Bruce W. Maki,
||The builder of this new house asked me to
construct a set of stairs and handrails for this porch. We
agreed that wide stairs would appear more inviting so we
settled on a width of about 5 feet,
|The stair stringers would just barely intersect
with the upper 2x8 joist. So I added a 2x6 below it to
increase the area that the ends of the stringers could lean
||I clamped the 2x6 in place and secured it with
3" deck screws.
I also crawled under the deck and fastened a pair of
vertical 2x4 boards to the back side of this face, to connect
these two boards together in the middle of their span. The
stair stringers are going to lean against this new board and
any deflection will pose a problem.
|While it's difficult to see, that's a 4-step
stair stringer in the photo. I needed only 2 steps but at
least 5 stringers because of the width. So I bought three of
these 4-step stringers with the intention of cutting them in
||I made a few cuts to divide the stringer into
two equal pieces, or so I thought.
|But it turned out that the top tread was shorter
than the others. There is a reason for this, and it takes a
sketch to explain.
||I also noticed that the riser heights were not
uniform. Some risers were 6-3/4", while others were
closer to 6-5/8".
It's my understanding that risers for outdoor stairs need to
be between 6" and 7-1/4". Ask your local building
||I marked the height of the first step down. Note
that this mark is the elevation of the top of the finished
tread, NOT the elevation of the stringer.
||One inch below that point, (the treads will be
5/4 deck planks, which are 1" thick) I laid out the
position where the end of the stringer should meet the face of
At this point it was obvious to me how necessary this
additional 2x6 face plank was.
||I set the outer stringers in place just to get a
look at them.
||At this point I realized that the top tread area
was only 9 inches long and the bottom tread area was 10
inches. The pair of 5/4x6 deck planks will be 11 inches wide,
so that will leave 1 inch overhang (nose) on the lower step,
but not the upper step.
Of course, this was my own fault, because I was just stumbling
about, not planning ahead carefully. Since I had bought extra
stringers, I cut another pair correctly.
IMPORTANT: Read my
article about stair stringer layout
before trying to build stairs. It might save you some grief.
|Once proper stringers were cut, I installed a
piece of 2x4 to the face. The stringers will attach to the
ends of this board.
||I cut an 8 foot 4x4 treated post in half and
made these notches that will mate up with the newel posts.
article for a description of that procedure done on a
|To connect the newel posts to the notched 4'
long 4x4's, I lined the pieces up carefully and drove in four
3" deck screws.
To prevent splitting of the wood, I pre-drilled and
countersunk the holes (only in the top piece).
||Then I used a 1¼" spade bit to make a
large diameter recess for the bolts and washers.
I always use double washers when bolting wood together. In
this case I used 5/16" washers over 7/16" washers,
which have an outside diameter of almost 1¼". I use such
large washers to prevent crushing of the wood fibers which
will eventually cause the bolt to loosen.
article for more information about the problem of crushing the
|I dug a 4 foot deep hole ( in Northern Michigan
foundations need to be this deep to prevent heaving from
frost) and placed the post in the hole. I dug the hole a few
inches deeper than the post, so I could pour concrete in the
hole to act as a filler between the post and the hole bottom.
Why? I could have simply dug the hole to the exact depth
needed. But that is darn near impossible with ordinary equipment. If
I dug too deep, the back-filled soil must be tamped fully. (The soil
has to be tamped anyway, and I just use the post to ram the soil
until it seems firm.) To get the exact depth requires many
iterations of digging, tamping, measuring, filling, tamping,
measuring, and so on. It takes too long, especially when I'm
charging the builder by the hour. So the concrete becomes a
convenient filler that will not settle over time.
||The stringer had just been attached to the cleat
with a few deck screws.
With the post in place, I clamped it to the stringer and
drove in some 3" screws. Then I placed a piece of 2x4 on
the ground and screwed it to the post. This made a sturdy
support so the post's weight was not bearing on the stringer.
|I mixed up a bag of concrete in an empty
5-gallon plastic bucket, and shoveled the mix into the holes.
I made sure that the bottom of each post was just barely
submerged in the concrete.
I could have used a pair of basic concrete post anchors
for this operation, but that had slipped my mind while
shopping, so I did it this way. Read this
article to see that slightly different approach.
||Without waiting for the concrete to set, I
filled in the holes. As I backfilled, I made sure that the
posts were plumb.
