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The Original BrewLadder

By Steve Kranz

It seems that I do almost as much off-site brewing (i.e. while camping or at someone's home) as I do on my own deck.  A couple of months ago, I started thinkingabout building a portable, stand-alone rack for all-grain brewing.  I had a couple of ideas for designing something from scratch, but I didn’t like anyof them and didn’t trust either my engineering or construction skills to create something that wouldn’t collapse under the weight of a ten gallon-sized mash.  After further contemplation, I decided to try modifying a store-bought 6-foot wooden stepladder.  It was just the right height, was lightweight and highly portable, and it seemed stable enough.  Plus it had the added advantage of costing only thirty bucks.  I seized the moment while my faithful and usually tolerant Spousal Unit and our three kids were out of town.  That way, I’d have no explanations to make as to why I need yet another (third) brewing rack thingy, and hear no snide comments as I made four...five...six trips to Lowes as my brewing sculpture came together.

Finding a wooden stepladder wasn’t the easiest thing.  You need a wood ladder because the steps are removable and my design requires the removal of two of the ladder’s steps.  All they sell at Lowe’s and Home Depot are aluminum and fiberglass ladders, on which the steps are permanently riveted.  A few phone calls later, and I found what I needed at an Ace Hardware store.  What you want is a 6-ft. Type III (weight limit 200 lbs.) wooden ladder.  There might be other brands out there, but this is what I found.  They are becoming difficult to find.

The idea is to attach a fold-down shelf to the front uprights of the ladder, similar to the little fold-down shelf on the rear of the ladder that holds a can of paint, tools, etc.  When the shelf folds down, the rear arms of the shelf are stopped by one of the ladder’s cross-members in the rear, which allows the shelf to support the significant weight of a full mash tun.

Of utmost importance was the consideration of the weight capacity of the shelf, and the overall stability of the ladder under a full load.  Water weighs something like 8.3 lbs. per gallon, so a large mash (about 25 lbs. of grain), plus a total of, say 15 gallons of water for mashing and sparging, plus a few pounds each for the coolers, will come in well within the ladder’s 200 lb. weight rating.  The shelf itself is never likely to ever have to support anything more than maybe 70 lbs.  So, here are the “nuts and bolts” for the basic BrewLadder:

Ingred…(oops, this isn’t a recipe) Pieces & Parts:

·         1 — 6-ft. wood stepladder (Werner brand probably the most available);

·         2 — 1 x 3 x 8 ft. framing lumber;

·         1 — 1”x13”x12” board for the top shelf;

·         2 — ⅜” x 2.5” hex bolts

·         4 — ⅜” regular washers

·         2 — ⅜” fender washers

·         2 — ⅜” lock nuts with nylon inserts (at Lowe’s they’re called “stop nuts”;

·         2 — ⅜” nylon spacers, about ¼” thick...or about a dozen more of the fender washers;

·         1½” flathead wood screws or decking screws.

Parts and hardware for the basic BrewLadder should come in under $45.00.  You’ll only need some basic tools, including a circular saw or hand saw, a hacksaw, level, a clamp (two is better), drill, screwdrivers, measuring tape, pliers & an adjustable wrench or socket set.

The first step in fabrication is to remove the ladder’s third and fourth steps.  There is a threaded rod that runs underneath each step across the width of the ladder , and the nut on the right side suggests that the thing should just unscrew….naaah.  Take my word for it, rather than spending the rest of the day figuring out how to unscrew that little nut, just use a hacksaw and cut through the rod (and necessarily, the step).  Once you do that, the steps just slide out.

Next, measure and cut two shelf arms from your 1 x 3 lumber.  They should each be about 28 or 29 inches long.  Then you need to attach the arms to the ladder’s main legs at the right height so that when it swings down, it will stop in a perfectly level position.  For this, you’ll have to drill holes in the ladder.  You cannot use the existing holes where you cut out one of the steps…I tried, but the holes are at the wrong height.  So I clamped new shelf arms to the ladder, with the rear of the arm underneath the rear cross member of the ladder (i.e. the “stop”), made sure they were nice and level horizontally (use a level for this), and drilled new holes in the centers of both the shelf arms and the ladder’s front upright.


        The attachment process proved to be a matter of trial and error.  You have to account for the fact that ladders are narrower at the top than the bottom.  So, in order for the shelf to fit within the ladder’s uprights when it is folded up, the shelf has to be slightly narrower in the front than at the pivot point where it attaches to the ladder.  You have to construct the thing with the two shelf arms in place first in order to be able to accurately measure for the shelf slats.  During my learning curve (and another trip to Lowes) I determined that a cold beer helps things move along more smoothly…but you’ll be wielding power tools, so please pace yourself.

