Building a Home Wall
We are not professionals at designing and building climbing walls, but we have built one. We then expanded it, and through it all, made some mistakes and learned a few things along the way that we would do differently. We decided to take you through our climbing wall journey in detail so that you are able to learn from our mistakes, and possibly help you in some of your decisions of your wall design. We are a community, and as such, if you have any knowledge that you would like to pass along, please let us know so that we can pass that on to others as well! We also welcome your photos of your walls. With your permission, we will post them in our library so that others can get ideas from you!
7/16 brad point drill bit
Robertson #2 bit (Or whatever bit is required for screws you are using)
2 lb hammer
Additional helpful tools:
Handheld belt sander
2X4 or 2X6
Scrap plywood (Depending on design of the wall)
2 ½” deck screw
3 ½” deck screws
5/8 Wafer screws (Recommended but not essential)
Here are a few things to be mindful of when you are building your wall.
When cutting wood, dust is created and is not healthy to breath in. Cut in a well-ventilated area and wear a mask when working in dusty conditions. If you are working in an old house, assume that it has asbestos in it and take the necessary precautions to protect yourself.
Safety glasses are also a good idea to prevent sawdust getting into your eyes.
Slivers are also a possibility, so gloves would be beneficial.
When cutting with the skil saw, be sure to keep hands well clear of the blade. Be sure to watch out for binding of the blade, and always position yourself so that if the saw kicks back, it will not strike you. If cutting thin strips off of plywood, pieces may get stuck in the blade guard. When you set the saw down, the guard might not go down fully. Best practice is to let the blade stop turning before setting down.
When pounding and using power tools, hearing protection is recommended. Don’t forget, once hearing loss occurs, it cannot be undone!
When screwing plywood to walls or ceiling, be careful to not screw into electrical wiring that may be concealed. Especially in older homes, building codes were very lax and wires may be just behind the surface. (Lesson learned — we screwed a 3” screw right through the middle of a wire. Fortunately it did not cause a spark and start the house on fire!)
The first thing you will want to do is to design your wall. It can vary from simple to very complex. A big factor is how much room you have to work with. If your space is limited to a very small area, you may be able to do one or two sheets of plywood, and that will be the extent of the wall. Even at that, you can build the wall so that it can be a vertical wall, or you can adjust it to be a slab or overhang. This gives you the option to increase the difficulty of the wall within minutes, and it makes the wall fun for all levels of ability. Volumes can also help to create different angles on a wall face, so even if a wall is small, with some creativity, you can still keep it fresh and challenging. If you have more space to work with, then you can increase the complexity of the wall with straight walls, slabs, overhangs and corners. Be creative and take time to consider all of the possibilities that would allow you to make the most of your wall. In our experience of building our wall, we converted the entire upstairs of a small 1 ½ storey house where the walls were only 4’ high, plus the slope of the roof. In that space we were able to build an island, vertical, and overhang walls. We also went into the attic space to make an area that was much higher than originally expected. Think outside the box!
The most costly part of the wall is the plywood and lumber. The first thing you need to do is to decide what you want your wall to look like when you are finished. If you like rustic and don’t care about smooth plywood and knots showing, you do not have to be too picky about what you get. If you are looking for a more refined look, then you will want to get a cabinet grade plywood. A good way to keep the cost down is to look for shop-grade plywood. Often it will be on sale for a significant discount. It has a very nice finish, but will have slight imperfections which when painted will not be noticeable. For the lumber, get #2 or better. 2X4 typically should be adequate but depending on the height of the wall, 2X6 might be preferred. A good rule of thumb is to rather be overbuilt than underbuilt. If you are going to have an overhang wall that is 8 or 10’ tall, a 2X6 will be stronger than 2X4. If space is a concern, that may also determine whether you use 2X4 or 2X6. 2” might not seem like a lot, but it can make a big difference if you are in a tight space.
Drilling and Installing the T-Nuts
Once you have your design made, you are ready to get started. First, draw out your space and determine what you will need for plywood. If you have multiple walls, draw out each wall then figure out how to maximize your plywood. The hole pattern for the T-nuts can either be random or a pattern. Typically the T-nuts are 6 to 8“ apart, and ideally offset alternating rows by 1/2 the distance of the nuts. The tighter the spacing, the more work to do it, but the payoff is that you have a lot more flexibility in setting routes. We would recommend the tighter spacing. Below is an example of a pattern.
