How to Build Your Own Bouldering Wall with Dave Patton

Photo by Brad Lane

When it comes to palling around on your buddies home-made bouldering wall, Dave Patton, Assistant Director of the Outdoor Program at the University of Iowa, is a good friend to have. That’s because over the last decade, Patton has been collecting holds, jugs, and natural features—and now has one of the most impressive DIY bouldering walls in the state. It shouldn’t come as a surprise however, Patton has made a career out of creating outdoor opportunities with everything he touches, and to help you get going on your own climbing cave, Patton was glad to shed a light on what it takes to build your own bouldering wall at home:

Photo by Brad Lane

The Clymb: What made you want to build your own bouldering wall?

Dave Patton: It’s been a long-term thought for many, many years, and I’ve been plotting for more than a decade. I had a wall in my attic in my home in college that I shared with some other climbers. We had a space that we all contributed towards and stapled up holds and hangboards up to the rafters. It was hot and the air quality wasn’t great in there, and we were all climbing outside at that time and working at the climbing wall, so we didn’t spend a lot of time up there.

Ever since then, I’ve been collecting holds. I helped a friend build a wall in his house in 2005, and when he moved to California into a small apartment, he gave me a ton of lumber and more holds. So I’ve been collecting hand holds, wood, t-nuts, parts and ideas for the climbing wall for many years now, and recently my family and I moved into a new home and just had this perfect space in the basement for it, and it was like yeah, this is where the climbing wall is going. That’s when the idea was officially was born, winter of 2012, and I started hammering it up.

Photo by Dave Patton

The Clymb: Describe the building of the bouldering wall in stages.

Dave Patton: I think it’s important to understand that I’m not a master carpenter by any means, and I’m kind of using the hand-me-down tools for grandpa so to speak, so I’m learning on the fly about home construction.

I did the first vertical wall in 2012, and finished the other side in the same year learning as I went. Then it took us basically another year to get going on the back wall where the sub pump was, which I essentially had to build around. I had to construct the wall narrower and steeper around the sub pump which took a little more time, and then it was like that for another year until I got the roof stuff up. It’s been about three years working on it. I still would rather go climbing outside than bouldering in my basement, so it’s not like I’m dedicating the entire weekend to my bouldering wall, just a half-hour here and there of climbing and moving handholds.

Once the whole thing was up I did paint it all together. Paint is important when building a climbing wall, and if you don’t texturize the panels then it’s better not to paint them at all, because when you screw on the hand holds, even if you let the paint dry for two weeks, the paint will stick to the handhold and when you go to change your handholds it rips the paint right off. Anti-skid paint, texturizer, and/or a light addition of sand over the top of the planks before you paint them is always a good idea.

Photo by Dave Patton

The Clymb: You have quite the collection hand holds on your wall, but it’s hard not to notice the giant tree growths also screwed into the wood. Care to explain how those got on your wall?

Dave Patton: Climbers like the big volumes (the triangle shape with the cool angle)—they’re kind of a hot thing right now in the indoor climbing wall community. Whole routes are being set with six or seven volumes, climbing corner to corner, and they completely change the angle of the climb, they bulge out, and that’s what I wanted the burls (tree growths) to do. Most overhanging boulders aren’t perfectly smoothed and grooved, it’s an obstacle that you need to climb around but it also has cool movement to climb on. It has an aesthetic pleasure as well, and when I first found one on a fallen tree on our property, the first thing I thought of was how cool it would look on the wall.

Photo by Brad Lane

The Clymb: If you had to break down some of the costs of putting up a wall like your own?

Dave Patton: You gotta keep in mind, that working in my profession (Outdoor Recreation) for 15 years has given me lots of freebies so to speak. When we built our big new climbing wall at the University, whenever we’d go to different conventions or shows we’d get a grab-bag with one or two holds included. It might only be one or two, but you do that for 15 years you start adding them up. I ended up becoming friends with some of the reps so they can keep me posted on good deals, and I was able to purchase more holds with a pro-discount. So what I’m saying is that I was able to collect a whole bunch of materials by being in the industry for years, which significantly decreases some otherwise upfront costs.

The flooring is sometimes the most expensive thing though. For me, one of my best friend’s brothers happened to manage a well-known mattress store, and when my buddy made the call, I got the family price. So I spent like $300 on foam, 10 feet by 11, at the “friend’s price”, and then I put my old living room carpet over the top of the foam, and it might have had some kid puke or dog turd smashed into it, but it was still my living room carpet before we moved so it’s not in that bad of shape.

Photo by Dave Patton

The plywood was expensive, I have 14 sheets of plywood (4”x8” & ¾’ thick), some of which I had sort of collected over the years as well, but you’re still talking like $40 or $50 a pop, and I didn’t necessarily spend all that at one time to build my own, but if I was going to start from scratch that’s what I’d be looking at.

It helps to know people, and to collect, and I was fortunate enough to have been collecting stuff for many years. I didn’t go to the store and buy plywood or 2×4’s all at once, but if I would ballpark a number, I would say it would take me about $5,000 to replicate my exact wall from scratch.

Although Patton and his wife aren’t planning to move anytime soon, they did question whether or not the bouldering wall would raise or lower the property value of the house. The conclusion they came to? It depended on the buyer.

Photo by Dave Patton

The Clymb: Any last piece of advice for someone looking to get into a DIY bouldering wall project?

Dave Patton: If you want a wall in the very near future, your best bet will be to hire a carpenter competent in their trade who could get the job done in less than a week. Bonus if the carpenter also happens to be a climber. If you are interested in building your own wall, I would suggest to start collecting now as well as check out some community forums of home-projects such as the Home Climbing Wall Forum on Facebook or Thrive’s “Show Us Your Woody” Contest. Whatever you decide to do, remember that climbing on your homemade wall is always fun, but it never quite stacks up to getting out and exploring some real rock.