6 in-depth tips for building a new staircase at the cottage

Published: August 23, 2018

Photo by Liam Mogan

Even after your commute, there’s often one final obstacle between you and the lake: the steep route from the cottage down to the water. The unspoiled terrain that draws us to the lake can also get in the way of fully enjoying cottage life. Whether your rickety old stairway is due for a makeover or you need to build one from scratch, here’s some guidance on planning your path to paradise.

If you’re simply replacing existing stairs, use their route as a guide—and make improvements based on your own experience of using them. You could, for example, break up a long run of stairs with an extra landing as a rest stop. But at a new cottage, where there’s never been a proper path, your first step is simply taking a stroll, looking for the natural course down to the lake. In some cases, the route could include a mix of footpaths, switchbacks, and stairs; in others, you may need a series of stairways connected by landings.

Often, a gentle slope is just a little too steep for the very young and the very old, but doesn’t warrant building a full set of above ground stairs. Rather than build above, consider embedding directly into the ground. For instance, you could install stacked treads of natural or manufactured stone. Depending where you are in Canada, four-foot-wide slabs of granite cost about $250 a piece. You can get stone treads up to about 10′ wide, but the price jumps to nearly $1,000 per step, not including labour—lifting rocks that heavy is definitely not a DIY job.

A cheaper option is to build simple frames of pressure-treated (PT) lumber on the ground (see “Travel on Gravel,” opposite). Colin Hunter, a contractor and the owner of 919 Reno, used this solution in the multi-tiered stairway project shown in these pages and featured on Decks, Docks & Gazebos when he hosted the show on the Cottage Life channel.

1. Take extra precautions with steep slopes

Steep slopes lead to bigger building challenges. The tall structures needed have more tendency to rack, or tilt, laterally. Joe Meeres, of the Meeres Construction Group in Chilliwack, B.C., is used to dramatic hillsides; he suggests that you install extra diagonal cross-bracing to prevent racking. As Hunter says, “It’s not like a low-slope stairway, where, if something goes wrong, you don’t have far to fall.” He likes to use thicker wood and more reinforcement for steep-slope structures. Hire an engineer if you have any doubts, he advises.

There’s a risk too that steep ground itself isn’t stable. Design your stair layout so that footings can go into solid ground (in bedrock if possible), and, after spring runoff, check that erosion hasn’t weakened any anchor points.

In British Columbia, Meeres points out, more than a small area of soil can move; the whole tectonic plate could shift. “We have seismic issues here. It’s not a matter of if a big earthquake will hit, but when.” To prepare for future upheaval, West Coast contractors beef up exterior stair framing with heavy-duty joist hangers and other metal hardware to reinforce all the connection points. “Simpson Strong-Tie does a lot of business out here,” says Meeres.

Photo by Liam Mogan

2. Make it last and save money

If you commit to building a stairway, you don’t want to have to redo it a few years later. Cedar is naturally rot and pest-resistant and is more attractive than pressure-treated lumber, but it also costs up to twice as much. A common cost-saving compromise is to use PT for the hidden framing and cedar where it shows: stair treads, landings, and railings.

You can use composite lumber for many parts (though it’s not strong enough for posts, joists, or other primary load-bearing members), and it will last even longer than cedar or PT, but you’ll pay up front. Where a standard 2×6 PT deck board retails for around $8, cedar will be around $13—and composite will be at least four times as much as PT. Do the math on a set of 50 stairs; the treads alone could set you back an extra $1,500.

If you use natural wood, pay the premium for “clear” (nearly knot-free) boards. Your stairs will look better and last longer. Knots can fall out or become areas for water to pool in; either can compromise a stair’s strength.

The wider the lumber, the more it costs. That’s why most projects use two 2x6s (or three 2x4s) for an 11″ tread. Leave a small gap between the pieces (1″ to 1/4″, a little less if you’re building in summer when the wood will be swelled with ambient moisture) to allow for seasonal expansion and contraction and for rainwater to drain.

Those relatively thin 5/4 deck boards that look so straight and true stacked neatly at the building supply centre can warp after a couple of seasons’ worth of rain and snow. At the other end of the scale are special-order 3x12s, which some builders prefer for treads; such thick planks feel extra solid underfoot.

3. Be open to using multiple kinds of footings

Remember that unspoiled terrain we referred to earlier? Unspoiled almost always means uneven and inconsistent too, which poses challenges when locating support posts. Don’t be surprised if you need more than one footing type— often a mix of buried concrete footings and supports tied directly to bedrock.

“For anchoring, bedrock is best,” says Hunter. “It’s never gonna move. If it does, you’ve got bigger problems.” Where the bedrock is exposed, he’ll drill down into the stone and set a galvanized saddle post in place with a two-part construction epoxy. The epoxy sets rock solid in a matter of minutes, allowing minor adjustments before construction continues.

