This article builds upon two other online articles I wrote. One was titled, "How to Build Redwood Spa Steps", and the other was a follow-up report on how the steps held up as the years went by under the merciless Las Vegas sun. There were some things I wished I had done differently during my first project, so I tweaked my original design and built a new set of steps.
The purpose of this article is to show how to build this new design by using photos I took during this project to supplement my description of the construction steps. Enough detail is given that a beginning woodworker should be able to build it. Those with more experience can skim over what they already know.
What Design Improvements Did I Make and Why?
First, the new design has two 30 inch wide steps that are each 11 inches deep and rise 7 inches. Most people do not need the extra width and depth of the original design (each step 36 inches wide by 14 deep). This makes the steps lighter, less bulky, and easier to move around.
Second, there is now a continuous board face showing on the front side of the risers. This looks better than the board ends showing in front of the old design, especially as the boards age. In the back, this change was only partly implemented. There is still one board end on each side at the top, right under the upper step. Since it is in back, I considered it more important to have the end of that horizontal board resting on top of a vertical one, but wanted to do so without adding another vertical board there to hide it like I did for the front of the steps.
Third, the step boards overlap the risers by 1 ½ inch on each side. This improves the steps' appearance and makes it easier to lift and move the steps. Overlapping by much more than that would be dangerous. Someone could unexpectedly tip the steps over sideways by placing their weight too far to the outside of the riser, which would then act as a fulcrum.
Four changes were also made to the construction process that improved the quality of the finished product
First, all cuts were made with a table saw or chop saw. There were no handheld circular saw cuts. This led to straighter, smoother, more accurate cuts which resulted in a better fit at assembly time.
Second, the vertical support 2x6 supports were attached using wooden dowels and glue instead of deck screws. The shorter pair of vertical 2x8 supports in the old design both developed splits over the years and the fragments rotate a bit around the screws that hold them in place. The wooden dowels and glue should prevent the rotation, and might help prevent splitting. The longer pair of vertical 2x8 boards had no splitting in the old design, but I used the same method for the longer pair of vertical 2x6's in this set of steps.
Third, the edges and corners of the steps were rounded off with a belt sander. This makes the steps safer. One thinks of these things when he has three grandsons who seem to have more energy than Hoover dam.
Fourth, most of the screws were driven into previously drilled guide holes that were just a little smaller than the screw threads. This reduced the risk of splitting the wood when driving the screws.
2 inch x 4 inch x 8 foot
2 inch x 6 inch x 8 foot
Rust proof deck screws
2 1/2 inch
1 pound box
Wooden dowel pins
1/4 inch x 1 1/4 inch
1 package of 26 pieces
Cabot gloss spar varnish
About Board Dimensions
For the dimensions specified in inches, the actual dimensions will usually be about one half inch less than the corresponding nominal value. My boards actually measured 1 7/16 thick. When designing the risers, I used this value when calculating the lengths of the vertical boards needed to give a total step height of 7 or 14 inches. But for horizontal cuts # 1 (19 inches) and #2 (9 1/2 inches), I did use the 1 1/2 inch value. I figured that would be close enough, and it was.
To get the length for cut #5, for a 2x4 that will fit between the front step and the floor (7 inches), I subtracted the actual width of the 2x6 step board, which was 1 7/16 inches. The result is 5 9/16 inches. If your boards are actually 1 1/2 inches thick, then the result of that subtraction will be 5 1/2 inches, and that is the dimension you should use for that cut.
Likewise, when I subtracted the width of two boards, I would subtract 2 7/8 inches, where you should use 3 inches if your boards are actually 1 1/2 inch wide. For those cuts where I subtracted the width of three boards, that width was 4 5/16 inches, but you should subtract 4 1/2 inches if your boards are actually 1 1/2 inch wide.
I did the math for cuts #3 through #6 for a 1 1/2 inch board width and included them in the Table of Cuts in the column to the right of the value I actually used.
Table of Cuts
|Cut #||actual length used (inches)||length calculated for 1 1/2 inch board width||number of 2x4 boards cut to this length||number of 2x6 boards cut to this length|
|Description||Dimension in inches|
Width of steps
Depth of steps
Height of lower step
Height of upper step
Picking out your boards
When you go to buy your boards, be very, very picky. You will be building a piece of furniture, not a chicken coup. Avoid any board with areas of bark, chunks of sap, gouges, splits, cracks, purple scribbling, or more than a few knots. A well-placed knot or two can add character and interest, but a knot is not well-placed if you are going to have to saw through it, glue it, or drive a screw through it. Nor if it is ragged-looking, or is located at the edge of the board and looks like it might cause issues.
