Introduction: How to Make McKenna’s Loft Bed (American Girl) From CARDBOARD “Faux” Challenge Entry

In 2012, American Girl’s Limited Edition Character (aka Girl of the Year) was a gymnast named McKenna Brooks. Among the many gymnastics-themed items in her collection was her “Big Ticket Set”, a cute light purple loft bed with starry curlicue railings, built in bulletin board and table, and a set of shelves. It came with bedding in dark purple and fluorescent yellow-green, a chair that matched the railings, rug and floor pillow, hamster cage setup, lamp and alarm clock, three miniature abridged books, and various writing- and gymnastics-related paraphernalia. The key feature of the set, however, is the loft bed itself.

As a retired item, the price of the loft bed (with or without accessories) can vary on the secondhand market, but it rarely drops below the original price of $225.00 (US). The idea of the Faux challenge is to create something that resembles and/or does the job of something else, preferably from cheaper materials. Therefore, I have made mine from cardboard.

Many thanks to the Fandom community and the blogsite American Girl Ideas, whose tutorial for a similar loft bed helped me double-check my measurements.

Corrugated Cardboard. (Two standard-size Tri Fold Display Boards provide a bit more than you need, with the added bonus of a white surface that makes painting easier.)

A ruled straightedge with Imperial measurement markings (a metal yardstick is the most useful) Pencil Sturdy Scissors and Craft Knife (such as Xacto, very useful for long straight cuts without bending the cardboard)

Hot Glue Gun and Glue (I used a Ryobi hi-temp gun, low temp may result in a weaker bond) Masking Tape (to cover rough edges and seams)

Acrylic Paints in White, Lilac, and Light Purple (use your favorite brand--you may need to mix a few paints to achieve an accurate shade)

An old plastic storage bin (this will be cut up to make the sliding cabinet doors)

Four plastic straws (standard length, non-bendy wields better results)

Scotch tape

Dark purple fabric (get extra if you’re making the bedding)--quilter’s cotton will work

Fluorescent yellow-green ribbon (¼” or ⅜” wide is best...mine was too wide)

Stiff wire (I used 9-gauge Galvanized--not aluminum)

Thin cardboard (an empty cereal box will suffice)

Star-shaped punches in ¾” and 1 ¼” sizes (Optional but recommended)

Light purple nail polish (I used Jam Sesh by Sally Hansen Hard as Nails)

Acrylic varnish (I used Ceramcoat Glossy) OR spray sealant (such as Krylon)

Step 1: The Cut List

Cut all the following pieces from cardboard, using your ruler, craft knife, and scissors:
--Eleven Long Post Pieces 19 ⅛”x1 ¼”

--Nine Short Post Pieces 18 ½”x1 ¼”

--Five Post Feet 1 ½” square

--One Ladder Wall 18 ½”x10 ¾”

--One Shelf Wall 18 ½”x8”approx*

--Two Bed Sides 20”x2 ½”

--Two Bed Ends 10 ⅞”approx*

--Two Mattress Supports 20”x10 ⅞”approx*

--One Bulletin Board 10 ⅝”x7”

--One Bulletin Board Trim 7”x1 ½”

--Two Cabinet Pieces 3”x8”approx*

--Two Cabinet Sides 4 ¼”x3”

--Two Shelves 2 ½”x8”approx*

--Four Steps 4”x2”

--Four Steps 4”x1”

--Two Table Pieces (see diagram)

*Pieces marked “approx” should be cut slightly larger than stated measurement, because they may need to be trimmed to fit depending on the thickness of your cardboard.

Step 2: Make the Corner Posts

Assemble four Posts by gluing two Long and two Short pieces together. Center the flat end on a Foot piece and glue in place. Cover all seams with masking tape for a smooth finish. (It is best to glue them in a square, as seen in the diagram. Mine would have been sturdier if I’d done that!)

Step 3: Make the Centered Post

Assemble the fifth Post using the three remaining Long pieces and the one remaining Short piece. This is the only leg not positioned in the corner. Add Foot piece and tape same as for other legs.

Step 4: Mark the Ladder Wall

Lay one Corner Post along one long edge of the Ladder Wall. Draw a line marking the width of the Post. Depending on the thickness of your cardboard, this could be between 1 ¼” and 1 ½” away from the edge. This edge will now be referred to as the Right edge and the marked side as the Outside.

Measure 4” from the Bottom edge of the Ladder Wall and make a mark on the line you just drew. Make three more marks, each 4” above the previous one. At each mark, cut a slot 4” long and wide enough to slide a piece of your cardboard through--but not so wide that it’s easy to do so.

