"Practical fun" are the words that come to mind when best describing rolling library ladders. Although ladders are utilitarian in nature, there is no person who could not resist a spin on one of them. Curved library ladder railing systems offer even more appeal - a true wonder of engineering genius.
Libraries are not the only place to use a library ladder. Rolling ladders are useful in kitchens, pantries, clothing closets, home libraries, wine cellars, studies, lofts, and garages/workshops. Library ladders help with space optimization by offering a convenient way to access storage that is out of reach that would otherwise go unused.
Library ladder systems are designed to perform smoothly. Adding a rail system and wheels guarantees absolute control. This article focuses on the difference between library ladders, how each piece of hardware functions, tips for installing, and important safety considerations when using library ladders. Ultimately, you should be much more informed to buy a rolling ladder for your home.
For lots of ideas on adding a library ladder to your kitchen or pantry, check out "Pantry Ladder Ideas."
What to look for in a library ladder
Library ladders are not as straightforward and simple as you would think. There are many details to consider when purchasing, building, or installing a library ladder.
Library ladder details
When researching library ladders, pay attention to these things:
- "top hardware" comes in different choices, top hardware is fixed on the top of the ladder and attaches to the railing system, some types perform smoother than others
- be aware that rail tracks are not interchangeable with top ladder hardware; the diameter of rail tracks are different and must correspond to fit the intended top ladder hardware
- most library ladder companies offer hardware in a range of finishes to match most interiors (for example brass, nickel, satin nickel, and bronze)
- hardware comes in modern or vintage styles
- you can buy library ladder hardware to build your own ladder, especially if you need to customize the length, or buy a custom built-to-fit size
- when building your own ladder or going with a stock ladder size, it must fit your space properly
- look for companies that offer kits or parts that have expandable railing sections to customize your space (and the ability to cut them to fit)
- library ladders can be built of both metal and different wood types - some companies offer unfinished wood so you can finish to match the rest of your interior space
- choice of ladder components adds to the improved functionality and quality of a ladder, such as nylon rollers for quiet operation, wheel types for smooth movement, and extra strings for added support
- when buying prebuilt library ladders, examine for sturdiness, quality parts, and sure footing of the foot rungs - companies who put an emphasis on library ladder safety are preferred
- all companies should be able to offer guidance on sizing and fitting the library ladder for your space
Custom or budget library ladder
It's possible to custom build a library ladder for your unique kitchen, home, or pantry space. Experienced carpenters can buy the hardware or kits to build for your space or build yourself.
A company called Custom Service Hardware offers a budget library ladder. It's in the budget category because it's offered in two lengths: 92" and 107", and two wood types: red oak and maple (unfinished is available if you need to stain to match other room finishes). The hook top hardware helps to bring down the cost, but CSH emphasizes that it is not low on quality.
For the curious, the 92" rolling ladder features 7 steps; the 107" rolling ladder has 8 steps.
Rolling library ladder hardware is the most widely-known concept of making rolling ladders work. It's not the only solution.
In this photo, a simple notch was made to fit on a railing. I'm sure there are many other numerous creative and resourceful "movement" options that have been devised but not publicly shared.
If you're a handy person, there is no doubt that you are able to think outside of the standard library ladder install and come up with your own unique solution.
The Putnam and Cotterman library ladder systems
The Putnam and Cotterman library ladders come to mind when one thinks of vintage library ladders. The Putnam and Cotterman are two separate companies that began manufacturing library ladders in the early 20th century. The Putnam company was founded in lower Manhattan (ladders labels credit New York City, although a press release notes the company is based in Hoboken, NJ).
The Cotterman company started in Chicago, Illinois. Their website indicates they have expanded locations in Michigan, Georgia, California, and Texas (a recent Ebay Cotterman Library ladder posting showed a stamp manufactured in Croswell, Michigan - I wager the library ladders are manufactured in that location). The gorgeous wood construction and fine hardware of these ladders make them beautiful additions to formal libraries.
The Putnam and Cotterman library ladders are usually the most costly of all library ladder systems. The additional cost is reflected in the fine craftsmanship of the product and attention to details.
