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 2x4’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.