How to Make a Brachiation Ladder
by Michael Spackman
We wanted to make a brachiation ladder for our children, but when I saw the instructions of how to make one in Glenn Doman’s book, I thought — I can improve on that design to fit our needs better. I did learn some things that I would have done a little differently on my ladder now that I have it, but overall I like the portability and cost of the one we did.
I have tried to take a lot of the guess work out of the process for you, but if you don’t want to make a brachiation ladder because the project seems daunting, but you really want a ladder, I found a link to a carpenter who will make a brachiation ladder for you. You can also look into hiring a local carpenter if you give them the plans.
I wanted my ladder to be smaller than 10 ft long and 8 ft high — where would we put it if it were that big? So we made it 6 ft tall and 6 ft long with a base of 4 ft. I also wanted to make it portable, aka, easy to take apart. We sacrificed a little bit of sturdiness for the portability, but it was a decent compromise.
NOTE: I made ours just less than 6 feet long — 69 inches. If we would have made it a foot longer it could have fit over a twin size bed length wise which might be nice for some of you.
We spent about $100 to make two ladders, one for me and one for a friend that was letting me use his garage and tools, so close to $50 a piece.
To make a brachiation ladder we needed:
Lumber – we bought framing pine wood. It’s cheap, prolific (you can be choosy because there is so much), and easy to work with. We were pretty particular to pick out strait boards without big knots or blemishes.
NOTE: a 2×4 is measured before it gets sanded, so a 2×4 is really 1.75 x 3.75 inches. Don’t let that throw your math off.
- 1 – 8 ft 2×6
- 7 – 7 ft 2×4(you may need one or two more 2×4 boards if you want to make it taller or longer. I used the extra from the end of the ladder and frame to make the support braces plus a little scrap wood we had.)
- 7 – 3 ft long 3/4 inch oak dowels
- 2 – 4 inch bolts with nuts and 2 washers each (needs to go through two 2x4s and have room for the nut and washers)
- 4 – 2 inch washers with small center whole
- 2 – 4 inch small diameter bolt and wing nut (needs to go through two 2x4s and have room for the nut and washers)
- Box of 3 inch long wood screws
- Wood glue
- Sand paper
- Power drill / screw driver
- Miter or chop saw
- Drill press
- Drill bits same size as screws for pilot holes and 3/4 inch for dowels
- Tape measure
- Power sander
- Quick Square for measurements
Making the Ladder
Before I get into the steps, I have to say that you can make a brachiation ladder all by hand, but that it will not turn out as nicely. Having the proper tools to cut and drill the wood is paramount to having a solid ladder. We did not have a drill press and drilled the holes by hand held drill. Some of the holes do not go in exactly strait and we had to sand them lots bigger so the dowels would go though the frame, then the ladder, then back through the frame. If you can, save yourself the trouble and use a drill press.
Step 1 – cut the boards. You will need:
4 boards, 72 inches long for frame sides
Adjust these to the height you want the frame to be. We made a brachiation ladder frame set at 5 feet tall and the other one at 6 ft. We liked the 6 footer a lot more as far as height, but you decide. 2 boards, 69 inches long for ladder sides
Cut two lengths of board the length of ladder you want. This is important to get right so that you have even spacing of rungs along your ladder – you want the spacing of your ladder rungs times the number of rungs + 1 1/2 inches on each end. So we wanted 12 rungs (we’re counting spacing between rungs so 11 spaces between rungs) – that’s 11 x 6 + (1.5 x 2) = 69 inches long. That’s pretty close to 6 feet. If you were doing rungs 8 inches apart you would probably do 10 rungs for (10 x 8 + (1.5 x 2) ) = 83 inches long — one inch shy of 7 feet.
2 (2×6) boards for frame base
Cut the 8ft long 2×6 in half for the base bottoms.
2 boards 22 1/2 inches long for top of frame
If you can use the scraps from the other 2×4’s for this, great.
