Dave takes a lot longer than I do to finish a blog post, but he’s also a lot more thorough. These steps were finished awhile ago. And still standing! Who knows if my mobile will have long since fallen on the baby two months from now…. –Gretchen
This is a momentous occasion … my very first blog entry! Gretchen has wanted me to post about my home improvement projects for a while and, now that I’m off for Christmas vacation, I might get one or two of them done.
One of the things we knew about The Boxy Colonial when we bought it was that the back of the house was kind of a mess. There’s a screened in area that’s against the kitchen and seems sturdy enough, but with gaping holes in the screens. There’s also an open deck (good for grilling!) off of that. This part seems homemade and … not sturdy enough. We still need to do something about that. And then there were the stairs down to the back yard. Every time someone got on them, I crossed my fingers that they didn’t collapse.
I am not a handyman. This house is starting to change that, but I’m still very much a novice at building stuff. In October, after fairly successful attempts at building a fence around the backyard (huge project) and a dog gate between the sun room and kitchen (tiny project), I set out to replace the back steps. While small in size compared to the 6-foot privacy fence, there’s a certain amount of precision involved in making steps that you don’t necessarily need for a fence. I was a little nervous of getting half way through, screwing up something royally, and having to eat the cost of the destroyed material and pay a professional to do the job.
The demolition is always the most satisfying part of these sorts of jobs. I’ve always thought so when I watch HGTV, and now I have first hand experience. My boys and some of their friends helped out. We didn’t get a good “before” shot of the steps, but here’s with the railing off and some of the treads.
You can see the brick path that the stairs are resting on. Let me clarify that … The right stringer is resting on the bare ground just to the right of the brick path. The left stringer is resting on a chunk of 4×4 post that’s resting on the the 4×4 post that you can see running along side the bricks. There are all sorts of nails at weird angles holding everything in place, but the 4×4 frame of the path had broken under the weight of the steps. This is the main source of my fear of lawsuits.
There’s nothing more manly than a crowbar.
This is the best shot I could find of the stringer being supported by the block. See it next to Gus’ feet? That was the original builder’s solution for making a level surface. Nice.
I had a rough time getting the steps detached from the porch. The nails were those twisty types that really don’t want to come out at all.
I decided to use the weight of the steps to help me out. Judo style … use the strength of your opponent to defeat him. I lifted from the bottom step, raised it up above my head, and dropped it. Success! The entire structure got ripped out of the porch.
Well, not the whole structure. See the leftover stuff? Still lots of gnarly gnails to pry out of wood. I got some of them out by hammering from the back side, but it was way too hard to do. So on my first (of many) trips to the Home Depot, I bought this:
Ridgid Cordless Oscillating Multi Tool (affiliate link)
Except I’ve decided to stop buying battery powered tools (I hate waiting for batteries to charge), so I got the corded version. That was $129 instead of $99. It’s a neat tool that can be different things depending on the attachment. The starter kit comes with an oscillating saw that can be used to cut nails (sweet! That’s what I needed for this stage of the project!), some other small precision saw, and a sander. The HD was having a sale where you can get one attachment free ($50 value!) and I decided to get the power nailer … seeing as how I would be doing lots of nailing in the near future.
With the old stairs gone, I had to decide how to deal with the brick path. It’s hard to figure out the history of additions on this house, but at some point, the brick path must have ended at the bottom of a flight of stairs that have long since been torn down. There’s a nice level cement block at the end of the brick path … this is directly below the door to the screen porch. So I guess they extended the porch at some point, pushing the steps 7 feet down the brick path. Instead of dealing with the unlevel surface, the aforementioned shoddy block leveling technique was implemented.
I didn’t want to spend a lot of energy tearing up the path, but as it turned out, I didn’t have to. The bricks were so old, I was able to pull them up by hand with no trouble. Now I have a bunch of extra bricks – score!
The 4×4 posts that lined the path were still in the way, though. I have a Skil Saw, but that doesn’t cut deep enough for the 4x4s. I was able to cut through most of it, but a good inch of solid wood still stood between me and an obstacle-free surface for my stair landing. Enter the jig saw. I used that to cut down to the ground on both sides. Perfect! Except the jig saw blade wasn’t long enough to get all the way to the middle of the 4×4. So I had an almost completely detached piece, but there was still a little square of solid wood in the bottom middle of the beam that was inaccessible. Enter the kid’s Red Toolbox hand saw. I don’t have my own non-power saw, but the kids got one for Christmas last year and it was exactly what I needed to finish the job. Finally I had a clear patch of ground to have my stairs land on.
I considered pouring a concrete slab to make it nice and level, but opted to be lazy and … not. Instead, I bought some cement blocks from the HD – 3 of them at 16 inches wide a piece, and created a level surface using those. In retrospect, I probably should have poured the slab. A neighbor friend who is full of advice, whether I want it or not, said that over time the weight of the stairs will make my blocks sink. His solution to fix my mistake is to hammer a bunch of rebar at weird angles going underneath the blocks, then pour cement around the ends that are poking up. I may do that at some point. I guess maybe I’ll post about it, too. I’m not holding my breath, though, and neither should you.
The darker cement block is not there for support … obviously. I just put it there to hold the dirt under the other blocks in place. I guess there’s a good argument to pour cement around the base. Another good argument is that the first step is too high when you add the extra height of the blocks. Sigh.
Remember that I basically have no idea what I’m doing? With that in mind, I found many tutorials online. I found this guy who I liked from Makena Built and decided to use it as my step building bible. I watched these a few times before buying any material or tools.
