How (and why) I built my kids a bunk bed instead of buying one

Last summer, my wife was looking to reorganize the homeschool area of our living room. We had a few smallish book cases lining the wall, all different colors and sizes. They were beat up, shelves sagging. It was time to replace them, and she wanted something big enough to hold the dozens of text books, papers and other materials that homeschooling requires.

We checked online, and quickly found one she liked from Ikea for $200, plus $130 (not a typo) to ship it (or a 7 hour drive to pick it up). At 6 feet high and wide, it’s plenty big, but it seems so… meh.

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The materials are unexceptional, the design so basic… staring at that shelf, one word came to mind.

mediocre

Something snapped. I thought, why couldn’t I just do this myself?

Contents

Why Bother?

Quality. Customization. … A little healthy pride in a job well done.

My thought-process went something like this:

  • I learned about square shapes and straight lines in preschool. I should be able to build a glorified box.
  • If I’m diligent, I can build something that fits our space and needs perfectly.
  • If I’m patient, it may even look good when I’m done.
  • And if I can’t do it cheaper, I can do it better by using superior materials. Most of the store-bought stuff, even Ikea, is made of particle board (MDF) covered in a thin veneer of wood. It sags under weight, swells in moisture, the veneer may peel off, and screws won’t hold so you need those quarter-turn fasteners they all use. Try moving it around after assembly, and watch the stress break it apart.

If you find yourself wavering, all I can say is that this is your chance to create something your way. You won’t find something on a store shelf that fits perfectly, and having someone come in and custom build something for you is expensive.

We’ve all seen nice pieces of furniture that were handmade, and cost isn’t usually the issue. Time is. Either designing and building your own, or waiting for someone else to build it for you. Isn’t that how it is with everything in life? Cost, time and quality… you can always have two at the expense of the third.

The problem is, we’re accustomed to having crappy things now, instead of waiting for something better.

good fast cheap triangle

With all that in mind, I spent a few hours on YouTube, a few more hours sketching things out, and ran with it from there. I committed a couple weeks of evenings and weekends, revisiting and refining my designs, and ended up with something I’m proud of.

It was a learning process, and I was relieved to finish it, but it turned out nicely. The total cost was $350 (about the same as having the other one shipped).

Upping the Ante (I’ll see your shelf, and raise you a bunk bed)

More recently, we’ve been talking about moving the girls into one room. That means twice the beds and toys and books, and so we started thinking about bunk beds. We took to the net again looking for a good deal (hey, you never know), but we had no clue how much these things can cost.

Here’s a very simple one from BJ’s for $400. Mattresses not included. That’s like, maybe $100-150 in materials. The fasteners are visible everywhere.

From there, they only go up, with several models we liked at other stores in the $1500 – $2000 range. For $2000, it better be a guest room after the kids move out!

Between confidence from the book shelf, a week off during the holidays, knowing the kids would be spending a few nights with relatives, and a couple Christmas Ale’s, I set out to tackle the bunk bed myself. A few hours on YouTube again, then using bits and pieces to sketch out a design I liked.

A couple people have asked if there are any plans for it. Nothing that’d be useful for anyone. This was a “sketch it out and improve as I go” sort of thing, made to fit with the layout of the room. By the end, I had drawings all over the place, and the final product was something different anyway.

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Building the Bed Frames

Most of the bunk bed consists of 2×12, 1×12 and 2×6 pieces. I knew I wanted to create this thing to survive. I didn’t want to find something sagging or bending once real weight was put on it, and it’s my hope that the girls still like it 10 years from now.

Twin-size beds measure 38×75″, so I cut two 38″ pieces and two 78″ pieces (2×12’s are actually 1.5″ thick). Simple box shape, attached with screws at the corners. But like everything, there’s more than one way to do it, and which one you use depends on what’ll end up being visible when you’re finished.

  • Go in from the outside, counter-sinking the screws and patching the holes.
  • Go outward from the inside, creating pocket holes using something like this tool from Kreg. I’ve had good luck with it, on the bed and the book shelf (the clamp to hold it in place is an extra $20, or you can just use a large C-Clamp if you already have one). You can see what they look like in the middle picture near the inside-corner of the frame, and again in the left pic on the outside of the top frame (which I knew I’d be covering up with a shelf later).

I added a 1×2 piece of trim around the bottom bunk and shelf, to accommodate the baseboard. I could’ve removed the baseboard and pushed the bunk bed flush against the wall, but this allowed me to run an extension cord behind the bed.

Supporting the Top Bed Frame

I needed something to rest the slats on, so I attached 2×2 pieces to the inside of the frame with screws. You can see them in the middle shot below.

