Friday, March 23, 2007

Stairs - the first installment

For several months, we've been using three bucks of rusty, rickety old stair-scaffolding to go between the 1st, 2nd and 3rd floors of the house. (and to get to the basement, we had to go outside and walk down the hill) I traded 8 round bales of hay to "borrow" the reject scaffolding, so I considered the use of the scaffolding a real blessing. But it was finally time to see it go.

The metal stair tower had been erected in the actual frame opening that was meant for the real stairs, so the first step in building the real stairs was to disassemble the temporary stairs. As soon as we tore down the scaffolding, there was no good way to get up and down the house, so we had to finish the whole shebang pretty quickly. ("what the heck does this guy mean by quickly? he's spent two years on this house and he's just now building stairs?!")

The first flight of stairs we built was from the basement to the 1st floor. I mean - how badly could I screw up the basement stairs? Seemed like a good place to practice (and we were really tired of going outside in order to get something from the basement). I had exact dimensions that I could measure on my timber frame, as well as a CAD model of the timber frame in the computer. This would make laying out the stairs a little bit easier. But step one was to aquire some knowledge. I searched the internet for stair building tips and ideas. Time invested: 4 hours, payback: marginal. Then I bought a book at Lowes for $7. Time invested: minimal. Payback: huge.

Finally, I consulted a deceptively titled book called "International Building Codes." My uncle gave me his copy of the book when he heard I was building a house. The title is deceptive because the building codes have little to do with anything outside of the US. In fact (and thankfully), these onerous codes do not apply in our region. But when there's not some bureaucrat lording over you with this book in his hand, it could be considered as a book of "suggestions you might want to consider." That's how I take it anyway. And there are some good guidelines for building stairs in this book, but instead of keeping you in suspense, let me go ahead and admit that my stairs would not meet these codes.
My first realization was that my 2 year old stair plans for the basement would not work... at all! This was a serious discovery, because re-arranging timbers in a timber frame at this point in the game was simply not feasible. I had known all along that I didn't have room to run a straight set of stairs from the 1st floor to the basement. Of course, I thought, I'll just stop the stairs at a landing and then turn 90 degrees and put another small set of stairs from the landing. What I hadn't realized was that the head clearance on that landing would be a mere 5'3" above the edge of the landing. Whoops.
By shortening my landing from 41" to 36", by scrunching my stair treads from 10" to 9 & 3/4", and by notching into a large timber 3," I could fit another step in the primary flight of stairs, but still the head clearance was only about 6 feet at the edge of the landing. What is worse? - stairs where you can see that you'll bump your head, or stairs that "look" like your head won't hit until your head actually hits? My stairs were now in the latter category. This would not do.
The solution, I decided, was to put two pie-shaped steps in the landing. After reading the Lowes book, I discovered that steps like these are called "winders" and they usually have 3 or 4 steps, not 2. I quickly realized that the stair book was right - 3 steps at 30 degrees each makes the most sense. To make "winders," you build a square box (the landing), a 60 degree pie shaped box, and a 30 degree pie shaped box. Screw/glue/nail these boxes on top of each other and voila - a set of winders. The picture shows my 30 degree box and my square landing. They are not yet attached to each other, because the 60 degree pie (not built yet at the time of this picture) goes between them.

The code book says that winders must not come to a point, but I just didn't have room to build them any other way. I reasoned that if the hand rail was on the inside of the curving stairs, then no one would ever tend to step on the narrowest region of the stairs. Plus, the book from Lowes had a picture of how to build the non-code compliant stairs. How bad could they be?

As it turns out, the stairs work great and we love them. The winders are not awkward to navigate at all, and changing the treads ("run") from 10" to 9+3/4" did not make the stairs uncomfortably steep. (the rise of these stairs is 7+11/16".) I plan to finish these stairs with hardwood risers and treads, but for now the 3/4" plywood, with the grain oriented properly, makes sufficient treads.

More stairs to follow...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love your site!

Seeing your Scrap-Land basement background in the 3rd picture makes me feel SO MUCH BETTER about my job site management!

Just love your house!

January 8, 2012 at 12:58 AM  
Blogger Thomas Massie said...

Gravity has a way of doing that to one's basement during construction. Later in the process, this becomes the way of managing toys... They all end up in the basement. :) Blue tarps have long since been replaced with insulated garage doors. Thanks for noticing. ;)

January 8, 2012 at 6:04 AM  

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