How to Build a Playground: Step 6 – Rock Climbing Wall and Step Ladder
Step-by-step instructions for adding a combination rock climbing wall and step ladder to your playground.
Picking up from the previous step (where we enclosed the deck/platform with railing), now we will add a combination rock climbing wall/step ladder to the playground. This will be one of three access components we add to the playground (a step ramp and slides will also be added).
This combination rock climbing wall and step ladder is so practical and usable as you get two ways to get up/down the playground, but you only have to build one thing. It’s big enough that two children can use it at the same time and race up it – always a plus. And it’s strong enough that adults can use it too (I’ve often used the step ladder as my older daughter uses the rock climbing wall).
Here’s what it looks like on the actual playground:
This is the 6th post of my step-by-step How to Build a Playground series. You can read the other posts in this series through these links: Step 1 – Towers and Bridges, Step 2 – Deck Boards, Step 3 – Bracing and Blocking, Step 4 – Swings and Monkey Bars, Step 5 – Railing, Step 7 – Step Ramp, and Step 8 – Staining Wood. This series will show you how to build a playground that looks like this:
There are additional posts and a separate six-part series covering the fundamentals of building a playground; you can explore those on my Playground page.
To make the combination rock climbing wall/step ladder, you will need a circular saw, impact driver, router (with a 45 degree Chamfer bit), angle finder (digital), deck board spacers, flashing tape, hammer, level (48 inch), and sandpaper from my Materials & Tools post. You will also need the LSCZ Simpson Strong-Tie Adjustable Stair Stringers, ML24Z Simpson Strong-Tie ML Angle Connectors, 4 inch deck screws, 3 inch timber screws, Strong-Drive SDS Heavy-Duty Connector Screws, and nails (.148 x 1-1/2 inch) from my Connectors & Fasteners post. Lastly, you’ll need the rock climbing holds and both safety handles (17.5 inch and 37 inch) from my Swings & Accessories post.
The methodology for building the combination rock climbing wall/step ladder is similar to what we did in Step 1: Towers and Bridges when we added joists to the towers. The only difference here is that these joists are angled down toward the ground. But a lot of the steps outlined below will seem very similar to what we’ve done before.
The main design choice you’ll need to think about is how steep you want the combination rock climbing wall/step ladder to be. The steeper it is, the more challenging it will be for children (and especially younger children) to climb. I will say that what I did for my playground is probably not steep enough. It’s great for children 3-6 years old, but too easy for children older than that.
I made my rock climbing wall/step ladder 4 ft. wide – splitting the width equally. So the rock climbing wall portion is 2 ft. wide, and the step ladder portion is also 2 ft. wide. This is a very comfortable and spacious width, and as I mentioned before, it’s wide enough that two children can use it at the same time. Note that with a 4 ft. wide rock climbing wall/step ladder, we will need 5 joists (spaced every 12 inches).
This is also another example where I used redundancy in playground construction, as I duplicated the fastening of the rock climbing wall/step ladder to the playground tower. The rock climbing wall/step ladder will be heavily used, and it’s also not attached to anything on one side (the side that sits on the ground), so increased reliability for attaching the rock climbing wall/step ladder to the playground tower is always a good idea.
Step 1: Calculate the Joist Angles
You’re going to want to use the same triangle calculator that we used in Step 3: Bracing and Blocking to calculate the joist angles. Here’s the triangle I used for my playground:
You need three values for the triangle calculator, and we have exactly three known values to plug in. First is the 90 degree angle we’re creating between the tower and the rock climbing wall/step ladder (angle B in the triangle above). Second is the height of the triangle (side a in the triangle above) – this is 82.5 inches for my playground. Note that I have a 7 ft. high deck/platform, and 7 ft. is 84 inches. However, I need to subtract off 1.5 inches as that’s the height of the 2x6s I used for deck boards. So, 84 – 1.5 = 82.5 inches. That’s why you see 82.5 in the triangle above. Third, is the length of the joist. Since I was using 2″ x 10″ x 8′ lumber for joists, I decided in advance that 8 ft. would be the length of the rock climbing wall/step ladder as I didn’t want to cut the length of the joists down to size. So, 8 ft. is 96 inches (side b in the triangle above).
Plugging these three known values in to the triangle calculator gives the two values we really need to know, angle A at 59.2 degrees and angle C at 30.8 degrees. Here are where these two angles go on the actual playground:
Step 2: Cut the Joists at These Angles
On the lumber for your joists (I used 2x10s), mark and trace the angles that you just calculated using the digital angle finder. Then use the circular saw to cut the joists at these angles.