If you have multiple sheets that will be going against each other and you are going 8” apart, start your first row at 2” from the edge and then every 8” until the last hole, which would be 6” from the opposite edge. On the next row 8” down, start 6” from the edge, and across and the last hole will be 2” from the edge. This way when the sheets are put together, your pattern will be consistent and you will not have any T-nuts on the seam. If you have a large wall that you are building and have multiple sheets of
plywood to drill, you can save time by marking out one sheet and then drilling through multiple sheets at one time. Use the top sheet as your template for future sheets, that way you do not have to mark out every sheet. When drilling out for the T-Nuts, if you are using a brad point bit, put the drill in reverse first and run for a second to score the wood, then drill in forward. This prevents the first sheet from tearing out. If you are not using a brad point bit but a steel or spade bit, you may get more
tear-out. Be sure to keep your drill square to the plywood. If you drill out at too much of an angle, you may have problems installing the nuts and will possibly have problems mounting a hold as a result. You should have your outside face of plywood face up when you are drilling. If you drill from the backside, when the bit gets through the sheet, it can tear out. In our experience, we started with a very structured hole pattern, but through a few mistakes (which are also known as “FOR PETE’S SAKE’ moments), we did a combination—sort of structured, but random. It was faster, did not have to measure everything, and there is no such thing as drilling out the wrong spot. On that note, when you are drilling, keep in mind where you have your studs for your wall. You do not want to have the T-nuts fall on a stud. If they do, you have to put the sheet up, mark it and remove the sheet so that you can drill a pocket for the bolt to be able to go past the plywood.
When installing your T-nuts, it is helpful to have a 2 lb hammer. Make sure to put the nuts on the back face of the plywood. If this is not done correctly, you will find yourself on the floor with the hold in your hand! You should not be able to see the T-nuts when your wall is up. They are on the other side of the plywood.
Very important! One very annoying problem is losing a T-nut due to cross threading or pushing too hard when unscrewing the bolt in a hold. The T-nut will spin around with the bolt still threaded into it and it becomes very difficult, sometimes impossible, to relocate the hold or tighten it again. We highly recommend getting 5/8” wafer screws and put one behind every T-nut, and this greatly reduces the possibility of the nut pushing out and
becoming useless. This adds work at the beginning but the payoff is great with reduced frustration later on. Failure to do this may result with a hold on your wall that is loose, unusable, and won’t come off. If you have an open-backed wall, it is not as critical. But even then, if you have to replace the T-nut, the plywood becomes shredded and it will become more likely to be a problem in the future.
Framing Walls and Ceiling
Without having an engineer design the wall for you, a good rule of thumb is “There is no such thing as being overdesigned”. The first thing you want to do is make sure that whatever you are building on is going to be strong enough to hold whomever is on the wall. When we were building our wall, we found
this is how one of the walls was framed—there were no full studs in the wall. Needless to say, this was removed and rebuilt to make sure it was strong. Because we were rebuilding the wall, it gave us the opportunity to put something a little more complex in its place. We built a vertical section, angled off into a steep section, which wrapped around to a slab portion of wall. We created an island which gave us the opportunity to bridge from one wall to another on our routes. We tried to incorporate as many angles as possible, which just adds to the versatility of the routes that we can set. Depending on your level of carpentry skills, this may seem like a daunting task, but here are a few pointers on how you can do the same. We knew we wanted a wall in the middle of the room, because it was too wide to climb from one wall to another. The wall itself was not designed ahead of time. We started building the wall, and as it progressed, we thought about possibilities of how we could add another angle or slope to the wall.
The framing was fairly simple, and we stick framed as we went. We used a lot of screws, and did not worry too much if all of the angles were perfect. It will never see the light of day again. A useful tool if you are going to get into a more complex wall would be a bevel square. It allows you to make a template for the angle that you need to cut, and then transfer that onto the wood so that you can get close to the right angle the first time. We made a custom bevel square to figure out the angles to cut on the plywood. Whenever possible, we put the sheet up in place and marked where it needed to be cut, then removed and cut it. We made mistakes along the way, with a few miscuts.
One helpful tip is to try to cut the bigger pieces first. If you make a mistake, the entire sheet is not lost— just use it for the next smaller piece. You can see on the plywood that we marked where the supports were so that we would not install T-nuts at those locations. As mentioned before, think outside of the box. The more complex you make it, the more versatile it will be in the future. The upstairs of this home is only 7’ tall, and we were definitely running out of space quickly. We couldn’t go out any more, so we decided to go up!
A bevel square will make your life easier when it comes to angles!
It may not look pretty, but it's solid and that's what counts.
You'd never know what's behind that nice looking wall!
A bevel square will make your life easier when it comes to angles!
