The Wall

So my son needs a climbing wall. Of course he needs a climbing wall; the kid climbs the walls even without one, and he ought to have a special place to do it.

When our house was being constructed, we had the foresight/insanity to ask to ask the construction foreman to beef up the studs in the landing area upstairs. He was curious and asked why, so we told him we were thinking of putting in a rock climbing wall. He liked the idea, and added extra 2×4s so we could mount the wall to the studs. It’s been almost a year since we moved in, and it’s time to use those extra studs.

Of course I did research! Atomic (sp?) Climbing holds has a great instructional about how to build a wall. I purchased some climbing holds (the little things you grip onto) from Rocky Mountain Climbing Holds. They are en route now, hopefully to arrive soon. I drew designs, made some plans, and headed to home depot.

Plywood (3/4 inch thick) is the industry standard for climbing walls. Many people texture and paint it, but I didn’t like the look of that. I wanted my kids to be able to see wood when they play. (Yeah, I know, they could go climb a tree like REAL kids do, but it’s my world in here and I trick it out to my own manias!) I wanted them to appreciate natural beauty, and most of their toys are plastic, so I opted to stain and varnish the plywood, rather than paint it. You need to seal it so the kids don’t get splinters.

If you’re going to see the wood, it needs to be worth seeing. I had never purchased the NICE plywood before. It’s pretty! And pricey, too. A 4 x 8 sheet of ¾” oak plywood costs about $45. And it’s worth it! It was sanded smooth on one side, and it’s really pretty. I bought two. I also got a Minwax product that was stain and polyurethane sealer in one product (saves time?), some 3” wood screws 8-8’ 2×4s, and a couple 1×2s, just for good measure.

The plywood is extremely heavy and unwieldy. I got both sheets into the minivan, but it was ugly, and the wood and I rode home with the rear door open.

When I got home, I cut two of the 2×4s in half to match the width of the plywood. Then, I located the superstuds built into the wall. I marked them with masking tape, and screwed one of the short 2×4s onto the wall, into the studs, with a 2×4’s width of spacing from the ceiling. We might install some monkey bars above the wall later.
That done, I did the same thing on the adjoining wall, so there will be a climbing corner with 2 climbing walls.

I went downstairs and cut the height of the plywood from 96” to 92”. I used a saw guide and a circular saw with a plywood blade. I think the blade must be getting dull. The plywood is so dense (compared to pine) that I had to make the cut in several passes, cutting halfway through the first time, and then cutting the rest of the way on the next pass. It took some doing to line up the cuts the same, even with the guide clamped to the board. I had intended to cut both boards at once, but that popped the fuse on the extension cord.

As always, I heartily recommend safety goggles, gloves and hearing protection. These things will annoy you, and might just save you from an unpleasant experience!

After trimming the plywood to size, I used a router with ½” roundover bit to round off the edges on the good side. A sharp bit here made quick work and smooth cuts. I used my sander (not the belt sander, the wiggley one) to make the edges nice and smooth. One of the nice things about fancy plywood is they fill in the voids, so the edges look nice, too and aren’t full of splinters. Be sure not to sweat on the plywood, or it will leave a mark when you stain it!

After this was done for both pieces of ply, I realized I’d covered my neighbor’s car in sawdust. Oops! Out comes the air hose. He’ll never know!

Sawdust is gone from the car and all the boards, so it’s time to stain and varnish. I followed the instructions, and sure enough, it started to rain slightly just as I finished the second coat on the first board. It’s a sign that it’s time to quit for the evening.

The next day, it was looking a little chancy with the weather, so I worked on the indoor parts in the morning, fleshing out the furring strips (no, really- that’s what they’re called!). It’s the frame between the plywood and the wall. Why does one need this? Good question! Apparently, the bolts used to hold the climbing grips in place will go all the way through the board and the T-nut, and need room to come out the back of the board. The wall itself needs a bit of room behind it for the bolts to stick through. 2×4s make excellent furring strips and are pretty inexpensive and easy to work. I purchased eight, 8-foot 2×4s, and it worked out perfectly. You’ll see from the pictures. I cut another one in half, and screwed it, horizontally, to the wall down low, just above the floor trim. Then, I measured three, 2×4s to fit vertically between these and the ones I had screwed up near the ceiling. Make sure these are secure! These hold the board to the studs, and should be rock solid, with screws every 10 inches or so. I duplicated this on the adjacent wall. I found a 12v screw gun is not strong enough to drive 3” deck screws into the wood. Use a stronger drill, drill pilot holes if need be, and if the screw starts to strip out, don’t force it; get a new one before it breaks halfway in. That didn’t happen this time, but half a screw poking out of smooth wood is a definite cause of profanity and tool abuse.

I wrestled the stained and varnished board back on the sawhorses, and measured and marked it for 7/16” holes for the T-nuts to go in. I figured it would be much easier to make a bunch of holes now, and be able to change the climbing holds around than it would to try and do it again later. Time will tell. I used a heavy-duty drill and it made very nice holes in the board, with minimum tear-out. Use sharp bits! Measure well and you don’t stress too much if it’s not down to the millimeter. The grips themselves will cover the holes.

