Building the Perfect Bed

Building a bed is a great project for beginning woodworkers. There aren’t a lot of parts, the joinery is simple and the results can be impressive.

We spend one-third of our lives sleeping in bed, but this piece of furniture also is a place to read, watch TV and play with the kids during waking hours. For those reasons, a bed needs to be extra sturdy. You also need to be able to knock it down easily into parts to get it through the door.

The ultimate piece of hardware that satisfies both these needs is the lowly bed bolt. Whitechapel Ltd., Horton Brasses Inc. and Ball and Ball are all good sources for bed hardware. When installed properly, a bed bolt creates the strongest woodworking joint I can imagine. And with a wrench, you can disassemble a bed in minutes.

Sure there are other kinds of bed hardware that attach the rails to the posts, but if you know the tricks to installing bed bolts, you’ll never use anything else again.

I’ve built a lot of beds for clients throughout the years. And one of my most popular designs is this pencil-post bed. In Colonial times, pencil-post beds were draped with curtains at night to conserve heat and increase privacy. The high posts were never meant to be seen. Over the years the simple straight posts gave way to octagons and more ornate and carved forms.

A lot of plans for pencil posts show the woodworker shaping the octagonal taper with a drawknife. With my method, you can cut a perfect taper in 10 minutes for each post. (Editor’s note: For another method, check out Nick Engler’s Ingenious Jigs column, June 2002 issue, page 28.)

Even if you don’t want to build this particular bed, all of the construction principles apply to whatever type of bed you want to make. Plus, I’ve included some of the rules to follow when building beds. There aren’t many, but they’re important. Download the construction drawing for information on standard bed sizes, standard bed heights, recommended bed hardware, and how to support the mattress and box springs.

Begin With the Posts
This particular bed was made using cherry, but I’ve made a lot of these in maple, too. Cut your posts from 10/4 rough lumber and cut them about 1″ longer than stated in the cut list. Joint and plane the posts down to 2-1/4″ square.

With the posts square, now is the best time to lay out and cut all the mortises for the rails, the footboard and headboard. All of the mortises are 3/4″ wide and 3/4″ deep and centered on the posts. My mortiser can handle a 3/4″ bit, so I cut the mortises in one pass. If you have a benchtop machine, use a 3/8″ bit and cut the mortises in two passes.

If you’re building this particular bed, you need to pay extra attention to the mortises for the headboard. Make the bottom mortise so it fits tight around the tenon. But make the top mortise so there’s 1/8″ slop up and down. This allows the headboard to expand and contract without exploding.

Make the Pencil Posts
First lay out the taper on the four posts. The taper begins 27″ off the floor and then tapers in 5/8″ on all four sides.

Because I build so many beds, I made a template that lays out this taper without measuring. You can lay it out using a ruler and a long length of scrap.

Now cut this taper on all four sides using your band saw. Then clean up the saw blade marks by running each face of the post over your jointer.

Next you want to turn that four-sided tapered post into an eight-sided tapered post. The easiest way to do that is with a bearing-guided 45° chamfer bit in a hand-held router. First mark out the octagon shape on the top of the post and set the depth of your router’s cut so it’s just a little shy of the line. Now mark on all four corners of the post where the taper should end.

Make a test cut on the top of the post (you’ll lose the top 1″ later, so it can look a little sloppy) and adjust the depth of your router bit until it cuts right to that line. Now chamfer all four tapered edges. Near the end of the pass, watch the bit and the line you marked on the corner. When the bit hits the line, turn off the router and make the next cut.

Before you finish up with the posts, it’s best to cut the 7/16″- diameter clearance holes for the bed bolts in each post. For the bolts that go into the long rails, drill the hole centered on the post and 1/2″ above the center of the mortise. For the bolts that go into the short rails, drill the hole centered on the post and 1/2″ below the center of the mortise.

By following these instructions, the head of the bed bolt will sit proud of the post. If you want to recess it, you will need to cut a 1″ countersink that’s 5/8″ deep before you drill the clearance holes. Then you’ll need to pick out some bed-bolt covers and drill a little deeper into the rails.

Now cut off the top 1″ of all the posts and finish sand them. I usually start with 100 grit and proceed up to 180 grit.

Bed Bolt Basics
Cut all your rails to length. The cut list is for a twin-sized bed, but you can use the accompanying charts to accommodate other mattress sizes.

Now cut the tenons on the rails. All of the tenons are 3/4″ thick, 5″ wide and 3/4″ long. Clamp the rails and posts together and mark the locations of the clearance holes on the tenons using a pencil. Take the bed apart and get ready to drill the clearance hole for the bed bolt.

I use a self-centering doweling jig with a 7/16″ bushing to drill the holes for my 3/8″-diameter bed bolts. If you don’t have a 7/16″ bushing, a 3/8″ will work, too. Bore the hole 4″ deep into all the rails.

Now you want to cut a slot that will hold the nut for the bed bolts. The easiest way to do this is with a router. I set up a template guide in my router and made a template that would rout a 1/2″-wide slot that’s 1″ long. Chuck a 1/2″ upspiral bit in your router and clamp the template in place. I routed this slot 2-1/4″ from the shoulder of the tenon. Cut the 1″-deep slot in several passes.

Now assemble the joint and snug the bed bolt. When everything looks good, fill the recess with hot-melt glue. Let the glue dry for an hour and then remove the bolt. The glue will hold the nut in place when assembling and disassembling the bed.

Bed Irons
In my opinion, bed irons are the best way to hold the box spring in place. The irons are simply “Ls” manufactured from 1/4″-thick steel. You can purchase them in a variety of lengths (pre-bent), from 3″ long to 10″ long.

The length of iron you use is determined by the thickness of your box spring. When the bed is assembled, you want the top of the box spring flush with the top of the rails. For this bed, 6″ irons were in order.

You’ll probably notice in the photos that when the bed irons are installed they actually will hang down below the rails by 3″. This is not a mistake. The bed skirt covers the irons.

I put three irons on each long rail. One iron goes in the center and the other two are 12″ from the ends of the rails.

You need to cut a shallow 1/4″-deep mortise for each bed iron. I again made a template for my router and used a straight bit. The template produces a mortise that is 1-1/4″ wide and 3″ long. Rout the mortises and install the bed irons.

Remove all the hardware and sand your rails up to 180 grit.

Headboard and Footboard
Glue up the panels you need for the headboard and footboard, cut them to shape on the band saw and sand them up to 180 grit.

You’ve probably noticed that the tenons on these two parts don’t have any shoulders. This is a traditional look. If you want to make you headboard out of thicker stock and cut shoulders on your tenons, that’s OK by me.

Break the sharp edges on all the parts using sandpaper and get ready for finishing. I used a red water-based aniline dye on this project followed by a couple coats of lacquer. Cherry will oxidize over time, so a dye or stain is really optional in my book.

When you assemble the bed, make sure not to overtighten the bed bolts. I tighten them until the posts stop wiggling. After every season or two, it’s a good idea to check the bolts to make sure they’re still snug. This will ensure your bed frame will stay rigid for years to come. PW

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Troy Sexton is a contributing editor for Popular Woodworking.

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