How Do You Build A Freestanding Climbing Wall?

There is no more effective way to improve at rock climbing than to have your own home bouldering wall. A wall simulates the demands of rock climbing and lets you work on technique while you’re getting stronger. Bouldering is a fantastic full-body workout, but more importantly, it’s a lot of fun.

A bouldering wall is constructed in much the same way as a wood-framed house: The individual walls are formed from a lumber framework attached to an existing structure (e.g. your garage wall) or supported by its own structure, then the framework is sheeted with plywood, creating the climbing surface.

If you’re familiar with basic construction techniques, building your own wall will be a snap. However, if you don’t feel comfortable running a circular saw, or you just don’t have the time or inclination to let the sawdust fly, this booklet will give you all the information you need to design and plan your dream wall. Then you can hire a carpenter to handle the actual construction.

If you don’t have much experience climbing on indoor walls, try to visit as many different climbing gyms and home walls as you can before designing your own wall. Try to record some basic measurements from the walls you like. The more experience you have on other walls, the easier it will be to design your own.

Chances are if you have kids at home, you flipped through our June issue and stopped in awe at one particularly out-of-this-world playroom. In a San Francisco home designed by Regan Baker, the children have run of the basement, which features a craft room, plush, kids-sized sofas, and, perhaps most impressively, a rope and rock-climbing wall. So how exactly, you might wonder, does one install such an incredible source of amusement in the home? Well, that’s where Brita Bookser and Adam Griggs come in. The two avid climbers started Crawl/Stand/Walk, a design studio that devises creative climbing walls for kids and adults alike.

Brita, who has a background in early childhood research and is currently pursuing a PhD at Berkeley, wanted a way to combine her passions of climbing and childhood development, and climbing walls for kids and families seemed the perfect solution. “We like to think climbing is for everyone; all ages, sizes, abilities,” Brita says. And with that attitude, she assures that installing one in your own home isn’t as hard as it may seem. Here’s what you need to know.

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Evaluate Your Space

Look at the space you have available to build your wall and decide how to use it most efficiently. Make sure you consider what else space may need to be used for. If it’s a garage, do you need to leave room to park the car? Is it also a storage area? You can design and position the angles of your wall to fit over and around a parked car, or you can build shelves into the backside of your wall for storage. If the wall is indoors, you’ll want to maintain access to electrical outlets and to the back of the wall to make any necessary repairs to the T-nuts once it is finished. Make sure you consider lighting, ventilation, and access at this point. If you have to cover up windows or doors to build your wall, you’ll need to find alternate lighting, ventilation and access sources.

When choosing your space, remember that falling is noisy and chalk gets everywhere. If it’s indoors, try to isolate it as much as possible from your living space, especially if you share your dwelling with non-climbers. If you’re considering an outdoor wall, remember that you’ll have to weatherproof it somehow, and no matter what you do, the holds won’t last as long as they would inside.

Decide How You Will Support Your Wall

Attaching your wall to an existing structure will eliminate some support braces, and be easier to design and construct, but will lock you into that location. The existing structure becomes part of your design. You must also ensure that the existing structure is strong enough to support the additional stresses the bouldering wall will add to it.

NOTE: Bouldering walls are very heavy. The structure that supports the wall must be strong enough to support the dead load (the weight of the wall itself) and live loads (the climbers). The dead load alone will come to several hundred pounds. Live loads vary not only by the weight of the climbers but also by the momentary forces caused by the climbing moves. These forces can be several times the weight of the climber. The support system, whether a pre-existing structure or one built specifically for the bouldering wall, must be capable of supporting the maximum combined stresses. Consult an engineer, and be absolutely certain that your structure will support the loads that will be imposed on it.

A freestanding bouldering wall will not damage an existing structure, and it will be easier to transport if you need to move. A freestanding wall is best if you are renting or do not have a suitable pre-existing structure to anchor into. Constructing a freestanding wall will cost more than a fixed wall and will be more difficult to design. You must take on the additional responsibility of engineering a support structure. All the stiffness inherent in attaching the wall to a rigid structure will be lost. You must compensate by using wider framing materials and additional bracing.


