The Pragmatist: Making room for returning offspring? A loft bed, built in three days, can work well in a tight space.
Our 23-year-old daughter, Rikki, recently returned home from nursing school to embark on her career and found she had been downsized by her loving siblings to the worst bedroom in the house: a dark 63-square-foot green vise that’s less than half the size of her previous room.
While she clearly deserves better, we suspect she’ll be moving into more palatial digs once her paychecks start accumulating.
Still, whenever I passed the room, I felt the Taser of parental guilt — so much so that after about 25 zaps, I started wondering what we might do to help accelerate Rikki’s transition to more palatial digs.
Major guilt Taser. Many thousands of volts.
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Finally, a possible solution hit: loft bed.
Unfortunately, prefab versions were either too expensive or too flimsy, and there was no way a carpentry novice like me was going to take on that project.
Or was I?
I called a few people with loft-building expertise, and within a couple of hours I was deluded enough to try it. Even newbies, they said, could build one in a weekend with less than $250 and only a few tools.
Parents take note: My advisers were absolutely right. This project was easy, mostly fun and, when I finally stepped back to view the results, rewarding in the extreme.
My panelists included David and Jeanie Stiles, owners of Stiles Designs (http://www.stilesdesigns.com/), a design website, and authors of more than 20 woodworking and home-improvement books; Peter Harrington, an owner of WoodPatternExpert, a publisher based in McDonough, Ga.; and Jamin Mills, who, along with his wife, Ashley, publishes TheHandmadeHome.net, a home-improvement site.
The glitches I mentioned could have been avoided with more common sense, a pickup truck and better planning, starting with a complete shopping list.
That list includes a carpenter’s square (Empire 16-inch-by-24-inch, $7), a long level (Empire 48-inch, $10), a handsaw (DeWalt 20-inch, $20), your wood sealant of choice (polyurethane, stain or paint), a cordless drill/driver (Ryobi 12-volt drill kit, $38) and wood — more specifically, No. 2 pine that hasn’t been pressure treated and is therefore better for staining or painting.
To begin, I measured the room, twice, then browsed online for design ideas from the surprisingly long list of websites devoted to this project.
I wasn’t sure how much time to set aside for the work. Mills suggested it could be done in a day, but Harrington argued for three days: one for planning, one for shopping and one for assembly.
“The second time you do it, you’ll cut your time in half,” Harrington said. “But the first time, three days is safe.”
He was right. There are several places where you can go awry, so it pays to move slowly, especially in the planning stage.
Harrington said that when shopping for plans online, first consider what size bed the loft will hold, whether the plans are for an adult or child and how high you want it.
“Most will tell you, but if they don’t, be sure to ask,” he said. “And be sure it has illustrated step-by-step instructions.”
Even if you choose a plan carefully, you may want to modify it. Some loft beds call for 2-inch-thick posts, secured with braces. While these are no doubt safe when built correctly, they can sway and squeak under a person’s weight.
Four-inch-by-four-inch posts offer a more rigid foundation.
No plans I could find were quite right for the dimensions of Rikki’s room, so I adapted mine from a plan in “Woodworking Simplified,” by David and Jeanie Stiles. (The book offers a trove of valuable tips and projects for beginners.)
In budgeting your time, remember that you’ll have to break down and stow the old bed, and clear the room. (In the interest of family harmony, I won’t compare this process to cleaning up after a Salvation Army closing sale. Or Armageddon.)
Next, prepare to build a box.
I know: How tough can it be to build a box?
It’s easy — unless you’re building one that someone will sleep in, several feet off the floor. For that, you need a carpenter’s square and straight wood that’s cut with precision.
Getting the wood to the proper dimensions is easy. Local lumberyards sometimes offer free cutting, but call ahead to check. The Home Depot and Lowe’s charge nothing for the first two cuts and 25 cents for each one beyond.
There’s a major caveat to keep in mind when entrusting this work to someone else, and we’ll get to that in a minute.
First comes the shopping spree.
If you don’t have a pickup truck, van or a vehicle with a strong roof rack, set aside a day — yes, a day — for shopping, and head to either The Home Depot or Lowe’s, which offer rental trucks on a first-come-first-served basis. (If a truck isn’t there, have a good book handy.)
In my local Home Depot, the lumber department was a mystifying labyrinth with no employees available to help. I studied huge stacks of wood that looked identical to others nearby but carried different prices and descriptions.
“Whatever,” I said, grabbing a plank. “This looks fine.” I laid each edge on the floor and checked for gaps, to be sure the piece was straight, and followed with many more pieces.
Thirty minutes later, a helpful store associate swapped most of this premium pine for something a little more suited to the guts of a loft bed. Then he lined up the roughly two dozen cuts needed for the project.
This is a make-or-break point, my panelists said.
“Some people aren’t experienced enough with cutting, and they’ll get the sizes off a little,” Mills said. “You’ll, say, cut to 12 inches, but if they cut right on the line it’s less than 12 inches.”
If your wood isn’t cut precisely, you’ll likely need shims to get everything level, and you’ll need extra large blankets to cover your ugly work.
I asked the Home Depot employee if he could cut beyond the pencil line.
“Yup,” he said with surprising cheer for someone who had evidently heard this question 6,000 times. “Always do.”
At the checkout line, I discovered that the store’s rental truck was out. (“Always get the keys before you shop,” I was told.) So the next day, I got the wood home, laid it out and checked it against my plans.
I needed only a few additional cuts, mostly because I forgot to add four pieces to my shopping list. But those were easy, and it helped me think of this project as something other than an assembly job.
Putting the loft together was fun, mainly because I had good plans and some help. My 10-year-old son, Luca, steadied the loft’s side panels as I checked to be sure they were square and level, and again when I drilled pilot holes and secured the pieces with screws (Crown Bolt zinc-plated 2 ½-inch wood screws, $9 for package of 50, and $6 for a package of 2-inch screws), using a cordless drill.
We used two-by-fours to build a ledge on either side panel to hold the frame’s cross supports, and Luca secured the support panels with screws. Last, I dropped a plywood sheet in place, then heaved the mattress into its spot.
It was surprisingly — thrillingly — steady, and pretty darn attractive.
I blinged-up the loft with a shelf unit just above the pillow and a small reading lamp, and beneath the loft we put two sets of Ikea drawers. Once those were in place, we hauled out two dressers and a coat rack that had cluttered the room.
The room wasn’t exactly spacious, but it was far less cramped, and when Luca showed it to Rikki, she screamed with delight.
I left her a bit of work — namely, the job of painting or staining it to her own specifications. (Stiles suggested “at least” two coats of polyurethane to seal the surface.)
“And the nice thing about this is that it doesn’t touch the walls or ceiling,” Stiles said. “So when she leaves, she can unscrew it and take it with her.”
Not that anyone said anything about her leaving.