The two library ladder systems are very similar. The Putnam video does mention that the ladder does not come with a brake wheel option, unlike the Cotterman ladders that do feature weight actuated brakes.
The top hardware of the Putnam ladder is offered in both a roller wheel option and a hook hardware option. From the Cotterman promotional material, it looks like their top hardware is only available with a roller system.
The Putnam video mentioned prior points out that the Putnam ladder is not the smoothest or quietest when it rolls. This is because the design has never wavered from the original plan. Custom Service Hardware, the company that acquired Putnam Ladders, is quick to add the quirks of operation add to its vintage charm.
The Cotterman company also offers "bent side" wall ladders. The ladders are built with a slight bend to them, either at the top or bottom, to allow clearance of protruding shelves.
Both companies appear to uphold an extremely high degree of excellence in manufacturing library ladders. Key features of both companies are rollers at the top of the ladder for attachment to railings, and wheel glides in the footer of the ladders. The gentleman in the video below shares his selection of Putnam and Cotterman ladders for sale. Maybe you can tell a difference?
Putnam library ladders
The Putnam ladder system has been in continuous use since 1905. Often only found in wealthy homes and institutions, the use of library ladders are now enjoying popularity in more common homes.
An interesting fact from the Putnam website, "for half a century those orders [rolling ladder] mostly came from a few high-brow architectural firms... who designed wood-paneled home libraries. From the 1920s through the 1970s, Putnam’s biggest customers were the phone company, dry-goods stores, and clothiers like Brooks Brothers."
If anyone can enlighten me as to the importance of rolling ladders to telephone companies, please add to the comments below! The Putnam company credits the building and renovation boom in the 1970s for revitalizing their company's product sales.
lf you are a history buff, you will surely enjoy the "Ladders of Memory" article that was originally published about Putnam Ladders in the New York Times newspaper. It is clearly written with an admiration for the company. The article highlights the dedication of the family and love of the decades-old business, sometimes documenting the painful changes of time along the way. Famous persons who have purchased a Putnam Ladder are also noted with personal antidotes.
Note: Custom Service Hardware purchased the Putnam Ladder Company as announced in February of 2021. This article by Woodworking Network does a fine job explaining the transition and history. Custom Service Hardware still maintains the original Putnam Rolling Ladder site and has done a marvelous job in promoting all of the rolling ladder lines on their CSH Youtube channel.
Putnam Ladders are noted for their vintage-looking hardware, which is still a desired look as well as the need for preserving vintage looks in certain settings.
Cotterman library ladders
The Cotterman #1 Straight Side Oak Track Ladder has been in use since the company was established in 1925. Their popularity is seen in bookstores, libraries, and shelving access for retail stores. From the National Ladder website, "The furniture grade quality appearance is a major part of the appeal, and a big reason that Cotterman Oak Library Ladders find their way into many home libraries and retail environments."
Cotterman Company's core product started as rolling wood track ladders. In the mid 1940’s, Cotterman introduced the rolling steel warehouse ladder, a mobile rolling staircase designed to use in industrial or commercial environments. They have since expanded to other ladder products such as attic ladders and telescoping ladders. Although the Cotterman Company is given credit for creating rolling stairs, other companies, such as Grainger also create rolling staircases and ladders for industrial and commercial environments.
I often see Cotterman rolling ladders in use where semis or tall agriculture equipment needs to fill up with fuel. Ladders are provided for convenience to operators that need to reach high places on their equipment, such as servicing them or cleaning windshields.
Rolling stairs with platforms
Rolling staircase platforms are in use in libraries as well. In the picture below, you will see that they were in use in the early 20th century. If you have ever visited a government, college, or other public libraries, bookshelves can reach ridiculous heights. Rolling staircases are no doubt safer and can be moved to different locations (especially when they are a significant investment). Due to their larger footprint, they are impractical for most consumer use.
Variations of library ladders
Although you will not come across the variations of library ladders displayed in these pictures often, they are inspiration to start your design journey. It is fascinating to follow the thought process of a carpenter, woodworker, or cabinet maker as they created library ladders for use. Consideration was given for safety and stability of the user, as well as platforms to place books when needing to handle one item at a time when returning or removing books from shelves.