Step 5: Assemble the Ladder

Glue two Corner Posts to the unmarked side of the Ladder Wall, making sure the Long Post pieces are toward the inside. (You will be gluing a Short Post piece to the Wall piece). Slide a 4”x2” Step into each slot, measuring so that 1” sticks out on the marked side (Outside) of the Ladder Wall. Glue each Step to the Right Corner Post and to the slot. Glue a 4”x1” Step to the underside of each 4”x2” Step and the Outside of the Ladder Wall. Once the glue is fully cooled, these steps will be very sturdy.

Step 6: Finish the Ladder and Shelf Walls

Glue the Shelf Wall to the 4”x2” Steps and the Corner Posts on the Inside of the Ladder Wall. OPTIONAL BUT RECOMMENDED: Cut a scrap piece of cardboard to cover the gaps between the Ladder Wall and the Shelf Wall at top and bottom. Allow glue to cool. With scissors, clip the corners of each two-layer Step on the Outside, then cover all exposed cardboard edges with masking tape EXCEPT upper edges.

Step 7: Make the Bed Frame

Glue one Bed End to the upper edge of Ladder Wall and exposed edges of nearest two Long Post Pieces. Glue a Bed Side to each 2 ½” edge of the Bed End and the other pair of Long Post Pieces. These will need propping as the glue hardens. Glue the remaining Bed End to the free ends of the Bed Sides, lining up the 2 ½” sides. Glue the two remaining Corner Posts in place, making sure the Long Post Pieces are to the inside. Cover all exposed cardboard edges and seams with masking tape.

Step 8: Position the Center Post

Position the bed frame so the Ladder Wall is to the left. Temporarily tape the Bulletin Board piece to the rear Bed Side and use it to position the fifth Post (the one made with three Long pieces). Glue the Post in place but NOT the Bulletin Board. Carefully remove the Bulletin Board piece without disturbing the Posts--they are only attached at the top so they will be wobbly! Now you can start on the Table.

Step 9: Install the Table and Bulletin Board Trim

Take one Table piece and see how well it fits in the corner between the three Posts you just added. You will likely need to cut a notch to fit around the front-most Corner Post. This is fine, in fact, it adds more stability. The rear left corner should barely touch the non-corner Post.

Trace the trimmed Table piece onto the other Table piece and trim the second piece to match. Line up the edges, glue the two pieces together. Seal the edges with masking tape; this makes a double-thick Table. Glue it in place 7 ¾” above the floor, you WILL need to prop it up as it dries. I also used the scraps from cutting out the notches to brace the table from underneath. If you do this, you will need to cover the edges of the bracing pieces with masking tape.

Glue the Bulletin Board Trim to the rear edge of the Table and the two adjacent Posts. Cover exposed edges and seams with masking tape.

Step 10: Add the Mattress Support Platform

16. Glue the two Mattress Support pieces together to make a double thickness. If you’re using Display Boards, I recommend keeping the white sides facing out--this makes painting easier later on. Fit the Mattress Support into the top of the frame and glue it in place. Cover all seams with masking tape once the glue has cooled.

There may be a gap between the top of the Shelf Wall and the bottom of the Mattress Support. If it’s too wide to be covered with masking tape, just glue a scrap piece of cardboard in place before adding tape. (My tape was wide enough not to need that).

Step 11: Make the Cabinet

Assemble the Cabinet by gluing the Cabinet pieces together, then taping over all seams and edges. Glue the Cabinet in place at the base of the Shelf Wall.

Step 12: Start Painting

Believe it or not, it’s already time to start painting. I begin by coating all brown cardboard surfaces white, as well as the entire Table, Shelf Wall, and the underside of the Mattress Support. You don't need to paint the back of the Bulletin Board Trim, though, as it will be hidden when you add the Bulletin Board itself.

Step 13: Decorate the Bulletin Board

Speaking of the Bulletin Board, let’s work on that while the paint dries. Lay it on your purple fabric and cut around it, adding about ¼” on each side. Glue the fabric along the edges of the cardboard, stretching it tight over the Bulletin Board surface. Glue five equal lengths of fluorescent yellow-green ribbon to the EDGES ONLY of the Bulletin Board. They should be tight enough against the fabric to hold a piece of posterboard slid underneath. Notice that I left a larger gap at the bottom of the piece--that will be hidden by the Bulletin Board Trim. And for the best accuracy, try to find narrower ribbon than I did!

