When Isabelle was a baby, she wanted to be carried 24/7. In a carrier, on my hip, on my hubby’s shoulders – I didn’t matter as long as she was close to us and at our level. That included when I was cooking. Carrier was fine for that while she was still teeny tiny, but once she was about a year, she was way too wriggly (and frankly too big) for carrier cooking to work properly. So I would sit her on the counter whenever I was in the kitchen.
Now, Isabelle was never your typical toddler. She never tried to dive off the counter or anything (something Nicolas would absolutely do if you took your eyes off him for even a half second) so the sitting wasn’t really that much of a problem, but it also meant I always had one arm on her leg which was not a very efficient way of cooking. So I started looking into alternatives.
My googling led me to the concept of learning towers. What an amazing idea, I thought. Unfortunately, they were all a little out of our price range (and most I couldn’t find in Canada anyway). When all else fails, there’s an Ikea hack somewhere on Pinterest. One of my favourite things about Ikea is the ability to hack it and make it something completely new. So when I saw a learning tower hack made of the inexpensive Bekväm stool I was totally on board. There were tutorials a plenty on Pinterest. What I didn’t like, however, was how clunky they were. I didn’t like that the vertical beams were so thick and that the horizontal support beams were attached to the outside of the “cage”. So I made a few tweaks to the original design (which took me way longer than I care to admit), and came up with this version. This whole project cost me under $50 CAD (under $38 USD) whilst any learning tower I found online would have cost me at least 4 times that amount after taxes.
Now with Nicolas almost 13-months-old and already walking (and climbing!) confidently for months, it was high time we made another stool for him. We considered putting Isabelle on a regular stool but a) then Nicolas would try and climb it when we aren’t looking (he’s such a little monkey) and b) Isabelle just loooooves her learning tower. Building a second one also gave me the opportunity to share a detailed tutorial since that is one of the most frequent questions I get on Instagram.
Here’s how to make your very own learning tower:
- 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 x 2¼” #6-8 wood screws (***)
- 14 x 1½” #6-8 wood screws (***)
- wood filler
- spray primer – we used about 1.5 cans for the whole stool (****)
- spray paint – if your primer is the same colour as your stool, one can should be enough for the entire stool, otherwise you’ll need 2 (****)
(*) I used pine because it’s cheap and soft. Make sure you use a soft wood for this project (pine, ash, birch, etc.) or else it’s going to be a nightmare trying to drill your pilot holes and screw in anything by hand.
(**) You can get your wood cut at Home Depot to make your life that much easier. It costs something like $1 per cut but I hardly ever get charged and they’re super quick even if not always the most precise. There will be a bit of extra left over for all three pieces of wood – keep it in case the Home Depot cuts don’t all match up. I’ve had good and bad experiences with their precision so it’s better to be safe and have some extra.
(***) Whilst both screw sizes work, if you want to lessen your chance of splitter, the smaller #6 screws will definitely be better.
(****) If you want to save a bit of money, go for traditional paint as you won’t waste as much. I hate painting and, since it’s a relatively small amount of wood, I’m okay paying that little bit extra for the convenience of spray paint.
Here’s the wood cut list again, to make things easier for you (L x W x D):
- 15½” x 1½” x ¾” (39.3cm x 3.8cm x 1.9cm) x 4
- 12½” x 2½” x ¾” (31.2cm x6.4cm x 1.9cm) x 2
- 6″ x 3/4″ x 2½” (15.2cm x 6.4cm x 1.9cm) x 4
- 12½” x ½” (31.2cm x 1.3cm) round dowel
For reference, my learning towers are 35¼” (89.5cm) high, which was the height of the counter in our old condo. Our current counters are a bit higher but I wanted to match the heights of both stools. 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 1 by 2s (the first item in the cut list).
Note: it seems IKEA has changed the size of the top plate of their BEKVÄM stool. It’s now deeper than it used to be so you can make your frame a little bit bigger, which will give your kids a little more room. Make sure to measure your stool before starting. The top of my stool is approximately 9″ x 14″ (22.5cm x 35.5cm). If your stool is larger than that, here is a simple calculation to determine your wood pieces:
- Length of the longer horizontal support beams and round dowel (12½” / 31.2cm in my tutorial): STOOL_WIDTH [ minus ] 1½” (3.8cm)
- Length of the shorter horizontal support beams (6″ / 15.2cm 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).
- 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
[ Step 1 ] Put the Ikea step stool together up until everything but the top piece is attached (step 5 in the Ikea instruction manual). If you’re starting out with an already-assembled stool, unscrew the top piece and set it aside.
[ Step 2 ] Take your pre-cut wood and sand all the ends as well as the edges (to keep toddler fingers safe).
[ Step 3 ] Mark your pilot holes on the four 1-by-2s (the longer, thinner pieces). I’ve included 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 (the photo on the left) aren’t actually in the middle but rather they are offset to one side, as you can see in the photo. (My mom brain found this whole step to be way harder than it should have been.) I would advise you to label two pieces “front”(the side where your toddler will climb up into the tower) and two pieces “back”(the side that will be flush against your cabinets) 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 save your sanity. (I like to put screws in the same direction as I drilled the pilot holes so I went a step further and labeled “left” and “right” since the two front pieces / back pieces will actually be mirror images of each other. But I’m a little OCD so it’s really not necessary.)
