Introduction: A Cheap and Easy Four Poster Bed.

This is a bed I built when we were first married. It's been a while. I was building props for the theatre centre, so this is really a large, durable prop. Looked at another way it's an elaborate lamp with a mattress. It was built between 10pm and 5am, in one night. It took two of us, myself and a friend who couldn't hold a hammer by the right end but was intelligent and kept things moving. When my wife saw it finished she went into labour and had our first child, so it was worthwhile.

Two years later we added the fabric and the lights. Then we bought our house. It was built in 1912 and the upper floor ceilings were too low for the bedposts, so we put it in the spare bedroom. Child #2 slept in it for years, and when he moved out we offered it to him.

I'm showing how to reassemble it, but it's a simple structure, and if you've seen this you could make one. You can't do it in a night. I was insane. You could do it in a weekend.

Most of the wood is old and ratty. Our rental house had enormous quantities of wood buried in the yard. I don't know why. The week before the construction was spent mining wood and washing it. The posts are the centre cores from rolls of irrigation ditch liner fabric. I admired them at work and found four on the porch when I got home. (I'm sure concrete form tubes - Sonotubes - would work as well.)

Again, this is a prop. It doesn't have the fit and finish of a real bed, but I still think it's cool. You could sleep on a mattress on the floor, or you could buy a flat-pack particleboard thing and watch it slowly fall apart.

It was cheap - the total cost was 1x4s for the decking, some hardware and cloth and electrical stuff. If you have a supply of cheap wood, go for it. People will still tell you they loved it long after your collapsing particleboard Danish modern bed is forgotten. (No slur - I like good scandinavian furniture.)

Tools: I bandsawed the wood, and used a hand drill with a spade bit and a couple of twist drills. I had an old sabresaw to cut the tubes, because inch thick cardboard is tough and brutal to cut. Everything else was easy, the tubes were very difficult. This is why the lines are uneven.

Where is the line between furniture and props? Interesting question. If it's crap with a cheap finish and will last until you get it home, it's a prop designed to sell itself. If it's made to impress visitors, it's a prop for your home. If it's well made and you're making something insane because it's what you want ... it's still a prop. The Shakers made everything as simple as possible so they didn't impress anyone at all, except God. That still makes it props, but with a very small target audience. There's a very blurry line, and unless you make display-only stuff it's always going to be part prop and part furniture.

This is a good thing - you're free to have fun with your designs. It doesn't have to be perfect, it just has to be interesting, and it has to stand up to being used.

That said, I should have bought enough fabric to reach the floor. Maybe next time.


Sonotubes or other tall cardboard tubes



16 lag bolts

4 carriage bolts

Robertson screws

Wire, fixtures, bulbs, Marettes, a plug, staples.

Saw, drill, wrench.

Step 1: Delivering the Parts

1. My truck. If you drive a big truck people say things about your manhood. I don't care, I built a bed with an eight-foot pillar at each corner and a light on top. Trucks are great. There's no reason for this picture to be here.
2. This is the bed in the back of the truck. There's not a lot to it. Ignore the bags of clothing. The truck came with the bed extender, and I thought it was gimmicky. It's really nice to have. The point here is that there's not much to this thing. Solid wood is strong and light and durable. Oddly enough, so are cardboard tubes and light bulbs, but that's not the point i'm trying to make.

Step 2: The Frame

This is the main frame, assembled. There are four carriage bolts in it, and no other hardware. Again, this is easy. I haven't detailed the lights here, because lighting is easy to do. If you don't know how, you have a friend who would be happy to show you, and then take over and do it. Trust me.

Step 3: Corner Joints

A corner. Cut two half-depth notches and slot them together. Notice how beat up the wood is. These are 2x6s. I marked where everything went in felt pen - L1 is the first decking board - and was very glad I did. Everything that goes at one corner is numbered, and there's a circle round it so you know it means 'corner.'

The second picture is the joint together. it isn't tight, I hit it with the heel of my hand once and it dropped into place. The decking makes it more solid. (That's later.)

Again, I won't detail the wiring. It's very simple, and I can add a circuit diagram if anyone wants.

Step 4: The Frame, Mostly Done

Eli, a helpful child who wanted to be somewhere else. (We'd already dismantled the bed, loaded the truck, driven to the new place and carried all the parts up a flight of stairs.) He's playing with a Tibetan prayer bowl (they're very cool) and trying to look enlightened, which he isn't. This is what the frame looks like before the centre beam is in.

