Murphy Bed

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This article is from Issue 103 of Woodcraft Magazine.

How to make a murphy bed with included book shelves. A great DIY home renovation project.

Create a convertible bedroom with cool cabinetry, the right hardware kit, and clear instructions.

I suspect that a lot of empty nesters would like to convert a kid’s former room into a usable space for other pursuits while still having it available for visiting friends and family. The solution is a comfy, standard-sized Murphy bed that quickly flips out of the way when not needed. I wanted one myself.

After some research, I found a nice, well-made, reasonably priced Murphy bed hardware kit for the job. (See page 62.) What’s not so nice is the kit’s instruction booklet, with its metric dimensions, minimal illustrations, and a bed cabinet design that leaves a lot to be desired. After puzzling through the hardware installation, I designed much nicer cabinetry to accommodate it, and I have to say the unit looks and works great! The cleverly designed spring-loaded bed mechanism is adjustable for tension and lets you lower the bed with one hand while swinging the legs down for support. When raising the bed back into the cabinet, swing the leg stretcher up onto the mattress to help hold it in place while vertical. 

I based the bed cabinet design on an 8"-thick, full-size mattress, which will suit most guest rooms. I flanked the cabinet with bookcases, tying all three units together visually with molding at the base and a square bead that runs along the top. Soffit boards atop the square bead reach to the ceiling to hide the metal mounting brackets and prevent a dust trap. A mantel reinforces the door while providing a pretty platform for decorative items. I built the project with clear, vertical-grain fir plywood trimmed out with solid vertical-grain fir to match my room’s trim. Build and style your version to suit your own décor.

Plywood panels, solid wood trim, and simple joinery

The bed- and side-cabinet assembly sits on a base and is topped with a square-bead frame and soffit. The bed frame attaches to the bed cabinet via axles on the balancers that protrude through the frame sides and connect to rotation plates within the cabinet sides. Slats riding on ledger strips on the bed frame provide the platform for a mattress. (The unit is designed to transfer body weight to the frame, not the door, which is chiefly cosmetic.) Plywood panels are edged with solid wood where plies would otherwise be visible, and all parts connect with biscuits and/or screws, with moldings nailed in place. 

Order of Work

  • Build bed frame and cabinet
  • Make and attach door
  • Build side cabinets
  • Install cabinets
  • Add moldings

The Question of Customization

The hardware kit and the 8 × 54 × 731⁄2" full-size mattress I used (see p. 62) are both excellent, reasonably priced products that work well for this design, and I recommend them highly. But can you customize this build to suit different sized mattresses? Sure, but it will change the location of the pivot point, so you’ll need to work that out in a drawing and/or mock-up.

Build the bed frame and cabinet

Referring to the drawings, make the top, bottom, and sides for the bed cabinet. Also make the headboard, footboard, sides, and double-thickness center beam for the bed frame. Apply solid wood edging where shown. Precisely lay out and drill the axle holes in the bed frame sides, then use each balancer to lay out its bolt holes, counterboring them on the outside faces for the cup washers. (Important: Make sure the top edge of the installed balancer will sit exactly 4-3/8" up from the bottom edge of its frame side to align with the tops of the ledger strips.) Similarly, lay out and drill the rotation plate blind holes in the bed cabinet sides, and then use the plates to lay out their bolt holes. After drilling the bolt holes, lay out and drill the pocket screw holes for attaching the door later. Then assemble the bed frame, make and attach the cleats at the bottom edge of the headboard, and mount the balancers. Next, assemble the bed cabinet. Screw the glued-and-biscuited joints together, except at the exposed front edges of the cabinet. Simply clamp there. 

Biscuit the bed frame and cabinet members. After drilling the hardware attachment holes for the balancers and rotation plates, cut the #20 biscuit slots for joining the parts, including slots for two laterally oriented biscuits at the bottom of each end of the center beam.
Drill pocket screw holes. Drill pairs of pocket screw holes about 8" apart on the sides, center beam, and footboard, avoiding the balancer locations. Skip the headboard, which receives a screw cleat instead. 

