Building Stairs

Building stairs is a key carpentry technique.  This tutorial will show you how to build stairs and calculate stair stringers.  (Stair building is also part 5 (of 7) steps in the 10x10 deck example).

Building a Deck

myCarpentry Deck Building Links
Design Framing Footings Decking Stairs  Railing Stair Railing

Designing and cutting your own stringers for your stairs will guarantee that each step(tread) is the exact height(riser) and depth(run) for your structure.  If these terms are new to you, don't worry.  By the time you finish reading this tutorial, you will have all of the knowledge you need in order to design and build a perfect set of stairs.

Stair Stringers
Stair Stringers with Treads

Design Considerations

Use the stair section diagram below for reference.

The mathematical relationship between the rise and run of each step is very important in stair design.  One generally accepted rule for calculating step rise and run is: the sum of two risers and one tread should be between 24 and 25 inches. 

For example, if you have a step rise [F] of 7 1/4 inches, you could calculate your step tread [B] depth by using the following formula:

Riser + Riser + Tread = 25
7.25 + 7.25 + 10.5 = 25 

As indicated above, the result is a tread depth [B] of 10.5 inches.

Calculating Rise and Run

To calculate the number and sizes of risers and treads for a new set of stairs, first divide the total rise [A] by 7.  For example: if the total rise [A] of a deck or landing is 36.25", the result is  5.17".  Since the number of risers must be a whole number, pick the whole number closest to 5.17 (5 in this case) and divide it into the total rise:

36.25" / 5 = 7.25"
Number of risers = 5 
Riser  Height: 7.25" 

The number of treads will always be one less than the number of risers.  Previously, we calculated a tread depth [B] of 10.5" for a set of stairs with 7.25" risers [F].  Use the following formulas to calculate the total run:

Number of treads: 4 
Tread Depth = 10.5"
Total run = 4 x 10.5"
Total run = 42" 

The above stair run will have 5 risers at 7.25", and 4 treads at 10.5", resulting in a total run of 42". 

Note, that with this stair design, the last (top) riser is part of the landing or upper floor.  It will not be included as part of the stair stringer.

Stair String Section
Stair Section Diagram

Now that the number of treads (4) and tread depth (10.5 inches), and the riser height (7.25 inches) of each step has been determined, we have the information that we need to begin laying out the stringers.

You can also use the stair calculator to calculate the rise and run of each step, as well as some useful information related to stringer layout and building stairs.

For good information about building codes related to stairs, please check out this article called: Commonly Used Residential Building Codes

Building Stairs - Laying Out Stringers

A very important part of building stairs is the layout of the stringers. The stringers should be cut from 2 x 12 framing lumber, #2 grade or better quality, free of knots.  The images below show how a framing square is used to lay out the stringers [C], and a how the first stringer is used as a pattern for the remaining stringers [D].  This is very important, because if you layout each stringer separately, not only does it take more time, but the second or third stringer may not match up to the first if there are any variances in the shape of the board.  Using the first stringer as the pattern for all of the remaining stringers will eliminate this potential stair building problem.   

Stringer Layout
[C]  2x12 Stair Stringer Material
Stringer Pattern
[D]  Stringer Pattern

Cutting Stringers

The tools that you will need for laying out and cutting stair stringers are:
Now that you have the stringer laid out, you can make the primary cuts using a circular saw.  To avoid over-cutting too much into the stringer with the circular saw, the last part of the cut can be made with a jig saw or a hand saw.  This is an important part of building stairs - cutting too much into the stringer can compromise the stair structure.

Cutting a Stair Stringer
[E]  Circular Saw - Use a circular saw to start the cut.  Cut up to the layout marks, but not beyond.
Cutting a Stair Stringer
[F]  Jig Saw - use a jig saw (or hand saw) to finish each cut.

Finished Stringer
Finished Stringer

You should now have all of the information that you need to design and cut stringers for your own stair building needs.  Of course, these are just the basics of stair building.  Building stairs with multiple landings and spiral stairs will take a considerable amount of design and planning.

Deck Stairs

Underside of Stairs
[H]  View from the underside of a set of rough framed stairs.
Stringer and Stair Profile
[I]  Side view of a set of rough framed stairs.

For deck design and structural information, check out the Prescriptive Residential Wood Deck Construction Guide, by the American Wood Council.

What next?

Continue to step 6 (of 7) - (Railing)

Visit stairs with landings to learn how to add landings to your stair design
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