“Sleep tight” the making of a rope bed with straw mattress.

Growing up I relished old stories, especially from my grandmother. I would sit for hours in wide eyed rapture as she recounted tales of her upbringing during the great depression in rural West Virginia. “the good old times” were never called that by her, she did not paint some agrarian fantasy of herself gayly skipping to the well with a bright calico dress. Times were hard, cold, or hot, filled with long days of calorie exploding work punctuated by constant poverty, and want. One thing she often harped on was the inability to buy common household goods. Her father worked 30 years in the pit of a coal mine before he saw a penny of his earnings, every cent went directly to the mine owed general store to provide flour, sugar, salt, and other basic food items. Consequently, my grandmother and her many siblings had to do without or make everything they wanted or needed which we casually buy and throw away today. One thing she recalled with fondness was the “ole’ rope beds” she and her family slept on until she moved away from home upon getting married at 16 years of age. She told with always the same twinkle in her eye how they would tighten their bed frames and stuff the mattresses with fresh straw each fall after the wheat harvest. So one could guess I have wanted one of these beds since I was about 5 years old, and as we were preparing to begin our appalachian homesteading adventure, there seemed no time like the present.

As with most furniture I started with by ripping, and planing six side square all the members for the bed, using left over red maple from the workbench build. The long stretchers were nearly 8 feet long so this was a great test for the new bench and my decision to make it only 6.5 feet long. As it turned out hoping holdfasts around the area to be planned proved quite efficient.


six sides square

This bed was satisfyingly simple in the joinery department, no crazy angles, just good old fashion M/T joints. I did arrange the two stretchers to intersect each leg in such a manner that one peg would lock both together.


Stanley 71

Basically the short head and foot stretcher pass through the long side stretchers and receive a fat hard maple wedge.


housed through tenon


hard maple wedge

After fitting all the stretchers and wedges I gave the somewhat bulky legs (3X3) a double taper to the floor and an elegant chamfer to their tops.


double tapered and chamfered leg

For the headboards I used 1x maple, roughed out the shape with the bow saw, the finished it with rasps and files. The spindles are just same sized maple offcuts set into individual mortises, as are the headboards set into loose mortises on each long leg. One can see I was hurting for a treadle lathe, and am getting very ready to build one! After all that was assembled we weaved some sisal rope though bored and countersunk holes and tightened everything up with the “bed key” which is just a piece of hardwood with a long mouth and a cross bar for leverage. So apparently this is the origin of that common saying “sleep tight don’t let the bed bugs bite!”. We have found through use the rope bed will stretch some and need retightening, hence the saying.


the bed key

Here I am adding about 2 bales of straw to our mattress, which is just a cotton mattress cover for a twin bed. Its not too thick but will hold up till we can sew something more substantial.


straw filling

I was able to con my wife into carving some maple leaves into the headboard for a decorative touch. In all we are very happy with this bed, it fits well with our lifestyle and has been undoubtably the most comfortable bed I have used. The straw rather forms to your body not unlike firm foam. We have taken to fluffing and turning the mattress once per week to redistribute the straw and resettle our individual “nests” our backsides make in the mattress. If I had to change anything I would have made the wedge pin entering the long stretcher instead of the short, as this requires us to pull the two head legs apart for disassembly throwing the headboard pieces around. If the long stretcher were pinned we could leave the back legs and headboard together for moving or storage. Im also very lucky to have a tiny peruvian wife, so we can both fit in a twin sized bed, freeing up much tent space!


test nap

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One Response to “Sleep tight” the making of a rope bed with straw mattress.

  1. Just look at that craftsmanship by the two of you – fantastic!


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