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Tutorial: How I Built My Woody – DIY Outdoor Rock Climbing Wall

With ice climbing season fast approaching here in the North East I’ve been focusing on training to get my strength where it needs to be. I haven’t climbed as much rock as I hoped this summer mainly due to focusing on trail running goals and a busy family / work schedule. It’s been hard to find time to get to the rock gym as well. The gym also doesn’t allow me to use my ice tools on their holds (for good reason!). I’ve been telling my wife for months that I wanted to build a climbing wall to train on in the back yard. It would also double as a fun outdoor activity for my two boys and I to bond over!


Goal

The initial plan was to build something simple and inexpensive (Under $400) that both my kids, and I could enjoy. I wanted something that would offer a higher level of difficulty for me, but also be easy enough for my boys (4 and 1) to play on safely. I also wanted it to be somewhat attractive looking so it wouldn’t be a huge eyesore in the back yard.



Design

3D Design of the Climbing Wall created in SolidWorks

The core intention for my design was to reduce the amount of wood I’d have to cut in order to speed up the assembly process. Utilizing full length pieces rather than lots of cut pieces. I’d be building this thing completely alone so minimizing “two man lifts” was important. I am fortunate enough to work in the Mechanical Design Engineering industry and have access to tools that greatly helped me come up with a concept. I decided that I’d create a wall that was around 12 feet tall, and 8 feet wide. The main reason for this was because standard plywood comes in 4’x8′ sheets and I planned to split these lengthwise in order to make them a more manageable weight. I was going to build it a bit taller than I needed because I wanted the extra reach for ice tools. The wall would have a 20 degree overhang to add difficulty, while still being modest enough for my kids to climb on.


Tools You’ll Need


Bill of Materials

Layout – Bubble Numbers are referencing Bill of Material Items


Step 1 – Dig the Footings and Pour Cement

Plan view of the footings spacing.

An arduous task! Since I wanted my wall to be approximately 12′ tall, I purchased 16′ 4×4 posts to support the top of the structure. I’d bury these 16 foot posts 4 feet in the ground. The rear 8′ posts would also be buried 4′ in the ground in the same way.

Posts loosely set in their pits.

After digging the holes and locating the posts in the pits I nailed the posts together using scrap 2×4 wood. This created a temporary frame so that I could plumb and level each post individually. Once all of the posts were standing straight and pretty, I filled each pit with cement. I used “Quikrete Fast Setting Concrete” that came in 50 pound bags. The nice thing about this “Fast Set” concrete is that you can dump it in the hole dry, then add water. Much cleaner than the messy process of pre-mixing! I assumed 4 bags per post would be sufficient by using Quikcrete’s online calculator.  This may seem like overkill but I wanted to add some structural integrity to the wall. We can get some severe winds, and huge snowfalls during a storm and I wanted to be sure this sucker wouldn’t blow over or get crushed!

Posts squared up and set in concrete with temporary bracing

By the time I had finished pouring the concrete it was getting dark out. I decided to let the concrete dry overnight and pick up where I left off the next day.



Step 2 – Plywood Paint

Plywood panels ready to go!

The next morning I got an early start and switched gears to start working on the plywood panels since it would need paint and time to dry. I checked the weather since I’d be doing all of this painting outside, I didn’t want to get rained on! I was painting the plywood for two reasons. To preserve the wood from rot, and to make it more eye pleasing. I used Rustoleum “Painters Touch” paint. I’ve had good luck with this product in the past on things like cornhole sets and tables. It’s cheap, comes in small cans and durable.

I laid out all 6 pre-cut panels of plywood on my lawn side-by-side. I went over each panel with sand paper and a putty knife to remove any sharp splinters that might cut a climbers hand. My 4 year old son Cash helped with this process and painted the edges of each panel with a small paintbrush while I rolled the larger surfaces. In order to speed things up I decided we’d only do one coat of paint.

We let the paint dry for about 2 hours before moving on to the next step.


Step 3 – Plywood T-Nut Placement

I decided to use “Bolt On” holds which rely on a single heavy duty 3/8″ bolt to secure them to the wall. This is nice because I can remove/add and relocate holds on the fly to create various routes and tweak stuff easily. The bolt on holds require a “T-Nut” which is a small barbed nut that bites into the back side of the wood. These T-Nut’s are installed on the ground before hanging up the plywood panels.

I decided to go with an 8″ spaced grid working from centerline out. This is a standard I stole from the “Moon Board” design and it seemed to make sense. By doing 8″ even spacing grid I’d end up with 33 T-Nuts on each sheet of plywood for a total of 198 possible hold locations (33 x 6 = 198).

