I have stair problems. I have two porches on my house, one on the front porch and one to the back deck. The ones on the front porch are rotting and are quickly becoming dangerous and the ones on the back were replaced a couple years ago by my brother in law. A handy man he is not, and I nearly break my neck every time I walk down them. I need to have both of these issues fixed before someone, ie. Me, gets hurt. My husband and I have very limited knowledge of carpentry and only basic tools. Can you give me some pointers on how to properly build a set of stairs?
Thank you, we love to read your column every week.
Thank you so much Cheryl for your question and for reading every week.
Honestly, you couldn’t have chosen a more advanced project for you first foray into the world of home renovations. Stairs, though they do not require a whole truck load of tools to build, they do require a couple specialized hand tools and a strong understanding of geometry, math, and building codes which will give you the threshold of acceptable dimensions for your finished project.
To build a set of stairs you will require a circular saw, jigsaw or handsaw, 48 inch level, tape measure, a 24 inch framing square, stair gauges (optional, but very handy if you’re doing lots of stairs), and a hammer and nails, or screws and driver.
First thing is to rip out the old. Take out all your frustrations and let ‘em have it. Get it out of your system because the rest of this project will require concentration, patience and attention to detail. Once you have the old ones cleared out, cleaned up and the site levelled, you’ll want to sink some 18 inch patio stones into the ground level and flush with the grade of the soil. Now, resting the level on the floor of the deck, hold it so its level and measure from the patio stone base to the bottom of the level which represents the top of the floor. This is the total rise of the stair case. Now, here comes the math are you ready? Take the total rise and divide it by seven. Seven is the median rise allowed by the building code and is the most comfortable rise for the average human stride. Now take that number and divide it into your total rise. This will generally give you a number that is accompanied by a fraction. If it is larger than a half round up, smaller, round down. This is the total number of steps. Now, take your new rounded number and divide it into your total rise. This will give you a new number that is also accompanied by a fraction. This is your stair rise. Now for the run or tread, for exterior stairs I typically allow ten inches. Two 2x6s work well for treads. This gives you 11 inches, ten inches of run plus one inch of stair nosing. So when we set up our stair gauges on our framing square we set one at ten inches on the long leg of the square, and the other at the number avec fraction that we calculated earlier. Lying flat a pressure treated 2x12, lay your square on the board with the gauges tight against the edge of the board, this will triangulate the cut-out of the stringer. From the tip of one step, align your stair gauge with that point and mark your second step. Repeat for the total number of steps as you calculated earlier. Now cut out the marked stringer removing an additional amount from the bottom of the stringer equal to the thickness of the material you will use for the treads. Once you have cut one, test fit it in the final location and if it checks out, trace it for as many stringers you need, no less than 32 inches apart, and cut them out as well. Now all you have to do is cut the treads to the desired width and assemble your new staircase.
Now admittedly, this is an over simplified explanation of a fairly complex procedure, and if you’ve never done anything like it before, probably a tad hard to follow. Don’t feel bad, there are a lot of “carpenters”, I mean people who make a living building things people, who don’t know how to properly layout a stair stringer. If you have any doubts, look up a reputable carpenter or stair builder to give you a hand, a good guy won’t mind giving you some assistance even if you want to do most of the work yourself. Give him a coffee, or better yet a beer on a hot day and you’ve got a friend forever.