How to build your own A-frame—and look rad doing it

Cheerfully cool and brimming with good vibes, Andrew Szeto is inspiring millions to manifest their own country cabins

With a backward baseball cap on his head and a big, easy smile on his face, Andrew Szeto is sauntering along the “path” up ahead, talking about his plans for his next building project. He wants to put in a dock at his shared waterfront access on Lac Georges, Que., just a short walk from his tiny cabin in the woods. A few paces away, Andrew’s girlfriend, Amber Flokstra-Radema, has paused to cast her forager’s eye around the forest floor for any mushrooms that may be popping up. Their two large, jubilant dogs, Atlas and Spencer, are roaming through the knee-high ferns and moist, inches-deep moss. 

This stroll to the yet-unseen waterfront is more like bushwhacking. But just because you don’t know exactly where you are doesn’t mean you’re not in precisely the right place. Which is to say, some very good things may not be predictable even if, later, they seem to have been entirely inevitable. 

Andrew is saying that the “little dock situation” he’s going to build—maybe this summer, maybe the summer after that—is going to make their cabin experience that much “sweeter.” It all sounds extremely easygoing, but even if the plan isn’t totally mapped out, you can believe it’s going to happen. Because making things happen is what Andrew does.

In 2018, when he was 32, Andrew set about creating an A-frame in the woods. He had never built any kind of structure in his life, but he took a month off from his job at Fisheries and Oceans Canada and did the whole thing—from foundation to metal roof—powered by the help of some friends, his gale-force strength of will, and the knowledge he gleaned by watching a lot of YouTube videos. And, wouldn’t you know, he created his dream cabin in just 30 days.

But to understand how one of the internet’s most-viewed DIY A-frame projects came to be, you have to understand a bit about Andrew. And to understand Andrew, we need to talk about skateboarding.

Andrew didn’t grow up in the country or spend much time in the woods as a kid. For most of his teen years, you could find him at that most urban environment: the skate park. He wasn’t just a skateboarder; he was a serious skateboarder—good enough to have multiple sponsors. Those balletic moves on boards are as specific and complex as the “gnar” skater lingo, but the lessons Andrew took away were simple and foundational: it’s all about what he calls the “progression” mindset. “Skateboarding is all, learn the next trick, progress, and learn the next trick, progress, and learn the next trick.” This philosophy has come to inform pretty much everything he does and it seems to work on self-propulsion.

For instance, recording tricks is central to skateboarding culture, so Andrew picked up photography and videography skills, which he uses to viral effect documenting his many hobbies. This talent for creating content led him to switch his career from engineering (in which he has two degrees—chemical and environmental) to communications. He now works as a communications advisor to the creative services team at the DFO. 

His hankering for pursuing one challenge after another also guided his transition away from skateboarding and out into nature. With the physical toll of skateboarding beginning to manifest in his mid-20s body, Andrew started devoting more of his free time to motorcycle- and canoe-camping. “I love that,” he says. It was under the big, open sky that he started conjuring a cabin in the woods.

Andrew spent the following years squirreling away funds from freelance photography gigs to buy land and build. In 2014, he started combing “everything” (all the real estate listings) “all the time” (when not at work). After three years of searching, he got word from a friend that there was a one-acre lot with waterfront access for sale in Low, Que.

“It was like, ‘Wow,’ ” says Andrew, of his first impression of the land. It had already been partially cleared. It was just down the road from the lake. It cost $5,000. He closed on it in August 2017.

By this time, Andrew’s progression theory had landed him at the Ottawa City Woodshop, where, in 2015, “I took a class and built a table, then I was pretty much just hooked. And then it was just one crazy project after another.” In the years since, he has made many things—paddles out of recycled skateboards, a restored Eames chair, a canoe—and the making of these things sometimes takes over the space in his and Amber’s Wakefield, Que., home. There is currently a mostly done kayak in their living room.

It was at the OCW that Andrew met Richard Scott, a volunteer assistant. “If I had a problem or a question—he would be the guy who would say, ‘Oh, I can help you with that.’ He just knew everything and could do everything.” 

Once Andrew had his land, he had another question for Richard. “I was like, ‘Hey, do you want to build a home together?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I think we could do that.’ And I was like ‘Holy shit, really? Okay!’” 

A year after closing the sale on the land, he and Richard were on-site with a plan. Other friends showed up to lend a hand here and there, but it was Richard who completed most of the exterior by Andrew’s side. “He was certainly the brains behind the operation,” says Andrew, “and I was just learning along the way. When you find a good mentor, hold on to them,” he says. Richard taught him so many essential lessons that continue to play a role in his current work. “Even what I’m doing now, building a sauna, it’s mostly teachings from him.” 

