Basement Stairs

The base­ment stairs project was this past week­end and it end­ed up being a com­plete suc­cess. Angela and I are both real­ly hap­py in how they turned out. I don’t real­ly want to write a play by play, but I thought I would at least write some about what we did and what all I learned.

Basement Stair - Circa 1938The New Stairs

John­ny and I had pur­chased all the lum­ber and planned out what we’d do the pre­vi­ous week­end, which helped save some time and ener­gy for real­ly get­ting down to the busi­ness of build­ing. My biggest wor­ry and the main rea­son I had put off doing this for so long (I’ve been talk­ing about these stairs since the first day we moved in) was that I knew it would be very impor­tant to replace them in a sin­gle week­end. If I could­n’t fin­ish before Mon­day morn­ing, I’d end up going sev­er­al days with no stairs (inside) down to the base­ment: where the laun­dry is. That would mess up the flow of things around the house and be oth­er­wise pret­ty dan­ger­ous. So, doing all the plan­ning and mate­ri­als pur­chas­ing in advance made a big dif­fer­ence and I’m going to try and spread out my projects sim­i­lar­ly in the future.

The Old Staircase (RIP)

Demo did­n’t real­ly take very long. I prob­a­bly took longer to haul all this up at the end of day one.

We got start­ed about 9:00 am on Sat­ur­day and sur­pris­ing­ly, demo­li­tion of the old stair­case took less than 30 min­utes. The entire thing was con­nect­ed to the struc­ture of the house by no more than four 10d nails. Two of which were nailed upwards into the fram­ing from below such that weight on the stairs tends to just pull them right back out, which is exact­ly what had hap­pened. So, in real­i­ty, for the past 68 years, two toe-nails have been keep­ing this whole assem­bly up. As an engi­neer, I can tell you that there’s real­ly no math­e­mat­i­cal rea­son for that to actu­al­ly work. Dumb luck and some sort of wedg­ing fric­tion com­bined to pre­vent any­one from being seri­ous­ly hurt for far longer than is real­ly sen­si­ble.

Even though it stretch­es what the build­ing code allows for, we used one of the exist­ing stringers as a tem­plate to cut the three new ones by. This saved us loads of time and headaches. Those stringers weren’t per­fect (and at 42.8°, real­ly steep), but they were fair­ly reg­u­lar and square. I drilled the cor­ner at each tread-to-ris­er inter­sec­tion to help cut down on over-cut. We just used a cir­cu­lar saw and a jig saw to cut the entire set of stringers and paid close atten­tion to get­ting every­thing right. We end­ed up with all the fram­ing mem­bers cut and ready to hang by around lunch-time.

Base Connection Detail

Base con­nec­tion detail

The next step was the bot­tom sup­port assem­bly. I decid­ed to use a fence-post base that had a thread­ed rod for height adjust­ment. This would pro­vide a real­ly sol­id base con­nec­tion, some­thing sub­stan­tial to frame every­thing into, and most impor­tant­ly, would allow us to raise the whole base up off the wet base­ment floor. Of course, this required drilling holes in the con­crete floor slab to accept the anchor bolts. I bought a 3/4″ ∅ bit for just this pur­pose but we quick­ly dis­cov­ered (actu­al­ly about 15 arm-numb­ing min­utes and 1/2″ lat­er) that my ham­mer drill sim­ply was­n’t pow­er­ful enough to drill that size hole 3″ into con­crete. We went over to the hard­ware cen­ter to rent a real drill: a Hilti com­mer­cial ham­mer drill. The least amount of time they’ll rent one is four hours. We drilled the two holes in about three min­utes. It actu­al­ly took longer at the rental counter than it did to do the work. Mon­ey well spent, in my opin­ion. The “epoxy” I used was actu­al­ly a Simp­son acrylic adhe­sive specif­i­cal­ly for this appli­ca­tion. It is fast set­ting (less than 25 min­utes at room tem­per­a­ture) and will like­ly sur­vive a direct nuclear strike on the house.

Awaiting Treads and Risers

Fram­ing com­plete

After get­ting all the fram­ing work assem­bled, we called it a day. We spent a lot of time fit­ting every­thing up before final assem­bly and although that (along with two trips to pick-up and return the drill) burned up our after­noon, it paid off in hav­ing every­thing fit togeth­er well once we did start ham­mer­ing nails.


Stair Tread

Round­ed stair tread detail.

The next morn­ing, we start­ed to work on the treads and ris­ers. John­ny had brought over his router and was able to add a nice round­ed edge to all the tread nos­ing. That is the sort of stuff you’ll actu­al­ly notice when you look at the stair and even though it prob­a­bly added an hour or so total, it was time well spent. The final result is a real­ly great look­ing set of stairs that we were able to walk up for a late lunch around two o’clock.


Handrail Attachment Detail

Handrail con­nec­tion detail.

We vis­it­ed our friend David’s house to bor­row his miter saw to cut the ends of the handrail plumb. Again, just detail­ing for aes­thet­ics, but the end result looks much nicer. We spent the remain­ing time put the handrail up. The first part of that was to build an assem­bly onto the steel col­umn at the base of the stairs. We used a step bit to drill into the steel flanges to accept three lag-screws. This took a lot less time than I had fig­ured on and the end result looks nice and is incred­i­bly sol­id (oh yeah, be sure and use cut­ting oil or you’ll prob­a­bly just end up weld­ing the bit into the steel). The rest of the handrail sur­prised us by just how dif­fi­cult it was to mount. Find­ing wall studs in a heav­i­ly plas­tered wall is near­ly impos­si­ble, but we man­aged to only drill a cou­ple of extra pilot holes. It was the oak handrail itself that was the biggest trou­ble. After two days of work­ing with rel­a­tive­ly soft South­ern yel­low pine, that oak was like try­ing to dri­ve a screw into steel or con­crete. Actu­al­ly, worse since both of those went much faster! We did man­age to get every­thing togeth­er just in time for when Angela arrived back home.