It turned out that the posts were held very well in the
concrete. Even before I backfilled it was difficult to tilt
the posts into a plumb position, because the concrete grabbed
the post end so well.
I have never had a problem with concrete when I covered it with
dirt immediately after pouring. Of course, I've never dug up the
concrete afterwards and taken it to a testing lab, either.
While backfilling, I always place about 6 inches of soil in the
hole and them tamp it fully. I just use the end of a 2x4, 4x4, my
foot, or a cast iron tamper tool, whichever fits in the hole most
easily. If this tamping isn't done, the post will almost certainly
become loose. Also, the soil will settle around the post and
need to be filled in later.
|I drilled holes all the way through the
post/stringer assembly and installed 5/16"x6" long
Hint: to drill long holes like this, I use a thin
long drill to make a pilot hole. I own just a few extra-long
drill bits. The one I used here is quite small, 3/16"
diameter by about 12" long. After making a hole all the
way through I went back with a 5/16" spade bit (I've got
a wide selection of spade bits) and drilled from each side.
Because of the pilot hole, there was no problem getting the
two holes to line up.
||I just used a wrench on one side and a ratchet
on the other. These bolts need to be reasonably tight, but not
too much. I listen for the sound of crushing wood. When I hear
that faint sound I know I've reached the limit.
|I installed a 2x10 facing to connect the newel
posts together. There were two reasons why I used a huge board
here. First, the middle stringers need a rigid board to bear
against, and second, the concrete subcontractor will soon be
pouring a sidewalk in front of these stairs, so I decided to
give them a form board.
The red arrows point to the 2x4 supports that held the
newel posts in place while the concrete cured. I left these
boards in place for a few days.
||I set the middle stringers in place and fastened
them with deck screws.
|I used 5 stringers, with spacings of 12 to 16
inches. Had I used only 4 stringers the spacing would have
just exceeded 16", and the inspector might reject it.
||With the stringers complete I installed a
5/4x6" deck board on the only riser that was open. But...
I had to place a scrap of deck board on the lower tread to
raise the riser to the proper height.
|To secure the treads, I drove in two deck screws
(2" long) per stringer.
||Near the ends I pre-drilled the holes to prevent
the wood from splitting.
|Installing the top treads was easy because there
were no posts to work around.
||For the bottom treads I cut notches with a jig
I normally cut notches a little bigger (1/16" to
1/8") so there is less chance that I have to re-cut them
because of some inaccuracy in measuring or because the posts
have a slight twist.
|The notched tread boards just slipped in place
and were fastened with 2" deck screws.
||The nosing turned out correctly, in spite of my
earlier mistakes and miscalculations.
This should serve as a warning to any people planning on building
a deck with stairs. I pays to carefully lay out the stair stringers,
the riser facing material, the tread boards, and the newel posts. In
the future I think I will make sure I have all the materials,
especially the stringers, in my hands before I do any cutting.
Making a careful sketch (even a scale drawing with rulers) is a good
idea to prevent the grief that stairs can cause.
I have seen several experienced carpenters get tripped up by
stair layouts. My advantage is all that wonderful math (especially
trigonometry) that I took in high school and college. A lot of
carpenters shy away from math, and instead try to figure things out
with framing squares (rafter squares), which are far more difficult
than just some basic geometry.
|The last thing I did was to nail a thin strip of
treated lumber to the lower face of the stairs. The concrete
subcontractors can use this board to establish the level of
their forms, and also they can use this to help screed off the
Simply snapping a chalk line might not help the concrete
workers, because it's harder to maintain a level next to a
line than it is to maintain a level next to an actual surface.
This is especially true when the line is longer than their
||The completed stairs, with the lower newel posts
|A few days later I returned and installed these
shop-made handrails. It rather improved the appearance of the
Back To Top
- Cordless Drill/Driver
- Basic Carpentry Tools
- Power Drill
- Spade Bits
- Countersink Bit
- 2-Foot Level
- 4-Foot Level
- Circular Saw
- Jig Saw
- Post Hole Diggers, Shovel
- Turned Newel Posts,
- 4x4 Posts, Treated
- Pre-cut Stair Stringers
- 5/4x6 Deck Boards
- 5/16" Bolts, Nuts,
- 3" Deck Screws
- Concrete Bag Mix
Read our Disclaimer.
What's New Project