A reminder: take safety precautions to protect yourself from airborne hazards. This house was built in 1932, and we suspect there was possibly asbestos in it. We tore out a section of the ceiling, exposing the rafters. We framed it so that we could still insulate it and keep a bit of warmth in during the winter months, and that it would not get so brutally hot in the summer. By going up, we were able to make a nice large overhung wall that otherwise would have been impossible. It has proven to be one of the most fun addition to our climbing wall. We decided to use 3/4" plywood strips that we mounted to the existing wall every 16".
We installed those on walls where the plywood was going directly against the drywall. The plywood cannot be directly against the drywall because the bolts holding the holds on the wall typically stick past the plywood. If there is not a space behind, you may not be able to tighten your holds properly. We also had a window that we were covering up, we did not want to lose all of the natural light. We purchased some old glass blocks and framed it out so that we could have some light
but not lose any wall space. It was a lot of work but worth every minute. We also made a cubby for a bluetooth speaker with an outlet, plus another outlet outside of the cubby if power was needed upstairs.
The only thing we didn’t do was put some LED lights behind so that at night the blocks would put on a light show… that is on our to-do list!
Some walls we totally framed out. The top of the wall (lower left picture) looks like it is not supported enough, but once the ceiling was installed, there was no way that it could come down. We also built features that a person can climb around. This can be added after the fact, but when we were expanding the wall, we decided it would another challenge.
The "pillar" is a fun feature that adds variation to the room
The "island" gives us even more square footage of climbing
Climbing space on the gear closet door
The "pillar" is a fun feature that adds variation to the room
A lot of space was taken up by the staircase going up to the climbing area. We decided to install a trap door so that we would not lose an entire wall for access into our climbing space. We took a small space and were able to make it bigger, and have so many different features for our wall.
We have a closet upstairs to store shoes and chalk bags, and the ladder to place holds. We built a door so that again, we would not lose any precious wall space. The door is just latched with a barrel clasp and is very secure for climbing across it.
We have only one regret—we do not have a very big slab wall, which is sometimes missed. Try to balance everything out so that you have a decent amount of everything. Take time to plan, and while building, don’t rush through it. Be open to changing the plan, because as you are building, you may be able to visualize new possibilities. All of the hard work and extra time will pay off in the long run.
Make sure that you consider ventilation and heating and cooling in your space. In our case, it is upstairs, and heat rises, so we eliminated all of the heating vents upstairs. In winter, it is comfortably cool in the gym, and once you start climbing, it is welcomed to have it a bit cooler. In the summer it is a different story. The insulation on the old house is not so great, so it gets very warm upstairs. We had three windows, and we kept one, converted the second one to glass blocks, and the third one we made so that we could install an air conditioner in the summer and remove it and close it off in the winter.
Lighting is one of the things that will highlight the awesomeness of your home climbing wall. You will want to put in plenty of lights so that the room is bright and you don’t have shaded areas anywhere on the walls. We went with surface-mount LED lights. A climber won't accidentally knock them when reaching for a jug on the ceiling, and the other big advantage is there is little heat thrown from them. Nothing worse than trying to do a difficult move and have a hot light bulb hovering close to your face. Look around for 6 -packs of lights, cost is usually cheaper. Also think about where you want outlets in your space.
Money Saving Tips
I think we are almost done. Last thing we want to pass on are ways that we saved money when we built the wall.
When building the wall, especially if you are making it complex, you will need a lot of small scraps of lumber and plywood cleats and strips. Go to a local construction site and talk to them to see if they have scraps that normally would be destined for the garbage bin that they would be willing to give to you. Lumber is not cheap, and this can be a big dollar saver for you. Typically they will not let you go in their garbage bin for liability reasons, but since people are becoming more aware of recycling, you will find a lot of contractors would be very open to helping you out.
For floor mats, we kept our eyes open and found two different sources that were selling used mats. The price we paid was a fraction of the cost. Talk to local climbing gyms. You may get lucky and find that they may be upgrading their floor and may sell their old mats at a greatly reduced price. We also kept our eyes open for crash pads, and whenever a good deal popped up, we would jump on it.
While we love it when you buy holds from us, we also realize that most of us do not have bottomless wallets. When we built the wall, we were not yet making holds. We bought some of the holds new, but a majority of them were purchased used. Keep an eye out for used holds on Kijiji, Ebay, Marketplace etc. Another place that you can get economical holds is to look for seconds from climbing hold companies. This is when a hold is cast and there is a slight imperfection and it can’t be sold for full price. At this point it is sold at a significant discount, and if you can live with slight flaws, it is a good way to stretch your dollar. The last suggestion is to contact local climbing gyms. They may have some old holds that are being retired and sell them off for a good deal!
We hope that this has been of some help for you in planning and building a wall. If you have any questions or if there is any way we can help, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us. Happy climbing!