Sadly, Richard died suddenly in June 2021. His obituary mentions his passion for woodworking and the time he spent at the OCW assisting others, and that he had been enormously proud of the A-frame he built with his friend Andrew. “He was super giving with his time. Just a really good dude,” says Andrew. “We would hang out and laugh a lot. We had a really deep bond. I’m very grateful that he was a part of my life.”

Richard’s legacy is manifest in Andrew’s A-frame, where he spent that first intensive month helping his protegé complete the external structure and making sure the following work could happen comfortably inside the well-insulated, heated cabin. That winter, Andrew spent solo weekends finishing the interior with tongue-and-groove pine and finding his way around an 18-gauge nail gun. The following summer, he built a barrel-shaped outbuilding with a composting toilet. 

“This is all you need,” says Andrew, of his little getaway. The A-frame is sweetly snug with its candles and fairy lights and books. “It’s that whole Norwegian cabin culture vibe.” 

Capturing and transmitting that vibe is key to Andrew’s M.O. His passion for building things and his dedication to documenting his hobbies have been mashed together to make a YouTube channel that serves as a rich repository for his seemingly infinite projects. 

Andrew has taken DIY building, added the aesthetics of Scandinavian simplicity, and shaken it up with a mixture of charming exuberance and effortless cool. This formula has resonated with a number of people. A large number. The time-lapse video of his A-frame build has reached nearly three million views; his TikToks are social media gold (note: creating siding with old skateboards is perhaps not as niche as you’d think). To fully comprehend his fans’ appreciation for him, you must know that it is significant and often expressed with many fire emojis, many hands-up emojis, and the word “rad.” 

A lot of things that are the subject of viral videos are also available at the Miam Miam General Store, an online and pop-up shop Andrew shares with Amber, where they sell a collection of curated vintage clothing as well as home goods, such as candle holders, plant stands, and coffee tamps made of recycled skateboards, and even beeswax candles shaped just like their A-frame cabin in miniature. Some might call this a side hustle, others, a side hustle.

For just about everything in his life, Andrew is “super stoked,” he is “mega grateful,” and he is often grinning.

So what’s the secret to being a couple in a 10-by-10-foot cabin?

“I don’t know, playing cribbage? We’re really competitive at cribbage,” explains Andrew, before he adds, unprompted: “I think I’m the better player.”

Would Amber agree?

Andrew again: “Yeah, she would agree with that statement.”

Amber, for the record: “He literally doesn’t even know the rules!”

In addition to her deep knowledge of cribbage, Amber is something of an expert at thriving in the woods. When the couple met through a mutual friend in 2021, Amber had been living full-time in an off-grid cabin for three years. 

“Andrew would come visit me and be, like, ‘What the hell? Who are you?’” jokes Amber.

“It was awesome!” asserts Andrew. Living off-grid, Amber’s experience featured four seasons of lugging in heavy water jugs for her household needs, falling asleep to loon calls, and sharing her personal space with moose —one morning, she was startled awake by a nosy antlered face staring at her through her cabin window. “She is self-sustaining in the craziest conditions,” he says. 

There are no crazy conditions on this soft summer day, and the couple is sitting serenely by the campfire. Their A-frame may be small, but Amber and Andrew will often host groups of their friends who pitch tents under the stars or are happy to crash on the cabin floor after days spent in the canoe, or picking raspberries from the abundant bushes that line the road to their waterfront access, or trying to outdo each other on the climbing wall. Many of these friends are the same ones who lent a hand during some phase of the cabin build. “It’s my sanctuary, but that includes my close friends and family,” says Andrew. 

With the dogs lounging nearby and the dappled sunshine creating warm lighting that might as well have been ordered up by an art director, Andrew and Amber are very much in their element. A bottle of natural bug spray is spritzed and passed around. They are young and beautiful and stylish and perfectly at home in the woods, naturally warding off insects. The scene seems so perfectly orchestrated that it could be a photo shoot. And, as it turns out, that’s exactly what’s next.

“Do I look like a lumberjack?” jokes Amber, in the role of playful model. She’s just donned a red-and-black plaid flannel jacket, one of a dozen items of vintage clothing that she wants photographed for their shop today. 

“You’re more of a woodsperson than I am!” responds Andrew, who is taking on the role of encouraging photographer.

The camera starts clicking.

“Maybe axe?” suggests Andrew, in shorthand. She picks up a nearby axe, and the look is complete. 

