I made a rolling library ladder. Here’s how.
First up is the stock prep. I did my best to pick out boards with minimal defects, but there were a few places with knots and other imperfections that I decided to fill with epoxy for a smoother finish.
While the epoxy was curing, I set out to make a curve template for the steps. Since the angle of the ladder will be quite steep, having alternating sides for the steps will make it easier to climb safely. The curves are just simple arcs that looked about right to me. This made out of 1/4″ MDF. We’ll come back to it later.
I’m using stock I already had on hand to make the steps for the ladder. Unfortunately, the stock I had was 3 pieces that were twice as thick as I needed. Fortunately, I have a band saw with sufficient resaw capacity to split them down to just the size I needed.
I took the opportunity to clean up the edges at this point, getting them straight and smooth. Of course, that’s only a temporary measure since one side is going to end up curvy, but I wanted to bevel the back edge of each step using my table saw, and that required a parallel straight edge.
A quick slide through the table saw with the blade tilted produces a bevel on the back of the steps that will match the final tilt of the ladder. This is a really clean look. This step has to be done now, while the front of the step is still flat.
With the back bevels done, I could cut all the pieces to their final length.
Using the template from before, I rough out where the inward cut is going to go. You’ll note that there’s no wood for the outward cut. I’ll be using the cut out from the inward side for that!
Cutting the curves for the steps is an easy task for the band saw. I’m using a narrower blade than during resaw to allow for better curves.
Keeping all the cutouts is important, and here you can see what they’re used for. The final curve isn’t present yet, it still needs to be refined, but the material is there.
Now that the little curve extras are glued for the front of each step, we can finally plane them down to final thickness. The side rails get the same treatment.
Now that we have a smooth top and bottom surface for the step, we can clamp everything down and use the router to refine the curves. The template is smooth, and I used a router bit with a bearing to ride against the template to make an exact duplicate on the front of each of the steps.
Well, except for one… the template shifted during the cut, resulting in the bit going way too deep into the step. It wasn’t salvageable, so I cut off the curve portion and decided to replace the top step of the ladder with a simple shelf instead. No one will be stepping there anyway.
The side rails need fancy angles on the bottom to keep them parallel to the floor, and on the top to be parallel to the floor and to accommodate the perpendicular surface for the rolling hardware. These were all cut on a miter saw, but my miter saw only goes to 45 degrees, which wasn’t sufficient for two of the cuts. To get around this, I clamped a 90 degree fence to the miter saw, and used that to maintain proper alignment.
The steps need to be inserted into dados in the side rails. There are a lot of different techniques for making perfect width dados. In my case, I wasn’t confident that the steps were all consistent thickness, so I wanted a jig I could perfectly tune for each end of each step. This is what I came up with. The jig is set using the step piece itself to set the dimensions. It uses a bearing on a router bit, similar to how the front curves of the steps were cut.
With the jig set up individually for each step, I could use the router to cut out the dado material, taking multiple passes to ensure a clean result. I failed to score the back ends of the cuts, however, and I got some blowout. I would use a backer board next time.
We haven’t gotten the wheel assembly constructed yet, but we’ve got enough pieces now that we can finally try a dry fit of the of the steps and sides, and make sure it really looks like a ladder.
As And since the dry fit looks ok, it’s time to use quite a few clamps to do a glue-up of the sides and steps. This was so nerve wracking! Trying to get all the steps lined up and square before the glue sets is always a challenge.
The wheel assembly isn’t being dadoed into the sides, so I waited until the sides were glued up to get the length measurements exact. That’s taken care of now, and we can assemble the wheel holding mechanism. We use the wheel itself as a spacer to ensure the sides are the right distance apart.
With the assembly created, I could install it in the frame of the ladder. I used a bunch of screws in from each side, and then covered the screw holes with walnut plugs made from a piece of scrap cut off. That mistake earlier with the router on the step found new life this way.
Install some wheels and verify that it rolls ok. The roller hardware for the top to keep it on the track has to be installed on site to ensure the vertical alignment is correct. Having it roll so smoothly was extremely gratifying.
I applied several coats of wipe-on oil-based polyurethane, including a few extra for the treads where feet would go. After letting that fully cure, I applied a coat of furniture paste wax using 0000 steel wool for added water resistance.
It’s certainly not the best library ladder out there. It’s not the best made, or the fanciest, or the smoothest. It has a lot of imperfections and oddities. But I love it. It’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever made. I think it’s beautiful, not in spite of the mistakes but because of them. I learned a lot from building it, and I think the end result is both functional and beautiful. I hope you’ve learned something from seeing my journey.