In Search of a Better Bunk Bed

Fancy Doesn't Mean Complicated

Nice Flourishes

If you’re really on a tight budget, you can do everything out of 2-by framing lumber. But it’s amazing how much nicer it will look, feel, and wear if you spend just a little more time. We use 2 by 3s to make the bed frame, covered with the 37 inches-by-96 inches piece of OSB, glued and screwed down–one for the upper bunk and one for the lower. Why 2 by 3 instead of 2 by 4? It gives one inch more seated headroom to both upper and lower beds, and for the ladder, it just looks more like furniture than a 2 by 4 would. Here’s a nice detail: surround the frame with a piece of 5/4 inch-by-6 inches trim glued and screwed to the face of the 2 by 3. This creates a “boat” that holds the mattress nicely in place and gives a rounded, finished edge to the wood that’s easier on the hands and looks more like real furniture. My first choice is to do it out of oak, but we’ve done well with Southern Yellow pine, too. I’d avoid pine or fir or cedar, as they’re too soft and wear too quickly.

Don’t Forget The Ladder

We make the ladders ahead of time in the shop: one side is the 2 by 3 that runs long to the roof (or through the ceiling) to be bolted to a rafter or jack-bolted across two rafters; the other side of the ladder sticks up high enough to catch the end of the guardrail. The rungs can be either 2 by 3s laid flat like a ship’s ladder between the uprights in a slight dado (notch), or my favorite for looks and ease, 1 ½-inch closet rod glued-in holes drilled two-thirdss of the way through. It feels solid in a camper’s hand and round under foot.

The bed “boats” are lag-screwed directly to the walls while being temporarily braced on the outside by “story-poles” (2 by 4s with cleats at the right heights to hold the “boats” up with jiffy-clamps). The ladder then looks for a ceiling or roof joist to be carriage-bolted to when it’s cut to length. Then it’s bolted to each of the bed frames. Counter-sink the nuts on the inside so the mattress doesn’t get ripped. Some people place the lower bunk so the top of the mattress is 18 inches off the floor; it’s more comfortable to sit on. I suggest a little higher so standard Rubbermaid footlockers will slide underneath. The “headroom” distance between the top of the lower bed frame and the bottom of the upper bed frame is typically 35 inches in store-bought beds. Adjust that depending on how much headroom you have for the guy/gal in the upper bunk.

Don't Forget The Guard Rails

The Guard Rail

The final step is to add a guardrail from the short ladder upright to the wall (or end of the bunk). The important dimension here is the distance between the top edge of the bed frame (5/4 inch by 6 inches if you used my surfacing suggestion) and the bottom of the identical 5/4-inch-by-6 inches guardrail. By code it can’t be more than 4 inches. That’s so a young child’s head can’t fit through the gap. The top of the guardrail must be at least 5 inches above the top of the mattress when installed. You can check your dimensions against the federal standards at

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