Because the finished shelf will be narrower at the front than at the very rear, there will be a gap between the shelf and the ladder at the point where it is attached.  This photo (right) shows the placement of a nylon spacer on one side of the shelf assembly, to fill this gap.  Use one spacer for each side.  As a result of this gap, I was concerned about the stress which 45-70 pounds might put on the hex bolts.  I had originally used ¼” hex bolts, but on trip #4 to Lowe’s I replaced them with ⅜” bolts for peace of mind.  In addition to the nylon spacer, I put a fender washer (wider than a normal washer) between the nylon spacer and the shelf arm, to prevent the spacer from “digging” into the soft wood over time as the shelf gets rotated up and down.

With the nylon spacers and washers all in place and the lock nuts snug but not over-tight, swing the two arms up so that they are in inside the frame of the ladder, and measure the width across the two arms for the first (frontmost) shelf slat.  Cut the first slat, swing the arms back down in the “stop” position, and attach the slat using pre-drilled holes so you don’t split the wood.  With that first slat attached (with 1½” wood or decking screws), add 3 more shelf slats, spaced about 3/4” apart.  Remember, each subsequent slat will be ever-so-slightly wider than the one before it, so you have to measure for each one.

Another issue is the relatively narrow top shelf of the ladder, upon which the hot liquor tank sits.  I put a cooler up there and filled it to test itsstability.  It wasn’t going anywhere, but I felt safer by making a wider shelf.  The brackets underneath the attachment hook onto the original top shelf, and the whole thing is much more secure, though it would also work without the shelf attachment.  The hooks I used were old brackets used to hang a hose reel on a wall, not an off-the-shelf item.  I have since reworked this design for subsequent BrewLadders by using a 12” piece of 1x4 lumber, screwing it along one edge of the underside of the shelf, and screwing two 8 inch lengths of 1x3” lumber perpendicular to the 1x4 to create the “hooks” out of wood.  All they need to do is steady the shelf, not support the full weight of 10 gallons of water.  Feel free to improvise your own shelf attachment.

It also occurred to me that having removed the two steps and their rods might tend to slightly undermine the lateral (left-to-right) strength of the ladder.  Even though no one would be climbing up this ladder, I added two corner braces on the fifth step for some extra stability and strength.  I also added two small corner brackets to the rear cross member of the ladder which is the “shelf stop”.  Considering the force which the weight on the front of the shelf will put on this cross member, I just thought it would be prudent to reinforce this area for longevity, but I think it was probably unnecessary.

Once the unit was assembled, I applied a waterproofing wood preserver to the whole thing.  I used an Olympic brand product because it was available at Lowes in a quart size rather than having to buy a whole gallon of Thompson’s Waterseal.

The maiden voyage of BrewLadder was our club’s July 10th annual Brew-Ha-Ha, and it performed flawlessly.  It was rock solid under the weight of a full 10-gallon hot water tank, and a mash tun with about 15 pounds of grain and 5 gallons of water.

Accessories

The utility and fun of a BrewLadder can be significantly enhanced by the addition of accessories, limited only by a brewer's imagination ingenuity.  Here are several accessories which I have already implemented.  Notice that a few of these accessories are mounted to the outside of the ladder.  Because I will want to be able to lay the folded ladder down on one side, I mounted all such “external” accessories to the same side of the ladder so I can lay the ladder down on the other side without damaging anything.

·         The Official BrewLadder Plaque

·         Bottle Opener (Starr brand)

·         Tool / towel hooks

·         Water pump (electric, or driven by a cordless drill)

·         American flags

·         Spoon / tool clip

·         Spash-resistant radio/CD player

·         Timer/thermometer

Official BrewLadder Plaque:  Add a touch of style and class to your BrewLadder with a shiny gold-colored metal plaque.  It announces your status as itsOwner and Operator, bears its model year and its own unique Serial Number.  These plaques may be ordered through me (Steve Kranz) at my cost, which was about $21 (including postage and PayPal fees) last time I ordered one in early 2015.  

Water Pump:  The BrewLadder was originally designed with a pump powered by a cordless drill.  In addition to the unavailability of electricity when, say, brewing at a campground, there is the risk of shock, electrocution or pump damage, if there is any accidental contact between water and electricity or an electric pump.  There are many drill-powered water pumps out there, but I found one which is uniquely suited to our needs because it has a tolerance of water temperature up to 220°.  The pump I found costs $15 plus shipping, from www.northerntool.com.  Go to the site, enter "drill pump" in the search field, and you'll go right to it.

However, I no longer recommend this pump for brewing, and suggest that BrewLadder owners and operators install a proper electric brewing pump on the bottom shelf.  The Drill Pump is packed with white grease.  I had only noticed it after numerous batches, when the pump jammed and I had to disassemble it.  There are small seals installed on the impeller "fins" which began to come loose and jam the impeller.  It was a good idea, and when it worked, it worked fine.  But you're much better off installing a March or Chugger pump on the bottom shelf of the BrewLadder.

Feel free to email any questions, suggestions for additional accessories, or requests for additional photosto stevekranz@comcast.net.

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