2 boards 20 inches long for the ladder angle braces
2 boards 18 inches long for the ladder angle braces
Cut these from scraps you have. You need to have these overlap to a length of about 31 inches. The measurement is not exact as you adjust the length as you put it together. The 20 inch long one does not need to be a 2×4, it could be a 1×4. I cut an inch off the corners on these boards to make them semi rounded so that I didn’t have corners poking past the frame or ladder.
6 boards 12 inches long on the longest side for frame base and top support angles
These need to be 45 degree angles on both ends and you will get more out of your board if you cut them at the angle already, then flip it over and cut the next one. Two of these can be from a 1×2 or other scrap wood.
10 dowels at 18 inches long
2 dowels at 26 inches long
2 dowel pegs at a tiny bit less than 3 1/2 inches
To get the 10 dowels in the middle, you cut 5 in half. Measure each piece though because the dowels are not all exactly even and it’s important that they are exact for your ladder. The peg pieces come from the ends of the 26 inch long pieces.
TIP: we set up a fence to bump the dowels against so that we had the exact measurement for each board and didn’t have to measure each time.
Step 2- Construction
Mark the frame side for drilling and drill 3/4 inch holes. Start 2 inches from the top end and mark a line every 6 inches. If you want something different than 6 inches, make sure they are evenly spaced out as you need the ladder and the supports to move the same amount up or down when you adjust the height. Mark and drill 3/4 inch holes on the ladder. Measure and mark 1 1/2 inches from the end, then every 6 inches (unless you are doing 8). You do this the entire length of the board. If we did our math and measuring right, you should have 1 1/2 inch left when you’re done. When you drill the ladder – only go half way in – no more than one inch deep. This will make the dowels go into the side, but not all the way through. Drill the first and last hole all the way through as you want the dowel to go all the way through and into the frame.
Drill a small pilot hole all the way through the holes with a drill bit the same size as your screws.
TIP: we used a speed square – it has an edges that rides down the side of the board and makes measuring the drill hole in the center of the board very easy.TIP: stop drilling just before you get through the other side, flip the board over and start drilling from the small pilot-hole bigger bits leave; this will prevent the wood from chipping as the bit comes out the other side. This can also be achieved if you drill with your work clamped to a scrap piece of wood.
Now we make a ladder
Place the ladder sides next to each other and lay out the 10 dowels that go in the center. Put glue in the holes and spread it around. Put the dowels into one side of the board poking up, and then put the other side on top of them. It might help to wiggle one dowel at a time back out a bit so that it connects inside the hole of both sides. Use a hammer to tap the two sides together firmly seating all 10 dowels into both boards.
Pilot drill a hole from the side of the ladder into each dowel. This is CRITICAL as you will split the dowels if you do not. Seal the deal by putting a screw into each dowel.
Wipe up any glue that came out. Wood glue is water soluble till it dries.
We use glue so the dowels don’t spin when they are put together, but the screws really hold the ladder together.
Build the frames (do this twice)
NOTE: I measured my ladder width once it was put together so that I would get this part right. Mine was 1/8 inch narrower than 19 1/2 inches so that’s how wide I made my frame. You might need to make it slightly narrower or wider. Err on the side of being slightly wider.
On the 2×6, mark two lines for the sides of the frames 19 1/2 inches apart (9 3/4 inches from center on both sides). We marked another line 22 1/2 inches apart so we could see where the frame sides would sit to drill holes etc.
Drill two pilot holes in the 2×6 base and then attach the sides of the frame with two screws through the bottom of the base.
Drill two pilot holes in the 22 1/2 inch top boards Measure the top part of the frame to be 19 1/2 inches on the inside and attach the across the top.
Now that you have the square frame put together, it will be wobbly without the support angles in place. You need to square the frame up just like you would a door frame. To do so, lay down the frame. Tweak it till the opposite corners measure the same i.e. measure from the top right corner to the bottom left corner and top left to bottom right (forms an X). Once it’s trued, attach the top angle support using screws. This should make it stay put long enough to add the two supports at the bottom.
Creating your support pegs
Drill a hole through the center of the 3 inch dowel pegs. Run the 4 inch small bolt through a washer, and then through the hole in the dowel. When you use these, you will add the washer and wing nut to the other side.