Time to haul the Wall upstairs. Did I mention this was upstairs? Fortunately, my wife is incredibly strong in addition to being beautiful and talented. We He-Man’d the Beaste around a corner and up the stairs. Ugh! Glad I won’t be doing THAT too often! Have a plan how you are going to get the LARGE piece of wood around any obstacles, and it will go smoother. As it was, we put a scuff on the ceiling. Oh well.
Once upstairs, we laid it, good side down, on the carpet. I found at a local store called Fastenal, the correct size T-nuts. These will be hammered into the back of the plywood, and provide metal-on-metal contact for the climbing grip bolts, preventing them from pulling out through the wood. Some climbing grips use screws to screw them to the wood. This, too is a viable option, and avoids having to drill a zillion holes in the board (66, but who’s counting?)

The T-nuts hammered in, I lined to tops of the boards to the level 2×4s near the ceiling, and screwed in a deck screw to stabilize it. The end that I had cut went on the bottom, where the uneven cuts won’t be noticed. I think I used 2” deck screws. I had a bunch of them lying around. I did drill pilot holes, just to avoid tearing. I ended up using one drill to drill the holes, and another one to screw the screws in. The plywood is EXTREMELY tough, and the cordless just wasn’t working. Again, if the screw starts to strip, remove it and use a different one. I put screws about every 10” or so. I decided not to go overboard measuring exactly the same distance, to keep it looking a little more organic. I do not regret this decision, and if I start to notice the differences and they drive me nuts, I’ll need to just relax a bit more. All we’re waiting on is the climbing holds.

Let’s talk about safety! Originally, I thought that anti-fatigue matting, covered by gym mats would work. After feeling the gym mats, I realized this wasn’t NEARLY enough. I found some “crash pads” online for about $125. These were 8-10” thick foam and about 4×5’. Shipping rates were pretty expensive, too, because of the size. I found Superior Upholstery online. They specialize in upholstering dental equipment. For $40, they gave me a car load of their scrap foam. If you buy shredded foam online, expect to pay about $1/lb, and then shipping on top of that. I think I got about 50lbs of scrap 4” thick foam. I planned on needing about 25 cubic feet of foam (length x width x height of the pad) and I think I ended up with about 40 cubic feet.foam
Lori and I bought 4.5 yards of naugahyde/pleather (fake leather) from Jo-Ann at half price, some mesh and upholstery thread. We headed home to sew!
We made a box, about 12” thick by 4 feet by 5 feet. Two of the sides are mesh. This lets the air escape faster, so when someone lands on the pad, it will be softer and absorb the impact, rather than bouncing them like a balloon. While Lori (the magnificent seamstress) sewed, I cut.
Using a breadknife (don’t tell Lori!), I cut the foam into 3”x3”x4” blocks. I filled a 30 gallon trash bin and three plastic bins full. This ended up filling half of the pad. I filled the trash bin two more times, and that did a pretty good job filling it up. I would also like to note that I wore a chainmaille glove on my left hand to keep from cutting the heck out of it with the breadknife. It felt really easy to do, as I spent about 3 hours cutting. We also used heavy-duty sewing scissors, and these worked pretty well, too.
Fluffed out, the pad is about 4 feet by 5 feet by 14” thick, and a large adult can fall on it full force and not be injured. I wouldn’t want to jump off a roof onto it, but it will serve its purpose. I still have foam left over, so now we’re figuring else what else we need to upholster!
We dragged it upstairs and took turns falling on it like little kids.
All we’re waiting on is these climbing holds. There are a million places to get these. Home depot sells them for about $25 for 5. They’re brightly colored and plastic and designed for kids. I found a company online called Rocky Mountain Climbing Holds that sells rock-colored holds for $40 for 40, including the bolts and T-nuts. I ordered them, and two weeks later, a big box of them arrived.
The holds look and feel like natural rock, and are made from 70% recycled materials. I think I was expecting recycled plastic materials. These have a stone-like texture and feel like real rocks. I like ‘em!holds2
There are other sites that tell you how you can make your own climbing holds for about $0.50 each. It looks pretty labor-intensive. I think for the price difference, and the relatively small number I’ll need, buying it better than making.

I used a ball-end allen socket attached to the cordless drill to drive the bolts through the climbing hold, through the wood, and into the T-nut on the other side. Several times, the T-nut wouldn’t accept the bolt, and once, it popped out of the back of the board with the bolt still stuck in it. I’m not sure what I’m going to do about that. I think I’ll just end up cutting the bolt head off and letting the rest fall behind the wall.
Forty holds adequately covered two 4×8’ sheets of plywood. I spaced them randomly around the boards, and tried to think of several “routes” up to boards. I used a ratchet to tighten the bolts until the holds feel secure and tested each of them to make sure they hold my weight and wouldn’t turn.

Testing the holds

Testing the holds

Time for a kid! Morgan is two, and she made it a little of the way up on her own. She is new to climbing (I think this is her first time on a rock wall), so when she made it to the top, even assisted, I was pretty pleased. Rowan gets home in a couple hours, so we’ll see how an almost-six-year old does in it.testingmorgan

Leave a Reply