At one year old, Dakota craves to do everything alongside with me. While I love nurturing her undeniable curiosity, my body could use a break from carrying a 20lb toddler all day.
I’m a huge advocate of child-centered education in my home, so after looking on Pinterest for a solution, I came across the Montessori learning tower.
Learning towers build your toddler’s confidence and independence by encouraging them to cook, clean, and participate in other daily tasks right alongside with you. These types of sensory experiences are fundamentally transcendent.
I instantly fell in love with the concept, but I wasn’t too keen on the price. The learning towers that I found online were quite expensive, ranging from $100-200. As I did more research, I discovered that I could make my own learning tower for under $20 ($40 if you don’t already have the Ikea Bekvam stool).
I followed this tutorial by Sina at Happy Grey Lucky, but I ran into some issues. So I’ve made a few of my own edits to the original tutorial below:
- drill (you can rent a drill from Home Depot for $16 a day)
- 1/16″ drill bit for #6 screws (or 5/64″ for #8 screws)
- tape measure or ruler
- 90° wood clamp (recommended) or protractor (or anything that will give you a true 90° angle, such as a hardcover book or a rectangular cutting board)
- electric sander or sandpaper
- Ikea BEKVÄM stool (*)
- 6’ long 1×2 (¾” x 1½”) piece of wood (**) cut into four 15½” lengths (***)
- 6’ long 1×3 (¾” x 2½”) piece of wood cut into four 6” lengths and two 12½” lengths (***)
- ½” dowel rod (shortest length you can find) cut to 12½” (**)
- 16 (sixteen count) 2¼” #6-8 wood screws (****)
- 14 (fourteen count) 1½” #6-8 wood screws (****)
- Small tube of wood filler
- 2oz non-toxic paint (and primer if not already included in paint)
(*) I already had a white stool that I upcycled for this project, but if you’re buying a new stool, I recommend the birch option so you can paint the learning tower any color you want.
(**) Use a soft wood like pine (what I used), ash, birch, etc. This will make it easier to drill your pilot holes.
(***) For convenience, you can get your wood cut at Home Depot.
(****) Both screw sizes will work, but I recommend using the smaller #6 screws to lessen your chance of splitting wood.
(*****) Sina used spray paint, but they emit harmful VOCs (volatile organic compounds). Since Dakota is going to be using the tower, I chose non-toxic paint instead. You only need very little paint, roughly 2oz for the entire stool. My Ikea stool was already painted, so I used 1oz of paint to paint the top portion of the tower. I ordered Lullaby (zero VOCs) paint samples here (or you can also purchase 8oz paint samples at Home Depot for around $5).
Here’s the wood cut list again, to make things easier for you (L x W x D):
- (4) 15½” x 1½” x ¾” (39.3cm x 3.8cm x 1.9cm)
- (2) 12¾” x 2½” x ¾” (32.4cm x 6.4cm x 1.9cm)
- (4) 6½” x 2½” x ¾” (16.5cm x 6.4cm x 1.9cm)
- (1) 12¾” x ½” (32.4cm x 1.3cm) round dowel
For reference, my learning tower is 35¼” (89.5cm) high, which is about an inch shorter than the height of my counters. I built it this way so I could easily store the learning tower underneath my breakfast bar counter.
If you want to match your counter height exactly, measure the distance between your floor and top of your counter and subtract the height of the Ikea stool (about 19¾” or 50cm with a floor protector pad attached to the bottom). This will give you the length of your four 1x2s (the first item in the cut list).
Note: make sure to measure your stool before starting. The top of my stool is approximately 9½″ x 14¼″ (24.1cm x 36.2cm). If your stool is different than that, here’s a simple calculation to determine your wood pieces:
- Length of the longer horizontal support beams and round dowel (12¾” / 32.4cm in my tutorial): STOOL_WIDTH [ minus ] 1½” (3.8cm)
- Length of the shorter horizontal support beams (6½″ / 16.5cm in my tutorial): STOOL_DEPTH [ minus ] 3″ (7.6cm)
- STOOL_WIDTH is the width of the top plate of your stool, not the whole assembled stool. Same with the STOOL_DEPTH (aka it’s the depth of the top plate rather than the whole stool). Refer to image above.