Then I used 1×4 pieces, cut at 38″. They rested on top of the 2×2 pieces. The 1×4 pieces are durable. I placed one of the 3-foot sections between two cinder blocks, only resting about 1″ on each block, and literally bounced up and down on it. It flexed, but didn’t crack. Probably good enough, but then I imagined the kids wrestling on it, or several friends coming over and sitting up there. That’s when I added the 2×12 running down the middle, under the slats.

One of the things I focused on was making sure everything was squared, and that everything up above was supported by the boards below, and not depending on the shear strength of the screws. In the middle pic below, you can see how I used the bottom shelf to support the upper frame. That bottom shelf, in turn, consists of a horizontal piece resting on three vertical pieces (you can see the third in the right pic), each of which is secured with 4 screws to the outside of the bottom bed frame.

Building a Ladder

After I built out the shelves, I started working on the ladder. The sides are 2×4’s, and each rung is a 1×4 attached with 4 screws. I wish I had supported those better, or cut notches into the 2×4 so the weight wasn’t on the screws. This was the only place where I did rely on the shear strength of the screws, but I was up and down that ladder 50 times before I was finished and it still looks fine.

With a close up, you can see where I used counter-sink holes on the sides of each rung. Trying to make sure each rung was “flat” from side-to-side and front-to-back was a nuisance, but it paid off. I’m pleased with how it looks. The left side is attached to the shelf at the top, while the right side is attached to the upper bed frame by a single screw from the inside of the frame. The end result was a permanently attached, nice-looking ladder. I ended up cutting the right-top side of the ladder to make getting in and out of the bed easier. You can see it’s shorter in some of the later pics.

Bed Rail for Safety

As my 9 yo reminded me, multiple times, I needed to add a bed rail to the top. Of course, my original plan was to just let her roll off onto the lower bed. Oh well.

I used 1×4 pieces, attached to the inside of the bed frame with two screws (middle pic). It won’t support an adult swinging off it, but it’s more than adequate for the job. Two long 1×2 pieces run horizontally across it, connected to the 1×4 pieces with a single screw. I left a larger gap near the bottom because the mattress would be filling that area anyway.

Building a Zoo

Getting near the end, I added a few larger shelves to accommodate bigger toys, and the last thing was something my wife saw all over Pinterest. A “zoo” to hold all their random stuffed animals. The idea is simple, but genius. The bungee cords (held with eyelets) allow the kids to easily get their stuffed animals in and out, while being firm enough to hold everything in.

Final Touches

A coat of stain and then polyurethane turns a bare-bone look into something more professional. Here it is, stained, coated and ready to be furnished.

A couple days to dry, and then everyone moved in. The girls love it, and there’s plenty of space for everything they want – books, dolls, pictures, and more.

Was it worth it? (Yes!)

This was a definite investment of time, with some very full days over Christmas break, followed by some very full evenings after work. To me, it was worth it though. I wanted to build something well, and I got a chance to do that. I learned a lot too.

Price-wise, it was worth it too. Here are two models from Wayside that are currently going for $1000 and $2800 respectively.

My total cost? $400 in lumber, screws and misc supplies, and $100 for the stain, polyurethane and brushes. The mattress was another $100, but we would have had to buy that anyway, and actually saved $100 on *not *having to buy another box spring plus whatever we would’ve spent on another twin bed frame.

It certainly wasn’t free, but there’s no way a bed made custom to fit a certain area, made out of solid wood, would be anywhere near that cheap. It could’ve been an expensive mistake, and I changed the design a few times as I was going, but it worked out fine. My left-over scraps probably amounted to about $20 of materials. I think I did a better job of that on the bookshelf, but I didn’t feel like dragging this out forever trying to minimize scraps.

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When we got married, our friend’s father gifted us with a couple pieces of furniture – a shelf for DVDs and a bench. They’re excellent, solid pieces. We’ve had them for a decade, and they’re as nice now as when we got them, which is just amazing when you compare them to the quality we’ve come to expect in store-bought items. A kitchen pantry we bought 5 years ago is worn out, and I have to glue the laminate back on another small book shelf.

I love seeing items made with care, to stand the test of time. Amish-built furniture, for example. There’s a ton of skill there, passed down through the generations, but it’s also about slowing down and creating something with intention. It’s not the price that differs heavily, so much as the time. I’ve seen extremely nice hand-made pieces that someone had to wait 8 weeks for, instead of having right now.

Like chicken nuggets versus chicken parm, or hamburger vs steak, you get what you pay for. One dish is served quick and fulfills a purpose, but expectations are low; while the other takes time but makes for a more.. memorable experience. Not that my bunk bed is a fine steak, but as with so many things in life, you get more out when you put more in!

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