even a “she shed,” which, in case you’re not up to date, is the female equivalent to a man cave.
“I was always an artist and in high school,” he said, “I was voted ‘most artistic.’
“I nearly went to art school, but I liked eating regularly, so instead, I went to Western Washington University,” Axling added.
After graduating with honors with a degree in environmental and natural resource management, he found a desk job with an environmental nonprofit.
“I went stir-crazy,” he said.
Deciding he wasn’t the type for a desk job, Axling knew he wanted to work with his hands. He enrolled in the wood construction program at Seattle Central Community College, and it was there that he met Pete Nelson, famous for building treehouses. He also met Greg Campfield, owner of Campfield Construction, who eventually gave him a job.
Axling was lucky enough to get an internship with Nelson and spent a summer building a place for a client in California.
“It really was more of a playhouse than a treehouse,” he said. “Looking back on it, maybe that’s where the seed was planted.”
He then worked for Campfield, building homes. But the 2008 recession hit the industry hard and he was laid off. He and his wife then moved to Port Townsend where he was able to secure work for a while. After the second layoff, and expecting their first child, he and his wife decided he would become the stay-at-home parent because his wife’s job was secure.
“My new job was far more demanding than any day I’d had swinging a hammer,” he said of being at home with his child.
The job was demanding, but in his down time he began to dream about what he wanted to do “professionally.” He found his daughter, who is now 5, didn’t like to go outside when it was raining. So he decided a playhouse was the solution.
“I began sketching plans for a playhouse,” he said. “After all, I am a carpenter.”
After a summer of working long daylight hours, the School Haus was done.
It became the place where all the neighborhood kids wanted to come to play. Other parents told Axling that he needed to go into business.
“I had way too much fun building my daughter’s playhouse,” he said. “After people kept telling me I should do it for real, I thought, ‘Maybe they’re right.’”
In the past year, after taking his business public, he’s built a treehouse, a potting shed and “the dragon house.”
“The dragon house was built on spec, to take to the Bellevue Art Fair,” he said. “And the potting shed, I built it to take to the (Seattle) home and garden show.”
It took something to get the dragon house to Bellevue, he said, noting that the roof to the house, which is the dragon’s head, had to be taken off to be transported.
“I like to make things of a size that I can build them at home and then deliver them to clients fully assembled,” he said. “That way, I’m only in their backyard for a couple of hours.”
But he does sit down with clients and get their ideas before he ever puts pencil to draft paper. Then he draws what he thinks the client wants, while adding his artistic flourishes. He can then figure what it will cost and give the client an estimate.
An average potting shed can run from $8,000 to $15,000. Materials for those run $3,000 to $7,000. Playhouses can go upward of $20,000, and treehouses, well, the sky’s the limit.
When he builds treehouses, he does most of the work on the ground.
“I make the foundation in the tree,” he said, noting that he always inspects the client’s tree first. Big, tall, healthy firs are the best.
“I build the house on the ground and then I lift it up into the tree, wall by wall. I finished the roof up there.”
Deb Fenwick, of Bainbridge Island, saw his potting shed at the home-and-garden show and decided it was just what she wanted.
“I’d seen a potting shed at Heronswood (Gardens),” Fenwick said. “I knew I wanted one — somewhere to keep my tools. When I saw this one at the home and garden show I thought, ‘Oh, now I don’t have to build one. It’s already done.’”
Currently it’s in her yard, near her gardens. But it will be placed elsewhere, once she and her husband finish building their new home nearby.
That’s the good thing about the potting sheds, Axling said. They don’t need foundations and can be moved if needed.
The shed is framed in fir and has both cedar and pine. Inside, the shingles have been carved to look like grapevines. Fenwick added miniature lights and flowering plants. At the top of the roof point, Axling added old Mason jar tin lids for a special look.
“It’s really appealing, as well as practical,” said Fenwick, who is a Master Gardener.
Axling said he put about 200 hours into making the potting shed, noting that cutting the grapevines took only about six hours.
“It’s the little things that make a big difference,” he said.
Currently, he’s doing a remodel of an old shed, which he seldom does.
“My client asked me to make it over into a ‘she shed,’” Axling said. “That’s the opposite of a man cave. It’s a place where his wife and her friends can go and sit and drink wine and lock their husbands out.”
This “she shed” is 12-foot-by-12-foot with a loft, and will have a fireplace and hardwood floors.
Axling isn’t quite sure what the future will bring for his business. He’s getting some national exposure and he hopes that by the time his son, who is now 2, is in school he’ll be able to build his whimsical houses full time.
“People ask me if I can make a living at this,” he said. “I guess we’ll find out.”