At first thought, building a DIY crib for your youngster might seem like a fairly straightforward, elementary project. Closer examination, however, will have you realize that this is a project that can (and probably will) present as many challenges and as many options for creativity as you’d like – no matter your expertise in the woodworking shop.
Before we begin, be aware that there is a laundry list of federal regulations dictating ‘crib standards’ here in the US, which propose statutes on everything from spindle spacing to vertical impact testing. Complete details of current standards and regulations can be found here, and a link to a downloadable .pdf can be found here.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk crib construction. There’s certainly no cut and dry standard when it comes to planning and building a DIY crib – there are literally hundreds of different design options and combinations to choose from. If you’re confident in your carpentry skills, this is a project that can offer you the opportunity to incorporate as much flair and artistry as you’d like.
For our purposes, however, we’ll keep things simple and cover the basic components and framework that is required to build a great crib. From there, feel free to get creative and add subtleties along the way.
The crib frame consist of four legs and eight rails, joined with mortise and tenon joints. Dowels run vertically, joining the upper and lower rails and providing the crib enclosure. Lastly, support for the mattress will be provided by two beams spanning lengthwise from leg to leg on the inside of the crib.
We recommend choosing and purchasing a mattress as the very first step in building your DIY crib. This allows you to base your general frame dimensions off the size of the mattress you choose, rather than building the crib first, then trying to stuff an ill-fitting mattress inside.
Choosing the lumber stock for your crib will be your first prerogative. As is generally the case, cost will probably be the motivating factor in this decision. Regarding functionality, a quality pine, fir, or cedar will be just as suitable as oak, walnut, maple, or anything else you may desire.
2x4x8 lumber stock – legs and mattress support beams
1x6x4 lumber stock – rails
½ x 48 round hardwood dowels
3/8” brass rod – mortise/tenon joint pins
DIMENSIONS AND CONSTRUCTION
In the earlier example of Matt Cremona’s crib, the front legs are lower than the back, creating angled side rails. While this is a beautiful subtlety, for simplicity we’ll be keeping everything square in this article.
For the legs, cut four 36” pieces from the 2x4x8 stock.
For the rails, you’ll want the lower ones to be slightly wider than the upper ones, to create a nice aesthetic appeal. Saw 3” off the 1x6 stock to make 1x3 upper rails, and saw 1” off to make 1x5 lower rails.
Remember, you’re basing your overall crib dimensions off of the size mattress you’ve chosen, so the length of your rails will be dependent on this.
The next step will be thinking about the mortise and tenon joints that will join the legs and rails to form the crib frame. To the uninitiated or inexperienced, mortise and tenon joints may seem a rather overwhelming task - don’t let this be something that holds you back from the project. If you’re unsure of yourself, here is a great beginner’s how-to article on cutting quality mortises and tenons.
Keep in mind, the general rule is that a tenon should be between 1/3 and 1/2 the thickness of the piece of lumber it’s made from, and the depth of the mortise should be approximately three times the thickness of the tenon.
Since both your upper and lower rails are 1” thick, it will be convenient to make ½” thick tenons. You’ll want to make the mortises on the legs, then, about 1 ½” deep.
Have the upper rails run flush with the tops of the crib legs. You’ll want the bottom rails to be about 6” up off the floor. This will leave you with 22” dowels (not including the dowel tenons).
Use a dowel plate to form tenons on the ends of the dowels. The tenons do not need to be terribly long – ¼” is sufficient.
Next, use a marking gauge to scribe a centerline on the rails - this is the line where you’ll be drilling holes for the dowels to fit into. To ensure that each dowel is spaced equally apart, use a pair of dividers to mark each drill spot. The maximum federally regulated spacing for cribs is 2 3/8”, so make sure to set your dividers less than or equal to this length. If you need refreshing on how to use a divider, here is a good video.
Use a 3/8 bit to drill into the rails, then shave your dowel tenons down as necessary to ensure a good, snug fit.
The mattress support will consist of two 2x2 beams bolted into the legs, spanning the length of the crib. The beams can be ripped from the leftover 2x4x8 stock that you used for the legs.
Drill and tap holes in the legs for a 3/8” socket cap screw - you’ll want to make at least two different height options so you can adjust the mattress level as the baby grows. Now, you can simply bolt the beams to the legs at the height you desire. (After tapping the holes, we recommend adding some CA glue to strengthen the threads).
Finally, in order for your crib to be able to be disassembled for storage, you’ll want to pin the mortise and tenon joints of the frame, rather than glue them. This simply involves drilling holes through the joints, and pressing a length of 3/8” brass rod through to secure them. For disassembly, the pin is simply then tapped back out.
All that’s left now is to paint, stain, or finish the crib as you desire. Of course, there are hundreds of different choices when it comes to this - here is a great article on some different staining/finishing options.
Personalizing Your Crib
As we mentioned earlier, there’s an array of design alternatives you can use to really add some spruce (no pun intended) and creativity to your crib. Here are a few:
-For a really elegant look, taper your dowels from the center down to the ends. Or, use pre-fabbed crib spindles instead - here is a link to some beautiful pre-made spindles
-Shorten the front legs of the crib to make angled sides
Lastly, here is a full-length video of Matt Cremona’s walnut/maple build.
That’s it! Thanks for reading, good luck, and enjoy!