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What's a bed's box spring do?

Quickstep's picture

I know this doesn't sound like a woodworking question, but it is.... well, sort of. I recently built a rather lovely (if I say so myself) sleigh bed. It's now time to get a new mattress and box spring. Problem is that most of the "better" brands mattresses are thicker (higher) than the old one we're replacing. As a result, the combination of the box spring and mattress would hide much of the footboard. A friend suggested adding more slats and eliminating the box spring all together. If I were able to do this in a way that would prevent the slats from sagging in the middle, would this work? Any bed makers out there?

billballeza's picture

(post #78270, reply #1 of 21)

If you want a great deal of explanation I will be happy to provide it.. but the short version is this:

Either buy a lower profile mattress or live with the fact that your footboard will be somewhat concealed. You will not be happy with an unsupported mattress.. but if you do decide to go this way.. don't support it with slats.. instead put a plywood base on the slats and then place the mattress on top.


JohnWW's picture

(post #78270, reply #5 of 21)


Having given my contrary opinion, which I'll grant is based on limited experience, I would like to know a little more about how you came by your point of view.

John W.

John White Shop Manager for FWW Magazine, 1998 to 2007

billballeza's picture

(post #78270, reply #7 of 21)

John, I had back surgery in 1988 and have subsequently done lots of research on mattresses.

What I learned is that inner spring mattresses need to be supported in some manner in order to provide spine alignment and support of shoulders and hips without pushing against pressure points. Putting an inner spring mattress directly on slats may cause alignment problems.. while putting one on the ground or a platform may cause pressure point problems.

Even people who "platform" a mattress are often advised to place the platform between the mattress and the box spring.

All of this is controversial because some people can sleep darn near on the floor with no problems. I did it for 13 months in Vietnam.. but I was only 19.

I shouldn't have been so absolute in my opinion because I now realize that more people than I thought do without box springs without negative implications.


JohnWW's picture

(post #78270, reply #2 of 21)

Box springs used to contain springs and actually added to the cushioning of the mattress.  The majority of box springs these days seem to be totally rigid and are basically just torsion boxes with the mattress providing all of the cushioning.  I think you'll do fine with just a mattress.  I've used a platform bed with only a mattress for a few years and the bed seems to be just as comfortable as when the same mattress was on a box spring.

If you can find a bedding dealer that won't automatically try to sell you a box spring with a mattress, they could probably tell you what type of mattress will work best without a box spring.

You can use well dried out, small knots only, 2x4's for the slats. They can be jointed and planed flat, if needed, but try not to lose too much thickness.  Spaced a few inches apart they should provide plenty of support.  To minimize the height you can notch the ends of the 2x4's so that they sit a little lower on the lip of the bed rail without losing any strength. 

The spacing between the slats allows air to reach the bottom of the mattress which helps to prevent mildew problems which will occur occasionally on mattresses on a solid platform.

When you go mattress shopping bring the inside dimensions of your bed frame, some makers size their mattresses a little larger or smaller than the standard sizes.

John W.


John White Shop Manager for FWW Magazine, 1998 to 2007

Quickstep's picture

(post #78270, reply #3 of 21)

Well, those are certainly divergent views!

JsHerbel's picture

(post #78270, reply #4 of 21)

JohnW's reply is right on, including how to support the mattress. Box springs are not necessary, despite what the bed industry tells you. They do a good job of convincing the bed dealers of their necessity, who in turn scare people in to buying them by pointing out the warranty is no good unless a person buys a new box spring with their new mattress.

rrpm1's picture

(post #78270, reply #6 of 21)


I usually have my mattresses and box springs custom made..because it's cheaper.  About 15 years ago I switched from a traditional box spring to a platform box spring.  As was mentioned early, the platform box spring is a torsion box with foam on top and mattress ticking.  The point being you can make your own to match with the mattress and consistent with the height issues....that could be as thin as 3/4 ply...

PS. One of the reasons I went to the platform type is because I got used to staying at Marriott Motels ...and they use platform and foam rubber mattress across the country..

Edited 3/29/2004 5:41 pm ET by BG


CharlieP's picture

(post #78270, reply #8 of 21)

When I was buying a mattress and box springs for the bed in a guest room (looking for cheap, because usage would be light), I was sold a mattress and "foundation."  The foundation looked like a box spring, but if you peered through the gauze on the bottom (which we didn't do until much later) you could see it wasn't even a good torsion box. 

We had more than the usual number of comments from guests about "never sleep as well the first night in a new bed..." so we spend a night in that bed.  It was horrible.  Felt fine when trying it out, but we didn't rest as well.   Gave that foundation away long ago.  "Promoted" the mattress and box springs from the master bedroom to the guest room - plenty of life left for occasional usage.

Box springs are pretty stiff, so I have wondered if the flexibility of slats might add enough "spring" that slats and mattress would work like springs and mattress, NOT like "foundation" and mattress. 

I have heard numerous stories of molds and mildew if a mattress doesn't have at least some ventilation from the bottom (a concern since I like to build storage under the bed), so I don't believe in solid bed boards - be sure to use slats for at least part of the area. 

Charlie Plesums  Austin, Texas


Charlie Plesums  Austin, Texas

DGermeroth's picture

(post #78270, reply #9 of 21)

I'm of the opinion that box springs are an unnecessary expense foisted on the American public.  I made our bed and the design worked better if I didn't have to account for the thickness of the box spring (plus, without the box spring, we've got more storage space beneith the bed).  The mattress itself is 13" thick.  I supported the mattress on 0.75" x 3" pine slates, with about a .5" gap between slats.  The slats that more or less lie between our shoulders and hips I fortified by gluing another 3" wide slat in the middle third of the span.  For whatever reason, my wife thought it important that I stable an old sheet to the tops of the slats.   I weigh 175 pounds and my wife is about 125.  It has been a couple of years and no broken slats.  If either of us were significantly heavier, I'd probably of used 2x4's, but for us, the 0.75 pine is fine.   

