Full disclosure: I’m not a great climber. I love it, and I do it as often as I can, but I’m not particularly adept at it. Still, I miss top-roping with my kids, bouldering at the local crag and hitting the climbing gym after work—activities I once took for granted. I’m pining over them like a heartbroken teenager after his first breakup. So, I did the best thing I could think of in our current stay-at-home situation: I built a climbing wall in my backyard.
One more disclosure: I’m not a great carpenter. But if our current predicament has proven anything, it’s that there’s no better time for picking up a new hobby. And I’m not going to bake sourdough and I’ve always wanted my own home project wall, so here we are.
I leaned on some incredibly detailed online resources that lay out the basic principles of building a home climbing wall for a power-tool Luddite like me. Metolius has a step-by-step guide for building a fairly complex wall with different angles that served as a reference point when I was researching different ideas and creating a materials list. Instagram and YouTube have no shortage of DIY climbing wall inspiration, as well.
Ultimately, I planned a simple “woody,” which is what climbers call their home walls because they’re made from plywood and often have homemade wooden holds. My design used an old swing set as the base structure, so I wouldn’t need to build any sort of supporting frame for the wall. This proved to be much easier than constructing a freestanding wall from scratch (and also kept the cost down).
The wall you build doesn’t have to be a complex project that takes up your entire basement; it just needs to be climbable and fun. Here’s how I built my own climbing wall for bouldering, including the materials I used and the mistakes I made along the way.
This is not an exhaustive how-to article; rather it outlines the author’s experience making his own at-home climbing wall. Before attempting something similar, make sure you evaluate your location carefully for strength and use a stud finder. Exercise caution and common sense when working with power tools and saws and be sure to wear appropriate eye and ear protection when necessary.
Remember: Safety while climbing is your responsibility. No article or video can replace proper climbing instruction and experience. Make sure you practice appropriate technique and safety before you climb.
For an 8-foot-by-8-foot wall
- 10 2″x 4″ lumber 8 ft. long
- 2 4′ x 8′ sheets of ¾” exterior plywood
- 6 metal “L” brackets
- 1 box of 3.5″ deck screws
- 1 box of 16D framing nails
- 100 T-nuts (3/8″ with 16 threads and 4 prongs)
- 30 (typically 1 box) socket-head bolts (2″ to 3″, depending on size of holds)
- Half-gallon can of non-glossy/textured paint or stain (exterior grade if your wall is outside)
- Climbing holds (see below)
- Roller brush
- Drill with multiple bits
- Table saw (optional, you could do all the cuts with a handsaw)
- Allen wrench
1. Design the wall
The kind of wall you build largely depends on the space you have available. Vertical walls are typically the easiest to build from an engineering standpoint, but overhanging walls offer an additional challenge for stronger climbers.
I made a slightly overhanging wall by necessity: My base is an A-frame swing set structure that’s roughly 8 feet tall by 8 feet wide before narrowing to a point at the top. (It was built with 6-inch-by-6-inch beams.) I found that adding a bit of an overhanging angle can help make the most of a small wall—the problems seem longer and harder when you’re climbing uphill.
2. Build a frame
Because I used the A-frame swing set to start, I had to build a frame using 2-by-4-inch lumber. The 2-by-4 frame attaches to the back “arms” of the swing set giving me a flat surface to screw the plywood into. I started by laying two 8-foot-long 2-by-4s on the ground, so they made a right angle.
To join the ends of the 2-by-4s, I used two 16D nails, then set out two more 2-by-4s to form an 8-by-8-foot square, joining all the corners with 16D framing nails. I interspersed five 8-foot-long 2-by-4s vertically inside that box, so they were 16 inches apart and attached at the top and bottom with 16D nails. The final step had me cutting the remaining 2-by-4 into six smaller pieces (roughly 16 inches long), which I placed horizontally between each vertical piece of lumber to add lateral support and rigidity to the frame, and then attached each piece with two nails in each end.
3. Attach the frame to the structure
I used six metal “L” brackets to attach the 2-by-4 frame to the back of the swing set pillars, making sure the corners were attached, as well as the sides of the frame. Having at least two people for this was key, as one person will need to hold the frame in place while the other installs the hardware.
Mistake I made: I assumed the swing set would be “square,” or evenly sized on all sides. It was not. The swing set is structurally sound, but at least 10 years old and crooked. Anchoring an 8-by-8-foot square wall to a frame that is warped was not easy. If you’re using an existing structure, like the corner of an unfinished basement, measure carefully before making any cuts.
