BasicBUILDS: Build a Swing Bed

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This article is from Issue 82 of Woodcraft Magazine.

This deceptively simple Southern classic can be customized to fit any space or decor.

Swing beds have played a long and comfortable role in Southern history. In the days before central air-conditioning, folks slept on their covered porches to take advantage of the cool night air. My swings are still great for napping, but these days, they’re outfitted with a stack of pillows and employed as nostalgic swinging seats.

The surprising secret to building this large project is that you don’t need much woodworking experience or even a large workshop. After building more than 150 swings in my garage shop, I’ve come up with a solid, simple design that uses home center lumber and hardware, a few tools, and basic woodworking skills. In fact, you can assemble the project in one weekend, finish it the next, and hang it as soon as the paint’s dry. 

My swings are used indoors and out. For exterior installations, I recommend using a high-quality exterior paint, or a stain with a spar urethane topcoat. It’s best to bring blankets and pillows indoors. To protect the mattress from wet weather, zip it up in a vinyl liner.

Have it your way

By selecting a different sized mattress, you can easily adjust the size of your swing bed to suit your needs. (See the Swing Sizing Chart, right.) I buy most of my mattresses at a local discount store, but you can also find them online.

There’s plenty of room for other design variations: different infill options for the sides and back, finial posts, and different colors. Check out the “Designer’s Notebook” on page 41 for ideas and inspiration.

Framing lumber and basic joinery, plus a few screws and glue

A swing bed is an impressive piece of furniture, but it’s not difficult to build, nor expensive. Except for the mattress and bedding, everything you need for this project is available at your local home center (see Shopping List, below). Construction lumber is fine, but make sure to hand-pick each piece of wood to select clean, straight stock. You don’t need a jointer, but I suggest planing and then sanding each piece with 80-grit sandpaper before assembly to avoid splinters and to ensure a smooth-looking finish. Use the dimensions provided in the chart to make the frame and rails, and cut the other parts to fit.

Build the base: rabbet, notch, drilll, and drive

After cutting the corner posts and frame members to length, lay out the parts on a large, flat assembly table. Arrange the posts to make use of their best faces. If a 2×6 is crowned, flip it so that the crook faces up. Now, lay out the notches in the posts and end frame members, and cut as shown below. The base comes together quickly, but don’t rush it. Despite their “self-drilling” claims, structural screws sometimes split the wood. For best appearance and to eliminate the risk of splits, start each screw with a 1/2"-deep counterbore and a 3/16" clearance hole. Once the parts are together, drill 5/32" pilot holes before driving the fasteners. Fill the counterbores with plugs or putty before finishing.

Next, flip the base assembly and set the beams into the notches. Make sure that the ends of posts protrude evenly, then attach them to the base, as shown below. Finally, drill through-holes in the post ends for the hanging hardware.

Circ-sawn shoulders. Clamping and gang-sawing the end frame members and posts saves time and ensures symmetrical notches. Measure the blade offset, then tack on a guide and cut the shoulders as shown.

Rip out the rest. A bandsaw outfitted with a 1⁄2" skip-tooth blade makes quick work of rabbets and notches. A jigsaw or a circular saw can get the job done too.

Flush-fit corners. After drilling the counterbore and clearance holes, I apply a bead of adhesive and tack the corners with 13⁄4" brads. Then, I drill the pilot holes and drive the 6" structural screws.

Drop in the beams. As you did with the frame members, drill the counterbore, clearance, and pilot holes, and then drive the 6" screws. Recruiting a few extra drills really speeds up the assembly process.

Attach the posts, rails, and slats

After assembling the frame, it’s time to attach the posts. Although these posts don’t support the weight of the swing, I still screw them from the front and back to ensure that they remain rock solid. Next, cut the side and back rails to fit, and attach them as shown.

The stop strips sandwich the back and side slats. After attaching the wide side and back stops and the outermost upper narrow back stop, you can install straight 1 × 6" slats, as shown below, or different slats or panels for a whole new look.

Corners come first. Set a post flush with the end of the frame and attach it with three 3" deck screws. A square is a handy positioning aid. Next, drill and drive one 6" structural screw through the post and into the frame. Be careful not to hit the other fasteners.

Pulling it together. A lightweight tie-down strap beats a heavy bar clamp. Loop the strap around a pair of posts, insert a rail, and tighten the ratchet mechanism. When the rail is snug, drill the posts and drive in a pair of 6" structural screws.

Bungees make it better. After screwing the bottom stop to the end frame, I use elastic straps to position the top stop directly above the bottom stop, and then screw it to the side rail. 
Space and tack the slats. Longer bungees help keep the slats upright while adjusting them for equal spacing. Nail on the inner stop strip to finish the back.

Seat slats and hanging hardware

The last construction step is to attach the seat slats as shown. Then you’re ready to install your work. Don’t use rope, which can stretch and snap. Chain is strong and makes for easy level and height adjustment. Use a bolt cutter to remove excess links. For outdoor installations, stainless steel chain is best. If installing the swing indoors, follow the directions shown here, and make sure to allow at least 12" of swing room to the rear.

Screw in the seat slats. Evenly space out 5 or 6 slats across both beams, and then attach them with 15⁄8" screws.

Find the joists. Use a stud finder to locate the joist’s center. If need be, you can position the bolts wider than the seat.
X marks the spots. When drilling pilot holes into the joists I prefer using a bit that’s slightly smaller than the diameter of the bolt’s shank.

Install the eyebolt. Driving the 3⁄8" eyebolts into the joist should require some muscle. Inserting a screwdriver or wrench into the fastener offers additional leverage.

Hook up the seat. Working one corner at a time, attach the posts to the chain so that the seat is at knee-level. Fine-tuning the height by a link or two can make a big difference.

Designer’s Notebook

After building more than 150 swings, I’m still excited to start the next one. The reason for this might be because each swing is like a blank slate. Changing the shape of the slats, or using a different filler material, such as beadboard, or corrugated metal, transforms an assembly line project into a custom creation.

Here are a few of my favorites. I’d like to take credit for these designs, but in many cases, my clients deserve the credit. Of course, pillows and blankets provide a finishing touch. 

Lattice can be tricky to cut and paint (use a sprayer), but it’s easy to install.

Beadboard panels help the swing blend in with traditional furniture.

I purchased 22-gauge corrugated metal from a roofing supplier and cut the panels with a sheet metal nibbler.

I used a holesaw to create this “dogwood flower” cutout.

If you can’t hang your swing, consider legs. You can add hooks later.

The lattice-style panels required a few 2x4’s and careful work at the mitersaw. The parts were joined with pocket screws.


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