Canadian Woodworking

Mission Style Bunk Bed

Author: Derreck Bryans
Illustration: Lead Illustration by Mike Del Rizzo; Illustrations by James Provost
Published: October November 2007

Bunk beds make for fabulous sleeping accommodations for younger folks. They are easy enough to build, and take up less space in a bedroom than conventional single beds.


I made this bunk bed at the request of my young son. He’s making new friends  and would like to be able to invite them to sleepovers. This bunk bed should fit the bill. As with a lot of the furniture in my house, it’s made in the Mission style, for which the words ‘big’, ‘square’, ‘quartersawn’ and ‘white oak’ immediately come to mind. However, instead of using harder to find and more expensive quarter-sawn white oak, I opted to use rift-sawn and plain-sawn red oak.

Sturdy Legs Make a Sturdy Bed

This bunk bed essentially consists of two bed frames, one mounted on top of the other. The joinery is a mix of old and new schools. I used mortise and tenon joinery to fasten the bed frames together, pocket hole joinery and dados for the ladder, and plugged screws for the safety rails. In keeping with more traditional bunk beds of the Mission period, I used slats in place of a box spring. This also freed up a bit more space underneath for that all important storage space.

I was able to buy some 4/4 rough oak that I milled to ⅞” thickness for all the bed parts except the vertical stiles (⅜”) and the legs (2 ⅝”). If you choose to use ¾” stock you will have to adjust the dimensions in the materials list accordingly. Bear in mind that using thinner stock will likely result in a less stable bunk bed – particularly with a couple of young lads jumping about on them. You’ll also want to buy your mattresses before you begin building.

• Glue up stock for the legs (A, B). I laminated three pieces of wood for the legs, and after the glue dried I milled the legs square, to a dimension of 2 ⅝” x 2 ⅜”. The narrower dimension will be for the sides that show the glue lines.

• You don’t want the glue lines to show. To hide them, glue ⅛” rift-sawn veneer over them. If you don’t have access to rift-sawn veneer you can use plain-sawn wood. The final dimension of the legs will then be 2 ⅝” x 2 ⅝”.

• Select the leg sides on which you will lay out the mortises. Each leg has one face with two mortises, one face with one mortise, and two outside faces without mortises.

• Mark out the locations of the mortises. For this I use a story stick – a strip of scrap wood or plywood cut to the length of the leg (see Story Sticks, Feb/Mar ’06, Issue #40). I mark the mortise locations on the story stick, and then transcribe the marks onto the legs (remember to mark which end of the story stick is the ‘top’). The mortises for the head and footboard rails are ½” x 1 ⅝” x 5 ½” for the bottom mortises, and ½” x 1 ⅝” x 4 ½” on the top mortises. Mortises for the side rails are ½” x 1″ x 5 ½”. All mortises are centered on the width of the legs.

• Cut out the mortises. I drill and then chisel them out. You could also use a router and a mortising jig, or a chisel mortiser.

Tenons Join Rails to Legs

• Mill the stock for the bed side rails (C) and headboard and footboard rails (D, E). Note that the upper rails (E) are 5 ½” wide.

• Mark out the locations for the tenons on all the bed rails. Scribe guidelines 1 ⅝” in from the ends of the head and footboard rails and 1″ in from the ends of the side rails (C). These mark the shoulder locations of the tenons. The tenons are ½” thick and the shoulders are ½” in from the edges.

• Cut the tenons. I cut the head and footboard rails on the table saw, using a tenoning jig (Apr/May ’07, Issue #47). I cut just shy of the guidelines, and do my final trimming with a shoulder plane, rip tooth back saw and a very sharp chisel. The side rails are too long to safely cut using a tenoning jig. I trim these using the cross cut fence, cutting off about 1/16″ on each pass, and then clean up using a chisel. You could also use a router to mill the tenons.

• Dry fit the legs and the rails, making sure that they all go together snugly with light hand pressure.

Tenons Join Stiles to Rails

• Mill the stock for the vertical stiles (F, G, H, I) to dimension. The stiles are ⅜” thick. This is so that a 1″ board can be resawn so there is less waste when thicknessing. The vertical stiles will fit in between the head and footboard rails (D, E).

• Cut the tenons on all the stiles. The tenons on the wide stiles (F, H) are ¼” x 3″ and on the narrow stiles (G, I) are ¼” x 1″. All tenons are ⅜” long.

Stiles Fit in Head/Footboard Rail Mortises

• On the head/footboard rails (D, E) mark out the locations of the mortises for the vertical stiles. All mortises are just over ⅜” deep.

• Cut the mortises on the top edge of rails (D) and the bottom edge of rails (E).

• Dry fit all of the stiles to the rails.

Drill Bed Bolt Holes in Legs

• Mark out the holes on the legs for the bed bolts. Bed bolts, used in conjunction with the dry (un-glued) mortise and tenons, will make for a sturdy joint that you can easily un-assemble in the future. The holes are centred on the legs.

• Chuck a 1″ Forstner bit into a drill press and drill 5/16″ deep holes in each leg.

• Chuck a ⅜” brad point bit into the drill press and drill into the center of the 1″ hole and out through the mortise. This will provide a guide hole for the drill bit when you drill into the end of the main bed rails (C).

