Learn how to make a home climbing wall, so you can train anytime! This tutorial walks you through all the steps for a DIY climbing wall using the studs in the walls and ceiling for support.
My son is on a competitive climbing team (yes, it's a thing!), and usually spends hours every week scaling the walls at his bouldering gym. But with everything shut down right now, his only option was his hangboard (which I just mounted on the wall last month!). After a while, it just wasn't enough to calm his climbing cravings!
My local lumber yard will cut plywood and deliver it straight to our driveway, which is sooooo much easier than trying to shove it all in the car myself! I can't get full sheets of 4'x8' plywood up the stairs due to the tight turning radius, so I had them cut each piece in half down the long side.
Don't forget to save all your scrap pieces as you go! You can use the plywood to create volumes and the 2x4s to make your own wooden climbing holds. This long rail was made with thin strips of plywood glued together, then carved with an angle grinder.
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Materials Needed for DIY Climbing Wall
- 2x4 studs
- ¾" plywood sheets
- Stud finder
- Circular saw
- 3" construction screws
- ⅜" T-nuts
- I prefer these ones that are screwed to the back of the plywood, so they don't loosen over time or fall out.
- Framing square
- ½" drill bit
- Epoxy paint
- My son's climbing gym staff recommended Sherwin-Williams Pre-Catalyzed Water Based Epoxy because it's really durable and won't peel off.
- Play sand
- Paint tray and roller
- Lots of climbing holds
- Crash pads
- I used these folding foam mattresses, which are 6" thick and can be stacked up against the wall when he's not using it. They're thicker than the bouldering crash pad he uses for outdoor climbing, and work great for this small wall. Added bonus: He can also use them for sleepovers! 🙂
How to Build a Climbing Wall
I highly recommend that you start by reading this book first! It will give you WAY more information than I can provide in this tutorial, and has lots of tips for how to create angled walls if you don't already have them.
Build the Frame
Every 2x4 I used for the frame of the climbing wall is screwed directly into the studs and joists of the house. Use a stud finder to locate each one, and mark its position on the wall. My electronic stud finder was giving me a lot of false readings thanks to my heavily textured walls, but my little magnetic one worked perfectly!
It helps to sketch out the location of the studs in the wall, especially when the spacing is a little off. Your climbing wall frame needs to match the existing studs exactly, so your screws hit them dead center every time.
My climbing wall is exactly 8 feet wide, to take advantage of the entire length of a 2x4 or a sheet of plywood. I worked in two sections: the shorter vertical part of the wall and the longer angled part.
The vertical part of the climbing wall was framed just like a regular wall. However, I changed the direction of the studs so they sit flat against the wall instead of sticking out, so it doesn't take up extra space in the room and the screws won't split the wood as easily.
The angled part of the climbing wall follows the joists in the roof. The ends of the studs are cut at a 45 degree angle to sit on top of the vertical section, but most of the stability comes from the structure of the house itself. Use a scrap piece of 2x4 to test the angle of the ceiling before cutting the full size pieces.
I drilled pocket holes in the ends of the vertical boards and used 2 ½" pocket hole screws to connect them together. You can use butt joints and regular 3" construction screws instead, but I was running low and didn't want to run out halfway through the project!
Screw the Frame to the Studs
Before attaching the frame to the studs, remove any baseboards or moulding that might be attached to the wall. Use a multi-tool with an oscillating blade to cut the trim, then run a utility knife down the seam to break the caulk line. You can learn more about removing trim in this tutorial.
Hold the frame to the wall, lining it up with the marked studs. Use a drill or impact driver to screw 3" construction screws into the center of each 2x4 and into the studs in the wall. I went a little overboard and used a LOT of screws, but at least I know it's safe! 🙂
I preassembled the angled frame as well, but it was really hard to wrangle onto the wall. I recommend screwing each board in place separately, then attaching the board across the top last.
Install t-Nuts in Plywood
I had my ¾" plywood sheets precut into 2' x 8' sections, because I can't get anything wider up our narrow staircase! To save time, I stacked two pieces together and drilled the holes through both sheets. Clamp them together so they don't shift around.
Mark a 4" perimeter around the outside edge of the plywood first. This will prevent the holes from being blocked by the 2x4 frame underneath.
Then create a grid of squares 8" apart inside the perimeter. This will prevent the t-nuts from lining up with the studs (as long as they're 16" on center), and create consistent spacing for the holds throughout the wall.
Drill a ½" diameter hole at each point where the grid lines meet.