Step 14: The Main Coat of Paint

Back to painting. Coat the inside of the Cabinet and the hollow where the mattress will sit in light purple (your darker paint). Paint the rest of the bed frame (except the white Table, Shelf Wall, and Ceiling--that’s the underside of the Mattress Support) in lilac. I also left the undersides of the Feet and the Cabinet white--no one will see that unless you tip your loft bed over.

Cover all but one long edge of each Shelf piece in masking tape, then paint with Lilac.

There's a bit of a continuity error in one of these photos. Can you find it and guess what the next step will be?

Step 15: Install the Bulletin Board and Shelves

Glue the Bulletin Board into place behind the Bulletin Board Trim. Now you can paint the back of the Bulletin Board lilac without risking any paint staining the fabric or ribbon. Glue the two painted Shelves to the Shelf Wall and the two adjacent Corner Posts, spacing them evenly between the top of the Cabinet and the bottom of the Mattress Support.

Step 16: Add Your Varnish

Give the entire loft bed (EXCEPT THE FABRIC-COVERED SIDE OF THE BULLETIN BOARD) a coat of varnish. I used a single layer of Ceramcoat Glossy, which gives a nice subtle sheen and seals the paint in well. If you’re using spray sealant, mask off the Bulletin Board with a scrap of paper first. (And make sure to spray in a well-ventilated area on a day with low humidity, use respiratory protection, keep away from open flame, etc. etc. Or just use a brush-on varnish like I did).

Step 17: Make the Sliding Doors

This is a complicated step, so bear with me. We're going to make the sliding doors of the Cabinet.

1. Measure your opening (it should be about 4”x8”, but individual cardboard thicknesses will make each Cabinet unique). Carefully cut two Cabinet Doors from the plastic bin, each [Cabinet Opening Height]x[½ Cabinet Opening Width Plus Less than 1” Overlap]. The edges are prone to cracking, so cover them in Scotch tape--this also protects against sharp edges and gives a nice finished look. And it’s okay if your bin isn’t perfectly clear. The original McKenna Loft Bed cabinet had frosted plastic doors, so not-quite-clear is more accurate.

2.If your straws have a bendy joint, add a little glue to keep it straight. (Make sure not to melt them with the glue gun nozzle though!) Cut a slit down the length of each straw, then slot the upper and lower edges of one Door piece into the slits. Make sure it can slide back and forth.

3. Remove the straws for now and cut the D-shaped handle opening in each door. I used a thumbtack to pierce several starting holes, then my Xacto knife to finish the job. Since Scotch tape on these edges would have wrinkled and peeled, I sealed the edges of the holes with a small bead of hot glue instead.

4. Replace the straws, making sure the handle opening is to the outside edge, not the inside edge. (This is a perfect case of do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do...I put them to the inside and realized that orientation makes it only possible to open one door!) Glue one pair of straws, with the door between them, to the upper and lower edges of the cabinet opening, about ⅜” from the edge. Now do the same with the second door, making sure the handle is to the outside and gluing the second pair of straws between the first pair and the edge. Make sure your doors still slide smoothly--a wayward blob of glue could mess things up. If a door pops out of its tracks, just wiggle it back in again. The straws are flexible enough.

5. If you were lucky enough to find lilac-purple straws, you can skip this step. If not, take some strips of thin cardboard or stiff paper and glue them around the edge of the Cabinet opening to conceal the straws, then paint and varnish to match the outside of the Cabinet. I used lilac cardstock, so I could skip the painting part.

Step 18: Prepare the Railings

Now that the doors are done, let’s move on to the railings. Finding the right wire is tricky--you want something stiff enough that it won’t deform when the bed is played with, but not so stiff you can’t bend or cut it without power tools. My wire was very hard to handle, so I reserved it for structural parts and filled in decorative elements with plastic furniture cording of a similar width. Start by cutting and bending the following shapes, allowing for an extra inch or so beyond the 2” railing height--these will form prongs that you’ll be poking into the cardboard in the next step. The given measurements are the dimensions of the railing above the edge of the bed frame.

Step 19: Railing Assembly

Poke holes at the corners of the bed frame and slide the wire “prongs” into the holes, securing each end with glue. If you have access to--and skills to use--metalworking tools, feel free to weld or solder the wire pieces at the corners of the bed. If you’re like me and you have neither access nor skills, just use hot glue. (This is where having a hi-temp gun is extra important!). Notice that I cut my wire pieces much longer than the measurements I gave you, and extended them down into where the mattress will go. This may be sturdier, but it also looks a bit messier than poking holes in the cardboard and masking tape and sliding the end of the wire in between the corrugations.

