Covid-19 has meant a huge change in the way most of us live, and one thing it has meant for many people is spending a lot more time indoors. At the start of all this there were many self righteous articles about how one should really savour this time and make the most of it. I mostly ignored all of that, but I did decide to make something that I’d wanted to make for years but have never got round to doing. A little while later and it’s now finished.
Fingerboarding is to climbing what turbo training is to cycling, or what playing scales is to a musician: it’s doubtless beneficial but very boring and requires proper motivation. Without an end goal in mind you might as well spend your time cutting your lawn with scissors.
I’ve been climbing for about ten years and have never really used a fingerboard, instead relying on being weak to ensure I don’t try any climbs that might be too hard for me.
I’ve also had the convenient excuse of having never lived in a house where I’ve been able to put one up. I’ve now got a house which I can do what I like to, but none of its door frames are suitable for mounting a fingerboard, so a freestanding fingerboard seemed like the way to go.
I have a love/hate relationship with gyms. I can’t stand the idea of begrudgingly going somewhere multiple times a week just to placate your enormous membership fees. Going through the motions of jogging on a treadmill or mincing about with some weights sounds like tedium personified. However, if you’re injured and need some rehabilitation, have a defined end goal in mind, or you’re working away and the hotel gym is all you’ve got, then gyms are fantastic.
Almost anyone practising almost any sport, or simply just living, would benefit from going to a gym to work on their weaknesses or imbalances.
Squats, in particular, are a great exercise but very difficult to do without a squat rack or power rack.
It seemed to me a free-standing fingerboard and squat rack would be pretty cool to have at home, so I started sketching ideas and looking at people’s existing builds and any commercial designs already out there. Youtube, in particular, was an amazing resource, and there are some staggeringly impressive things that people have built and made videos about.
Aesthetics and cost
I knew that if I were to spend a couple of weekends building this thing then I’d want it to look decent. If it looked crap then I’d be less inclined to use it, it would ruin a room, and it wouldn’t justify the time or cost to make it. I don’t mind exercising in pretty grungy locations:
I’ve worked out in old warehouses covered in pigeon crap, and have run circuit training classes week-in week-out for years in fields and parks in the pouring rain, and in university campus stairwells, so while the whole grunge aesthetic of training isn’t a no-go for me, having somewhere nice to train is never a bad thing…
Making it look all right meant buying decent materials and trying to do a good job of putting it together. Regarding costs, I reckoned I could make it all for about £200 (roughly 250 USD), including buying a fingerboard. I think I came in slightly under that.
The design revolves around two big upright 4x4s (4x4s aren’t 4 inches wide when you buy them… they’re approx. 90mm), 2x4s holding them off the ground, and 2×4 supports helping prop the 4x4s up. The two 4x4s have two boards of 16mm hardwood ply to act as the fingerboard and pullup mounting station and to stiffen it all up. By offsetting the plywood sections you get more options for holds and an ‘overhang’ to climb round.
I wanted to ensure that the design could easily be taken apart and moved if required. I could have used screws throughout, but the wood around screws gets gradually weaker if you repeatedly screw them in/out, and while nuts and bolts are very strong and effective, they aren’t very aesthetically pleasing, so I decided to use bolts at the top of the board, screws for the tricky angled supports, and metal brackets and threaded inserts (insert nuts) for the critical strength bits at the bottom of the design. I am fortunate to live within walking distance of a large timber merchant who could sell me almost all the stuff I needed, with Screwfix or Toolstation doing the rest. I used iron pipe, the same stuff that you see in hipster bars holding up tables and chairs, for the pullup bar and barbell supports, and I ordered that online. The iron pipe seems to be more readily available in the USA than in the UK, and it caused me some issues later on with supply, but nothing too bad.
I searched high and low for some angle brackets which didn’t either look crap, have the wrong holes, or were the wrong size or strength. In the end I decided to make my own, which wasn’t as hard as I expected. I bought a piece of 3mm angle iron from a local metal dealer and chopped that up, before centre-punching and then drilling (slowly and with a good drill bit being the key factors) the various holes I needed for the bolts. This was the first mistake I made…
Insert nuts are fantastic once lined up, but trying to line up a 6mm bolt in a 6mm insert nut, through a 6mm hole in the angle plate, is exceptionally difficult. You have literally zero margin for error, no wiggle room. If I were doing these again I’d drill bigger holes in the angle. Somehow I managed to bodge the bolts to all fit, but it was a bit of a nightmare despite careful measuring and remeasuring etc.. They look great now they’re done and they’re bombproof strong, but during a few hours of wiggling them in they were pretty frustrating…
Buying the proper tool is often key to getting stuff done right, but I also like a good bodge.
I thought that buying a mitre saw that stated it wouldn’t cut 2x4s on a bevel or mitre would be fine, and it would manage it if you were clever.
Turns out I was wrong, and unless I ran the saw with the safety guard off which I was absolutely unwilling to try, I had to cut the 2×4’s bevel cuts for the support struts by hand. I couldn’t be bothered to make a template so just bodged it. Not impossible, but it would have been easier to be accurate if I’d got a suitable saw. Fed up by this point with insert nuts, I used screws to join the support struts to the main uprights. They’re 60mm screws at the top and 45mm at the bottom, so not going anywhere.
