When my daughter asked me to build a learning tower for our grandson I didn't have the slightest idea what she was talking about. I quickly learned that learning towers are extremely popular and a great way to engage a toddler while mom or dad work at the kitchen counter. However, the downside is that buying a ready made learning tower can be very expensive. And, while there are hacks on Pinterest to modify an Ikea footstool, I believe this custom designed tower is a better way to go.
Basic Design Features
The first consideration when building a learning tower is that it's overall height approximates a kitchen countertop (36"). A child stands on a platform placed on one of three levels of support rails and can be moved up or down based on the age or size of the child. The top support rail position is generally about 19" above the floor with 3 1/4" spacing between the top support rails and each lower support rail position (the actual spacing between the support rail positions is 2 1/2" when the 3/4" thick platform is in place). Regarding the width and depth, a compact footprint is generally considered safer. This also reduces the weight of the tower and makes it easier to move and store.
Step 1: Material & Cut List
I chose "select grade" pine since it was the highest quality yet most cost effective wood for this lightweight project.
Quantity: 2 - 2" x 2" x 6' for the legs
3 - 1" x 3" x 6' for the tower rails and top trim
3 - 1" x 2" x 6' for the 3 platform supports
1 - 1" x 6" x 6' for the 3 standing platform and safety rail at rear of tower
Legs: 4 @ 33 3/8"
Tower Rails: 4 @ 14" and 3 @ 16" (deduct 2" per rail if not using mortise & tenon construction)
Platform Support Rails: 6 @ 12"
Standing Platform: 3 @ 15 1/2" (after glue up, cut to final size and use cutoff for safety rail)
Mitered Top Trim: 1 @ 17" and 2 @ 15" (approx. - size per personal preference)
(Use leftover cutoffs to trim edges of standing platform and rear safety rail and to make safety rail guide brackets)
Step 2: Dimensions & Construction Options
These dimensions are the overall dimensions after construction:
Height: 34 3/8" (Legs @ 33 3/8" + 3/4" top trim)***
Width: 17" (14" rails + 1 1/2" per leg)
Depth: 15" (12" rails + 1 1/2" per leg)
I chose to use a mixed set of woodworking techniques when building this project. I used mortise and tenon construction in building the frame and pocket hole joinery for the platform support rails. However, this project can be built in a number of different ways depending on your skill set, available tools or simply for ease of construction. Options could include using all pocket hole joinery, wood dowels or basic screw assembly. I have an instructable called "Oak & Glass Display Top End Table" which gives a detailed explanation of pocket hole joinery if this is a method you are interested in learning.
***The height can be modified per your preference. Most learning towers are 36" tall. However, I wanted to be able to slide mine underneath the countertop overhang for added stability. For this reason, my learning tower is slightly below the standard base cabinet height of 34 1/2". Check the detail in the accompanying photo for a visual representation.
Step 3: Mortise and Tenon Tips
This sequence of photos may be helpful if you have a router and would like to use it for making your mortises and tenons. I like it because, with a simple jig and a repetitive mounting technique, the location of every mortise is precise and will match its mating mortise perfectly. Attaching your router to a router table to create the tenons guarantees excellent results as well. However, if you don't have a router, another way to fabricate your mortises and tenons can be found in my instructable: Build this Woodworker's Workbench to learn Mortise & Tenon Joinery.
Making the Mortises
After marking the location for your mortises, clamp the work piece in place. Next, after attaching the jig to your router (plans for the jig can be found on the Woodsmith.com website), position the jig on the work piece over your markings. Using the markings, attach stop blocks to your worktable that restrict the movement of the router to match the size of your mortise. Make multiple passes with the router gradually increasing the depth of the bit. The final depth of the mortise should be 1 1/16". After making your first mortise, all subsequent mortises that are in the same location should be exactly the same size and in the exact same location on your other work pieces.
Making the Tenons
Use a fence to guide the work piece over a straight bit in multiple passes to create your tenons. It is always recommended to make the tenons slightly thicker than the mortise and then fine tune each one for a snug (but not overly tight fit) for each individual mortise.
Step 4: Assemble the Frame
As you fine tune each tenon to fit a specific mortise label them as shown in these photos. When assembling, glue and clamp up the two sides first. When dry, glue and clamp the front and back frame rails to the sides to complete the tower skeleton.
Step 5: Add the Platform Support Rails
Pocket hole joinery makes this part of the assembly fast and simple. If you don't own a pocket hole jig but want to add one to your workshop, the Kreg pocket hole system is the brand I've used to build several pieces of furniture that are featured in my collection of Instructables.
How to add the platform supports:
- Measure up 19" from the bottom of each side leg.
- Screw a rail to each side leg
- Take two pre-cut spacers and clamp them below the top support rail
- Screw the second rail in place
- Reposition the spacers
- Screw the third rail in place
- Repeat the entire process for the other side of the tower
Step 6: Building the Tower Platform
Building the tower platform requires cutting 3 pieces of material from the 1" x 6" to equal length and gluing them together. This sequence of photos shows the clamping technique I used.
- First use wood cauls as shown in photo #1 to level up the boards. Wrapping the cauls with wax paper or adding strips of shipping tape to the cauls will keep the glue squeeze out from sticking to them. Clamp as tight as possible.
- Next, as seen in multiple photos, clamp small wood blocks at the ends of the joined boards to make sure the ends also are in alignment.
- Photos two thru five show how the clamps are secured to the work piece. I used two bar clamps spaced roughly 5" apart. Again, clamp as tight as possible. Seeing some glue squeeze out is a good sign. Wait until the glue sets up before scraping away the excess with a putty knife.
- Photo six is a view of the clamps from underneath the platform.
- Photo seven shows the finished platform with the edges trimmed out with 3/4" pine.
- Photo eight show two rails added to the bottom of the platform to lock it in position in the learning tower.
- Photo nine shows an additional piece of 1" x 6" that will be used to close off the back of the tower for additional child safety. Multiple project photos show two guide brackets, attached to the sides of the tower, that hold this piece in position and allow for easily sliding it in place when a child is in the tower.
Step 7: Paint or Use a Stain and Sealer to Complete the Project
Once completed the learning tower can be stained or painted. One very important consideration is that, if you build your learning tower out of pine, you will need to apply a pre-stain wood conditioner prior to finishing. This is because pine often absorbs stain unevenly producing a blotchy appearance if the wood is not prepped properly. I chose to finish my project with a combination Danish oil and stain made by Watco.
When finished, this project will provide a great deal of satisfaction (and pride) when you see you child or grandchild standing in his learning tower for the first time. You will have built a very functional piece of children's furniture using techniques that will serve you well as you move on to future furniture making projects.
(FYI -this project will hopefully be included in the furniture making contest. If you like it, please vote)