Building traditional porch stairs and handrails. The Pretty Porch Series:

Building Deck Stairs With
Enclosed Risers

 
In This Article:

Lots of detailed layout and geometry to get the level of the steps just right, plus some digging of holes for posts.

Related Articles:
Skill Level: 3-4 (Moderate) Time Taken: 4 Hours

By , Editor

Introduction:

New house with front porch and no stairs. 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 against.

 

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 half.

 

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 department.

 

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 the deck.

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. 

Arrrrrgh!

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.

See this article for a description of that procedure done on a similar porch.

 

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.

See this article for more information about the problem of crushing the wood fibers.

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 bolts.

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. Stringers for short stairs.

 

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 saw. 

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 concrete.

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 screed board. 

 

The completed stairs, with the lower newel posts installed.

 

A few days later I returned and installed these shop-made handrails. It rather improved the appearance of the house.

 

More Info:

 

 

Tools Used:

  • 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

Materials Used:

  • Turned Newel Posts, Pressure Treated
  • 4x4 Posts, Treated
  • Pre-cut Stair Stringers
  • 5/4x6 Deck Boards
  • 5/16" Bolts, Nuts, Washers
  • 3" Deck Screws
  • Concrete Bag Mix

 

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Written June 6, 2003