Library ladder features and hardware
The real focus of library ladders centers on the hardware. I was surprised to learn about the variety of attachment hardware for library ladders, each having its purpose. If you're making your own ladder, library ladder companies will guide you to the correct hardware to match the system that you are installing.
Library ladder top hardware
"Top hardware" refers to the hardware at the top of the side rail of a ladder. The top hardware connects the ladder to a rail system. Custom Service Hardware explains their top hardware in this video at the 1:26 time mark.
- a standard roller cannot be used on multiple sections
- a swivel roller is needed for curved rails
- a rolling hook can be used on multiple rail sections, but cannot be used with curved rails
- the sliding hook is more economical, but not as smooth or quiet as more advanced options
- a double hook allows for placing the ladder in an angled position, and a flush position with the wall
- a stationary loft-style mount is an budget top hardware option
The more complex the top hardware is, the more expensive it will be. In addition, ladder top hardware should be designed in a manner to assist with setting the ladder flush against shelves when not in use.
Library ladder railings and brackets
Custom Service Hardware explains that horizontal and vertical wall brackets provide options to where the railing system can be mounted. The horizontal bracket is intended for continuous horizontal mounting surfaces, the vertical bracket is supplied for the vertical attachment surfaces of a bookcase or wall.
Every bookcase or install scenario is different. The library ladder manufacturer makes sure that by supplying flexible bracket choices, their ladder can be installed in all situations.
The brackets are what hold the railings which the ladder system glides on. It is important to note that each top hardware type on the ladder is designed to attach to a railing system uniquely designed for it.
Tip: for some installations, the ladder is not removable from the rail (in a hook hardware situation you can pick the ladder up off the railing). If the ladder hardware is fixed into the rail system, there will need to be 24" of clear space on at least one of the rail systems to slide the top ladder section in for final installed use. Specialty Doors explains this in their library ladder install video at the 1:36 mark.
Think of this dilemma as sliding curtains on a curtain rod, you can only perform the action from one side. With ladders, you don't have the convenience of removing the railing to put the ladder on as you would a curtain.
Rolling top hardware installs require more careful attention than a ladder with a hook top hardware that just pops on and off the track. When the "end" hardware (the hardware that stops the ladder at the end of the railing) is fastened to the wall or bookcase structure, there is no way to make further adjustments to any of the system unless the rolling ladder and railing is completely disassembled - it's best to avoid mistakes!
One curious fact to point out, curved ladder installations need assistance when moving around the curves. Again, in the Specialty Doors video, they demo how the ladder bottom needs to be picked up from the floor slightly when moving around the curve (watch this maneuver at the 2:39 mark in the video).
Modern library ladder manufacturers have made efforts to improve the ladder system by aiming for a smoother and quieter operation.
Custom Service Hardware describes the Quiet Glide System as the "most advanced and precise" of their product line. Their Quiet Glide systems offer more customization and options with the ability to "round a curve." As you can imagine, a curved railing system will push you up into the next price tier.
In the video below (at 0:49) the presenter shows the curved radius options and what that curve looks like for a 16" and 30" radius at a inside 90° angle, a 135° angle, and a 90° inside corner.
Library ladder wheels
To be clear, not every library ladder has wheels on the bottom, although most do. With wheels comes the concern of safety and the ladder getting away from someone. This is easily prevented with a wheel brake feature.
Custom Service Hardware describes their automatic braking feature in the Quiet Glide Ladder System video. They explain that a weight activated brake automatically engages when a person steps on the ladder. When you step off the ladder, the brake automatically unlocks, ready to roll into the next position.
Measuring and installing considerations for library ladders
National Ladder is a helpful resource for all the little details of installing library ladders in retail situations. Here are a few pointers gleaned from their list and a few additional ones for consumer applications:
- Average width of ladder is 16", bottom wheels can add 28" to the bottom width - plan space accordingly.
- Plan ample space to approach and climb the ladder; library ladder angle with floor should be 80º.
- To determine the length of the ladder, measure from the floor to the top shelf where the track is attached; add 5" for a comfortable angle for ladder use.
- Measure your span of shelving or cabinets to find the length of track you will need.