4. Paint the plywood
The plywood will form the “face” of your wall. It will be the climbable surface where you’ll attach the holds. (Mine is on the inside of the swing set, like a cave.) I used two sheets of 4-by-8-foot plywood, which gave me an 8-by-8-foot climbing surface.
You have options for how you want to paint the plywood, and some climbers choose to leave the surface unpainted or unstained. If you’re putting up the wall outside, consider adding a stain to protect it from the weather. You can also apply paint with texture to simulate the feel of real rock.
Mistake I made: I started with a clear coat stain, which turned the plywood glossy and slick; not ideal for climbing. So, I had to sand it off and repaint it with a textured exterior floor paint. It added time and money to the process, but I’m happier with the end result. I used a paint roller and it helped expedite the process.
5. Drill holes in the plywood
After the stain dries, place the plywood on a pair of sawhorses or similar and drill a grid of holes. I used a 7/16-inch drill bit and spaced the holes 8 inches apart, beginning 4 inches from the edge of the plywood. You’ll eventually place the T-nuts and holds in some of these holes, so the pattern you drill will determine the variety of routes you can set in the future. Some climbers go with a random pattern to save time, but most climbing gyms opt for a grid because it will give you more hold placement options in the future.
6. Set the T-nuts
T-nuts have a threaded socket that fits through the drilled holes, and the ones I used had four prongs that set into the back of the plywood. The nuts are where you’ll screw the bolts into when you’re setting your holds. I placed the plywood on the ground face down and hammered the T-nuts into the back side of the plywood until the prongs were set inside the wood.
7. Attach the plywood to the frame
Plywood is heavy, so my wife helped me carry the sheets from the sawhorses to the swing set, and then my wife and son held the plywood in place while I got the first few screws attached. Starting with the bottom panel I anchored the plywood into the 2-by-4 frame with 3.5-inch screws, making sure all corners and the centers of the boards were attached firmly. This is definitely a two-person (or more) job.
Mistake I made: Again, I was using square plywood for a not-square space, so I had to do some trimming and patching to give myself a solid surface to climb.
8. Set the holds
Using an Allen wrench and socket-head bolts, I attached the holds to the wall by driving the bolts through the center of the hold and into the T-nuts. I made sure to match the length of the bolt with the thickness of the hold. (Most holds will require a 2- to 3-inch bolt.) It’s up to you how many holds you use. I started with a random pattern of holds and I’m still refining the routes. The beauty of the T-nut and bolt system is that you can change the routes to mix up your training.
Mistake I made: I ordered 3.5-inch bolts, which were too long and punched through the back of the plywood, dislodging the t-nuts from the back of the wall. Be sure to match the length of the bolt to the thickness of your hold so it’s long enough to thread completely through the T-nut, but not too long that it loosens it.
A note on climbing holds
Holds aren’t cheap, but they can make or break your wall. Consider investing in a variety of holds, from foot chips to huge jugs. Metolius makes a great Mega Hold Set that has 50 different holds, including a few mega roof holds that will give you everything you need for a small wall. It also includes some screw-on holds, which attach using 3-inch screws, and are great for foot holds and corners. And the kit comes with all the hardware you’ll need, which can save a lot of legwork and headaches.
9. Climb on
It’s up to you how difficult you make the climbing on your wall. Inverted walls will be harder by nature and require bigger holds for beginners. My advice is to start easy, placing a lot of large holds throughout the wall, so you can get a sense for the kinds of problems you’d like to have. Focus on fun climbing moves instead of impossible problems. Even the smallest wall can be a place you can practice key skills like lay-back moves and dynos. My kids are using the wall as well, so I’m trying to create a variety of route options. I’m also planning to expand the wall by adding plywood and holds to the backside of the 2×4 frame, so the kids can have a sloping slab to climb as well.
Regardless of the routes you set, you’ll need a few basic pieces of gear to start climbing:
Climbing shoes: Black Diamond’s Momentum is one of the most comfortable and beginner-friendly shoes on the market. I own a pair and they’re perfect for gym climbing and my new home wall. My kids have grown through a series of climbing shoes over the years, starting with the LaSportiva StickIt, which is comfy and has a cool expansion system that let the shoes “grow” an extra size.
Chalk bag: Chalk is key for maintaining friction and boosting confidence. You can go with a single bag, or buy a big chalk bucket, like this stylish option from STATIC.
Crash pad: This is essential, even if you have a low wall. Metolius’ Recon pad has more than 5 feet of space, which means you could potentially set it down and not worry about moving it if you’re climbing on a small wall.