Do-It-Yourself Projects: How to Build a Homemade Ladder

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The first ladder, complete and ready to use.
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Making final rough cut.
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Making rabbet cuts with a chisel and hand saw.
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Making final rabbet cuts with a chisel and hand saw.
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Drilling holes for the leveler sections.
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Installing levelers with bolts and wing nuts.
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Step inserted into the rabbet cut.
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Joining the two ladder halves with a 1 inch thick, 15 inch by 7 inch board.
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The levelers in action.

Do-it-yourself projects are made easy with detailed instructions on how to build a homemade ladder.

Do-It-Yourself Projects

I don’t know how it is in the rest of the country, but in our part of North Carolina the only thing flat I can find is my bank account. Wherever I need to work outside and whenever I need to do any work at an altitude, I spend as much time trying to find a safe way to set up a ladder as I spend in actual work.

What I needed, I reasoned, was a “universal” ladder, one that would permit me to work on hillsides, on uneven terrain, and from both sides of the ladder. In fact, it was the latter ladder consideration that perhaps challenged me most.

When using the traditional ladder, you climb one side and you work from that one side. If you need someone to help you, the second person must set up his own ladder or balance on whatever props he can set up. Or if you need to change sides of the ladder, you must climb down, turn the ladder, and try to set it up so that you can reach both work areas.

Tired of the frustrations, I created the Universal Ladder, or the Uni-Ladder. This piece of equipment is so constructed that two people can work on the ladder at the same time–one on each side. Or if you need to work separately, you can simply take the stepladder apart and you have two straight ladders that can be leaned against a wall or tree trunk or whatever other surface you need to scale.

Perhaps best of all, if one side of the ladder must stand in a small ditch or depression, you can simply lengthen one leg, or two, three, or even all four legs. And if you need to climb a little higher, you can even make an extension ladder out of the Uni-Ladder.

My son Robert III and I designed the econo-ladder, and started with a fairly large pine tree that went down during an ice storm earlier in the year. We needed a seven-foot ladder, so we cut two seven-foot sections from the pine tree. Then we struck a chalk line down the center of each log and with a chain saw we ripped the log into two lengths, and from each length we chalked off the edges and cut them away and then trimmed the back side, so that each section of the pine tree provided two two-by-four timbers seven feet long.

It is possible to cut very smooth and straight lumber with a chain saw, and you don’t need any of the chain saw lumber mills or special attachments. The attachments don’t hurt anything, but they don’t help a great deal either. It’s sort of like buying grandma an athletic supporter: it won’t do any harm, but there’s no real point in buying one.

When we completed our two-by-fours, we put them through a small portable planer and cut them down to 1.5 inches thick by a full four inches wide. Then we stood the four timbers against a wall so that they leaned at what we considered the perfect angle for a ladder. If you want to try it this way, lay a level against the bottom of each timber and mark across the timber. Cut here and you will have the proper slant for the bottom of each leg.

Treads or steps work well if they are one foot apart. The easy way to get your rabbet cuts accurate is to measure up one foot from the outside or long point of the leg and mark the point. Then measure up one foot from the short side and mark that point as well. Then connect the marks by using a straight edge. Mark the rest of the timbers in the same way. Be sure to mark on what will be the inside edge of each timber.

If you want to use rabbet cuts, determine first the thickness of the treads or steps and mark a line accordingly below the first line. For instance, if you want to use treads that are one inch thick, lay off a line one inch below the first line and parallel to it. Follow this procedure for all four legs of the UniLadder.

Now make the rabbet cut. If you have a router, this is a good place to use it. You can also set your table saw blade low enough that you will cut a quarter-inch rabbet into the side of the timber. Having neither table saw nor router, you can use a hand saw to cut along both lines a quarter inch deep and then use a hammer and chisel to clean out the wood between the lines. You can also use an ordinary circular saw, but you must maintain a very shallow cut or you will weaken the timbers.

Believe it or not, it is very easy to make a rabbet cut with a chain saw. Use only the tip of the bar and barely let it touch the wood. With a little practice (or a scrap length of wood) you will be making nearly perfect cuts in no time.

When all four legs are ready, you need to cut your treads or steps. While we used pine for the legs (for several reasons: the storm had already uprooted the tree, pine is very easy to cut with a chain saw, dries quickly, is very light so that the ladder is easily carried and set up, and we simply like pine), we did not want to use it for steps. It is not strong enough and it weathers badly.

