Appreciation is a gift that keeps giving
I’ve completed some fairly big projects as a novice woodworker that I’m quite proud of, including a small outdoor deck and a king-sized bed frame with headboard. But the project that gives me the most joy is this cat tree with drink shelf that I made for my wife’s sometimes surly cat Snowpants, who is now also my cat too.
My wife and I are big fans of the Animal Planet show “My Cat From Hell”, where cat behaviorist Jackson Galaxy goes to the homes of desperate cat owners to help them solve seemingly intractable problems that have owners at their wits’ end. A common solution Galaxy proposes is giving cats elevated spaces like a cat tree or shelves where they can feel safe, observe household activity from a high perch, and travel around rooms without having to be on the floor. This is especially helpful if the cats are being harassed by dogs, other cats, or small children, or they simply don’t have a place they can call their own where they can relax.
Fortunately, Snowpants is a confident cat with none of these issues. My wife and I used a slow, deliberate strategy to introduce Snowpants to my medium/small dog Paulo to ensure they would get along, and while they aren’t exactly snuggle buddies, they have no problem being close to each other and have never gotten in any serious scrapes. In fact, Snowpants is the clear alpha in their relationship, sometimes taking light swats at Paulo (with claws retracted) just so he remembers who’s boss. Still, I thought it would be nice if she had her own elevated place in the TV room where she could be around the family without parking herself (and shedding) on a piece of clothing or being on the couch where she may need to be moved if someone wants to sit down.
As I’ve mentioned in previous DIY posts, one of the great things about woodworking is being able to custom-build an item so it does exactly what you want and fits perfectly in a particular space. For Snowpants’ cat tree, there’s a narrow space between the sofa and the wall where the cat tree could stand in an unused space, and she could also use the arm of the sofa’s chaise lounge to climb onto her perch. Instead of leaving the “trunk” of the tree exposed, I figured I could wrap it with thick twine so Snowpants could use it as a scratching post (I’d seen this on many store-bought cat trees). Additionally, the tree could accommodate a small shelf that could be used for holding a drink, and it would be in the perfect place for when you’re relaxing on the chaise lounge and don’t want to have to scoot and lean forward to reach a glass sitting on the coffee table.
This project was made using wood that I had laying around the garage either from previous projects or that had been scrounged out of dumpsters near one of the many new home construction sites (one of the best places to find scrap wood) in my neighborhood. My wife had some cat shelves from a previous apartment that already had carpet glued to them, and I salvaged a few more carpet pieces from a nearby carpet store along one of my dog-walking routes. Probably the only thing I actually bought were the two spools of twine to turn the cat tree trunk into a scratching post. I didn’t even really research cat trees much aside from some light Googling and searching around a little on Pinterest — there was no need to make it more complicated than it had to be. I also didn’t do a lot of detailed planning since it all seemed to be pretty self-explanatory as long as I was sure to do some careful measuring and re-measuring, because “measure twice, cut once” is for real!
If you look at the finished project, what you see is what you get. The trunk of the cat tree is a 3.5-foot tall 4" x 4" redwood post, and I used glue and an occasional screw to keep the twine I wrapped around it in place. I used long screws to attach the post to the base, which is another found piece that I think was from a wide bookcase. I glued carpet to the underside of the base so I could slide the whole thing out easily without scratching the wood floor for when my wife or I need to access the closet. The base is maybe an inch narrower than the space between the sofa and the wall, and I made the base fairly long for more stability since I didn’t want the tree to wobble and feel unstable when Snowpants jumped onto it.
Since cats love feeling cozy and protected — part of the reason why they enjoy climbing into boxes and burrowing into bags — I decided to put some walls around parts of her perch and cover them in carpet. That way, she could cuddle up next to the walls for some extra warmth, and could even hide her face by turning around if the room was too bright and she wants to sleep. However, I didn’t want to put walls on all sides of the perch since that would make it more difficult for her to climb into and out of it, and I also wanted my wife and I to be able to easily see Snowpants when she’s in there.
The drink shelf is also pretty self-explanatory. The tall stilts (slightly splayed) to make the perch more stable are repurposed bed slats, which also gave me something good to attach the drink shelf to. I put cross bars between the stilts, attached the shelf to one of them using screws from underneath (so they’d be hidden), and used my trusty Kreg jig to connect the shelf to the tree post using pocket joints. After everything was put together, I sanded the wood and gave it some coats of polyurethane for shine, color, and protection.
And that’s really it. There aren’t any secrets to this thing. It looks exactly like what it is.
So what makes this probably my favorite project ever? Because Snowpants absolutely loves it. After a few days of luring her up there with catnip or simply picking her up and putting her on it, she started climbing onto her perch on her own and now goes up there around three times a day. After a few weeks, she started using the scratching post, and has even scratched lower down on the post near the base a few times. She loves being on the tree during colder months since it is across from the heater, and she sometimes hides her face in the corners of the box so light isn’t shining in her face when she wants to sleep, just as I’d planned. And I definitely use the drink shelf when I’m sitting on the chaise, whether it’s tea when I’m reading or on my laptop at night, or a beer if I’m watching a game.
Perhaps my favorite Steve Jobs quote goes something like, “Design isn’t just what something looks and feels like. Design is how it works.” While I wanted this cat tree to look nice (pretty easy to achieve since I think most finished wood looks nice), it was designed with specific uses and goals in mind. However, its main use as a place for Snowpants to hang out was nothing I could guarantee. I couldn’t explain to Snowpants why she should use it, nor could I force her or guilt her into it. If she would only climb onto the perch if I lured her with treats, the project wouldn’t feel like a true success. And I can’t imagine any way that I could entice her to use the scratching post in any way that wouldn’t just make her angry.
But with only a little initial guidance, Snowpants now uses her tree every day, and it really seems to be her new favorite place in the house. It’s a little spot that she can truly call her own in the middle of the action, where no one will ever put a purse or a jacket, make her move because they want to use it, or where Paulo may lay too close to her. She can sharpen her claws, jump onto her perch, relax, and comfortably survey her domain.
Whenever I see her laying up there, it truly fills me with joy. It’s one thing to buy someone a present and see them use it every day, but there’s something even more gratifying about designing and making something that someone uses every day, especially if their only motivation to use it is that they truly want to. I’m probably anthropomorphizing, but a few times I’ve gotten the feeling that Snowpants understands that I am somehow responsible for the tree being there, and she appreciates that I did that for her. I’m glad she knows that I want her to be happy.