A Good Case for Prefinishing

This project presents a great opportunity to “prefinish” parts as you build. For example, I wiped varnish on the exposed sections of the bed cabinet sides before assembling the case. Same thing with the door before attaching it to the bed frame. Just make sure to avoid joint surfaces. This approach leads to better, more efficient finish work. It just requires some forethought to ensure that the entire build isn’t stalled while waiting for finish to dry. 

How to assemble a bed frame.

Assemble the bed frame. Attach the doubled-up center beam to the headboard and footboard with biscuits, glue, and pocket screws. Then join the sides to the headboard and footboard with biscuits and glue, ensuring that everything is square under clamp pressure. 

Bed balancers. Bolt the balancers in place through the holes you drilled in the frame sides prior to its assembly. Make sure that the tip of the axle bolt projects 1⁄8" from the axle, which will aid in frame adjustment during its installation. 

Rotation plates. The blind holes you drilled in the cabinet sides accept lugs on the rotation plates. These help the plates bear the weight of the bed frame and mattress and withstand the torque from the mechanism.

Making a door using-clamps-glue-and-wood-panels.

Install the panels. Glue each panel into its opening in turn, using clamping cauls over the rabbets. The first panel is easy to clamp along all four edges, but the second requires some improvisation in the form of a long bar clamp and wedges to apply pressure to the inboard edge.

Build and attach the door

Build the door frame, connecting the stiles and rails with #10 biscuits. Use the dimensions given as a general reference, but make sure that your door width is 1/2" less than your actual cabinet opening width, which will create a nice gap of about 1/4" around the door. Rout a 1/2 × 3/8" rabbet in the back of each frame opening, climb-cutting to prevent tear-out. (See p. 64.) Now make the panels, rounding their corners to match the rabbet corners, and glue them in place as shown. Make the mantel, attaching the corbels with #20 biscuits. Apply finish to it and to the show face of the door. Then attach the mantel. Install the bed frame in its cabinet by lowering the balancer axles into their rotation plate housings. If necessary, adjust the axle bolts to bring the frame sides parallel to the cabinet sides. Then shim and attach the door to the bed frame as shown. Finally, install the slats.

Installing mantel to add rigidity to murphy bed.

Mount the mantel. The mantel is not just decorative; it’s crucial to the rigidity of the large door, and provides a pull-bar of sorts to open the bed. To install it, drive in long screws from the back side.

Attaching a door in a diy home renovation project.

Attach the door. After installing the bed frame in the cabinet, shim and clamp the door in place as shown. Ensure that it’s plumb, with consistent gaps at the sides and top. Then attach it to the bed frame with pocket screws from the back side, driving them through the bed frame members and the cleat on the headboard. 

How to install bed slats when making a bed.

Install the bed slats. Screw the ledger strips inside the frame, then screw the slats to them. The slats that rest on the balancers should be screwed to the center beam. Leave a couple of slats off for now to provide access to the tensioning handles on the balancers.

Kit for a Queen

When reviewing the product information on p.62, you may notice that I have paired a full-size mattress with a queen-size hardware kit. It’s because my custom build here is heavy, and the mechanism designed for a queen-size mattress has an additional 80 lbs. of lifting capacity over the version for full-size mattresses.

How to use biscuit joinery in diy projects.

Right-hand stile attachment. To achieve a slight overlap at the edge of each right-hand face frame stile, register the bottom of the biscuit joiner on the bench when cutting the case biscuits. Then, when cutting the slots in the mating stile, rest the joiner on a thin piece of cardboard.

Build the side cabinets

Build the side cabinet boxes to the dimensions shown in the drawing, using biscuits and screws throughout, but omitting screws on the exposed side of the right-hand cabinet. The rear edges of the panels are rabbeted to accept 1/2"-thick plywood backs, and I drilled rows of 1/4"-diameter shelf pin holes in each side. Next, build the face frames, biscuit joining the rails to the stiles. Make the left-hand stile for the left-hand cabinet’s frame about 3/8" oversize in width to allow a scribe-fit to the wall during installation. Make the right-hand face-frame about 3/16" wider than its cabinet to allow flush-trimming to the cabinet sides. Then attach the face frames as shown. 

