Use these instructions to build a simple painter’s style ladder to use as decor in your garden. Made from 1×3 lumber, you can get the cuts done at the home improvement store and make it in an afternoon.
For more ideas also see 12 Creative and Rustic Garden Art Ladders.
Build a Decorative Garden Ladder
Out with the old and in with the new! My favorite old painter’s ladder that has lived in my garden for years finally started to rot beyond repair so I thought it was time to build a new one. I even gave it a pair of rainboots to protect the legs which helped it last a few extra years but, alas, all things must pass.
This time I decided to build a super-size garden ladder made specifically to be a decoration: not for climbing on. This way I could use the same size wood (1×3″) for all the pieces (except the top boards) with no concerns about making it strong enough for humans.
You may not want your ladder to be this large. I’ve got mine in a garden bed filled with tall bee balm (monarda) plants and it looks just right in proportion to the plants.
My aim was to make ladder-making as simple as possible while still ending up with something that looks like a painter’s ladder.
I’ve listed the wood cut sizes used so you can idea of what you’ll need for yours.
- Wood (see list below)
- Deck screws (48) 1.25-inches
- Saw (preferably a miter saw)
- Drill with bit for pilot holes and screw driver bit
- Measuring tape
- Exterior primer-paint or wood stain, paint brush
1Plan Size and Rung Spacing
Here are the sizes I used.
- Side Rails: (4) 1 x 3 x 6-feet long
- Rungs: (8) 1 x 3 x 24-inches long
- Top Joining Pieces: (2) 1 x 3 x 12-inches
- Diagonal Supports: (2) 1 x 3 x 36-inches
- Top Boards: (3) 1 x 6 x 31-inches
and (48) 1.25-inch deck screws
Lumber Note: Actual wood sizes are not the same as their common names. For example, a 1×3 piece may actually be 3/4-inch x 2.5-inches. The common names are just simpler to use so don’t freak out if you’re new to this and notice real-life measures are different.
To get started, decide how tall you want your ladder and how wide.
I made mine extra large so the side rails are 6-feet tall (1 x 3 x 6) and the rungs, which would be ‘steps’ on a normal ladder, are 24-inches wide (1 x 3 x 24-inches).
An actual vintage painter’s ladder (often used as garden art) has much smaller proportions with rungs perhaps 15-inches wide.
I made both sides of the ladder (“the rails”) the same so that I can (in the future) place a board across and use it as a shelf for flower pots.
My rungs are approximately 13-inches apart (spacing from top to bottom on the rails) but do map it out to make sure you like how it looks and make both sets of rails the same if you want to be able to add a shelf later.
The easiest way is to lay all the rail pieces on the floor one next to the other with the ends aligned, place the rungs where you want them, double check they are level across all boards, and mark your locations with pencil.
Assembly Tip: You will eventually have two screws holding each rung at each end but but don’t attach both of them yet. Just attach one at each end so the rungs can still be adjusted (you want them to twist in place for now).
We will attach the second screw at each rung end in Step 4 after the ladder has been secured in its final position.
Drilling Tip: Always create pilot holes first with a drill bit slightly smaller than your screws prior to fastening the screws. This will prevent the wood from splitting.
3Join Rails & Level Rungs
Once you have assembled the two ladder sides (rails with rungs), it is time to join them together.
Instead of measuring angles, I found a good trick.
Attach the top joining pieces (1 x 3 x 12-inches) to each of the rails, positioning the screws so that no matter how much you pull out the rails, the tops of the rails will not peak out above or at the ends of the joining boards. Be sure the screws are the same distance from the top and sides at each end.
This next photo shows what I mean. I’ve got the rails angled how I want them, the joining boards (1 x 3 x 12-inches) are parallel to the ground, and the two rails are at the same angle and the top joining boards are level.
You may want to trace around the tops of the rails with pencil to mark this position.
Sometimes trying to describe simple projects starts seeming too complicated as I write it. I hope you’re finding it helpful!
4Add Top Boards and Side Supports
When you have the ladder in the position you like for display (Step 3), add the two diagonal support pieces (1 x 3 x 36-inches) to secure it in place. These are called ‘spreaders’ on normal ladders, except these ones do not move.
I started with 1 x 3 x 36-inch pieces (2 total) and held them where I wanted to attach them. Then, I marked cut lines where they extended past the rails at each end and cut the wood so it would fit perfectly in place.
These support pieces are positioned just below the 2nd rung at the high end and just below the 3rd rung at the low end.
Be sure to reverse one of them so they form an X from side view: this way they will hold your ladder in place.
With the diagonal pieces in place, add 3 boards to the top (1 x 6 x 31-inches) or whatever scrap pieces you have—this is caled the ‘top cap’ on a normal ladder. I positioned mine so they are both wider and longer than the top of the ladder .
Now that the ladder is securely fastened, go ahead and add a second screw to each rung end to fix them in place. I angled mine slightly so rain water would could run off.
5Paint and Display
I gave my ladder a few coats of exterior primer-paint in Jazz Blue (CIL Glidden 30BB 10/337) which is the same paint I use for all the accent pieces in my garden including my shed door.
I wanted to add some pieces of chain to join the rails as a decorative hat tip to old-fashioned ladders but have to wait until some shows up at our local second hand shop.
The item sitting on top is the rain gauge for our weather station. We’re heading into fall now but in the spring I will likely add some garden art and a shelf for flower pots and grow some nasturtiums up the legs as one should.
The old painter’s ladder has been moved to another part of the garden where it can live out its days in peace.
If you like simple building projects like this, check out more items to build from wood for beginners.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