Step 5: Adding the Centre Beam

1. One end of the centre beam. Two big holes through, two smaller ones which intersect them.

2. There are two matching holes in the middle of the end 2x6. The silver things are carriage bolts. There's a small square under the head that cuts into the wood so it doesn't rotate while you do up the nut on the other end, and the head is domed so you won't kick it. You can build just about anything with a handful of these and some 2x4s. (I've built scaffolding and loft beds and treehouses. Don't forget to add some diagonals so they don't fold up on you. Everything else is easy.)

3. Here are the other ends of the carriage bolts, sticking into the larger holes.

4. And with a nut and washer. Note that the washers are bent. That's okay. These are tedious to do up, but there are only two at each end. I ran the wiring through the same holes, but you can put it anywhere - it's under a bed. I stapled it to the sides of the beams.

Step 6: Legs

1. This is a leg, made from two chunks of 2x6, I think. It's not critical. These fit inside the corner posts and the frame rests on them. Note the corner numbers. I mentioned a bandsaw earlier, but you could cut these with a handsaw, or a hacksaw. Hacksaws are made for metal, but they do a good job on wood. They only have about a 4" cut depth, so sometimes you have to get creative, but they don't bind in a cut easily because the blades are so thin. If you're buying a saw, get a decent wood saw. If you have a hacksaw, you can probably get by with that.

2. Here's a leg with one corner of the frame sitting on it. The post isn't in place yet, but this gives some idea of how it goes together. If you didn't want to use hardware you could do all of this with notches, but I like carriage bolts, and they let you be a little less precise and still build something that doesn't wobble. Also you may be in a hurry, for instance if there's a pregnant woman about to go into labour on the couch because she doesn't have a bed. The legs are pretty forgiving, by the way. Overall height and width don't matter, only the support depth.

3. The frame sitting on four legs. Nothing is bolted together yet. You could do this and forget the posts, but it wouldn't be very exciting. Also if you just want a loft bed there are easier ways than this to build one.

Step 7: The Posts

1. The corner posts, with leg slots cut in them. The front one is installed, but I haven't detailed that yet. The wrench is to hold the wiring in place so we don't have to fish it through again, which is a pain.

2. Here's the base of a post with the two leg slots and a wire going in. Some of the wiring fell into place, some we had to shove through with a stick. I realise now that this one has a wiring hole drilled in it. I stuffed it up a leg slot, and it got caught on the leg and got in the way. Drill some wiring holes. It's way better.

3. Sliding a leg into a post. The wider parts stick out of the slots for the frame to rest on.

4. Properly in, except we forgot the wire and had to take this apart. It's a loose fit so that took about four seconds.

Step 8: Lag Bolts

1. A lag bolt. One end is a wood screw, the other is a bolt head. We did half of these up with a wrench, then got sick of it and grabbed a ratchet. I prefer carriage bolts because there's a nut on the other end and things won't fall apart even if the bolt is loose, but lag bolts (or lag screws) are essential if you can't put a hole right through. A lot of people power screws into place with screw guns. I don't like this, and you absolutely can't do it with a lag bolt.

2. These two go through the frame, through the side of the post, and into the leg. There are two on the other side of the post. It really helps to have three people - two to get the post and leg into position, one to hold that side of the frame up while you do that, and to make sure the post doesn't fall over while you line up the holes and get the lag bolts in. Lag bolts are fairly self-aligning because they have points on the ends. I also drew alignment marks on the posts and the frame the first time we put it together.

3. One side done up. The slot is rough, but you can't see this area when the decking is on. If you examine commercial furniture, especially cheap stuff, you'll be surprised at the amount of stuff you see that would embarrass you if you did it yourself. It's more important that it's done than that it's perfect. Especially if someone is asking questions like, "How far apart are the contractions?"

It's interesting that you can use old beat up materials and get something that looks good as a whole. Partly this is because the whole thing is at a bigger scale than the damage, but also wood ages gracefully. Beat-up plastic disintegrates and is thrown out. Beat-up wood has character. This isn't about making elegant, perfect furniture that will someday be in a museum, it's about how to quickly make something cooler than you can buy, for not much money.

I've been asked if you could hang a hammock from corner to corner. You couldn't - the leverage on the tubes would tear out the lag screws. Also it's already a bed.

