Buy plywood. Drill 50 holes. Pound in T-nuts. Bolt on holds. Watch your kids crush it. This is how to build a kids’ climbing wall.
Does working from home with your young kids’ “Zoom schooling” have you climbing the walls? Us too. So we decided to roll with it and literally build them a wall to climb on. It’s way easier and cheaper than you might think!
As a long-time climber, I’ve built my fair share of dirtbag training walls. I even built and owned North Dakota’s first commercial climbing wall back in the early 2000s. I know my way around T-nuts, plywood panels, volumes, and DIY texture paint (not worth it!).
And as a new father, I was enjoying taking my kids, 2 and 4, with me to the gym before COVID essentially shut climbing down. So it was obviously time to build a home wall.
According to the climbing wall industry group, hold manufacturers, and online home gym forums, the number of DIY walls has more than doubled in the last year. But walls can run the gamut from very complicated (might wanna get an engineering degree!) to simple.
And I mean ridiculously simple. For approximately $120 and 60 minutes of your time, you can build a kids’ climbing wall at home. A power drill (cordless is fine), an Allen wrench, and a hammer are the only tools you’ll need!
Building a Climbing Wall: Materials
We strongly recommend using gym-style holds (made of some variation of polyester or polyurethane resin). The cheaper “plastic” kids’ holds have a slick feel and will not allow your kids to build any real climbing skills like edging, crimping, etc., as they progress.
We love EPUSA holds because there is a wide variety, and it’s easy to buy various color sets to create routes with. Keep in mind that small to medium-size holds are perfect for kids’ little hands, as long as they are “positive” gripping shapes.
The Entre-Prises (EPUSA) site has a great filter so you can find all the small and medium sets that have positive edges. Our 4-year-old’s current favorite is the “drifters” shape.
You’ll eventually need more T-nuts ($12.24 for 100 here) than you have holds, but you can start with just one per hole. Eventually, even your kids’ wall will end up with two to three times more holes and T-nuts than holds on the wall. This allows you to change the hold placement and keep your little climbers interested.
Four-prong T-nuts are fine for a home wall, but if you wanna splurge (and take a little more time), opt for the screw-in 3-hole T-nut. The standard size is ⅜”-16. You can also pick these up for about $0.45 each at Ace Hardware.
You’ll need one of these bolts (about $14.95 for 25) for each hold to serve as the primary attachment. If you are sourcing these independently, make sure you’re getting a size that’s long enough to go through the hold and screw into the T-nut. The standard size is a ⅜”x16 Allen head bolt. You can find these at Ace Hardware too.
Instead of sourcing climbing holds, T-nuts, and bolts separately, there are several kits on the market that are perfect for building your own kids’ wall. These come complete with holds, T-nuts, bolts, screws, and even the correct size Allen tool for attaching the holds. Here is one I like (from $70) with 24 holds!
At a minimum, look for a 4×8’ sheet with a ½” thickness. Many DIY wall builders might think this is too thin — and we’d agree if we were building a wall for ourselves, as there will be some flex. But for kids, this is less of an issue — especially if you use a 2×4” stud to stiffen each long edge.
We opted for a pre-sanded 5-ply laminate construction that eliminated the need for any sanding time. Prices for construction-grade plywood skyrocketed during the pandemic, so we shopped around for the lower-grade exterior stuff.
We scored adequate sheets in the sub-$40 range from Lowe’s and Home Depot. Prices have become a bit more reasonable in recent weeks.
If you get a thinner plywood sheet, grab two of these to screw into the plywood’s long edges to stiffen the board.
Drill and Bits
Any cordless or corded drill will work for this project (I imagine most have one in the garage or can borrow one from a neighbor). You’ll also need a 7/16” or ½” drill bit designed for wood. The 7/16” is a bit better, but either will work.
Finally, a screwdriver bit for the drill will make it super easy for the optional screws needed for either the deluxe T-nuts, holds, and attaching the 2x4s.
The 60-Minute Process
Attach the 2x4s along the long edges of the plywood on the back (nonclimbing side). This is best done with 2” decking screws from the plywood side.
Drilling the Holes
Use the highest speed possible on the drill, and do your best to drill perpendicular to the plywood. Drill slowly to create a smooth hole, which will make the next step cleaner. It’s better to put in a few too many holes in this step than too few.
A good rule of thumb is to stay at least 6” from the edge, and to drill a hole roughly every 8-10”. Some people like to drill in an offset grid pattern; others prefer to just drill somewhat randomly.
