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How to Build Deck Stairs

No matter how high your deck, if it has stairs, your yard is literally only a few steps away. Without stairs, you might need to go back inside, through, out, and around the house to get to the same piece of lawn. Deck stairways also can add visual interest and useful space to your home.

Unless your stairs have landings, they can be built separately from the main deck, even after the decking and fascia are complete. This means that those who've inherited a stairless deck from a previous owner can add a straight stairway anytime. Whenever possible, construct your stairs from rot-resistant lumber, as stairs tend to admit rot-inviting dirt and water into cracks and end grain.

Elements of a deck stairway are few. Stringers (and sometimes a carriage) are the left and right boards, usually 2x12s, enclosing the stairs. As they slope from yard to deck, stringers support the treads as you step on them. Optional risers are lengths of one-by lumber nailed on edge between adjacent treads to close the space between them. Risers often are omitted from outdoor stairs because they inhibit drainage and create a joint where water can collect and encourage rot (Fig. 1).
Elements for Building Stairs Fig. 1
    Project: Moderate
    Estimated Project Time: 2 hours
    Estimated Project Cost: Varies with project
    Start Tips: Consider using rot-resistant lumber, as stairs tend to admit rot-inviting dirt and water into cracks and end grain.
    Safety Tips: When working with concrete for the post holes, wear rubber boots, rubber gloves, long sleeves, and safety goggles; concrete can burn your skin after prolonged contact.
    Recommendation: Do-it-Yourself
2x12s for stringers Framing square
2x12s or 2x6s for treads Pencil
One-by lumber for risers Tape
2x2 tread cleats Circular saw
J-bolts (optional) Sealer/preservative
Deck screws Safety goggles
1-1/4-inch lag screws and shields Hearing protectors (when using a circular saw)
3-inch screws, 16d galvanized nails, or carriage bolts Heavy work gloves
Drill Rubber gloves (for concrete work)
Railing posts (if stairs will have a railing) Heavy work boots
Lumber for intermediate landing(s), as needed Dust mask (when using a circular saw)
Find the Length of StringersFig. 2

1) Estimate the length of your stringers
Before buying lumber for your stringers, you'll need to estimate their length. Here's a quick method: On a framing square, measure the length of the diagonal from the unit rise to the unit run (Fig. 2). This will tell you how far the stringer must travel per step. Multiply this number by the planned number of steps, plus one (to be safe), and you'll have a rough estimate of your stringers' length. For example, a step with a unit rise of 7 inches and a unit run of 11 inches will travel 13 inches per step. If there are five steps, the stringers will need to be about 11 feet 3 inches long.
Layout First StringerFig. 3
2) Lay out the first stringer
Using a framing square, transfer the rise and run to a 2x12 with the crown side up. It helps to mark your square with tape—one piece for the rise and one for the run. Start marking these measurements lightly in pencil at the top of the stringer—the end that will meet the deck. At the bottom step, shorten the rise by the thickness of the tread stock. (Fig. 3) Cut the top and bottom of this stringer (but don't cut the notches yet). (Be sure to wear hearing protectors, dust mask, and safety goggles when using a circular saw.) Then hold the stringer where it will be installed, with one end against the deck and the other on the landing pad (or on lumber simulating the landing pad's height). Now, check that the tread lines are level. Mark and check the other stringer(s) in this manner.
Cut Notched StringerFig. 4
3) Make the stringers
Cut a notched stringer first with a circular saw (Fig. 4). Because it must enter the board at an angle, you may need to retract the circular sawblade guard at the start of each cut to avoid making a wavy line. Rest the bottom plate solidly and evenly on the surface of the board as you cut. It's okay to cut beyond your lines by 3/4 inch or so if the board face won't be seen once the stairway's completed.
Position Posts and Dig HolesFig. 5
Finish the cuts with a hand saw, holding the blade at 90 degrees to the board so no overlapping cuts show on the other side.

Take care not to bump the stringer "teeth" after cutting them out, since they're fragile until treads are attached.