We used oak. The same storm that felled the pines also dropped some huge oaks, and we cut boards 1.25 inches thick and 15 feet long and 4 inches wide. We planed the boards down to one inch in thickness. A one-inch oak board will support a great deal of weight, and oak does not become brittle when fully cured.

To give added stability to your ladder, you may want to use the plan we followed. The lowest step was 18.5 inches long, the next was 17.5, the following was 16.5, and so on, with each rung or step being one inch shorter than the previous. The result was that the top of the ladder was seven inches narrower than the bottom.

We think it is a good idea to install the bottom step first and then add the top one. Then all other steps are cut to exact length so that they will fit snugly into the rabbet cuts you made earlier. For the first step, fit the board into the rabbet cut and then drill a small hole (one-sixteenth of an inch works well) as a pilot hole through the outside of the leg and into the end of the step. Then use a two-inch screw to secure the step in position. When the ladder is in use, the weight of the person on the ladder is supported by the rabbet cut, and the screws simply keep the step from slipping or falling out.

At the top, let the board (which is not a step, actually) reach the outside edges of the legs. Drill pilot holes through the board and drive screws down into the ends of the legs. Now return to the other step locations and install the steps as you did the first one.

If you want greater assurance, you can add strength to the ladder by cutting triangular pieces of two-by-four and installing a triangle in both corners under each step. A third method is to cut short lengths of one-inch boards and install these between steps and fasten them with screws or nails to the inside edge of the legs. Be sure the pieces of wood fit snugly.

When the first half of the ladder is completed, build the second one just as you did the first. When the second is completed you can lay the two sections of the ladder on a fairly level surface so that the tops meet and the bottoms are at desirable angles. You can attach the two ladders at the top by using a wide board (I suggest a one-inch board or even a thicker one that is at least 15 inches long and 7.5 or 8 inches wide).

Drill two holes through the wide board and through the top of one of the boards at the top of the ladders. Drill two more near the bottom. Then drill four more holes in the other top board in the same locations. Now insert four-inch-long quarter-inch bolts and use washer and wing nuts to hold the bolts in place.

The two ladders are now connected at the top only. Move down about three feet and install a support or brace from one ladder to the other. Drill a hole through the brace and through the leg of the ladder. Use a quarter-inch bolt and wing nut to hold the brace in place. Do the same with the other side of the ladder.

Now turn the ladder over and repeat the process. I suggest that you use a brace board that is at least three-fourths of an inch thick and about three inches wide. With both brace boards in place, the ladder is very stable.

At this point you need to install the extensions or levelers at the bottom of the ladders. The simple way is to cut ten-inch sections of pine that is one inch thick. Mark off hole locations one inch apart down the center of the sections of wood. Then drill two or three holes (two will work well) in each leg of the ladder. The holes should be between the first step and the end of the ladder. Measure off the hole locations so that they will match up with the holes in the shorter pieces of boards.

Now align holes and use quarter-inch bolts and wing nuts to install the short levelers. Later, when you are using the ladder and you find that one side is lower than the other, simply loosen the wing nuts and slide the levelers down until the end touches the surface where the ladder is standing. Then re-insert the bolts and use the wing nuts to keep the bolts from slipping out.

If you want to make the levelers work also as extensions, cut boards 1.5 inches thick and as wide as the legs of the ladder. Drill holes as before, but this time you can drill them up to the third or fourth steps, if desired. Then, if you need a longer ladder, remove the bolts, slide the outside boards down to the desired distance, and install the bolts again. You can easily and safely add a foot or even two feet of extension to your ladder in this fashion.

The Uni-Ladder is complete and ready to use. If you need two ladders, simply remove the bolts from the brace pieces and take off the top piece. You now have separate straight ladders.

What does all this cost? We kept meticulous records, as we do for all of our do-it-yourself projects, and the cost of sawing the pine legs and oak steps was $2.43, and we had some boards left over for other projects. The quarter-inch bolts and screws cost us a total of $3.45, so we had a total of $5.88 tied up in our ladder.

As far as time is concerned, we worked about four solid hours on the ladder, but our time was extended because we stopped to write down notes and figure out easier ways of handling some of the trickier steps. And you wouldn’t believe how long it took to train the cat to climb the ladder on cue.