The whole thing was still a bit wobbly at this point, despite a cross brace along the bottom of it all and the various supports in place. Next came the job of putting the plywood boards on, and these stiffened it up considerably. I used M10 bolts to secure it all together and despite my reservations over appearance, they look absolutely fine.
In hindsight I should perhaps have used them for the attachment of the uprights to the base too; it would have been much easier. The plywood itself is 16mm far eastern hardwood ply, which was the best grade readily available. I could have used 18mm stuff to make it super stiff but I wondered if a tiny bit of flex might actually be a good thing.
I painted the ply so it looked a bit less homemade (whoever at Crown Paints thought of using makeup applicators for paint testers, take a bow) and then I made some holds out of wood offcuts, sanding them with an orbital sander. They’re roughly 20mm and 30mm edges, so small enough but not really small. I also bought a Lattice board with its big ‘warmup’ rung and its smaller 20mm edge and screwed that on the board.
It’s done… sort of
At this point the board was ready for fingerboarding and campus use. I put some small footholds on it too to provide some options and to give my partner, who’s almost a foot shorter than me, a leg-up.
We found ourselves using the board a fair bit, it doesn’t wobble even when moving pretty dynamically between the various holds, and because it’s a fairly simple setup but with offset panels, there’s a surprising number of ways it can be used. I’ve put a few holds on the back of the plywood too to allow leg raises more easily, and to practice (and fail miserably at) one-armers in a more side-on position. However, the other half of the point of making it – squats – was dealt a significant delay in getting hold of iron pipe. I ended up waiting months for the bits but eventually they arrived.
Hot to squat
I had dreaded this bit of the build. The strongest way to make bar holders is to stick big bits of metal through the 4×4 uprights, and the only way to do that was to drill some massive holes in the 4x4s. Once you’ve got a fully functional structure that seems a bit drastic. Not trusting myself to drill straight on an upright with a fairly hefty drill and with a mad speedy drill bit, I took the whole thing apart and drilled the 4x4s when they were laid down.
Once I put it back together again one post had perfect straight holes and the other side wasn’t quite as good… this was frustrating. I genuinely considered starting with a brand new 4×4, but once I had threaded the iron pipe through the holes, proved that it worked (I put 140kg on it which was all the weight I have and it didn’t move a mil)¸ I got over the minor aesthetic error and started doing some squats.
With a height designed for me and one for my partner, it was perfect. At the same time I stuck a pullup bar on the upper section of the board. I missed a trick here: I used a bar slightly shorter than the distance between the 4x4s, and that limited the length of screws I could use. The high torque on the pullup bar, with it sitting away from the ply, meant that it wasn’t sufficiently strong without me reinforcing the ply with another piece of 2×4 mounted behind it, and then using much longer screws. If I’d used a longer bar it would have spanned the 4x4s and then I’d have made it much easier for myself. My original pullup bar idea was to have all sorts of different grips and bits of bar sticking off it, but they all proved too torquey, and so the plain bar, with ends on which to do very wide pullups, ended up as the best option.
I then gave the whole structure a quick sand down with 120 grit and varnished it with some furniture varnish I had lying about. This is perhaps overkill, but with the thing being in the conservatory it gets a lot of sun, a lot of cold in the winter, and a lot of heat in the summer, and if it makes it last a bit longer then half an hour with a paintbrush was worth it.
The creation has now had a few weeks of use and it’s still standing, it’s still enjoyable to use, and it’s way more adaptable than I could have predicted: it’s been a success.
If I were doing it again I wouldn’t change many features fundamentally. One of the few things I’d change would be to add a lower barbell holder option, thus allowing rows from the bar and dips on the bar to be a bit easier. It could also act as a safety bar – sort-of – for doing squats.
If you’re thinking of giving something like this a go, just do it. It’s not a hard project and pretty satisfying when it goes okay. The cost saving over a commercial build is massive, and you end up with something that has exactly the features you want and is sized to fit you and the space that you’ve got available. You might find yourself inspired…
Bonus content! Plyometric box
Since making this I’ve built a plyo box – an easy couple of hours once you’ve worked out the maths of sizing the box and got the timberyard to cut the plywood – and have added that to our mini training setup. If you’re going to do this then one tool I found invaluable for putting the 102(!) 1.75 inch screws in was a Dewalt pilot hole and countersink drill bit. That must have saved me hours. The box is 18mm ply with 2×2 internals and is ridiculously strong. Most joins are glued and reinforced by screws, but the ends are screws-only and friction fit. The handles were made by drilling two 28mm holes 8cm apart and using a jigsaw to connect them. I painted the box and stuck some spray lacquer on to protect it a bit, but I’m not sure the paint’s going to last long with people jumping up and down on it. It cost me £28 in wood and about £2 in screws, so 1/5 of the price of some online options. It’s 12x18x24″, so smaller than the 28x24x30″ box common in gyms, but I’d bang my head on the roof with a 30″ box, and 12″ is ideal for grinding out alpine-style load lifting.