The shot captured, Andrew returns the axe to the A-frame, where it will be kept warm and dry until the next time they need it to chop wood for the fire or, you know, accessorize a photo shoot. 

Andrew made the axe himself (naturally). He also makes the firewood himself, in a manner of speaking. Their campfires are stoked with off-cuttings from whatever project he happens to have on the go. There’s never any shortage of wood because there’s never any shortage of projects.

There may be people who have more projects on the go at once, but you probably don’t know any of them. All of which helps explain why the dock isn’t being built this very instant.

Back on the not-really-a-trail, Andrew asks Amber what she’s found. It’s hard to tell if he just referred to her as “love” or “dude,” but the two terms are likely interchangeable and equally affectionate.

“It looks like a big one,” says Andrew, of the mushroom she’s bending down to inspect.

Amber’s excited response: “Ooh! Oh my god, it’s huuuge!”

Underground fungal networks are mysterious and expansive and vital to life on earth. And, when you find yourself in the right place at the right moment, hello, kismet! There’s nature offering up a little gift. In this case, king-bolete dinner. 

So by now it’s starting to feel like, this whole time, Andrew has been weaving some great cosmic tapestry, composed of equal parts hustle and positive energy, and how that, in turn, is supporting and bringing a dose of magic to just about every facet of his life. 

How his drive to learn new skills pushed him towards woodworking, where he connected with a mentor who profoundly influenced his life. How, by building an off-grid cabin in the woods, Andrew was perfectly positioned to meet Amber who…lived in an off-grid cabin in the woods. And now they combine their interests—camping, rock climbing, foraging, making candles, building saunas and businesses—so that every aspect of their lives seems interwoven. 

And how being a skateboarder taught him to keep moving forward in his pursuits but also taught him the photography and videography skills that allow him to document his DIY projects and serve as the basis for his professional career and mean that he takes the photos for Amber’s vintage collection…on-site at the cabin he built.

All to say that, even if we are a teeny, tiny bit lost, we keep going, and we keep finding boletes by the dozen and chanterelles the size of your fist. And even if there’s no path through these woods, a conspiracy of good vibes has placed us exactly where we need to be. 

Five steps to build your own climbing wall

“The nature of the A-frame really lent itself to a climbing wall,” says Andrew. “It was always in the plans from the early stages.” It’s a big draw for the couple’s friends, who will spend hours working out the different routes. His pal Rob planned it all out for him, with routes of increasing difficulty (from “pretty nuts, really hard” to “just insane”) marked with their own colour. Want to build your own? Start here:

1. Climb a few walls—“First and foremost, get a bit of climbing experience,” recommends Andrew. Understanding what kind of wall is suitable for your needs will help novices as well as parents of kid climbers make a plan. “Go to a gym. Know what you like to climb, what you want to climb.” 

2. Evaluate your space—If you’re considering a climbing wall, you probably have a good-sized wall with a footprint of empty space below, and it can be tempting to use every square inch. But remember that you can pack a lot of variety into a fairly small space. “I only have a 4-by-10-foot wall, and we crammed seven different routes in there,” says Andrew. And think about how using the climbing wall—and its incumbent noise and chalk dust—will affect the spaces and rooms nearby.

3. Map your vision—Your research from the first two steps will help you start crafting the plan for your wall. There are loads of great online references to walk you through the process, from basic decisions (angled walls and proper clearance?) to important details (lighting, route mapping). For more experienced climbers, he recommends building in some challenges—such as smaller, more spaced out holds—while “beginners should have holds as close together as possible.”

4. Select your materials—There are three main components to a basic climbing wall: ¾-inch plywood, key nuts, and climbing holds. The plywood needs to be fastened to the studs under your drywall, and “the key nuts will accept most standard climbing holds,” he says. Where your choices become vast is in selecting the holds. Andrew made some of his own holds (of course) and bought the rest at MEC, where he chose the brand So Ill. “I really love the holds,” he said. “They sell packs of them. They’re funky, they have faces on them.” And, finally, don’t forget a good-quality crash pad to catch your fall.

5. Choose your look—Climbing walls are often very colourful, and Andrew says it’s worth considering the impact that will have on the room’s aesthetics. “Do you want it to be monochrome or one big, old rainbow on the wall?” 

Dominique Ritter is a writer and editor based in Quebec’s Laurentians. This is her first feature story for Cottage Life.

This story was originally published as “How to build your own A-frame—and look rad doing it” in the May 2023 issue of Cottage Life.

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