I fin­ished up the light I installed in the stair­well and now I just need to do some final clean­ing up. All in all, a great week­end project. I owe John­ny O. a great deal, as I could­n’t have done it with­out him. Here’s my idea for a cred­it card com­mer­cial, by the way:

  • Lum­ber and mate­ri­als: $230
  • Hard­ware and tools: $65
  • Equip­ment rental: $42
  • Hav­ing a friend who actu­al­ly wants to help build a stair­case: price­less.

12 thoughts on “Basement Stairs”

  1. I’m glad I came across this, this is exact­ly what I want to do in my house.
    I’ve been scour­ing the inter­net look­ing for exam­ples, won­der­ing if it’s some­thing that I could do myself, or not.
    I’m curi­ous if you had any actu­al plans for this, or did you just fig­ure it out on your own?
    I don’t have a con­struc­tion back­ground but I’m fair­ly handy around the house.
    I do have friends who are more famil­iar with con­struc­tion but haven’t built stairs.
    Any advice?
    Thank you.

  2. Well, Joe, I’m a struc­tur­al engi­neer in my day job and my friend I men­tioned is a handyman/ ama­teur car­pen­ter. That, plus the fact that I work with two very smart struc­tur­al engineer/ wood­work­ers helped to give me a bit of a leg up. How­ev­er, all that being said, none of us had ever built any stairs before so it’s not like we’d had loads of expe­ri­ence. I had been think­ing about the lay­out for these for some­time, and real­ly just designed them all on my own. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, there’s just not a lot of infor­ma­tion out there for rough stair car­pen­try (as you’ve prob­a­bly found).

    I’d say the best advice would be to use your exist­ing stair stringers as tem­plates, pro­vid­ed you can live with their rise/run. Cut­ting accu­rate stair tem­plates is one of the tough­est chal­lenges in car­pen­try, or so I’m told. We skipped this all togeth­er and the project was a lot smoother as a result, I’d say. Also, do not over cut the stair treads on your stringers. Use a drill on the cor­ners and a hand jig-saw to cut what you can’t get with a cir­cu­lar saw. I see a lot of over-cut stringers in my line of work and all of those stairs are flim­si­er than they should be.

    Use as beefy (deep) of stringers as you can fit into your appli­ca­tion (I used three 2“x12“ ‘s for this stair­case). Spend a lit­tle more mon­ey on these and you’ll have a much stiffer stair­case. Walk­ing down a flight of stairs puts a fair amount of dynam­ic load into them and peo­ple are very sen­si­tive to that. It’s more of a com­fort and per­for­mance thing than any­thing else, but it’s real­ly worth doing. Also, use pre-drilled deck screws to hold down the treads. They won’t squeak so much over time. Plus, since we used three stringers instead of two, they allowed us to warp the treads ever so slight­ly to account for imper­fec­tions in the cen­ter stringer (imag­ine that the three points weren’t per­fect­ly in line, as they almost always are not).

    Good luck with your project! Once your done, and feel like post­ing some pho­tos or a blog post of your own, feel free to drop a link back here. I’d love to see what you come up with.

  3. Hel­lo,

    We poured the floor with steel joyce and after­wards decid­ed to use the base­ment.

    The joyce are hor­i­zon­tal 2ft apart so I want to cut one giv­ing me 4ft for the well or open­ing from the base­ment to the first floor.

    Do you know how do I sup­port or make up the stairs.

    Thanks
    Min­nis

  4. Min­nis: I’m sor­ry but I don’t real­ly under­stand exact­ly what you are describ­ing there. How­ev­er, if you are con­sid­er­ing alter­ing the struc­ture of you home you should con­sult a local struc­tur­al engi­neer or archi­tect for advice. It’s time and mon­ey well spent.

  5. I was just won­der­ing what and how you con­nect­ed the upper por­tion of your stringer too. I have a sim­i­lar project com­ing up and it would be nice to know. By the way your stairs look great.

  6. Hi, I am very impressed on you r handy­work and pre­ci­sion. I am on total dis­abil­i­ty now and have had go go into a leg brace on my right leg. My base­ment stairs are cur­rent­ly 38 inch­es wide with a depth of 9.5 inch­es. I cur­rent­ly have to turn my whole body side­ways to walk down or up because my foot with the brace will not fit on the step. I would like to make them deep­er and was try­ing to find out if I could just build out from the cur­rent stair­case. I have been quot­ed from one con­trac­tor for com­plete demo­li­tion and new stair­case of $2200 which is of course just way beyond my cur­rent bud­get. Any help­ful ideas you could offer me?

    Sin­cere­ly, Kathy

  7. Since you had so much fun doing your I would love help. I have base­ment steps and want to flip the direc­tion I think I can do it but it is nerve rack­ing

  8. Allen: The top of the stairs were attached with some Simp­son hang­ers, which are avail­able at most any hard­ware store. Con­sult some knowl­edge­able staff, the Simp­son cat­a­logs, and a local struc­tur­al engi­neer if you have any­thing ‘out of the ordi­nary.’

    Kathy/ Allen: Both of those sound like fair­ly major ren­o­va­tions, not just like-for-like replace­ment such as what I’ve described above. The best advice I can give you both is to befriend a car­pen­ter & handy­man and/or a struc­tur­al engi­neer.

    As I make very clear else­where on this site: I do not pro­vide any struc­tur­al engi­neer­ing ser­vices out­side of my employ­er.

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