You might assume a rolling ladder belongs in a dark-paneled library filled with brass lamps and leather-bound first editions. But such a handsome and useful piece works equally well in a kitchen, to reach high cabinets; in a family room with a towering bookcase; or even in a cheerful reading nook, like the one at right.
Hardware kits typically include rollers, wheels, and fasteners for the ladder; you'll buy the track separately and cut it to length. You can, of course, buy the ladder, unassembled, but we built ours from sturdy red oak. Follow along on the next page as This Old House senior technical editor Mark Powers walks you through the steps.
Hardware: Custom Service Hardware Rolling Hook Ladder Hardware Kit in Black, about $503; 8-Foot Round Rail in Black, about $95; four Vertical Hook Brackets, about $10 each; Stop Kit with round black finials, about $45; Red Oak Top Rung (spindle), about $14; Custom Service Hardware
Steps for Building a Rolling Library Ladder
- SATURDAY Prep the parts (Steps 2–8).
- SUNDAY Build and mount the ladder (Steps 9–13).
- Download and print the cut list.
Cut list for Building a Rolling Library Ladder
- Designed to reach an 8½-foot-tall shelf (on a 10-foot-high bookcase) in the climbing position.
- 1x4 red oak boards for the handrails:
- two @ 107 inches
- 1x5 red oak boards for the treads:
- one @ 103¼ inches, cut to seven 14¾-inch lengths
- ¾-inch red oak spindle:
- one @ 15¼ inches
- Note: Although the formula from Custom Service Hardware for sizing and angling the handrails is ideal for a track installed 7 feet 7 inches high, the company applies it to ladders of any size. This saves a step of calculating angles but means that shorter ladders will have a shallower pitch and taller ladders a steeper one. The design of the wheels allows them to maintain solid contact with the floor for ladders made with this formula for bookcases as tall as 18 feet.
Step 1: Cut the Handrails
The track should go in line with a shelf so that you don't block your books. Pick one high enough to get you to the top row but at least 7 inches down from the ceiling, to allow room for the ladder when it's pushed against the bookcase for storage. Whatever the height of your shelf, get the length for the handrails by measuring from the shelf to the floor, then adding 5 inches to build in a climbing angle. Cut two oak 1x4s to length, making parallel 12-degree miter cuts at each end to ensure the proper pitch for your ladder.
Step 2: Shape the Tops
Measure 8 inches down the edge of one handrail from the acute angle, and make a mark. Hold the combination square against the rail's mitered end, lining up the blade with your mark. Draw a cutline, as shown. Cut along the line with a saw to shape the top, creating the correct angle for the rolling hardware. Mark and cut the top of the other handrail.
Step 3: Bore the Spindle Hole
On the inner face of one handrail, measure and mark a point 4 inches down from the top along the centerline. Chuck the ⅞-inch Forstner bit into the drill/driver and make a hole, stopping when the top of the bit is flush with the board, as shown. Repeat on the mirroring face of the other handrail.
Step 4: Rout the Grooves
To form the tread grooves, make a guide from 14 scrap with parallel 12-degree ends. To find its length, compensate for the router's base: Flip the tool over, measure from the edge of the 13⁄16-inch straight bit to the base's flat edge, and subtract from 10⅝ inches—the distance between treads.
Cut your guide, clamp it flush with the bottom of one handrail, and rout a ⅛-inch-deep groove across the handrail. Wedge 1 scrap in the groove to brace the guide for the next cut, as shown. Work your way up the handrail, stopping shy of the spindle. Repeat with the other handrail.
Tip: Router bits spin clockwise, so for the greatest control, move the tool in the direction that keeps the bit biting into the wood.
Step 5: Rout the Bullnose
Fit the router with the ⅜-inch roundover bit. Clamp down the handrails and the 15 tread stock with one edge of each board extending off your worktable. Rout the edge of each board, flip the boards over, and rout the edge on the opposite side, completing the bullnose profile. Do the same on the opposite edges of each board, as well as on the top edges of each handrail.
Step 6: Drill the Holes
Fit the drill/driver with the ⅛-inch bit and drill two pilot holes into each tread groove, each one inset ¾-inch from a handrail's edge. Switch to the 23/64-inch bit and drill a hole ½ inch below the bottom of each groove, centered side to side, to accept the rung supports.
Step 7: Finish the Pieces
On the miter saw, cut the bullnosed 15 into individual treads. Measure and mark spots ½ inch from each corner along the edges and connect each pair of marks to form a diagonal cutline. Set the miter saw to 45 degrees and cut the treads' corners, as shown. Use 120-grit paper to sand down the handrails, spindle, and treads. Prime and paint the pieces using the 2½-inch angled sash brush, leaving grooves and tread edges bare to grip the glue during assembly.
Step 8: Attach the Treads
Run a bead of wood glue in each groove and the spindle hole of one handrail. Press each tread in place, standing upright, then the spindle. Apply glue to the grooves of the other rail and settle it on top of the treads and spindle, tapping it home with the mallet. Use the drill/driver to fasten two of the supplied 1¾-inch washer-head screws through the outer face of each rail and into the ends of each tread. Measure diagonally from the top of each handrail to the bottom of the other one to make sure the ladder is square—the two numbers must match.
Step 9: Install the Supports
Attach nut caps to one end of the rung supports. Thread a support through a pilot hole, as shown, and attach it at the other end with a nut cap. Use the hex-key wrench at each end to tighten the sleeves. Install the remaining supports.
Step 10: Attach the Rollers
Position the rolling hardware at the angled top of a handrail. Fit the drill/driver with the ⅛-inch bit, hold the hardware in place, and drill pilot holes through the bracket holes into the edge of the handrail. Fasten the hardware with the included wood screws.
Drill a second set of ¼-inch pilot holes through the bracket holes on the side of the rollers, through the handrail, as shown, and secure the rollers with the included through bolts and nuts, tightening them with a hex-key wrench. Install the hardware for the second handrail.
Step 11: Attach the Wheels
Center a wheel along the mitered bottom edge of each handrail, and drill pilot holes through the bracket into the handrail. Use the hex-key wrench to tighten the through bolts while securing the nut with the adjustable wrench, as shown. Drive the supplied wood screw into the hole at the base of each bracket.
Step 12: Mount the Ladder
Thread the metal brackets into the track's groove, spacing them to line up with the stiles on your bookcase, no more than 32 inches apart. Hold the track against the bookcase, drill pilot holes at the bracket on one end, and use the screwdriver to attach it with wood screws.
Hold the track level and install the remaining brackets. Thread a finial onto each end of the track, and hoist your ladder into place.