Step 3: Use the LSCZ and Nail in the Joists
Mark the rim board of the playground tower where the 5 joists will go. Then nail in the joists using LSCZ Simpson Strong-Tie Adjustable Stair Stringers and .148 x 1-1/2 inch nails. Nail in the upper portion of the LSCZ Stair Stringer first (red arrow), followed by the bottom portion (white arrow), like this:
Step 4: Further Secure Joists with ML24Z Angle Connectors
You can see that the LSCZ Stair Stringer attaches to one side of the joist. On the other side, you can further secure the joist using a ML24Z Angle Connector with Strong-Drive SDS Heavy-Duty Connector Screws. This connection will look like this:
Since the joists are steeply angled downward, you probably only have room for the smaller ML24Z. However, if space permits, you can certainly use a ML26Z here.
Step 5: Further Secure Joists with Timber Screws
The third and final method of securing the rock climbing wall/step ladder joists to the playground tower is a simple timber screw. This will run through the rim board of the tower into the joists, as pictured here (in a white circle):
You’ll probably only have space for a 3 inch timber screw, but certainly use a longer screw if space permits.
Step 6: Add Joist Flashing Tape
This step is optional, but recommended. Flashing tape is a self-adhering, waterproof strip of tape that is designed to protect joists from water damage and rot. In the picture below, the joist flashing tape is the black strip of tape (white arrows) that runs along the rock climbing wall/step ladder joists:
Step 7: Add Bracing and Blocking
These joists will be prone to racking (lateral sway/side-to-side movement) since only one end is firmly fastened to the playground tower (the other end of the joist simply rests on the ground). Just like we did in Step 3: Bracing and Blocking, add bracing and blocking to these joists. The only difference is that this bracing is not diagonal knee bracing, but rather a simple cross brace across all of the joists.
This picture shows bracing (red arrow) and blocking (white arrow) on the rock climbing wall/step ladder:
Secure both the bracing and blocking using 4 inch deck screws.
Step 8: Add Deck Boards
This will mimic what we did in Step 2: Deck Boards. I again used 2x6s for the deck boards of the rock climbing wall/step ladder, which were cut to two different lengths (2 ft. and 4 ft.) using a circular saw. I then rounded and smoothed the deck boards using a router (with a 45 degree Chamfer bit) and sandpaper.
When laying the deck boards, alternate between the two different lengths. This will leave small gaps on one side, thus creating the step ladder. Leave a little bit of space in between deck boards using the deck board spacers. Use the 48 inch level to ensure that the deck board is level, then fasten it in using two 4 inch deck screws per joist.
Step 9: Attach the Rock Climbing Holds
There are a lot of options for rock climbing holds, and I chose this specific set for two reasons. First, they have a 220 lb weight limit, so adults can also use them too. Second, the bolts that secure the holds are 2 inches long, which means they were made for 2x lumber (which I was attaching them to). Many other rock climbing holds have shorter length bolts.
For the deck boards that were only 2 ft. wide, I attached one hold in the middle (12 inches from the end). For the deck boards that were 4 ft. wide, I attached one hold 6 inches from the end and another hold 18 inches from an end. This picture shows the spacing I used for the rock climbing wall holds:
Overall, this spacing is great for children 3-6 years old, but too easy for children older than that. You might want to experiment with holds spaced farther apart.
Step 10: Attach Safety Handles
To give children something to grab onto and make them feel more comfortable as they approach the top of the rock climbing wall/step ladder, I attached both sets of safety handles (17.5 inch and 37 inch). I fastened the 37 inch safety handles (red arrows) directly to the sides of the rock climbing wall/step ladder, and fastened the 17.5 inch safety handles (white arrows) to the 4×4 handrail posts on the playground tower:
Congratulations! You’ve built an awesome combination rock climbing wall/step ladder!
In the next post, we will add a step ramp on the other playground tower as an easier means for getting up to and down from the playground deck/platform.
Did you find this guide useful? Have you built a playground or play set? Let me know in the comments below!
Read the other posts in this series: Step 1 – Towers and Bridges, Step 2 – Deck Boards, Step 3 – Bracing and Blocking, Step 4 – Swings and Monkey Bars, Step 5 – Railing, Step 7 – Step Ramp, and Step 8 – Staining Wood.
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