DIY Built-in Quad Bunk Bed | Part 2: Rails and Ladders
Now It’s Time for the Fun Stuff
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I really out-dad-myself (CRINGE) on this part of the bunk bed project. The rails and ladders on this project are going to be built with some amazing quarter sawn white oak I got from local sawyer.
Before I start breaking down this beautiful oak, a quick update on the circular saw shootout I recently released. (SPOILER) the Milwaukee won. Milwaukee has since added a lefthanded sidewinder version of that saw and to me, this left-handed M18 Fuel cordless circular saw is now the best cordless saw on the market. It will live on my tool wall of fame until it is dethroned.
Let’s get milling
This my first hardwood project in my new shop and the first opportunity I have to properly break in my new Laguna helical head jointer and planer. A common misconception on helical head tools is that they only deliver smoother finishes. While they deliver a smoother finish off the tool, there are a bunch of other benefits as well. For me, the biggest benefits of upgrading to helical head industrial tools are the smaller chip size for better dust collection, longer life on the teeth, and ability to handle wild grain like this curly quarter sawn oak with ease.
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Let me tell you something mething, installing a TV over my jointer way on of the greatest things I've ever done…I don't get distracted but it is cool to take a 5 second break to see what's going on on @itsthegrandtour between boards. Always use push blocks kids…safety first. . . . #sundayfunday #woodworkin #woodworker🔨 #makersofmissouri #diyfurniture #diybunkbed #milling #lumber #hardwood #woodworkersofinsta #woodworkersofig #woodworklife
I have been thinking of doing a more in-depth video comparing these industrial tools to more typical weekend warrior DIY variants of these tools. Let me know in the comments if that is something you might be into watching.
There are only a few critical dimensions for these pieces. The top rail and spindles need to be cut to the same width, so don’t move your fence. The bottom rail needs to be 2.5” inches to properly register onto the bed rail we wrapped in MDF in the previous article. Finally, the sides of the ladder should be left long and cut to length at the end. I promise you, no matter how good you are at trigonometry, unless you cut it to match, you’ll miss this measurement. Beyond these critical dimensions, I just tried to maximize the yield from each board and made sure the proportions were aesthetically pleasing.
Before cutting anything to its final length, I quadruple checked my Rockler miter sled for square against the blade. To do this I referenced against the squarest square in my shop right now, which happened to be this new Milwaukee Aluminum carpenters square I have been testing out. Like the other recent measuring tools from Milwaukee/Empire, the carpenters square is superbly machine and great value for money. You can never be TOO square in projects like these. When you add together all of the joinery across a whole project like this, even half a degree can spell disaster.
Batching Out & Some Important Rules of Thumb
I used the flip stop on my miter sled to batch out the spindles and steps for the ladder to exactly the same length. A couple of rules of thumb for bunk bed design: a child’s ladder to be around 18” wide with 10-12” step spacing and the guard rails on bunk beds should be at least 5” above the top of the mattress (I went with 12” cause my girls are crazy.)
Cutting repeatable curves
I wanted to add some subtle curves to the bunk bed ladder. To ensure reproducibility, I built a jig for cutting these curves. A couple of finish nails were used to define an arc. Then I used a cheapo ruler to trace my curve. This curve is not just for aesthetics, it also prevents kids from bumping their knees as they climb up and down.
A couple of scrap pieces of MDF were used to create a saddle for the steps so I could get a consistent placement of the steps within the jig. I then took the jig to the band saw to cut my curve before sanding it smooth for more consistent results. Next, I used the jig to trace the curve onto the steps and removed the bulk of the waste at the bandsaw to get a cleaner finished surface. If I would’ve left the waste, I would’ve ended up with gnarling the bullnoses on each step with tear-out. This way gives me super-smooth results with less sanding.
With all of the excess material removed, I could take it over to my router table. I used the bottom bearing on my Whiteside mega flush-trim bit to follow the pattern and breeze through these curves. This bit is mad expensive, but its the last flush-trim bit you’re ever going to buy.
Setting up the Dado Stack
I used a piece of scrap MDF to dial in my dado stack. The treads fit was snug before sanding. This way, after sanding, everything would fit together perfectly. Taking your time to get your dado stack dialed in will make cutting dados a breeze and adds a ton of strength to this ladder. Very carefully, I laid out one of the ladder sides with the steps evenly spaced. Once you have one side laid out, you can use it as a story stick to layout all of the other sides. Remember, each side of a ladder is mirrored to the opposite side. My ladder was going to have a 15-degree splay angle from the bed, so I cut these dados at 15 degrees to keep the treads level with the ground.
Dimensioning and Shaping the Ladders
When trimming the ladders to the final length you’ll want to take a little of the top and the bottom to maintain proper step spacing. I then traced out the curve I wanted onto the head and foot of the ladder rail and used this completed rail as a template for the others.
After cutting the first rail, I flipped it over to mark the opposite rail. After cutting out all the rails I smoothed all of the flat faces using a block plane and worked on all of the curved surfaces at the belt sander. This would have been easier at a spindle sander, but I don’t have one of those.
Rails & Spindles
With the ladders complete, I started working on the rails. To begin, I started with a dry fit to figure out the dimensions, leaving myself a couple of inches of material to figure it out. I love designing in SketchUp, but some design decisions require you to see pieces at full scale. In the end, I settled with 18” rails which gave me 12” of rail above the mattress.
The spindles appear to be elaborately carved, but they really quite simple. I started by cutting out the notch that would sit just above the bottom rail. This needed to be two and a half inches deep with about 5” of overhang for the architectural detail. These are mostly cosmetic but they add lateral strength to the railing when installed.
