A Period Rope Bed

(A longer version of this article is in the 9th edition of the Miscellany)

Some time ago, several of our SCA friends told us about a period picture one of them had found, a 13th c. Byzantine ivory showing a rope bed (Figure 1). I made a version of that bed sized for a small child (Figure 2). It turned out to be ridiculously easy to make--about half an hour for me to build the bed, plus another hour or so for me and my lady wife to lace it.

The basic problem with rope beds is that unless the rope is very taut, they sag. The solution in this design is to have the mesh of ropes fasten not to the food of the bed but to a horizontal dowel a little above the foot. You wrap a rope six times around the dowel and foot and pull. This pulls the dowel towards the foot with a mechanical advantage of twelve to one (minus substantial losses from friction and some loss from the rope not being quite a right angles to the dowel), tightening the bed.

The basic construction is simple. The legs are oak, 1 5/8" x 1 5/8". The sides are oak dowels, 1" in diameter. Each leg has two 1" diameter holes drilled into it at right angles to each other, one a little above the other. The ends of the dowels fit into the holes.

Materials for the bed as shown

2 legs, oak, 9"x1 5/8 x 1 5/8

2 legs, oak, 18"x1 5/8 x 1 5/8

2 sides, 1" oak dowels, 4' long

2 ends, 1" oak dowels, 2' long

1 end piece, 3/4" oak dowel, 26" long

1/4" manila rope, 1 piece 50' long (for the web), 1 piece 7' long (to wrap around the end piece and the foot).


Total cost: aprox $60

In addition to its size, this bed differs from the one shown in the picture in four ways.

1. The legs are plain instead of ornamental.

2. The legs are porportionally shorter than in the picture.

3. The legs at the head extend higher than at the foot. I did it this way with the idea of eventually adding some sort of headboard.

4. The holes the side dowels plug into are an inch and a quarter higher on the legs than the holes that the end dowels plug into. I did it that way because, given the thickness of the legs, I couldn't get sufficiently deep holes at the same height without having them run into each other. I don't know whether the fact that the original appears to have sides and ends at the same height reflects shallower holes, thicker legs, or artistic license.

There is a fifth difference in the picture--the way the tightening rope is wrapped--but by the time you read this I will have fixed that.

The bed as shown is strong enough to hold our 68 pound son (Figure 3), although it is a few inches too short for him and the side dowels bow in a little when he is in the bed.

I made two more beds for my two children, with somewhat thicker dowels for the side pieces. They used them for about a week last Pennsic and were very happy with them.

My most recent experiment was an adult sized bed. I wanted a design that could be widely used by people in the Society, so limited myself to materials inexpensively available from the local Home Depot. The result is shown in Figures 4 and 5. It costs about forty dollars to make, including the rope.

The legs were cut from a single 8 foot long 4x4, which cost less than seven dollars. With legs that big, I had no trouble making it with sides and ends at the same height.The head and foot pieces are 1 1/4" softwood dowels, probably intended as closet poles, but dowels that size are not really adequate for the side pieces. I tried using them (I weigh about 190, unfortunately), and they bowed quite alarmingly when I lay down in the bed, although they didn't break. So I replaced them with six foot long softwood 2x2's (available at about fifty cents a foot) and tapered down the ends to fit in the holes. That seems to work fairly well. 1 3/4" softwood dowels would work too, and save you some trouble, but I couldn't find them in the Home Depot. If you are feeling extravagant and have access to a good lumberyard, 1 3/4" oak dowels (about $4/foot) would work even better.

If you want a bed with ornamental legs similar to those in Figure 1, check out your local large lumber store, Home Depot, or equivalent for ornamental table legs, banister pieces, and the like. Or find a friend with a lathe.

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