Watch Your Step

As the 2 of you that read this blog have seen, we got a new front walk and back patio in April of this year.

Before Walk


After Walk

Towards the end of the summer I started to get worried about the front steps up to the porch. They were put under a bit of stress from being lifted up when we put in the new front walk. Once the walk was finished, the stairs didn’t quite sit the same way as they did on the brick. This caused stringers to start splitting.

This can't be good.
This can’t be good.


Then they really split.

That can't be good.
This can’t be good either.


So this situation kept getting worse as I lacked the time to address it and the confidence to build a proper stringer. Finally, towards the end of October Carrie and I managed to block off the two weekends of November before Thanksgiving to replace the stairs. Mind you, this was a Thanksgiving where we anticipated having 10 family members over for dinner.

Leonard Bernstein once said, “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.” With that in mind, on a freezing cold day (because why would weather cooperate?), I tore off the front steps of the house.

Week One

IMG_7860 IMG_7864

Once I got the railings off, it became clear how bad a shape they were in.

As I got the risers and the treads off, I transitioned from worrying that they needed to be fixed before they got bad, to wondering how they were still standing. All of the stringers had split in some capacity and most were rotten to their core. The bottom step had broken completely off and the broken stringers were resting on dirt, slowly sinking in to the ground. Oh, and the board on the porch they were attached to was not treated lumber and thus rotting through.


About 20 minutes later it started snowing. And then we found out 13 people were coming over for Thanksgiving. While I did have a bit of a plan before I tore the front steps off, once they were gone, it was significantly easier to measure my total rise and run so I could figure out what I was doing. This was the moment I realized I didn’t have much time and only a semblance of a plan.

I had already determined I was going to make the stringers out of 2×12 boards and that I was going to increase the number of stringers from 4 to 6. I also planned to bury the front posts, meaning that their location would have to be moved, placing them behind where the front walk stopped.

At this point, I calculated the stringers. I did all my math by hand several times. Then I found an online stringer calculator and was pleased to find my math was correct (blew my mind). With it being too cold and snowy to build anything, I went to the hardware store with a friend’s van and bought more wood than I thought I needed. I had to over buy because my rise and run ended up being pretty abnormal measurements and I wasn’t sure wasn’t quite sure how my risers and treads would work out as a result. I got home with enough time to unload the wood and cover it with a tarp before it really started snowing. That’s when I called it weekend.


Week Two
Five days before Thanksgiving. I setup a makeshift workshop in the front yard and start cutting. I replaced the board mounted onto the porch and added another. I then measured more than twice and cut once. After cutting the two ends of my first stringer, I held it into place and discovered the run was off. Way off.

I had made the mistake of measuring from where the concrete stopped. That would have been fine but  (1) the end of the concrete walkway was not completely squared off so one stringer ended before it reached the concrete, and (2) on the side where the stringer landed on the concrete the stringer was too short to reach the etched line design in the concrete. So, oops. One $15 stringer wasted and I had to stop and remeasure and remeasure and remeasure and recalculate.

After adding about 5 inches to the total run of the stairs and ignoring the big red message on the calculator warning the slope of the stairs was low, I cut another stringer. This stringer worked.  Fit perfectly. I then used it as a template to cut the other five stringers. Once they were cut, I started to mount the stringers and realized I needed to level out the unfinished end of the concrete. After a lot of grinding and dust, I was ready to mount the rest of the stringers.


On the original stairs – beyond being completely rotten – the two (of four) outside stringers were not sitting on the front walk; only the inner two were and they were sitting oddly because they had been notched to fit on the old brick walk way. I think this had a lot to do with the stringers splitting.

So my setup: six stringers. The outside measurement of the outer most stringers is 48″. This lined them up perfectly with porch posts at the top, however they sit just outside of the front walk. The next two stringers in are 2″ in from the outside stringers. This 2″ gap has two purposes: (1) they sit on the concrete walk and (2) a brilliant post solution we’ll discuss later. The two middle stringers I put on 16″ and 32″.

By the end of the first night I was able to get all six stringers mounted. So last minute I decided to put the risers on the edge of the porch. As planned it was exactly 9″. I had bought a bunch of 1x4s and 1x6s boards in preparation. I cut one of each to fit, screwed them in, and called it a night (note: that risers on the top step is just sitting there).


Sunday – Under constant drizzle.
First: risers. I started at the bottom. Because outside stringers were not resting on anything, I put supports beside the walk to help, leveled out the stringers, and screwed in the bottom riser. With that in place, I again ran the level every which way and was surprised how level everything turned out. After ripping a couple of the 1×6’s by a 1/2″ I buddied them up with 1×4’s to reach the step rise of 6 1/2″.


With that done, the treads were easy. I used one 2×8 and one 2×6 giving me a total tread depth of 13″. I was worried this was going to leave me with a large nosing (front of the tread that hangs over), but with the riser board, the low slope and depth of the stairs it worked out pretty well. Because the stringers are 48″, I halved all my tread boards which gave me a wonderful 1/4 overhang on the edges. I screwed down all of them but the bottom step.

By this point for several reasons I had decided not bury the front posts in the ground (one of which was the desire not to dig a post hole). I determined it would be best to mount them to the stringers kind of like they had been previously (only better). Because I wasn’t going to bury the post, I didn’t need the new 8′ 4×4 posts I had bought and I was able to use 4×4’s I had recovered from when I replaced the back fence. This is where the 2″ gaps come in. I notched out 1.5″ x 6.5″ from the bottom of the post. This left me with a 2″ tab that fit perfectly in my 2″ slots between the stringers.


I notched out the corners of a 2×6 tread to fit around the posts and screwed everything down. I managed to finish before dark, but failed to take a photo. The only problem: it was Sunday night and I wasn’t going to have the railings finished for Thanksgiving.


Weekend after Thanksgiving

We made it through Thanksgiving and walking up five steps without a railing was easy enough for most. The following weekend I got started on the railings. I went into this final step truly worried about the difficulty. Angles get complicated. It turns out the stringer calculator included the angle of the stairs making it easy for me to setup the miter saw for the cut.

I cut the angle on a scrap board. I used the scrap board to position the bottom rails and get them into place.


Once into place I was able to make the measurements to cut the angle of the front posts and modify the angle of the porch posts (the slope was slightly lower).


I then modified all the previous verticals I saved from the old railings and cut a few new ones to fill in the gap. I built the insides of the railings flat on the front walk and dropped them into place. I secured them to the bottom run and then screwed the hand railing into place.

We have all the paint, but the treated lumber is still pretty wet and it’s pretty could outside. We’ll get the painting done in the spring.


Honestly, I expected these railing to take all weekend, but I was done just after lunch on Saturday. I even had enough time to return all the extra wood I had bought and build a couple of small benches with the left over 2x16s.


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