Visualize The Wall

Now that you understand the space you’re working with, try to visualize the basic shape that you want your wall to take. Imagine what different shapes, sizes, and angles would look like in place. Make several rough sketches of different ideas to see how it will all fit together.

Once you have decided on the climbing wall’s shape, location, and orientation, build a scale model with cardboard or foam board.

When choosing your wall shape, consider that certain shapes and angles tend to produce similar moves and limit variety. Horizontal roofs and vertical walls are notorious for feeling the same no matter what kind of hold or move you try to put on them. Curves and complex shapes can also lead to stiflingly homogenous climbing if you’re not careful. These kinds of features look interesting when they’re new, but get boring quickly. Flat, overhanging walls of between 20° and 45° seem to allow for the best variety of moves.

Think of your wall as a series of 8-foot-wide modules. According to how much space you have available, identify one or more basic wall shapes that you want to include in your design. Basing these modules on 8′ widths (1 full sheet of plywood) will make construction much easier and ensure good material yield, keeping the costs down.

Play around, arranging these primary walls in a variety of different configurations until you’re satisfied with the result. When positioning your walls, remember to leave enough room to fall from any given point without hitting another wall.

For any walls steeper than 20° or 30°, plan to have a short, vertical kicker panel at the bottom to provide ample room for your feet at the start of problems.

Now design secondary walls (or panels) to fill the space between the primary walls and tie them together into a seamless climbing structure. If your primary walls abut, you can simply make triangular panels to form 90° corners between them. If primary walls face each other, turn corners, or bridge doors, windows, or other structures, the secondary walls may need to be more complex in shape.

Lay It Out

Transfer your model’s dimensions to a drawing, then use string and tacks, or tape, to mark the positions of all the design elements, full-size, in your actual space. Hang a plumb line from the ceiling to mark the border of each wall. Allow for the width of the anchoring structure, thickness of the wall studs and thickness of plywood sheathing. Verify that everything fits. Double-check that all potential falls or swings will be clear, and make sure that any necessary doors, windows, light fixtures, and electrical outlets are accessible. Revisit the earlier questions and make sure you get the same answers: Will there be adequate ventilation and light? Will chalk dust affect your living space? What about other uses for the area? Does the car still fit in the garage? Will your shelving work?

Make sure you have enough area to assemble the pieces separately, fasten them together, and stand them up. Try to allow about twice as much working space as the wall will require when finished. This, of course, will vary based on the degree of overhang and height. Make sure you have enough clearance to stand the wall up without getting it wedged against the ceiling before it is in place.

Climbing gyms are great but often expensive for the facilities they offer. If you’ve got the space and want to do your climbing workouts at home, try building this freestanding climbing wall in your garage or backyard. Exact costs will vary depending on where you choose to shop, but everything necessary for this project is available at your local hardware store. On Instructables, user mga12 was able to build this wall for about $US150 ($215). You will need at least 2.5m of height and width (and 1.2m of depth) to set the wall, so a large room, garage or a covered outdoor space would be best. Here are the supplies you’ll need.

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Materials List

You can roughly estimate the material cost (not including holds or paint) of your wall by multiplying twice the number of full sheets of plywood in your design by the cost per sheet. For example, 3/4″ ACX plywood might cost $42 a sheet. If your design uses four sheets, your cost estimate will be (2 x 4) 42 = $336. If the budget still looks OK, it’s time to use your dimensional drawing to assemble a comprehensive materials list.

Before you make your list, you must determine the necessary sizes and types of materials and how each type of material will attach to the others. Use 3/4″ ACX plywood for the sheeting. This is high-grade, exterior plywood. Lower grades of plywood have more voids in the inner layers, so it is quite possible to rip T-nuts right through the sheeting while climbing. Nothing thinner than 3/4″ is strong enough, and all U.S. hold manufacturers base bolt and T-nut lengths on 3/4″ sheeting.