I did a lot of research into the various types of t-nuts available. The cheapest ones use prongs that dig into the wood to hold the nut in place, but they tend to fall out or spin over time. I don't want to deal with maintaining the t nuts if problems develop, so I sprung for the more expensive t-nuts that are held in place with screws.
Flip the plywood over so the back side is facing up. Sand off any splinters from drilling the holes first. Then tap each t-nut into a hole in the plywood, and screw them into place.
Paint and Texture
You can skip this step and go straight to installing the plywood panels if you want a plain wood wall. Trust me, bare walls would have been way less time consuming!
But my son wanted his home climbing wall to match the ones he regularly climbs on at Seattle Bouldering Project, so I reached out to the gym's facilities manager for some tips. He recommended Sherwin-Williams Pre-Catalyzed Water Based Epoxy paint, which is super durable and holds up to hundreds of climbers a week. The color they use is called "Cooled Blue," and somehow looks like a completely different shade in every photograph I took of the climbing wall! 🙂
Sand the surface of plywood with 150 grit sandpaper, and brush off any dust. Then gather up all the supplies you need: paint tray, roller, and play sand. I also recommend a sieve to sprinkle the sand evenly over the surface, but I ended up just doing it by hand because I didn't want to use the one from our kitchen!
Roll the paint onto one section of plywood at a time. The epoxy paint is really thick, so it didn't drip into the t-nut holes like I thought it would. Yay!
While the paint is still wet, sprinkle a layer of play sand onto the paint. It sets up pretty quickly, so work in small sections so it sticks properly. Repeat down the entire length of plywood.
Allow the paint to dry for at least four hours, then brush or vacuum up the excess sand. Then roll a second coat on top to lock in the texture and prevent the sand from rubbing off. Let this coat dry overnight so it has plenty of time to cure.
I worked on one panel a day, so it took me almost a week to do five panels! I was regretting not sticking with bare wood by the end, but it came out perfect!
Attach Plywood to Frame
This is the easy part! Just line up the plywood with the edges of the frame and screw it into place. Make sure to hit all the "studs" in the frame so the wood doesn't flex when you apply your weight.
I ended up cutting the edge of the plywood where the angled wall meets the vertical wall at a 45 degree angle so it sits better and creates a nice, tight seam. You can do this pretty easily with a circular saw and a straight edge jig.
The wall currently ends at that little bump-out on the ceiling, but it will be easy to add to the frame and take it all the way up to the apex of the roof when he outgrows this height.
Attach Climbing Holds
Climbing holds are expensive! I bought a bunch online from an outdoor store that was going out of business, and a few more sets from REI when they were on sale, and the wall STILL looks a little bare!
Bolt-on holds are best, because you can use those t-nuts and switch them around without ruining the surface of the climbing wall.
But screw-on holds are cheaper, and have a lot more variety. They're typically smaller, and are great for foot holds and more difficult finger positions.
Instead of focusing on individual routes that my son will get bored of quickly, I created a spray wall that will allow him to train different techniques. He can traverse across the length of the wall, or practice different types of starts and finishes.
Place the Crash Mats
Since I know I'm going to get comments about how unsafe this wall is and how I'm a horrible mother for letting my son climb, let me stop you right now. This wall is less than seven feet tall, and the crash mats below him are six inches thick and made of high density memory foam.
They're thicker than the professional crash mat we take with us when he goes outdoor bouldering, and they cover the entire area well beyond the fall zone. I even ordered a third mat (which hasn't arrived yet due to slow shipping times right now), so we can make sure every inch of the floor in this area is covered.
Yes, climbing can be dangerous. So is driving a car or walking down the street. My son has been climbing with trained professionals for almost four years now, and he regularly goes over 15 feet in the air without a rope. He's been taught how to fall safely, and has never injured himself climbing. So calm down, safety police! 🙂
Start training on your Own Home Climbing Wall!
I had barely finished putting the last screw in the last hold before my son started climbing! He says the overhang makes it really hard, which is good! He can train for difficult moves at home, so he can crush them easily at competitions.
There are jug holds placed at just the right height for pull ups...
And something called a "crimp ladder" that he claims is impossible to complete (insert evil grin here)!
He's struggled with these underhand start holds at competitions, so I made sure to put a set on his own wall to practice.
Over time, I plan to carve my own holds and build volumes and other structures to mimic routes he struggles with. I started with this long wooden rail that mimics a natural crack he climbed this summer (you can also see that I extended the wall all the way to the ceiling and added a side wall as well).
While being stuck inside for weeks on end is rough, I never would have completed this project otherwise! We spend so much time at the climbing gym, it never really made sense to build our own. But with everything closed for the foreseeable future, my son can continue training and get out some of that pent up energy!
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