Take a few minutes to clean up any holes that had splintering with some sandpaper.
Placing the T-Nuts
Flip the board over and either screw or pound in the T-nuts to the holes. If you have more holes than T-nuts, keep them spread out evenly so that you don’t end up with an area where holds can’t be attached.
Attaching the Holds
Now comes the fun part. Most holds these days come with the washers preset in the main hole, so all you need to do is use the bolt and screw it in.
A long-handle Allen wrench is nice to get more leverage for tightening. If you used the 4-prong T-nuts, make sure that you tighten quite a bit, as the prongs will bite into the wood as you snug it up.
Most holds also have a small hole that can be used with a small screw to keep the holds from spinning on the wall. I found that these took more time than it was worth for a kids’ wall, but it’s nice to know if you do start to get spinners.
Set the holds with their best side up for kids, as it’s nice to get their confidence up and keep it safe. Once they get the hang of it and are having fun, you can explore the different orientations and grip options for the holds.
To Paint or Not to Paint?
Climbing walls work fine without the paint as long as they are sanded. But if you decide to paint, it has to completely dry and cure before attaching holds. If the paint has not cured, the hold can become almost permanently attached to the plywood, requiring hammers, pry bars, and loads of frustration to remove. And they will almost always pull off chunks of wood with them, creating craters around every T-nut.
I have waited a month in humid summer conditions, and the holds still bonded to the wall at a seemingly molecular level. And removing them took serious work and caused tremendous damage, negating my three coats of paint.
Another solution I discovered after building my fifth wall was to coat the back of the holds with wax. This is an additional time-consuming step, but it has worked 100% of the time to date.
Using chalkboard paint makes it easy (and fun for kids) to mark routes.
Finally: Decide on Wall Placement
You can attach your wall permanently to something, but we suggest leaning it up against a wall, low roof, etc. For younger kids, it is great to be able to create a less steep angle than vertical. This allows even toddlers (our little one was not yet 2 the first time he scaled it unassisted) to climb.
We recommend supervising your kids while they climb until they get older. Once they progress to climbing unsupervised, make sure the wall is firmly secured via screws, hooks, or cam straps to prevent it from possibly tipping over.
Before You Make It, Think About Where You Are Going to Put It
The one we made fits perfectly leaning up against our back deck. The kids can literally climb up to the house when we call them in for dinner. It’s also moveable, which helps us change the grade of the climb simply by making it less steep or steeper.
Set Actual Routes
Just like at the gym, have fun with making color-coded routes for the kids. For our 2-year-old, it doesn’t matter — he reaches for anything he can grab. But our 4-year-old loves a good challenge, and we love seeing him get into only being able to use certain colored holds.
The Entre-Prises (EPUSA) medium hold sets are perfect for this and are reasonably priced. Our kiddos loved it so much we ended up building a second wall, so there are now five possible colored routes.
Make It Fun
Let them lead the way. As parents, we can get way into what we think climbing should look like, which often turns kids off. Sometimes they’ll get scared at the top — let them climb down or pluck them off the wall if needed.
We added a little bell at the top so that they can celebrate by ringing it. Sometimes we hide animal crackers on the upper holds that they can search for.
Additionally, keep your fear to yourself. Kids are often not scared of things until we tell them they should be scared. Sure, it was terrifying for me to actually watch my not-yet-2-year old climb the wall for the first, second, third — well, really every time.
And I was always tempted to tell him to be careful, to pluck him off, or help him when he really started to struggle. And if they do get scared, support them through those feelings … but try not to assume that your fear is their fear.
Our 2-year-old climbs much better without them, but our 4-year-old loves wearing his and has progressed quite far on smaller footholds ever since he got his. I suggest looking at a used gear store or Facebook marketplace for used shoes. Not only is it cheaper, but kids will outgrow them pretty fast. Plus, most kids we’ve met hate breaking in new climbing shoes more than adults!
To Help or Not
We go by “Help with your words, not your hands” as much as possible. Of course, when they are falling, we will catch (or steady) them. With our little guy, we helped a bit more at first.
But it wasn’t long before he was naturally matching feet, smearing, and expertly transitioning his body weight as he made his way up the wall. Now they are both climbing nearly every day and starting to ask when we can all go to the “big gym” together.
So, while I might still be climbing the walls a bit longer as this newest wave of the pandemic washes over us, at least we are doing it as a family now!