Framing studs will run vertically every 16 inches behind each wall, as well as at the top and bottom, to form the framework. An eight-foot-wide wall will require nine studs (seven vertical studs spaced 16 inches apart as well as a top plate and bottom plate). Optionally, the vertical studs can be spaced 24 inches apart rather than 16, which will allow for more T-nut placements, but wider studs must be used, and the plywood sheeting will be prone to flexing.

While short, vertical walls can be framed with 2″x 4″ studs, overhanging walls must use wider, stronger framing materials. The required size of framing materials is determined by both their span and the load they must bear. Slightly overhanging walls should use 2″x 6″ or 2″x 8″ studs, and steeper walls or those taller than 8 feet must use 2″x 8″ or 2″x 10″ studs. When you buy framing studs, sort through the stack and pick the straightest ones with the fewest knots.

Assemble your wall with self-drilling decking screws, which hold better and, in case you make a mistake, are easier to disassemble than nails. Use #14 x 3-1/2″ (or 4-1/2″ if screwing through drywall) screws to anchor header joists or plates to your support structure, #12 x 3″ screws to join framing members, and #8 x 2″ screws to attach the plywood to the framework.

Don’t use drywall screws or hardened screws which are brittle and prone to failure in this application. You should also have a pound or two of 16d nails for temporarily tacking framing members and for spots that you can’t access with the screw gun. Depending upon your support structure and configuration, you might need a variety of other materials. The list below will provide a few ideas.


(1) Case of beer (You may want more, I can’t say that it will aid in construction, but it’ll sure make it more interesting. For instance while hanging the joists we dropped one of the sides and nearly took out our TV)

(2) Sheets of 3/4″ Plywood (3/4 RTD SHTG) @ $17.97 = $35.94

(1) Additional 1′ by 8′ strip of plywood for the top portion (salvaged from scrap bin) – $4.01

(12) 2’x4’x104-5/8″ Studs @ $3.12 = $37.44

(1) Box of 2″ Drywall Screws – $6.47

(1) Box of 1.25″ Drywall Screws – $6.47

(1) Box of 3″ Drywall Screws – Leftover from another project

(40) Climbing Holds with Hardware (ideally you would have around 32 per sheet of plywood) I bought mine here as I’ve bought some holds from him in the past and have been very satisfied with both the price and quality – $40.00

 Extra T-Nuts (typically home walls have at-nut density of 2.25 per square foot) The holds came with just enough hardware for them, so if you want more configuration options you’ll need to buy about 100 more t-nuts

(12) Plate Connectors @ $0.76 = $9.12

(4) 90 Degree Connectors (3″ Angle) @ $1.23 = $4.92

(8) 2×4 Joist Hangers @ $0.75 = $6.00

Total Materials Cost = $150.37


– Electric Drill

– Phillips Head Bit

– 7/16″ Wood Boring Bit

– 3/8″ Hex Wrench

– Tape Measure

– Protractor (or other angle making aid)

– Saw (preferably a power saw, hand saws are only cool for about 10 minutes)

Step 2: Cut It Up

You’ll want to start by cutting all your lumber to size. Note that you’ll also want to cut it at the right angles, so all joints of your triangle sit flush.

I knew that I wanted my wall to be 4′ deep so I could add sides later on by cutting a sheet of plywood in half diagonally. I also knew that it couldn’t be taller than 8′ (7’11” to be safe) so I decided on roughly a 60-degree overhang so that I would still have about a foot of vertical space on the top so I could mount a hang board.

I also knew that we would be using two 4′ wide sheets of plywood for the surface of the wall so I cut 6 of the studs to a tad longer than 8′ to make sure I had room in case anything was off.

Step 3: Assemble Sides

Next, you’ll want to assemble the sides of your wall. I made sure both the front and back would be resting directly on the ground so there would be less strain on the joint. This is where you’ll want to use your plate connectors.