I laid out all of the plywood panels and began to measure and mark each hole location with a pencil. After I completed marking 1 panel I began drilling. I use a 7/16″ drill bit in order to bore the holes large enough for the T-Nut to fit tightly into. After drilling one panel, I simply laid it on top of the next panel to use it as a template for the next panel.

Drilling 7/16″ holes for T-Nuts

Once all the holes were drilled and cleaned I began the T-Nut installation. There’s two ways to install a T-Nut: You can tap them in with a hammer gently, or you can use a 3/8″ bolt from the opposite side to pull them in (recommended). I opted to tap mine in with a hammer because it was much quicker.

T-Nuts Installed

Once all of the T-Nuts were installed I set completed the panels aside to move on to the next step.


Step 3 – Framing

Profile Dimensions of the overhang and height.

Spacing of the Vertical Members

With the panels complete I removed the temporary wood from setting up the concrete in Step 1. Then I started adding the horizontal members to the rear shorter posts. One 2×4 at the bottom to tie them together and create a surface to mount the “kick panel” to. and a 4×4 above that. I loosely attached the 4×4 between the posts and tweaked the angle, this would determine the overhanging angle of the upper wall. I set a temporary vertical 2×4 to simulate the wall angle and adjusted until I was happy with it.

Setting the angle of the wall with a temporary tie at the top.

After setting the lower members I got on a ladder and attached a temporary piece of lumber across the front of the two taller post. This way I’d be able to lay in my (5) vertical wall supports. I set each vertical support about 23-1/2″ apart

Vertical members installed, almost ready for plywood!

After all of the structural members were screwed in place with decking screws. I used the 4 lag bolts, and two 3/8-16 bolts to secure the 4×4 vertical posts to the walls outer frame. I pre-drilled all of the holes with pilots in order not to split the wood. This heavy duty hardware serves as protection from high winds, heavy snow-loads, and heavier climbers.


Step 4 – Plywood Panel Installation

Home stretch! Time to hang up the plywood panels. Sounds easy right? Well, it’s easy to forget that each of these panels weighs about 40 pounds and really awkward to hold by yourself… Particularly on a ladder! I started with the kick panel first working my way from bottom to top. I used about 15 screws per sheet of plywood to secure it to the wall members behind it. Making sure that all T-Nut holes were unobstructed by the supporting structure.

Lower kick panel in place

I worked my way up, panel after panel. After about the 3rd panel I decided to attach the plywood sheets to a rope draped over the top of the structure to assist in getting them in the right spot. This helped a lot! Particularly for the very top panel. That top panel was tricky!

Installing the last panel using a rope for assistance.  This was no easy task for one person.

Step 5 – Installing Holds, Setting Routes!

Now the fun part, Route setting! My son was so excited to get the first holds on the wall. I hung some lower juggy holds for him to play on while we worked on setting the higher routes.

Cash testing out the new holds

I was on a budget and decided to go with cheap holds. I wanted to save a few bucks, and I didn’t want to destroy nice expensive holds with my ice tools. I purchased a set of 50 from Rocky Mountain Climbing Gear. Rock Mountain was great to work with! I spoke with them via email and explained what I was looking for. They put together a “starter kit” that featured some big jugs, foot jibs, pinches, and mini-jugs that were all bolt on! I’m really happy with these holds, they’re a great value. I may buy some other holds in the future for a little diversity but for now these are great.

Assorted holds from Rocky Mountain Climbing Gear



Extra Credit

I added a couple of other things that may not be totally necessary depending on where you live.

Tarp Roof: I wanted to protect the back side of the wall from rain and snow. I was afraid that snow may build up and cause the wood joints to separate when it freezes. To do this, I bought a “heavy duty” 8×10 tarp from the local hardware store. I simply tacked this to the wood using hammer-in staples.

Tarp Roof – Better than nothing!

Solar Lights: I also liked the idea of climbing at night on occasion. We had no electrical drops near the wall so I purchased some cheap Solar Spot Lights from Amazon. These are awesome! And they were around $20.

Solar Powered lights for Night Climbing!


Now Get Climbing!

All in all the wall cost me under $400 and took two days to construct. It was totally worth it!

Cash working hard on his project!

So far we love having this wall! It’s great to be able to get a quick workout in before and after work. It’s also great for friends and family gatherings to have something fun to do with the kids. Having a crash pad and teaching the kids how to properly use it has been a good learning experience for them. In the future I plan to rig up an anchor at the top of the wall so I can teach the boys about belaying and using harnesses.

Working with the Ice Tools.


Show us Your Home Built Wall!

Have you built a wall of your own? I’d love to see it! Post a link in the comments or shoot me an email from the contact page!


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