In some areas, building inspectors want concrete footings, even when it’s possible to anchor directly into bedrock. Here, common practice is to drill and epoxy L-shaped pieces of rebar in the stone, build a form around the rebar, and pour a concrete footing.

If you are pouring footings into soil— with no attachment to bedrock—you’ll need to dig below the frost line, at least 4′ in most parts of Canada. (If you don’t know how deep footings should be in your area, add that to your list of questions for the local building department.)

Photo by Liam Mogan

4. Every step must be the same height for even railings

Laying out stringers is challenging, even intimidating, for many DIYers. Each stair in a set must be the same height and depth as all the others. The step that’s off, even by 3/8″, is the one you’ll stumble on. A standard stair has a 7″-high riser and an 11″-deep tread, but codes do allow for some variation—as long as all the steps are the same. Ergonomically speaking, as the stairs’ slope gets steeper, the risers should get a little taller, a little more like a ladder.

It’s not hard to lay out stairs so those in the middle of a run are evenly spaced; it’s the top and the bottom ones that are most likely to be wonky, and trip people up. I once forgot to account for the fact that the tongue-and-groove flooring on my front porch was thinner than the 2×6 stair treads. The 1⁄2″ difference was enough that visitors often made a stutter step going up or down, injuring my DIYer ego every time.

Once you’ve done the mental gymnastics, cut your first stringer and clamp it to the others as a template. Murphy’s Law says that you’ll cut at least one incorrectly; unless you relish another trip into town, add a couple of extra pieces to your lumber order to be safe.

For the staircase width, three feet will meet the building code, but that’s a bit stingy when people are passing in opposite directions. At four feet wide (or more), everyone can comfortably pass, and you can easily transport bulky items—like the beer cooler.

Hunter’s client didn’t want railings that would obstruct views of the lake, but the National Building Code requires railings on any platform more than two feet off the ground. Hunter found a code compliant solution with an ingenious top-down approach.

With the stringers and posts in place for a run of stairs, Hunter laid out the bottom landing by levelling and attaching a 2×8 to the bottom railing post. He then simply followed the board out to the point where the landing would still be only two feet off the ground. That point marked the outer edge of the landing and became the spot to dig the next footing. Since no part of the landing is more than two feet above grade, railings are optional. Of course, railings make using stairs and landings more comfortable, so Hunter did install them on the landward side, where they don’t block the view.

Photo by Liam Mogan

5. Avoid rot

Wood in direct contact with soil is always going to rot more quickly than wood above ground. So, yes, those low-cost, pea gravel–filled PT frames that Hunter installed on the shallow slopes aren’t going to last as long as the rest of the project. But they’re cheap and easy to replace down the road.

In addition to avoiding the dreaded direct contact between lumber and soil, there are other ways to prolong the life of a stairway. Many builders coat the tops of framing members with water sealant before laying down deck boards and stair treads. You can also take it a step further and wrap ice-and-water shield (usually used for roofing) overtop any framing that could be exposed to standing water. Also, don’t forget to treat the exposed ends of any PT boards that you cut with aptly named end-cut preservative.

Lumber has a natural curve; trees are round after all. Before you secure any boards that lie flat—including stair treads, deck boards, and railing caps—look down the length of each piece of wood to find the curve. Attach them with the high point facing up so the board will shed water instead of allowing it to pool.

6. Bolts are best

When it comes time to start screwing everything all together, don’t. Using deck screws to connect any framing or to attach a joist hanger is a rookie mistake, not to mention a code violation that can seriously compromise structural integrity. Regular screws don’t have enough shear strength to support a load and they can simply snap. Nails are effective, code-compliant, and inexpensive, so most builders use them, but Hunter prefers to use carriage bolts to fasten framing to posts whenever it’s practical and within budget. Bolts may be beyond what code requires, but “you learn from pulling decks apart what works,” he says. “It’s really hard to pull apart something that’s carriage bolted. With nails, it usually just takes one good whack.” All the traffic moving up and down the stairs can eventually cause nails to wiggle loose. If you follow Hunter’s lead, add a chore to your annual cottage to-do list: “Tighten carriage bolts on stairs.”

For water-access properties, the stairs are the entrance to your cottage. That first, dockside flight can be purely functional or it can become a focal point. You can add curb appeal with design elements such as a tempered-glass panel on the bottom landing and crossed braces that also give structural support.

If you plan your stairway right, you can end up with the best of both worlds: an uncongested, efficient expressway to and from the lake that’s also the scenic route, complete with beautiful views and pleasant rest stops along the way.

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