Part 1 was pretty straightforward. It goes through the calculations of exactly how to measure the wood before cutting it. Since I already had existing steps, that made it a lot easier. But watching this guy go through his specific calculations was still useful for me. In my case, I needed 8 steps with a 7 1/8 inch rise and 10 inch run. From 8:20 to 8:50 he talks about boards that will be used to nail the steps to the landing (in my case, the screen porch) and the deck (in my case, the cement blocks). So he’s building interior steps and has a nice, level wood floor to work with. Since I have cement blocks instead, I decided to ignore the part about being able to lock the bottom of the stringer in a nice sturdy fashion. I understand that there are tools that screw into concrete, but I decided to cut a corner here and have the steps just resting on the concrete. I’ll let you know how that goes…
Part 2 showed the dude actually cutting the first stringer. I liked the use of a carpenter square and stair knocks. I don’t know if I’ll ever use the knocks again, but they were like $3 so no biggie. I made my first stringer the way he instructed. Very smooth and easy. At 5:05 he talks about knocking off some amount for his ledger. I did this, too, but I wish I hadn’t. My ledger ended up going higher than the top horizontal stretch of stringer. I didn’t cut it down because I wanted to maximize the surface area I could use to attach the stairs to the porch. What didn’t occur to me until later was that my treads lost 1.5 inches. So to avoid a dangerous amount of tread overhang, I cut the extra 1.5 inches off and now the top step is a little too narrow. I haven’t noticed the discrepancy when using the stairs, but it’s ugly when you look at it closely. So I try not to.
Part 3 begins with the four stringers already attached by the ledger and floor board. At 0:53 he talks about a strong backer. I skipped this step since mine are exterior steps. Notice that, at 2:00, he pulls out a hammer to lightly tap one of the middle stringers so the top is flush with the ledger. Apparently, he is much better at precision cutting than I am. He must be a professional or something. When I tried doing this, I wacked the heck out of my middle string and for the life of me could not get it to fit. There was a good half-inch of underhang. Unacceptable! I ended up pulling out the Skil saw and shaving parts of the middle stringer down until it fit. That took a lot longer than the 45 seconds shown in the video. But eventually, I had a similar structure to the one found at 2:45. (I used deck screws instead of nails because I don’t own a nail gun. The power nailer attachment for the Ridgid tool isn’t really powerful enough to use like that.) My steps are only 3 feet wide, so I only had three stringers instead of his four. Even so, I found the thing to be crazy heavy and very hard to get into the right place. I was sorely wishing I had another non-pregnant adult around to help with the positioning of this beast. But I managed. Professional Man made it look pretty easy, but keep in mind that I’m a math teacher, not a construction worker. And I had pressure treated lumber, which I assume is A LOT heavier. And if you think about it, 8 rises times 3 stringers is 24, where 5 rises times 4 stringers is only 20. So I was carrying 20% more wood that Professional Man.
Since I wasn’t fastening the bottom of the steps to anything, I wanted to make sure the top was very secure. Instead of just nails/screws into the side board of the deck, I used these angled metal braces that seem to be made for just such an occasion. Something kind of like this angled metal bracket. Although it seems to be upside down in this picture.
Now that the stringers were attached to the porch, it was a simple matter of nailing the deck board treads on, right? Nope. Remember how I had to finagle the middle stringer so it would fit in the frame between the floor board and the ledger? Well, the three stringers weren’t all level anymore. The bottom step was fine, but there was an ever increasing see saw effect as the treads made it up the stringers. I was rather dismayed and didn’t know what to do. At first I thought I had to shave down the middle stringer on every run, but my level revealed that the middle and left stringers were good and the right string was too short. I’m not sure how that happened, but I REALLY didn’t want to shave down two stringers. Instead, I went for a cheesy shim solution. Can shims be 1 inch thick? Mine are. They’ll have to do.
This picture shows the 3 angled brackets holding the stringers. You can also see one of the the thickest shims under the top step on the right. You can also see how I needed two 2×4 backers. Just one would not give me enough surface area to attach to the porch. The top backer is why I had to shorten the depth of my top step 🙁 Two flat brackets are there to help keep the top backer to the bottom – without those, I don’t believe the top backer would have been attached to the steps at all. I guess a 2×6 backer would have been a better solution. So many mistakes!
The power nailer got some serious use during the tread attaching. That was pretty fun. It’s not that much better than a hammer, but it does reduce the chance of finger injuries and bent nails. I was glad to have it for so many nails. Two treads per step, two nails per stringer, eight steps and three stringers total … we’re talking 96 nails. I wouldn’t pull the tool out for a small number of nails, though.
At this point, the Makena tutorials had taken me as far as they could. I still needed the railing, but I guess that part is fairly self explanitory. Four 4×4 posts (two per railing), four 2×4 boards, and a bunch of ballasters (32, I think). The bottom posts are a little wobbly because I didn’t bury them – I thought the massive lag screws would be enough, but was wrong. The top posts are attached to the stringers and the post with perpendicular lag screws, so they’re pretty sturdy. I cut a pyramid on the top of each post to encourage rain water drainage – an added bonus, I like the feel of the softer angles. I just set the angle of the Skil 30 degrees off the standard perpendicular cut and made one cut per side, 2 inches down.
The right railing is about two inches taller than the left one. When I put that one up, some of the ballasters didn’t quite make it down to the steps. Gretchen is sad about this and eventually I will lower it to match the other one. But it’s not a priority at this point…
I’m happy with the end result. Hiring professionals would have been much faster (this was a four weekend project for me) and given me nicer steps. But I’m still glad to have had the experience building them. They’re certainly better than the old ones and it was good to save the money.