• Apply a stain (optional) and a finish to all of the legs, slats and head/footboard rails, making sure to mask the tenons and plug the mortises. I used an Early American stain from Minwax and followed this with four coats of amber shellac and one coat of dark brown wax. Note that the wax really accentuates the open pores of the red oak – you may want to test the look on a piece of scrap wood beforehand.

Bed Frame Assembly

• Dry fit the side bed rails to the head and footboards. Using the previously drilled holes in the legs as a guide, drill a ½” hole into the end of the side rails. Drill as deep as you can, and then remove the side rails from the legs and complete drilling the holes to 3 ½” deep.

• Measure 2 ¾” from the shoulder on the inside face of the bed rail. Make a mark.

• Measure up 3 ¼” from the bottom of the rail and intercept the first mark. This will be the center of the hole for the bed bolt nut.

• Using a 1″ Forstner bit drill to a depth of ¾” with the POINT of the bit. Any deeper and you run the risk of drilling a hole right through the rail.

• Using a ⅝” chisel, square up the top and bottom of the holes.

• Bolt the head/footboards to the side rails.

• Drill ½” holes 1 ¼” deep on the top of the bottom bed legs and the bottom of the top bed legs. Use a jig to make it easier to drill accurate holes: Draw diagonal lines across one face of a 1 ½” cut-off for one of the legs, and using a drill press drill a ½” hole through the block. Clamp the block to the end of the leg to be drilled and drill a hole to a depth of 1 ¼”.

• Cut four pieces of dowel to a length of 2 ⅜”. Chamfer the ends and insert the dowels into the tops of the bottom legs. If the fit is too tight, sand them until they will slide in and out with hand pressure.

• With a helper, place the top bed onto the bottom bed and check the fit.

The Ladder

• Cut all of the pieces for the ladder (J, K, L, M) to rough length.

• Using a mitre or table saw cut the bottom of each side (J) at 12º. Take one of the sides and rest it against the upper bed rail so that the bottom is flat on the floor. Mark the point where the side touches the top of the upper rail (C). Using a square resting on the top of the rail, extend a line 3″ above the top of the upper rail. This will be the top of the ladder – cut with a hand saw and plane to fit.

• Select which faces of the legs will be on the inside. Lay them side-by-side with the outside faces down. Measure up 12 ⅝” from the bottom of each side. This is the bottom of the first step. With your bevel set to 12º, mark both the legs, and put a small ‘x’ just above the line on each leg. This is where the mortise for the steps will be. Measure up 12 ⅝” again. Repeat this procedure until all four steps are laid out.

• Rout ¼” x ⅞” dados in the ladder sides for the steps (see “Routing Ladder Dados is Easy” sidebar.).

• Set the bevel on your table saw to 12º and rip both edges of the steps (K) so that the total width is 3 ½”.

• Drill two pocket holes on the bottom end of each step.

• Glue and screw the ladder together.

• Take the 3″ wide cleat (L) and screw it to the back of the top of the ladder. Screw the 5 ½” wide cleat (M) to the 3″ cleat so that the ladder will hook over the rail.

• Apply finish to the ladder.

Routing Ladder Dados is Easy

• Lay a ladder side (J) on a piece of ¾” sheet stock.

• Nail or screw two ¾” x 3″ x 8″ braces on either side of the ladder side.

• Nail or screw two ¾” x 2″ x 10″ guides at 12º across the braces, the width of one of the ladder steps (K).

• Install a ⅝” top bearing bit in a router and set the depth of cut to ¼”.

• Earlier you will have made four alignment lines on the inside face of each step ladder side. Position one of the lines against the inside edge of the left guide on the jig.

• Rout a dado across the ladder side. Repeat this for all four dados on one ladder side.

• Once all of the dados are routed on one leg side, remove the guides and adjust them the opposite way to rout the dados on the other ladder side.

Safety Railing and Mattress Supports

• Mill stock for the safety rails (N, O, P). There are two safety rails, one for the back of the bed and a narrower one for the front.

• Countersink and screw the two back safety rails (N) to the three rail supports (P) – one at each end and one in the middle. Ensure that the top rail is flush with the top of the supports.

• Countersink and screw the two front safety rails (O) to two rail supports (P) – one at each end, again ensuring that the tops are flush.

• Finish both sets of safety rails.

• Countersink and screw the back safety rail to the inside of the top side rail (C) so that there is 2″ from the bottom of the lower rail to top of the bed rail.

• Countersink and screw the front safety rail to one side of the front top side rail (C) – this will provide room for you to attach the ladder to the other side.

• Mill stock for the mattress slat supports (Q) and mattress slats (R).

• Countersink, glue and screw the mattress slat supports flush with the bottom of the side bed rails (C).

• Place the mattress slats on the supports and space them out evenly. Countersink one screw into the end of each of the slats to keep them from moving around. I did not apply any finish to the slats or the slat supports.

With the finishing complete, assemble the bed in its future domain. Whoever occupies the top bunk may find it takes a bit of time to get used to ‘sleeping up high’, but the novelty is something that tends to generate lasting good memories.

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