Kids climb walls. So why not give them one they are allowed to climb? A DIY climbing wall is a simple project that will have your kids climbing the walls with joy. Sorry, that was just bad.
Now, before someone brings this up I’ll tell you that we are big fans of the outdoors here. We are blessed to live in a knock-your-socks-off gorgeous place here in the Pacific Northwest. But sometimes, just sometimes, we go indoors, too. So while it remains a definite possibility that having mom and a dad who like to build can lend itself to spoiled kids, we like to think we are simply creating good times as a family. And who doesn’t love a climbing wall?!
But first, let’s talk about safety, eh?
This is, bar none, the most popular project on this blog. The vast majority of comments are pretty darn cool and encouraging. There are, however, a contingent of people who seem to think it is my aim to send my children to the ER. Obviously, as with any DIY project, kid toy, or, well, heck, anything, safety should be considered. As of this writing the wall has been up for nearly a year. Neither my kids nor any others have taken a tumble from the wall. And I assure you, there is nothing docile and mild about my children. If you are too lazy to read to the bottom I’ll tell you now that there are mats at the bottom and those mats are rigged up to lock over the wall as a safety measure when there is no adult supervision.
I took this cell phone shot to give some perspective to the height of the wall. I don’t know why it’s sideways. He looks like Spiderman now. Guys, it’s not exactly 20 feet up. In fact, my son would be even higher than he is in this photo if he were to climb a bunk bed ladder. No, there are no helmets and no harnesses. No, there are no covers over the electrical outlet. Our electrical is up to code, and and you cannot actually push a finger, a toe, or any other body part into the outlets. The door to the right is a locked closet. Finally, the wall is into studs. An adult can climb it and it will not budge. But you will have to take my word on that one because I’m not going to provide photographic evidence for you. Haha.
Finally, if you feel that having a climbing wall is dangerous, don’t build one! But if you, like my husband and I, grew up climbing trees and sliding down steep hills on oversized inner tubes at breakneck speeds, then this may just be for you.
How to build a diy climbing wall
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3/4 plywood (I used a full 4×8 sheet, plus another 2×4 sheet)
*lag screws (if the holds don’t come with the size you want)
floor mats (optional, but I’ll show you something cool you can do with them.)
pencil or pen
table saw, circular saw, or jigsaw (any of them will work)
drill (love, love, love this set from Dewalt – we use them constantly)
Plan and sketch the climbing wall
I use Google SketchUp to plan most of my designs, and it is a great program if you care to give it a go. However, a pen and paper will also do. The idea for the design of the wall actually came from some images I found on Google, and would attribute if I could find a source. Kudos to whoever first came up with the idea of doing the wall in sections, because it is brilliant. Not only is it visually interesting, it is the perfect solution to a corner such as this, and for working around outlets.
What I love about SketchUp is that it makes it simple to figure out the dimensions of the pieces. I sound like an ad for the program, but believe me, there is nothing in it for me on this one. It’s just a cool free thing, and I like to pass on cool free things.
We chose to make the wall out of higher grade hardwood plywood, but you could save a little going with something a bit rougher. Using the dimensions I sketched I drew out each piece on the hardwood like a big puzzle. The nice thing is that you are not building a ship here, so it doesn’t have to be exactly perfect. I used a four foot level to get my lines straight. Label each piece as you go along so you don’t have to think too hard about it later when putting it up on the wall.
Cut and attach the pieces of the climbing wall
We used a table saw to cut out the pieces, but since they are not square that meant cutting without a guide. My husband happens to be exceptional at freehand cutting, so I was more than happy to let him do this one. Also, it was like 90 degrees out, so it was not the most pleasant of jobs.
To attach the pieces of the climbing wall start by marking the studs that they will attach to. I drew light lines with a pencil the full length of the wall to help ensure that I didn’t miss the stud. Then simply secure each piece to the wall with 2 or 3 screws. I did this while my husband was at work and I gotta tell you, you can do it alone, but it would be easier with another person. Always pre-drill to ensure that the wood doesn’t split. My preference is the use the drill for making a pilot hole, and the impact driver for setting the screw. My toddlers are trained to know the difference and to hand me whichever one I need plus a screw. Soon I hope to upgrade them to doing the work themselves, and then I will hire them out. Just kidding. Sort of.
Attaching the handholds
The plywood is 3/4″, which in reality is slightly under that (.70, whatever that is). So we purchased and used 1 1/4″ lag screws instead of the 1 1/2″ that came with the holds. That way they would not go into the wall itself and leave puncture marks everywhere. You could also use furring strips, but that’s more work.
I actually bought the hand holds last year at Christmastime for my husband because he really enjoys climbing and wanted to share that with our children. So he got to take over the next part and attach the holds. And because I basically did nothing at this point I’m going to hand it over to my him to share a few pointers:
Spacing depends upon the size of the kids climbing. Toddlers need more holds than older kids. They will have more fun if they can easily climb the wall. Use painters tape to lay out your pattern. Start the first row about 8 inches off of where the floor mat will be. Put two holds 12 to 14 inches apart (measured dead center per hold). Then go up the wall adding tape every 8 to 10 inches up. Adjust a little and add some in the middle of the route every so often to give them more flexibility in the route they climb.
Once you are done with the tape grab your kids and test the layout with them. Hold them up as if they are standing on the first holds. Can they reach the handholds? If they can the spacing is correct. If not, adjust the tape.
Once you are satisfied with where the holds are placed grab the drill and start installing.
Bonus: How to child-proof your climbing wall
It took our kiddos roughly 5.3 seconds to get the hang of the wall and start scrambling to the top like monkeys. That can be a concern if we are not right there with them, so we created a way to secure the wall if you want to be sure it is only used with supervision.
There it is. I simply drilled a hole in the outer layer of plastic on the mats where the seam is, and ran an s hook through it. I put a couple screw eyes into each side of the wall, and then hooked the s hooks on the mats through them.
My three year old gave this a try and was frustrated that he was unable to climb the outside of the mat. In other words – success. It’s really just that simple. Because we try not to do a lot of overthinking around here.
Finally, because you stuck around, here is a preview picture of how the wall sits in relation to the rest of the playroom.
By the way, if you haven’t checked out our cabin playhouse, then you don’t know what you are missing out on. You can find that here. Stay tuned to see how it all came together! And if you decide to build your own climbing wall we would love to see pictures!