- The track is normally placed in line with a shelf no more than 3 feet below the top of the highest items to be reached.
- Line up the track with the shelf or cabinet stiles so it doesn't block access; position high enough so you can reach the top shelf. You need to leave at least 7" to the ceiling for the ladder rails to fit when it is pushed upright for storage (ladders project above the top of track 4" in the National Ladder example).
I'm not only a pantry geek, I'm a home improvement geek. I found it pleasantly fascinating to watch the This Old House video of "How to Build a Rolling Library Ladder" and Pask Makes, build and assemble his rolling shop ladder.
Besides building videos, I've include some operation videos of library ladders in use. It's helpful when making library ladder decisions for your home to form better opinions after watching them in operation.
In this video, the gentleman demonstrates storing the ladder in a flush position with the wall when not in use, rolling the ladder out of the way to access space, stepping up the ladder to reach top space, and picking up and moving the ladder to the opposite side to access space there.
This closet does not have a curved track, so the ladder needs to be picked up and repositioned on the track when moved to other areas of the closet. The presenter mentions that the ladder locks so it doesn't accidentally roll away while using it - the user's safety is always in mind.
I've included this video so you can view a different installation position of a library ladder. The video demonstrates the railing is installed above the shelving. The reason for doing so is that in this space, the ladder needed to be taller to reach a taller space on an adjacent wall.
Library ladder safety
Although library ladders are functional, it takes a fit person to climb them and move them. For aging in place scenarios, they are not ideal. Aging in place means designing space that makes it easier for older persons to function who may have mobility and balance issues, allowing them to stay in their home as long as possible.
As a person who has lived in a house with hard-to-reach and high display areas, I realize now the danger and hassle of cleaning and accessing these areas. Most homes today desire higher ceiling heights and the wow factor of cabinets and shelving soaring to match these heights.
In Victorian homes, high ceilings were intentional, allowing the heat to rise up and away, making the lower portion of the room more tolerable. Library ladders filled the bill for reaching objects in Victorian home libraries, pantry space, and any other hard-to-reach areas.
Library ladder safety checklist
Regardless of the height of your library ladder, observance of safety practices should be followed. I've compiled a list here, but Modern Stainless Ladders has also created a thoughtful library ladder safety checklist.
- A 80° angle will assure the safest and most stable placement
- Ladder rungs should not be slippery and provide a flat and stable rungs for sure footage. Slip-free or nonskid surfaces can be applied to the rungs for additional safety.
- The ladder should be in top working condition. The wheels or hooks should be secured to the railing, not loose, and roll smoothly and without interference. Always inspect railings to makes sure they are securely attached. Modern Stainless Ladders points out that "a smooth roll will help you to keep balance."
- The ladder rail brackets should not be installed into the front edge of plywood uprights or shelves; the fastening strength may in insufficient
- The maximum spacing between brackets should not exceed 48"
- Library ladder railings should have end stops to prevent the ladder top hardware from falling off of the railing, leading to possible injury for the person on the ladder.
- Check the floors that they are even and free from obstructions.
- Wear practical shoes that are flat-soled and tied or fastened securely (bare feet, sandals, or high heels are unstable!)
- Climb the ladder correctly. From the Modern Stainless Ladders website: "Latch onto the rungs, using a hand-over-hand method. Do not reach for a higher rung, until lower hand has a strong grip. This is contrary to sliding both hands up the side rails as you step, which does not offer much stability the higher you climb." ALWAYS MAINTAIN 3 POINTS OF CONTACT WHEN CLIMBING A LADDER; 2 HAND POINTS AND A FOOT POINT and take your time climbing the ladder.
- Remember that you will be climbing up and climbing down with objects in your hands - do not store heavy and awkward objects on high shelves that will be difficult to handle. Hold the top dowel or closest rung with one hand when reaching for objects.
- Do not move ladder when standing on it. Reposition the ladder as close as possible to what you need to reach. This helps avoid a dangerous overreaching situation.
If a library ladder is what you have your heart set on, I hope that it becomes a reality for you. Using a library ladder in your home does require safety vigilance but can bring joy and satisfaction in the right spot.