How to Build a Home Bouldering Wall

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In bouldering, as with most things in life, the more you practice, the more you climb, the faster you’ll improve. But if you’re one of the many climbers who don’t have ready access to crags and boulders nearby, and you don’t want to pony up the money for a climbing gym membership, your only recourse might be to build your own bouldering wall at home (or convince your buddy to build one). Read on for a primer in building your own homemade place to crank.

In bouldering, as with most things in life, the more you practice, the more you climb, the faster you’ll improve. But if you’re one of the many climbers who don’t have ready access to crags and boulders nearby, and you don’t want to pony up the money for a climbing gym membership, your only recourse might be to build your own bouldering wall at home (or convince your buddy to build one). Read on for a primer in building your own homemade place to crank.

How to Build a Home Bouldering Wall: Materials and Basics

  • 1. I Need Space The first thing to consider is where you’re going to put the bouldering wall, and determining if you actually have enough space to build a wall that’s going to be both fun and safe to climb. Bouldering is incredibly fun until the first serious wipeout, so think ahead and spend plenty of time planning where to install the wall, as well as how you’re going to deal with the inevitable: falling. After all, if your bouldering problems are going to end up topping out above the kitchen stove or two flights of stairs, how are you going to bail out on them?  For vertical and slightly overhung routes, give yourself six to eight feet of clear space underneath, and for steep walls, make sure to have a clear landing zone underneath the full route. Also, remember that if you can only put up a small wall at first, but plan to extend it, be sure to think that process through before you begin, so that your next addition isn’t a total sketch-fest because of how you built the first one.
  • 2. Give Me Structure You’ll need something very sturdy to which to anchor the frame of the wall, as you’ll be hanging 2x4s and plywood from them, plus the full weight of a climber, and you don’t want the whole thing to come down on top of you. The most handy thing in most people’s houses is, no surprise here, the frame of the house itself. If you have clear access to the studs, such as in an unfinished basement or garage, the building process will go much quicker, but if not, you’ll need to use a studfinder (or know how to find the studs by rapping on the walls and listening to the sound). Once you’ve found a couple of the framing studs, it’s a simple process to measure the placement of the rest of them (they are usually 16 inches apart).
  • 3. Wood is Good A home bouldering wall is built from plywood sheets and framing studs, like 2x4s and 2x6s, just as a house frame is, so once you’ve designed your plan, a visit to the lumber store is in order. A full sheet of plywood is 4 feet by 8 feet, so that tends to be the most common size for small bouldering walls, but if yours will be bigger, it’s best to plan the size of the frame to work with those dimensions (there’s no sense in making additional saw cuts or ending up with wasted pieces if you don’t have to).  Plan on purchasing ¾” exterior grade plywood sheets, and not the thinner varieties. When planning your wall, remember that a 2×4 does not measure 2 inches by 4 inches — it’s actually only 1 ½” by 3 ½”. It is also not recommended to use salvaged lumber or random or odd-sized pieces in building your wall, but if you’re an experienced builder and feel comfortable with constructing a weight bearing wall with them, that could be another option.
  • 4. Get Anchored and Screwed If you’re not attaching your frame to a house frame, but instead want to anchor it to a concrete wall or other surface, you’ll need some bomb-proof anchors to hold that sucker tight. Any extra money spent now on the most appropriate anchors for your situation will probably save you tons of money in both repair costs or a trip to the emergency room later on. If in doubt, ask a professional (or the old guy at the hardware store).  In addition, you’ll need plenty of self-tapping screws to attach the framing studs together and to secure the plywood sheets to the frame. Get extra screws, as you generally use more than you think you will, and again, you don’t want to skimp on safety at this stage. Other helpful hardware that may speed up the construction are framing connectors, such as joist hangers, stud plates, or corner connectors.
  • 5. Hold on to Your T-nuts The holds are attached to the wall with T-nuts, and although it might be tempting to come up with a faster or cheaper way to fasten them on, the drawback is that moving those same holds after you’re bored to death of your initial routes becomes a total pain. Invest in enough T-nuts to cover your wall in a grid pattern, even if you don’t have very many climbing holds at first. The minimum you’ll need is about 100 for each full sheet of plywood in your design.  What you want to do is give yourself the option of moving the holds around at will, and the security of knowing that a hold won’t come out of the wall when your full weight is hanging from it. The T-nuts need to be installed before hanging your bouldering wall frame, as you’ll need access to the rear of the structure to install them (another reason to put in plenty of T-nuts from the get-go).
  • 6. Just Hold On Now on to the fun ingredient: the holds themselves. The recommended number is one per square foot of climbing area, but don’t let that scare you off — you can start with just enough for a single boulder problem, if you want. There are a number of manufacturers of quality climbing holds, and the holds are available in every conceivable shape, size, and color, so if you’ve got the cash, all you need to do is pick and choose (or grab a starter kit/bucket of holds to start off with). If you’re tapped for money, but have access to power tools and some raw materials, you can craft your own climbing holds from wood or rock (or use some fun ‘found object’ holds), but the drawback is that you’ll need to figure out exactly how to mount them so they don’t spin under load or work loose.

 

Building Your Home Bouldering Wall: Construction Techniques

Once you’ve got your design, the space to put it, and the materials to build your bouldering wall, it’s time to get constructing.

The frames are built first, following standard house framing techniques (top plate studs at the top and bottom, and vertical studs connecting the two on 16-inch centers), and then anchored to the house wall (if you’re building an overhanging wall, be sure to account for how you’ll attach the top of the bouldering wall to the existing structure).

Next, you’ll need to mark out and drill all the holes for the T-nuts in the plywood (either on a grid pattern, or totally randomly, if you like). Be sure to take into account where the supporting studs will lie, as you won’t want to install any T-nuts in those places. Use a spade bit (Forstner bit, for you tool lovers) to drill the holes, and take care to get them straight and clean. Working from the back of the sheet, press the T-nuts into every hole, seating them firmly with a mallet or hammer. At the bottom of the wall, you can skip the T-nuts and screw on small footholds later, as the placement and size of those tend to be less critical than farther up the wall.

Attach the plywood sheets to the frame (which should already be securely fastened to the house frame) using plenty of deck screws (recommended distance is 6 inches apart), and if you’ve got multiple sheets, make sure that the edge of each is butted tightly against the next, and screwed tightly to the frame.

Once your bouldering wall is securely attached to the frame, you can go ahead and install your climbing holds. However, if you want a more realistic climbing experience, or it’s going to be installed outdoors (or you want it to match the color of your favorite climbing shoes), paint it before you install the holds. You can either go with a specialized textured paint, or try a DIY solution, such as a thin coating of a mixture of latex paint, wood glue, and fine sand.

Once the paint is dry, install your climbing holds for your first boulder problems, or put them up randomly to begin with and then change them to suit you. Make sure that their backs are flush to the wall and the bolts are tight before putting any weight on them.

Now it’s time to throw your crash pad down underneath the wall (or steal the futon off of the couch), squeeze your feet into your climbing shoes, chalk up your hands, and give it a go!

Got any other good tips for building a home bouldering wall? Leave me a comment below!

Image: vauvau at Flickr

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