I used the first spindle as a template for the rest and cut them on the bandsaw. In retrospect, this would have been a good place for another jig, but I was just having too much fun at my new bandsaw.
Counter-Sinks and Square Plugs
In my initial design, I was going to use through mortise and tenons to connect everything but, for whatever reason, I decided to go with screws and square plugs. My mortising bit was angled at 15 degrees on the ladder rails so the plugs looked like through mortise and tenons. Then I drilled pilot holes from the inside of the dados to align the mortises perfectly with the center of each board. Finally, I plunged the mortiser into each pilot hole ensuring my depth stop was set such that the chisel wouldn’t blow out the dado on the other side.
If you don’t have a mortiser you could quite easily do this with a properly sized corner chisel and a little more markup. A corner chisel would even avoid the need to clean out the mortises. You could also do round pegs, but I was going for a Morris chair craftsman motif with these bunk beds.
Form Follows Function
Each of the pieces for the bunk bed received a smooth round-over. They are going on the kids’ bed after all. If I were building this piece with only aesthetics in mind, I would have probably broken the corners with a chamfer bit for some sharper lines. In this design though, form has to follow function.
Additionally, for my particular lumber supply, if I were making this piece for a customer, I may have left out some of these butcher’s cuts. There was just too tasty of grain in this curly quarter saw white oak to leave it out. It took a little extra prep work with some Starbond black CA glue and their quick set aerosol accelerator to fill in any of the cracks or voids. Starbond isn’t a sponsor but their CA glue really did make this project a lot easier.
I batched out the last couple sets of round overs on the spindles and ladder steps & knocked out all of the small parts sanding and it was finally time for the glue-up. After the glue set up for around 30 minutes on the ladders, I drove in some screws to keep everything snugged up to dry.
When assembling the bunk bed rails, rather than doing some awkward dance with clamps. I simply used CA glue to stick everything in place and drilled pilot holes and countersinks from the bottom to lock everything into place.
The CA glue also came in handy when plugging and flushing all of the square pegs. I adhered the pegs to the frame with CA glue and accelerator. The accelerator is mainly to keep uncured CA glue off my Dozuki and out of my block plane when I got to flush these pegs.
I wanted to keep this project looking super clean and natural so I went with water-based poly. I also wanted it to be safe for the kids and not off-gas too bad. This is my first project trying out Vermont Natural coatings poly whey finish. It is a water-based poly that is derived from a cheese by-product. This is going to be one of my go-to finishes for that clean natural look with beautiful woods like this. It turned out great. It dried fast and, within a few minutes, there was no smell at all. I applied 1 coat of their UV blocker and 3 coats of their poly whey product. I am very confident in this finish, but we will see how it holds up over time.
The final assembly on this project was a breeze. It goes together with just a few screws and all of the assemblies fit perfectly. The ladders aren’t much more complicated. They are just centered on the openings to the side of the bunk bed rails. You’ll want to check that the stairs are level before attaching them with 4 countersunk screws.
More detailed plans and cut sheets for this project are available for sale in my store. Please don’t hesitate to ask in the comments if you have any questions about this build or if you need any help with the plans.
Its brother won the hand tool shootout as the “greatest cordless circular saw of all time”. Now it’s time for little brother’s time in the sun.
Keep your tools sharp and keep your mind sharper, but just as important is keep you blade square and your joinery square-er…
My favorite impact driver of all time was a hydraulic driver, but without this little 12-volt driver I don’t know how I would’ve driven in some of these screws.
WoodWorkWIFE ordered most of the bedding and decor from Home Depot (not sponsored). They have really upped their game on the decor front and it made it convenient to get everything ordered at the same time. I really love the Berkeley 1-Light White and Brass swing arm lamps that we added to each bed to allow each kid to have control. Red is really into books right now since she is learning to read and her bed has become her new favorite spot.
Probably the most important part of the decor was the new ceiling fan. Bunk beds will inevitably place your precious child’s head closer to the spinning blades of the fan. That standard fan had to go. Initially, I thought that I would have to move the placement of the fan to increase the space between the blades and their heads. Fortunately, WoodWorkLIFE found the Anderson 22 in. LED Indoor/Outdoor Ceiling Fan with enclosed blades. Bonus- since it is only 22 inches I never had to move the location of the fan! Goldie loves turning the light off every night using the remote control.
We ordered some basic innerspring mattresses from THD that could even support me. This offers us more potential guest sleeping space of both the child AND adult type. Pillows were also purchased from Home Depot. Believe it or not, those fancy comforters are also from THD, but as luck has it, they don’t have that exact design anymore. I did find the exact design on Amazon, find it here. This design worked well as a compromise for our one #allpinkeverthing and our other #allgreeneverthing girls.
If you have not tried Target’s sheets yet, you are missing out. We have been big fans for years now and went with Threshold’s Performance line in light green for the bunk beds.
For those of you still here (…crickets) here are links to the other items we decided on to round out the bunk room.
We wanted a rug to ground the bedding and break up the gray/khaki colored carpet. WoodWorkWIFE picked one, I picked another, and she won. I really like the rich teal and orange in this 3ft x 7ft rug, so does #notashopdog.
This Esters Rocking Chair from Target was a great find! It is solid and has a nice thick cushion for my butt. The best feature though is that it is lower than a standard chair so the girls can easily get up and down. The teal and magenta throw pillow and leaf stoneware wall decor are from Target’s Opalhouse line and match the florals in the bedspread. WoodWorkWIFE is a Target pro.
Thanks for taking the time to follow me as I, along with WoodWorkWIFE, completed this project. This has been my favorite (and largest) project to date. Let me know what you think in the comments and, as always…
Keep your tools sharp and your mind sharper.
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