Putting it all together
Once the glue in the ladder has had a chance to set, we want to add the ladder stabilizer supports (we did put screws in it so you don’t have to wait days for it to dry before you do this step). Drill a hole for your bolt between rungs 4 and 5 – should be about 22 inches from the end of the ladder. Drill another hole into the 18 inch board near the end of the board. Fasten the 18 inch board to the ladder with the bolt using a washer in between and on the side with the nut. Do this on the same side of the ladder board but between rungs 8 and 9.
Drill a 3/4 inch hole into the two remaining 20 inch boards near one of the ends.
Now the balancing act…
This part requires at least two people as the ladder will be very unstable while you do this. It might help to push one of the frames up against a wall.
Put the ladder into the frame towards the top by sliding the 26 inch dowel through a hole in the frame, then the ladder, and then through the frame again. If you cannot slide it through the holes — it means they are not aligned and you will have to sand the holes a little bigger in the frame and / or ladder so that the dowel fits through them all. Attach the other side of the ladder so it is in the other frame. Just let the 18 inch boards hang loosely for now.
Attach the 20 inch boards to the frame using the dowel pegs skipping two holes or about 18 inches from where the ladder is connected.
The goal will be to square the ladder to the frames, and then tack the two boards together (the 18 inch and the 20 inch). You should have about 8 inches overlap to connect the boards.
To square it up, you can use a large carpenter’s square, or you can make the frame level vertically and then the ladder level horizontally, but that might be really hard. It doesn’t have to be perfect, just close. Once you have the frame and ladder how you want them, Hold the 18 inch board up underneath the 20 inch board and mark where they meet. Once you have it marked fasten the two boards together using nails or screws. (We used an air compressor and finishing nails to tack them together, but that was because it was just handy.)
When one side is done, move to the other side.
NOTE: if the ladder will not fit inside the frame at all because there is not enough space – then you might be able to squeak some room in by taking off the top piece of the frame and widening the frame at the top, then re-attaching the top.TIP: we used a Dremel tool to sand the holes bigger. As we drilled the holes by hand – they were terribly skewed and we had to sand a lot.
Wow! Now you have made a brachiation ladder. It’s portable, adjustable, and yours.
Some final thoughts:
- We sanded and painted the boards before we glued the dowels in. This made it easy to work on and not get paint on the dowels. I suggest you do some finish work on it before you get it all put together.
- This design allows for some wiggle, but it is strong enough. In the next video, I hang from it and shake it hard. I weigh 165 lbs and can shake pretty hard. My little 2 year old would have a hard time making it move but just a tiny bit.
- 3/4 inch dowels won’t hold more than a 6 year old and so the brachiation ladder doesn’t need to be bigger than what a 6 year old could reach. We figure by the time our kids need something bigger and more solid, we will make a new one with 1 inch dowels.
- The spacing between the bars of 6 inches is dangerous. Our boy can fit his body between the bars but not his head. That means that if we let him play on top and he were to fall through the bars, he could be seriously hurt. Just be careful and watchful. He is drawn to climb to and play on top. I haven’t figured out If netting or some sort of board across the top would prevent that or not or how to set it up so that it would protect him. Any suggestions?
(4 – 2×4) height 72″ — ends up being 75 after you add the top and bottom boards (2 – 2×6) base width 48″ (2 – 2×4) top width 22.5″ inside frame width 19.5″ ladder width 19.4″ (5 – 3/4″ oak dowel cut in half) rung width 18″ (2 – 3/4″ oak dowel) end rungs to hold ladder 26″ (2 – 3/4″ oak dowel) 3″ piece to hold support, get from scrap of other dowels (2 – 2×4) ladder length 69″ (12 rungs 6″ apart = 66″ + 1.5″ at each end) (2 – 2×4) support beam length 31″ other scraps to build the support triangles screws (2) 4″ lag bolts with nuts and washers to hold supports to ladder (2) 4″ bolts with washers and wingnuts