Make several star shapes from the thin (cereal box) cardboard. If you do not have punches, you can print out a silhouette of a five-pointed star, cut it out, and use it as a stencil. I used Creative Memories brand punches (don’t bother looking for that brand in stores--Creative Memories went out of business years ago) because I had them and I didn’t want to cut each star out by hand with scissors. Set them aside while you work on the curlicues.

Working slowly, cut, bend, and glue each curlicue piece in place. (I repeat what I said earlier about soldering/welding).Glue the thin cardboard stars in place, matching the various sizes with the designs in my photos (or, you know, just look up an image of the real loft bed, mine didn't come out exactly like the original). One trick I did use was to take a small whiteboard, prop it in the bed frame, and sketch the curlicue pattern on it. This helped when determining how long to cut each piece.

Step 20: Shelf Braces

Glue the Shelf Braces to the Shelves and to the Shelf Wall Posts. These are more decorative than structural--I think. I haven't put much weight on these shelves with or without the braces installed.

Step 21: "Paint" the Railings

Paint all wire pieces with a coat of nail polish. This will hide the glue and even make it resemble welding. (Unless you’ve actually welded it--in which case it won’t just LOOK like welding). I used up two standard-size nail polish bottles making sure all sides of the wire and the stars were covered with a smooth coat...and I strongly recommend you do this outside due to the strong fumes.

Step 22: Admire Your Work (or Head to the Fabric Store)

If you're only making the loft bed base, you're done! But a bed needs bedding, so I raided my fabric stash and took a trip to Jo-Ann's. To make the Bedding, you will need:

At least two Fat Quarters (or equivalent) of dark purple fabric (this should match what you used for the Bulletin Board)

At least one Fat Quarter (or equivalent) of fluorescent yellow-green fabric with a white print. McKenna's bedding was printed with stars, but I settled for the closest match my fabric store had: a quatrefoil lattice print. (Save the scraps from this if you plan on making the chair!)

Step 23: How I Made the Bedding

The blanket is the simplest. A rectangle of green print, a rectangle of purple, sew right-sides-together along three edges, turn right side out, fold in raw edges and stitch it shut.

The pillows are made in a similar way. Fold the big rectangle in half right-sides-together, sew along all but one side, turn it right side out, stuff with polyester fiberfill, fold in raw edges and stitch shut, repeat for other pillow.

For the mattress, I skimped on fabric (two Fat Quarters of purple isn't much) and made the bottom of the mattress from a pale gray fabric I had a lot of. No one can see it unless you flip the mattress over. The filling consists of one layer of foam cut from an old mattress topper (I hate those things, they always slip out of place) and two layers of thick quilt batting.

I attempted to replicate McKenna’s curly ribbon graphic on the purple pillow with embroidery but accidentally reversed it (the original pillow’s graphic is a mirror image of mine). You can use fabric paint instead.

Step 24: A Few Finished-Product Photos

Well, two. Since I got the cardboard for free and already had a lot of the supplies and tools, this project didn't cost me much money. But even if you buy all the materials it's still fairly inexpensive.

Two Tri-Fold Display Boards $2.77 each at Walmart: $5.54

Hi Temp Craft-Grade Hot Glue Sticks: $5.97 for a pack of 24 at Walmart

Roll of Masking Tape: $1.63 from MSC International

Acrylic Paint: $9.99 per 16oz bottle at Michael's: about $30 for white, red and blue (which is all you really need)

Plastic Bin: $2 for a standard Sterilite with lid at

Straws: about $1.50 for a pack of 100 (so about 6 cents for the four this project requires) from multiple retailers

Coil of 9-Gauge Galvanized Wire: $9.31 at Walmart

Nail polish: varies from $2 to $10 per bottle

Varnish: $10.99 for an 8-oz bottle at JoAnn's

Ribbon: 50 cents a spool at Jo-Ann's (look for sales)

Fabric: Price varies due to remnant supply: one Fabric Quarter costs less than a dollar at Jo-Ann's

Thin Cardboard: Free with your next purchase of any cereal, crackers, get the idea.

Total: About 71 dollars, but you might be surprised how much you already have and how much hunting for sales can save you. And it's still far better than $225 (the original price of the real set) or the hundreds of dollars an eBay seller might charge you. Go Faux and Save Dough!

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