-First pound the connectors the joints

-Second secure with 4 of the 1.25″ screws on each plate.

-Repeat first and second step for the other sides of the joints

-Lastly, you may want to secure the top joint with two additional 3″ screws.

You may want to add cross-bracing on the inside of the triangles especially if you want the surface of the wall to wrap around the sides. I chose to leave them unbraced and uncovered for now to save on cost. After using it for a while, I don’t feel that extra cross bracing is necessary.


Step 4: Hang Horizontal Joists

For this step, you’ll most likely want one or two helpers to keep everything square as you hang the joists on the back of the wall. This is an important step because if you do it wrong, your wall will most likely collapse. Pardon the lack of pictures while actually hanging the joists, but we simply did not have enough hands.

-Fist position the 2×4 where you wanted it to go and secure it with 2 two of the 3″ screws going straight through the side and into the 2×4 horizontally.

-Once the stud is in place, install the joist hangers by first hammering in the stops and then securing it with 1.25″ screws into the side and then with 3″ screws into the 2×4. Check the pictures for more detail.

For the top two joists simply screw the connector into the side then up into the 2×4. I also used two of the 3″ screws going horizontally through the side and into the joists.

I chose to use four horizontal joists for the overhang and two joists on top which the plywood sheeting would then be screwed into.

Step 5: Drill Bolt Holes

Before you mount your plywood, you’ll want to drill holes for the holds to bolt into (note: if you are using the screw on holds this isn’t necessary). You’ll also want to be careful that the joists won’t block your holes. I messed up and didn’t check this, and now I can’t use some of the holes. You’ll also want to determine which side of the plywood will be the front and drill from the front to the back so that it looks pretty and doesn’t give you splinters.

Step 6: Hang the Plywood

Once you have all of your joists hung on the back and the holes drilled in the plywood, you can hang the plywood on the wall. It’s also nice to have a helper for this step.

-First, push the bottom of the plywood as far back as it will go against the bottom joists.

-Next, have your helper (or a large set of clamps) hold the sheet of plywood so that it presses on the top joist.

-Then make sure the sheet of plywood is pressed firmly against the side of the wall

-Finally, making sure all parts of the plywood are flush against the joists, secure the panel with at least 5 of your 2″ screws per joist.

-Repeat for the second sheet of plywood

-Hang top strip of plywood in similar fashion

Step 7: Install T-Nuts and Holds

Install holds by pounding the t-nuts into the back of the plywood then threading the bolt through the bolt and into the t-nut.

Now put on your climbing shoes and chalk up, you’re done!

Finishing up

Screw the T-nuts that you pounded onto the panels, to your wall. You may start with the bottom and work your way up. If some T-nuts line up with your braces, you can choose to either remove them or plan beforehand by holding the plywood in place prior to pounding in the T-nuts.

You can also leave them there, or hang the plywood and utilize the drill to drill through the T-nuts, leaving room for the bolts.

Purchase some holds for the climbing wall from your local shop or online. Bolt them on your rock climbing wall, and you can now climb on the wall. Having a lot of holds on your wall will make the activity more enjoyable if you want to make your climbing wall more fun for your children, you can create a playground at the back!

The last point is probably the most important: Always make safety a priority. Brita advises home climbers to line their wall with crash pads (they’re usually in place in the Regan Baker home—they were just moved for the photo!). One company, Organic, even makes completely customizable pads. Before anyone uses the wall, Crawl/Stand/Walk will do an introductory safety class with them—if you’re DIYing, Brita recommends searching for one of the many YouTube videos that instruct on “falling safe,” the practice of rolling on your side when falling off a wall.

Some other tips to always remember: Never walk by or under a person climbing, always have a spotter, and don’t have two people climbing the same “problem.” Our suggestion to keep this all straight? Make a list of climbing rules to hang by the wall. Then, climb on!

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