Jamie_Buxton's picture

(post #78270, reply #10 of 21)

"What's a box spring do?"   As far as I can tell, it only costs you money and consumes valuable space in your bedroom.    I've slept on platform beds for 30 years, and have been quite happy with them.

AlbionWood's picture

(post #78270, reply #11 of 21)

Great discussion!

It seems to me that box springs are mainly an artifact from days when mattresses really did need them.  Top quality modern mattresses don't seem to require them.  They might be necessary for low-quality mattresses, but not for these 12"+ multiple-layered foam-and-spring pillow-top numbers.  Certainly not needed at all for a solid foam mattress... too bad those are so d*** expensive.

I use 4/4 poplar slats about 4" wide, ash if the customer wants the extra strength/stiffness.  Five slats are enough strength, but you have to add a plywood sheet to keep them from "telegraphing" through if a futon or thin mattress is used.  Nine slats is the most I've ever used.  That's for doubles or Queens; haven't made a King yet.

"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler."  A. Einstein

"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler."  A. Einstein

jazzdogg's picture

(post #78270, reply #12 of 21)

I keep seeing commercials for "Sleep Number" beds; I surmise they're little more than an air mattress that allows individual inflation pressures for each sleeper. I don't know how thick they are, but can't imagine too many problems placing one directly on top of a platform without any need for a box spring.


Whether you think you can, or you think you can't, you're right.


"Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive." Gil Bailie

bobbylonghare's picture

(post #78270, reply #16 of 21)

I've had a "Sleep Number" bed for a couple of years. Its great. They don't sell them with box springs, only platforms.


CharlieP's picture

(post #78270, reply #13 of 21)

And one more piece of trivia...  I found the fine print on a mattress set that said the warranty was void if there wasn't a center support on queen and king size mattresses. 

Then I noticed that all the larger frame sets (the ugly metal things you use with a headboard when you don't want a footboard) have a 5th leg in the center. 

Charlie Plesums  Austin, Texas


Charlie Plesums  Austin, Texas

reinvent's picture

(post #78270, reply #14 of 21)

Box springs were needed with old cast iron beds to span the distance from rail to rail.

One option you could do instead of slats would be to take a sheet of 3/4 cabinet grade ply and rout 1/2" slits across the span to provide both some 'give' and air ciculation. It would look and behave like slats but just drop in as one piece. You could choose spacing of slots depending on the weight of occupants and were most of that weight is located.

Tao's picture

(post #78270, reply #17 of 21)

Do they even make box springs any more?  All I've seen in years are plywood box "foundations".

If I were going to use slats under a mattress, I'd use a lot of them to get even support so the mattress didn't sag through.  My preference is plywood, just like the tops of those "foundations."  I've never seen a mold or mildew problem with a plywood platform; the mattress itself seems to be porous enough to allow for adequate ventilation. 

Michael R.


ianneuhaus's picture

(post #78270, reply #15 of 21)

FWIW my wife and I sleep on a queen size inner spring mattress supported on a slat bed.  I weigh in at about 220 lbs and SWMBO is about 120 lbs.  The slats are 3 x 1 pine spaced 3 in apart that span the width of the bed.  The slats are connected to a 2 x 2 stiffener at the 1/3 points of the span.  The bed base is a one piece unit with the slats nailed to the rails which makes moving a bit of challenge but the bed has gone into evey place I've lived over the past 25 years.  Nailing the slats to the rails and joining them at the 1/3 points significantly increases the stiffness of the slats.  If I were building the bed from scratch, I'd use a hardwood rather than radiata pine for the slats.  BTW Jeff Miller (Beds – Taunton) uses 3/4 x 4 in slats for his beds in the book and only uses a centre support on king sized beds.


CajunDan's picture

(post #78270, reply #18 of 21)

If you want to know how comfortable your mattress is without the box spring, just set your mattress on the floor for one night.

You might like it better.



AlanWS's picture

(post #78270, reply #19 of 21)

A good mattress on a flat plywood surface has worked fine for me for the last 20 years. I agree that personal taste is involved, and that you should test whether that's a good idea for you by putting the mattress on the floor.

LD's picture

(post #78270, reply #20 of 21)

Popular Mechanics has a platform bed plan.  I believe it's in their anniversary line.  It available on line.  It uses 13, 4/4 poplar slats with a 2x3 poplar center support.  Everything is screwed together.  What a bed!  I built it as a wedding present for my son and his new bride.  They love it.

Of course when your first married you love any bed you can find.

Fixthispleas's picture

(post #78270, reply #21 of 21)

Semi off topic: A few years ago, my wife got a new "pillow top" mattress. With pillow toping on each side, it was about 8" higher than the old one and hid some of the headboard and all of the foot board.

A few months later, my back needed another tuneup (3rd back operation in 38 years). The higher bed proved to be a real bonus for getting in and out of bed. Now, 4 years later, the extra height still makes getting out of bed easier, even in the early morning! I'd recommend that anyone making beds make them at least 6" - 8" higher than traditional beds, especially for old pharts.

The only negative: The little 14 year old mutt dog can't jump up on the higher bed.