Look at both sides of each board for all these things before you pull it out for further inspection. Put one end of the board on the floor and gaze down the length of the board. Then twist it 90 degrees and gaze again. If it is warped or twisted, lean it up against something out of your way until you have found all the boards you need, and then you can put them back with the others. Or leave them for the store employees to deal with. Some of the boards might be useful for building a chicken coup, but I have seen many that should just be used for firewood.
On the other hand, if a defect is at or close to one end of a board and everything else about the board looks good, it might be a keeper as long as you plan on cutting the bad part away. There will usually be a certain amount of wastage anyway, so if that wastage includes a defect, no big deal. Pick the best boards you can. Depending on the selection where you shop, you might have to buy three boards to get all the cuts you would expect from two good ones.
Cutting the boards
Remember to take into account that a rotating power blade will tend to chip and tear on one side of the board. Table saws and chop saws affect the bottom side of the board, so you will want to mark the top sides of the boards (or the sides you are planning to show on the outside for the vertical boards) and cut them good side up. The other thing you can do with a table saw is to drop the blade so only an eighth of an inch of the blade is above the table, score the bottom of the board, and then raise the blade back up to finish the cut. The angle between the saw teeth and the board during the shallow cut is much less likely to chip the board.
Remember, safety first! Always use safety glasses or goggles. Whether you get texts, phone calls, or visitors, when a power blade is in use, do not lose focus on what you are doing. Finish your cut, and then give the person your undivided attention only when it is safe to do so.
Cutting and sanding the step tread boards
Look over the 2x6's you picked out and decide which sections you want to use for the treads. After making the cuts, decide how you want to arrange the boards. Which sides will be up? Which edges will be in front? Would the patterns in the wood look better if arranged differently? After all the cutting is done, are one or two of the boards a little longer or shorter than the others? Once you decide, take a photo so you don't forget your chosen arrangement.
Assembling the Risers
Refer to the marked-up photo below to do a trial assembly of each riser. Make sure everything fits right before you begin using the deck screws to do the permanent assembly. This is also the time to decide which boards (some are interchangeable) you want where, and which way they should be facing. If there is a board surface you don't want to be visible, turn it so that it is up against another surface or is going to be on the inside portion of the riser that will be hidden by the steps. This means you will need to know which riser you want on the left and which on the right as one walks up the steps. If you reverse the risers at final assembly you will end up with the ugly sides facing out!
I printed the above photo, labeled each board in it to correspond to the appropriate row in the Table of Cuts, and scanned the photo for use in this article.
Start the riser permanent assembly by attaching the vertical board, length 11 1/8 inches long, that is in the middle of the three boards in the center section of a 19 inch bottom board. It is worth taking the time to make sure this joint is perfect. Once this first board is attached, four other boards will be butted up against it as they are installed.
You can make a small pencil mark on the inside surface of the 19 inch board while everything is lined up perfectly during the trial assembly. You can also mark two points on the bottom surface of the bottom board to insert deck screws. I drilled guide holes all the way through the bottom board using a drill bit a little smaller than the screw threads. This makes it easier to drive the screws straight in and reduces the chance of causing the wood to split.
Then drive in the two screws until they are barely poking through the bottom board, place the vertical board on its mark and start drilling the screws into the vertical board. As you gradually drill the screws in, feel with your fingers where the two boards come together to make sure the side surfaces are flush with each other. Also make sure the screws don't twist the vertical board or push it to one side.
Drive the head of the screws just barely below the surface of the wood. If you are using a power tool, be careful not to go too deep. If you need to, do the last few turns by hand.
Often, when first inserted, the screws push the vertical board away a little and leave a gap. To fix this, reverse the screws out, and then drive them in again while exerting counter pressure on the vertical board. Repeat if necessary. Sometimes you might have to leave one screw in while redoing the other, and vice versa, to walk the board in, so to speak.
Repeat this procedure for the two vertical boards on either side of the 11 1/8 inch board and the 2 11/16 inch board on the front side of the steps.
