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I want to build a rope ladder where the steps are kept in place by two vertical rods. So that it (almost) feels like a regular vertical ladder, but with the option of retracting it. (For my older child, to have a place where the younger one can't get.)

A step looks like this from the top: enter image description here

The large black circles are holes where the two rods go through, the small circles are holes for the rope.

Both steps and rods are made from conifer wood (spruce or pine, I don't know). The rods have a diameter of 35mm. The holes in the steps will have a diameter of 40mm to allow some tolerance (because the rods are not perfectly straight and because I will probably not be able to make the steps completely horizontal).

My goal is to avoid the steps getting stuck on the rods even when they become inclined like here:

enter image description here

They should always move, so that it is never necessary to relocate steps by hand.

How do I do that?

I sanded the hole to make the wood of the step very smooth. I tried adding a piece of acrylic felt on the wall of the hole. Both did not help.

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  • The step will jam on a single rod, how does it do with both rods? It may jam on occasion, but will probably remain much more level much of the time. Additionally, the ropes through the holes will be additional points to help keep the steps level. Do remember, though, that even Venetian blinds, with 2 cords and a leveler at each of three locations across each blind will sometimes stick, so you may be chasing a unicorn here in the hope that they will never need manual adjustment.
    – FreeMan
    Aug 21, 2023 at 12:58
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    I've got to ask, though, how will this retract with the long dowels holding the steps apart? Are you making collapsible dowels? Why not just suspend the steps from the ropes and make it a rope ladder? Even a 4 year old can climb/descend a rope ladder (I know - we had all 3 of our kids climb down the emergency fire escape ladder when the youngest was 4 to be sure they knew how to put the ladder in place, and to build in them the confidence that they could.)
    – FreeMan
    Aug 21, 2023 at 13:00
  • You might need some kind of (metal?) sleeve on the ID of the step.
    – Huesmann
    Aug 21, 2023 at 16:32
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    @FreeMan I don't understand you question. What dowels? There are no dowels. It IS (gonna be) a rope ladder, only with the addition that steps are kept in place by the rods, so they cannot swing in any direction.
    – Kjara
    Aug 21, 2023 at 18:46
  • @Huesmann What is the ID of the step?
    – Kjara
    Aug 21, 2023 at 18:47

5 Answers 5

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Simply waxing the rods periodically may be all you need. Remember that the kid can adjust tension on the two ropes to bring the treads straight again

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  • Also put some wax on the inside of the holes before assembling it.
    – Mark
    Aug 21, 2023 at 14:50
  • Remember… wax is inherently tacky. Tackier than wood.
    – Tetsujin
    Aug 21, 2023 at 17:43
  • Yes, but it has very low shear strength. As you know if you've ever stepped on the over spray from waxing furniture. It is a traditional kid-safe lubricant.
    – keshlam
    Aug 21, 2023 at 18:00
  • Nearly all my fixtures/furniture/doors are waxed. I even use it on door hinges to 'slow them down' (Victorian house, nothing is level/square). I don't have kids… or I'd probably have to switch up to a lot more glass, melamine & plastic ;) btw, I've never, ever 'sprayed' wax. It comes in a big stinky tin, it's a once-a-decade application. If you mean wax or silicone-based 'furniture polish' then please differentiate.
    – Tetsujin
    Aug 21, 2023 at 18:28
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Some sensible ideas so far… one more…

Add weight to the bottom step.

If you've ever had venetian blinds, you'll have discovered that over time, they no longer want to drop to their full depth, so you need to pull on the bottom rail, or add weight to it.

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I think I finally understand the design, and I now have a proposed solution.

The "rods" (or poles) are fixed in place (like a fireman's pole). Their job is to keep the rope ladder from swinging, while the rope itself supports the steps. The ropes can also be used to pull the ladder up, while the poles remain in place. (How the rungs will be kept in place once lifted is another question for another day.)

To keep the rungs from jamming at an angle while they are pulled up or lowered down, either they holes in the steps need to be precisely larger than the poles they slide over (bronze bushings in the steps sliding on a bronze pole would help) to prevent any lateral movement, or they need to be significantly larger than the pole so there's enough play to allow them to move freely without snagging at all.

If the pole diameter is fixed at 35mm, then the holes may need to be 50 or 60 mm in diameter to ensure there's enough freedom of movement. The best way to determine the exact diameter would be through either modeling (probably with expensive computer software that would be impractical for a DIYer) or trial and error. It will probably take making several ladder rungs and testing them to see how big the hole has to be to provide free movement. Note that testing on just one pole won't do the trick (doesn't matter how big the one hole is, you'll always be able to get the rung wedged on a single pole), you'll have to have a 2-pole setup to successfully test this.

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Two things:

  • Wax
  • Bore taper

Wax has already been suggested as a lubricant. That's fine. However, binding can easily overcome that lubrication, so taper the holes. Use a countersink bit, step bit, bevel router, or other means to make the holes taper slightly to the center of the thickness. This way, even if the rungs become cocked, there's less binding, or at least they won't bind until a more severe angle is reached.


Of course, the younger one will just climb the pole. It's a fun idea, but it won't work.

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  • The younger one is not going to be able to climb the poles until she is old enough to get the plateau for herself (the older one will be too large then). In fact, my older one - currently 4 - is not able to climb a pole. I do not expect the younger one to learn that before 3-4 herself.
    – Kjara
    Aug 24, 2023 at 19:04
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even when they become inclined

I think that's the key. Don't drill the holes straight. Drill them at an angle to match the expected angle of the ladder when in use. That may require slightly deeper treads, but that's not such a bad thing.

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  • Or, better: drill oversized holes, since they're only a guide and weight is carried by the rope.
    – keshlam
    Aug 21, 2023 at 18:02
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    There is no angle. The rods are vertical and the steps are above each other. Just like a regular bunk bed ladder (e.g. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bunk_bed#/media/File:Bunk_bed.jpg)
    – Kjara
    Aug 21, 2023 at 18:39
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    @keshlam Did you read my question? The holes ARE oversized. Rods have 35mm diameter, holes have 40mm diameter.
    – Kjara
    Aug 21, 2023 at 18:40

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