Side note: Before we go further, let me just point out two different ways of doing this. I first created the entire top frame and attached it to the stool at the very end. However, all the tutorials I’ve found online first attach the vertical beams and then the side support beams. I found it easier to get the pieces aligned without already being attached to the stool but both ways should work fine.
[ Step 4 ] Put together one side of the frame. Take one of the pieces labelled “front” and one labelled “back” as well as two of the short 6″ support pieces. Attach everything using eight 2 1/4″ screws (four for each side). Use an angle clamp, protractor, and/or a level to make sure the horiziontal support pieces are attached to the vertical beams at 90° angles.
Side note: Nicky’s new learning tower is actually my third learning tower. The first one we just completely winged it in terms of holding pieces together in what we thought was straight / perpendicular lines. It was not. I was too embarassed to keep it in my house so I “gifted” it to my mom (sorry, mom). Anyways, this to tell you that a 90-degree angle clamp is soooo worth it! You can grab a cheap one for 20 bucks on Amazon and, if you’re ever planning on doing another DIY project that involves corners (e.g. a DIY frame, giant chalkboard, etc.), it’s worth the investment!
A quick 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. Two things you can try to avoid splitting the wood are:
- Use paraffin wax to lubricate the screw before you screw it into your wood.
- Use a countersink bit when pre-drilling your holes. Amazon has lots of options, like this inexpensive set. I personally haven’t used countersink bits yet, but I’m ordering myself a set before my next project with pine as I’ve heard good things.
[ Step 5 ] Repeat step 4 for the other side of the frame.
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 be completely recessed. Pine is not the ideal wood for this even with pilot holes so there’s a fine line between getting your screw in far enough to wood filler on top vs. going too far and splitting the wood. Just do this part manually and slowly and you’ll get a feel for when to stop.
[ Step 6 ] Now attach the left and right frame together with the two longer (12.5″) support beams using eight 1.5″ screws (4 per side). (Remember that the back of each side piece has two pilot holes at the top and two at the middle vs. just a single pilot hole at the front.) Again, make sure everything is attached at 90° angles using an angle clamp, protractor and/or level.
[ Step 7 ] Attach the round dowel to the front of your frame using two 1.5″ screws.
[ Step 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 centres.
[ Step 9 ] Put your frame upside down and attach the Ikea top piece to your frame with four 1.5″ screws.
[ Step 10 ] Now complete the last steps of the Ikea instruction manual (steps 5 and 6) to attach your frame to the rest of the stool. Functionally-speaking, your learning tower is now complete!
[ Step 11 ] This is completely optional but I like to wood filler over the screw holes as well as any other imperfections in the wood to make the learning tower as sleek as possible. (I didn’t put wood filler on top of the Ikea screws since those are not recessed.)
[ Step 12 ] Once the wood filler is dry (give it about 2 hours), sand the spots with wood filler down to make everything nice and smooth. If you want to stick with the natural wood look, stop here!
[ Step 13 ] Again, totally optional, but now is the time to spray paint. Start with a coat of primer and follow with a coat of paint. I’m using flat paint because I like the look best, but if you want them super easy to wipe, use a glossy finish. (Our first stool, also using flat paint, has a few slightly off-coloured spots now after 1.5 years of daily use but it’s honestly not very noticeable. I also didn’t add a topcoat – I’m lazy like that – and it’s been fine.)
That’s it! It seems complicated but I promise it’s actually a pretty easy hack once you’ve got the pilot holes figured out (and, lucky for you, I’ve got you covered in that department). I’d say it took us all-in-all about four hours of actual work if you don’t count all the time wasted because of our two tiny “helpers”. (Wink, wink.)
This learning tower is soooo worth the effort, you guys. Not just for having your littles help cook in the kitchen without you worrying about them falling off counters or regular stools, but I can leave both of my kids in the learning tower by the sink and they’ll happily play with the water for a good long time while I get other stuff done. (Make sure you put a towel under there though. I’ve learned that one from experience.) And I’ve also trained Isabelle to make me coffee. (Notice that her stool is right next to the Nespresso machine haha.) She climbs up into her stool, turns the machine on, gets a tab, basically does everything except lift up the coffee mug to pass to me. If that’s not a worthy investment, I don’t know what is.
If you attempt this ikea hack, I’d love to see your finished learning tower! Tag me on Instagram or Facebook (@happygreylucky) to show off your amazing DIY skills. Oh and if there’s anything that’s still unclear, leave me a comment and I’ll be happy to clarify.
Side note: I’m asked a lot about the aprons the kids are wearing. Isabelle’s is from Fine Little Day (love their Gran print for so many things!) and Nicolas’ is a hand-me-down adult-sized apron that shrunk (a lot!) in the wash lol. If you’re looking for kids aprons, Ferm Living also makes gorgeous aprons. We have the rose rabbit and mint dot aprons as well.