Building wooden templates to help locate dowel holes and screw locations
I used wooden dowels and glue instead of screws to fasten the four vertical 2x6 pieces in place. To help marking the dowel locations, I built a template by cutting a thin slice off a 2x6 and drilling three holes at optimally spaced locations, except for one of the holes that drifted off-center while drilling. I used this template to mark dowel hole locations, flipping it over to mark the opposing surface.
I made another template for marking the screw locations for 2x4 joints. I drilled out the holes in the templates with the same drill bit I used to drill the dowel holes. I did not then drill working holes through the templates, lest the template holes grow bigger through constant drilling. Instead, I manually inserted that same drill bit through the template holes and rotated it clockwise just enough to gouge out a little depression in the surface beneath the center of the template hole. I would use that depression to either start the screw or to start drilling a small guide hole for the screw. This is illustrated in the following photos.
After marking the dowel hole locations on the 19 inch base of the riser, as described and shown in the photo above, flip the template over and lay it on the bottom surface of the 2x6. Mark and drill the holes large enough that the dowels will drop down about halfway into the holes and have a little wiggle room so as to allow a dry run before gluing. If a hole is too deep, you can sweep some of the drilled-out wood particles back into the hole and tamp it down with the dowel.
Do a dry run to make sure you can physically install the vertical 2x6 with the dowels positioned in your hole locations. If you can't, then figure out which dowel is not fitting. You can widen a hole a little in the needed direction and try again. Repeat as necessary. The photo below illustrates a dry run.
After a Successful Dry Run, Glue the Board in Place
Apply glue liberally to the bottom half of the three dowels and insert in the holes, then apply glue liberally to the other half and place the 2x6 over them and press down for a while. You won't need to clamp if you quickly continue on to finish the top part of the assembly and insert the screws to hold all in position.
Follow the same procedure for the top of the 2x6 and the bottom of the 2x4 that covers it. The holes in this 2x4 have to line up perfectly with the two vertical 2x4's underneath it as well as the dowels on top of the 2x6. Since completing the steps, a better idea for lining up this piece occurred to me. One could drop some short roofing nails (or other large headed nails) head down into the holes, then place the 2x4 gently in place over the nails, line it up with the vertical 2x4's, and press down on the nail points to mark the corresponding hole locations in that piece.
After drilling all the holes, do a dry run, apply glue and proceed as before. The photo below shows the glue applied and the pieces ready to assemble.
After the Upper 2x4 Has Been Glued in Place
Use the wooden template to mark two screw holes to connect the upper 2x4 to the front vertical 2x4 underneath it, as described in the section on building wooden templates. Drive the screws in before the glue begins to set up. Repeat to screw the horizontal 2x4 to the rear vertical 2x4 underneath it. The screws will keep the wooden dowel joints tight while the glue dries.
After this step, the riser assembly should look as shown in the photo below.
The other vertical 2x4 should now be screwed into the two horizontal 2x4's. Again, use the wooden template to mark the screw locations.
Rear Step Riser Assembly
Repeat the above procedure for the rear step of the riser assembly. Glue the top 2x4 to the dowels in the tall 2x6 and drive two screws into the vertical 2x4 in front of it before installing the rear vertical 2x4. As you attach the rear vertical 2x4, make sure that all the surfaces are flush as you carefully drive in the screws on both ends. The rear vertical 2x4 will fit under the top 2x4, but will be attached to the end of the bottom 19 inch 2x4 base, as shown in the marked-up riser assembly photo at the beginning of this section.
When I built the second riser, I prepared the dowel holes for both steps, did both dry runs, and then glued and assembled the front step and then the back before the glue dried on the step I was working on. The photo below shows my second riser part way through its assembly.
Set up the left and right risers in the correct order and position the tread boards across them in the order you decided they should go earlier. Set the risers so they are 27 inches between the outside riser edges in front and in back, and visually confirm that the step boards are squarely laid out and extend 1 1/2 inch past each riser.
Carefully mark your screw locations on the step boards so that they line up and are spaced nicely. Drill guide holes here if you do it nowhere else in this project. My first set of steps had some splits in the wood that I am sure were caused by driving the screws in without guide holes and doing it too close to the edges of the boards.
By moving the screws 1 1/2 inch further away from the edge and drilling the guide holes, I managed to attach the step boards without a single split.
I did the final assembly on the same table that I built the risers on. This made final assembly much easier than it would have been getting down on the patio with the steps and having to bend and twist around with my knees on the hard concrete. If you are only 20 or 30 and don't understand this, just wait 30 or 40 years and it will become more obvious.