Left-hand stile attachment. Pocket-screw the left-hand stiles to the cases, drilling in from the cabinet exterior, where the holes will be hidden.
Flush-trim finish. Use a router outfitted with a flush-trim bit to flush up the stiles to the cases, excluding the left-hand scribe stile on the left cabinet. Climb-cut to prevent splintering and tear-out. 
How to install cabinets in diy home projects.

Scribe, then anchor. Place the left-hand cabinet on the base, pressed lightly against the side wall. Then guide a pencil against a thin spacer to transfer the contour of the wall onto the stile (inset). After trimming to this scribe line with a block plane or belt sander, screw through the cabinet back into a rear wall stud, and pocket-screw the side to the base.

Install the cabinets

The cabinets all sit on a single base to keep them level with each other. The base is screwed together from strips of plywood, with a projecting section added in front to accommodate the deeper bed cabinet. Referring to the footprint of your cabinets, make the base a little undersized overall. During installation, shift it forward to align its front edges with your cabinets. Place shims under the base to level it if necessary. If your cabinets come out at slightly different heights, glue thin wood shims to the base to level the tops to each other. 

Install the bed cabinet. Without an upper stop strip in the cabinet, the door/bed frame assembly will rest tilted inward as shown. Get help tipping the cabinet in place onto the base, then screw it to the adjacent cabinet and attach its right-hand side to the base with pocket screws. 

Top braces are critical. The bed cabinet will pull extremely hard on the wall when the bed is lowered, so attach three heavy-duty corner braces to the top of the cabinet, driving long screws deep into the wall studs. 
Add two strips. Brace the door partway open, and screw a stop strip under the top edge of the cabinet, making sure to locate it for a consistent door inset all around. Then make a filler strip for the bottom, and nail it into place, making sure the door will clear it. 
How to securely add legs to bed making project.

Add the legs. Adjust the tension of the balancers so the bed frame sits perfectly level while carrying not quite as much weight as the mattress. Then attach the legs. Afterward, measure between them, and make and attach the stretcher.

Finishing touches

All that’s left is to attach the legs and then 
trim out the unit, beginning with the base moldings. I made mine by chamfering 
3/4 × 3-1/8" stock to yield a 1/4"-wide flat on top, and I prefinished it before fitting and attaching it as shown. Also mill and finish enough stock for the square bead at the top. Fit the pieces for a 3/4" overhang, mitering and screwing them in place as you go. Then build the soffit assembly as shown, and tack on the ceiling trim.
Base moldings. To fit the molding at the corners, you’ll need to attach some pieces in advance of others and use sample cutoffs to position parts properly. Add a filler strip to the base if necessary to bring a piece parallel to the cabinets. Shooting through a thin wood strip prevents scarring the finished parts.
Build the soffit assembly. Use leftover hardwood plywood to build a soffit assembly that follows the lines of the cabinets and stops just short of the ceiling. Join outside miters using cleats, brads, and glue. Create inside corners by overlapping soffit boards as shown here. 

Apply ceiling trim. Cover the gap between the soffit and ceiling with thin trim strips, mitering their ends, and attaching them with small brads or headless pins. 

Asa Christiana, author of Build Stuff with Wood, designed and built this murphy bed diy home renovation plans and project.

About the Author

Asa Christiana is the former editor of Fine Woodworking magazine, now working as a freelancer in Portland, Oregon, where he teaches, writes, edits, shoots photos, and designs projects for a range of skill levels. His 2018 book, Build Stuff with Wood (Taunton Press), is a guide for true beginners, packed with stylish projects anyone can build with a limited tool set. Find him on Instagram @buildstuffwithasa.

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