- Assemble the Ikea step stool up to step 5 in the instruction manual (leave the top piece unattached). If you’re starting out with an pre-assembled stool, unscrew the top piece and set it aside.
- Take your pre-cut wood and sand all the ends and edges (to keep toddler fingers safe).
3. Mark your pilot holes on the four 1x2s (the longer, thinner pieces). Here are the pilot hole distances from the top of each board. The pilot holes are always 3/8″ (9mm) from the side.
Please note that this will mean that the pilot holes on the wider side (left photo) aren’t actually in the middle, but rather they are offset to one side, as you can see in the photo above.
The pilot holes on the thinner side (right photo) are not all the same. The back left and right pilot holes measure 8½ and 9½, while the front left and right have a ¼” difference (8¾ and 9¾). I learned this the hard way and thought the pilot holes were all the same for the 4 pieces.
I recommend labeling two pieces “front” (the side that will be flush against your cabinets) and two pieces “back” (the side where your toddler will climb up) to keep track of where each piece goes.
Your front and back pieces will have slightly different pilot holes, so keeping track of where each piece goes will be helpful. You can also take an additional step by labeling your pieces “left” and “right” (the two front and back pieces will be mirror images of each other, so proper labeling will prevent any confusion).
4. Put together one side of the frame. Take one of the pieces labelled “front” and one labeled “back,” as well as two of the short 6″ support pieces. Attach everything using eight 2¼″ screws (four for each side). Use an angle clamp, protractor, or a level to make sure the horizontal support pieces are attached to the vertical beams at 90° angles.
A note about splitting wood: pine is notorious for wood splitting, and screwing close to the edge of a piece of wood makes splitting wood more likely. I didn’t have any issues, but if you want to avoid splitting the wood, use a countersink drill bit when pre-drilling your holes.
A note about putting your screws in: if you want to make your stool as sleek as possible (aka using wood filler on top of the screws to effectively hide them in step 11), make sure to have them completely recessed. Pine isn’t the ideal wood for this (even with pilot holes), so work manually and go slowly. You want the screw to go far enough to wood filler on top, but not too far where you’ll split the wood.
5. Repeat step 4 for the other side of the frame.
6. Now attach the left and right frame together with the two longer (12 ¾″) support beams using eight 1.5″ screws (4 per side). Remember that the front of each side piece has two pilot holes at the top and two at the middle, vs. just a single pilot hole on the back. Again, make sure everything is attached at 90° angles using an angle clamp, protractor, or level.
Side note: Sorry I forgot to take a photo of this step! I hope everything makes sense.
7. Attach the round dowel to the front of your frame using two 1.5″ screws.
8. Take the top piece of the Ikea step stool and place your frame on top of it. Trace around the legs to mark where your frame will attach to the stool. Take the frame off again and mark the middle of your four rectangles. Drill a pilot hole into each of these four centers.
9. Put your frame upside down and attach the Ikea top piece to your frame with four 1.5″ screws.
10. Finish the last steps of the Ikea instruction manual (steps 5 and 6) to attach your frame to the rest of the stool.
11. Apply wood filler over the screw holes and any other imperfections in the wood will make the learning tower look as sleek as possible (don’t put wood filler on top of the Ikea screws since those are not recessed).
12. When the wood filler is dry, sand it down and then paint the learning tower.
And you’re done! I know this tutorial seems complicated, but it’s fairly easy once you figure out the pilot holes (Sina did a great job at explaining that part). Plus, I fixed the issues that I had to make it easier for you.
If you have any questions about this tutorial, leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you.
Did you make this learning tower? Tag me on Instagram @steffykieu and show me 🙂
PS. The apron Dakota is wearing is made by yours truly! I’m so delighted with how it turned out that I’m thinking about making custom aprons (GOTS certified organic cotton, of course) and selling them on Etsy. If you want one for your little babe, just let me know!