Sunlight, Water, Wind & Waves

This starkly beautiful beach house south of Santa Cruz, CA was designed by renowned California architect William Turnbull in 1971 for Sandy and Barbara Tatum and their six children, the youngest of whom is now my wife.

Watching our four-year-old son playing with an old dollhouse recently, I was struck by how cool it would be to build him a dollhouse embodying the essence of the beach house where he too now plays. Though I lack even the most basic drawing skills, and have no experience with CAD (computer aided drawing) software, it occurred to me that it might be possible to use Google SketchUp to design a dollhouse-scale beach house and generate the necessary shop drawings. Three months later, I can report that it’s definitely possible.

My version of the beach house is cherry and hard maple, and is about 24″ high, 24″ wide, and 28″ long. Rather than copying each architectural feature of the actual beach house, the doll house aims to recreate the way it feels to be there. To withstand a hundred year’s of play by active kids, the house is glued and screwed together, with the screw holes counter-bored and plugged.

There are twelve windows in the front panel, and though they’d been easy to create in SketchUp, I realized they would be considerably more work in hard maple. That’s what spurred me to try out the ShopBot computer-controlled router at a nearby rental facility, which can be driven by AutoCAD DXF files from SketchUp Pro. It took a couple of hours to get everything properly configured and tested, but ten minutes later the robot had perfectly routed out all twelve windows and the perimeter.

In the actual Tatum beach house, you’ll usually find Barbara and Sandy reading in wicker chairs by the potbelly stove in the living room, or perhaps Barbara will be upstairs playing the piano while Sandy’s out playing golf. Thanks to eBay, the dollhouse now contains tiny little wicker chairs, a potbelly stove, and a white upright piano just like the real thing. To complete the illusion, I took photos of a few key scenes in the real beach house, such as a bedroom wall plastered with books, and had them printed onto glass tiles, which I glued into place in the appropriate rooms of the dollhouse.

Every new woodworking project teaches me something, but this time I had to learn about California beach house architecture, 3D modeling, SketchUp, and robotic routers. It’s been my most difficult – and most fun – woodworking project ever.