Brush a thorough coat of sealer/preservative on each cut, letting plenty sink into any end grain.

Use this first stringer as a template for the other(s). If you'll have two housed stringers with a notched stringer in the middle, cut the notched one first and use it to mark the housed stringers.

For each housed stringer, make the top and bottom cuts first. Position the tread cleats (also called stair angles), drill the pilot holes, and fasten the cleats with 1-1/4-inch lag screws. (Fig. 5)
Position the posts and dig the post holesFig. 6
4) Position the posts and dig the post holes
Determine how far apart the stringers will be. For notched stringers, remember that the treads will overhang them on each side, probably by 1-1/2 inches.

Temporarily attach the top of each stringer to the deck, resting the lower ends on the landing pad (or something equal to the height of the landing pad, such as 1x4s). Use a framing square to make sure the stringers are square to the deck.

Next, mark the placement of each post or footing hole. If you have notched stringers, align the front of the posts with the second or third rise cut (Fig. 6).

Detach the stringers and move them out of the way before digging postholes and installing footings. If seating the posts directly in the holes, do not pour the concrete yet—wait until the stairs are completed.
Attach the top of the stringers to the deck Fig. 7
5) Attach the top of the stringers to the deck
For a firm connection, you may need to beef up the deck framing. If there's not enough joist surface for nailing, as often is the case, add a two-by piece below the joist. This piece usually bridges two posts.

To attach a stringer to the face of a joist, drive nails or screws through the back of the joist into the stringer (Fig. 7). If installing a notched stringer, you also can attach it with an angle bracket which will be covered up by the treads. On a housed stringer, however, such a bracket will be visible, so in this case it's best to back-screw through the joist into the stringer.
Attach the bottom of the stringers to the pad Fig. 8
6) Attach the bottom of the stringers to the pad
Since the stairs will be quite stable, great strength isn't required here. You can wait until most of the treads are installed before connecting the stringers to the pad using one of these methods (Fig. 8):

a. Attach angle brackets to the concrete or masonry using lag shields

b. Set J-bolts in the wet concrete and, once the concrete has set, attach wood cleats to the J-bolts

c. Notch the bottom of the stringers to accommodate a 2x4 cleat; attach it to the pad using masonry nails or lag screws and shields

Make sure the stringers are square and exactly parallel. Unless you installed J-bolts while the concrete was wet, use a masonry bit to drill holes for the lag shields.
Install the risers
7) Install the risers
Install any risers before installing the treads. Drill pilot holes for your nails or screws (Fig. 9) since this area is susceptible to splitting.

The top of each riser must be flush with the horizontal stringer cut, but there can be as much as a 3/4-inch gap at the bottom. (So if your riser is less than 7-1/4 inches, you will have to rip a 1x8 to fit; for risers 7-1/4 to 8 inches, there is no need to rip.)

When risers are installed flush to the outside of the stringers, problems can arise when cuts are not perfect or the boards shrink. To avoid these problems, let the risers overlap the stringers by 3/4 inch or so on either side.
Attach the rail posts and install the treadsFig. 10
8) Attach the rail posts and install the treads
Attach the rail posts to the stringers so they're plumb in both directions. Drive 3-inch screws or 16d galvanized nails through the stringers into the posts, or use carriage bolts.

For housed stringers, cut the treads to fit exactly, drill pilot holes, and attach them from underneath with 1-1/4 inch lag screws.

For notched stringers, cut the treads to overhang the stringers by 1-1/2 inches on either side. At least one of the treads must be notched to fit around the posts. Attach treads to the stringer with 16d galvanized nails or with 3-inch deck screws through pre-drilled holes. (Fig. 10)

When risers are installed flush to the outside of the stringers, problems can arise when cuts are not perfect or the boards shrink. To avoid these problems, let the risers overlap the stringers by 3/4 inch or so on either side.
Pour concrete for the rail postsFig. 11
9) Pour concrete for the rail posts
Brace each post and check for plumb in both directions before filling the hole with concrete (Fig. 11).

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