Step 9: Light Bases

1. A light fixture. These sit in the top of the posts. The two bottom sections are slotted together and then glued to the top, which is a circle cut with a router and a scrap chunk of plywood to pivot it in a circle. The plywood was an old sandwich board someone left in our back alley.

2. From the top. The triangle is to hold the shade in place. Holes are for wires and to allow a little air circulation, though since we used 25 watt bulbs this hasn't been a problem. You can get the ceramic lamp base in a decent hardware store (or a crappy big box place with almost no variety or staff) for a few bucks.

3. The top of the fixture unscrews. There are two holes for mounting screws and two terminals for your wires. There's not a lot to them. Related note: I used just enough wire, and it was a pain to fish it through and position the posts without having it fall back inside. Leave lots of extra wire, 18" minimum, but four or five feet isn't too much. The excess can sit inside the post. My friend the electrician said, "Rookie mistake. Always leave a lot of extra wire."

Step 10: Decking

Here's the frame and the posts and fixtures with the bulbs in. The bulbs are the original incandescents I put in 28 years ago, and we somehow got them here without breaking any or having the filaments disintegrate. Also I washed them all in the sink. Now I'd use LEDs, even though they probably wouldn't last this long, and the cheap ones have a harsh white light. Actually if I was doing this again I might spiral rope light up the posts and put an LED bulb on top. When you're building your own stuff you have a lot of freedom to play around.

My intrepid helper is putting on the decking with a screwdriver and lots of teenage sarcasm. Originally I measured a 45 degree angle and screwed the first board down. The rest were positioned using a copy of The Forever War standing on end to get the spacing. I had a copy there because it's a great book, and about the right thickness. (Originally I left the boards all a bit long and then cut the ends off in a line with a circular saw, and sanded the edges.) We used 1" Robertson (square drive) screws, one per end, and two drills, one for pilot holes and the other to put them in.

Robertsons don't cam out, and they make everything infinitely easier. You can use torx or posidriv or some engineer's techno-overkill wet dream egomania, but Robertson is way better. I've got screws that have been used four and five times. Robertsons are easy to put in and don't die because the heads don't tear out. You could also use Philips and wind up in a mental home, or slot screws and pretend the bed is a time machine and you're in 1750. Seriously - what shape is the drive on a ratchet? A square. There are only so many regular shapes you can make, given the laws of reality, and that's the best one for screws.

Step 11: The Light Covers

The light covers (they're not really shades) are icosahedra, made from glass and silicone. These are easy to make, and pretty, but this is already a bit long so I won't detail that. They sit on the top of the posts. You can see them in the first picture. I'm sure someone has done an Instructable about them, if not I could probably do that. The method came out of the book Shelter in about 1975.

Step 12: Final Notes, Suggestions.

That's it, really. There's other stuff you could do, and some I've been meaning to.

The decking in the very corners has a tendency to tear off, because there are two screws close together and five inches of overhang for leverage. I'd like to cut a corner section out of 3/4" plywood with a ring that goes around the post, to match the light fixture, and screw it to the frame. You could do some nice ornamental stuff, especially if you had a friend with a waterjet cutter. You could put a second, wider ring a foot up the post to use as an end table.

The mattress tends to move around, especially if you sit up in bed and read. A square of trim for it to sit in would fix this.

I'd like to connect the posts at the top with beams of some type, probably metal tubes (Someone's going to hang from them, so they have to be tough) and put up curtains on them. There's something appealing about being able to shut the curtains and make the bed into its own little world, especially if you want to seduce someone. (This is not a problem if they're already pregnant, which may be why it hasn't been done on this one.) I'd probably use white gauze of some kind, so it wouldn't be gloomy inside.

I'm not sure how I'd attach a headboard. Maybe it would just stand between the bed and the wall. Currently the bed has two rolled-up foamies in cloth bags we made, sitting between the mattress and the wall. This works okay, but a nice angled headboard to lean against would be nice.

If you had a half horse gear motor and some cams you could make the whole thing rock gently back and forth as though you were in a boat. Probably I'll do that on the next bed I make.

Safety. I'm not going to tell you to be careful. You're an adult. If you're a child, you probably have more sense than most adults. Don't drill holes through the boards into your parents' floor. If you want to drill the big holes without a drill press a handheld brace and bit is the way to go. You can usually find them at flea markets for a few bucks. Usually they have the last big drill bit the owner's grandfather used, still in them.