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Solving Porch Problems

Start with the Finish and Work Back to the Rough

A lot of carpenters scratch their heads every time they finish framing a porch and start on the stairs. There are so many ways to frame stairs on a porch that it’s hard to make a logical choice, let alone use the same technique twice. That’s why, to work on this story, we gathered together a group of carpenters, all JLC authors: Mike Sloggatt, Frank Caputo, Jed Dixon, Carl Hagstrom, Tom Brewer, and Greg DiBernardo all contributed to this article. Together we worked out a simple system for installing stringers, so you won’t have to scratch your head the next time you start on the stairs.

This is truly a Frame-to-Finish approach—or better, a Finish-to-Frame approach: bringing together rough carpenters and finish carpenters, we’ve come up with a unique system for laying out stairs and cutting finished skirtboads, one that should save you time as well as hair.

What to avoid

Some of the carpenters we interviewed prefer to hang their stringers right off the rim joists, cutting the first tread flush with the rough deck.

(Note: Click any image to enlarge. Hit “back” button to return to article.)

While that approach simplifies hanging the stringers—because connectors can be attached directly to the rim joist—it complicates newel post and handrail design.

For the handrail to meet code (34″ to 38″ above the nosing of each tread), a flush top tread pushes the handrail to over 40 in. above the deck, far above a standard 36 in. guardrail. Longer balusters are available from manufacturers, but raising the guard rail around the deck to 42″ blocks a potential view and makes the rail look more like a fence. Yes, a 42″ guardrail is required by some codes, like California’s CBC, but not by the IRC. But the real problem with flush top treads isn’t just aesthetics: the triangular space between the top tread and the bottom of the raked rail won’t meet the code requirement of a 6-in. sphere, and that requirement is ubiquitous.

One solution for correcting these problems is installing a second newel post near the nose of the first tread. But that means two extra newel posts (additional costs), and a very tight spacing between newel posts, barely enough room for two balusters!

Finding a Solution

Jed Dixon saw that detail and said: “Interior stairs always begin one tread down from a landing or upper floor. There is no reason not to follow the same rule with exterior stairs. I often support interior stairs with a plywood hanger, which is the perfect solution for exterior stairs.”

Greg DiBernardo, a frequent contributor to JLC and Professional Deck Builder, does just that. He hangs a 2×10 ledger beneath the rim joist to carry the stair stringers. Across the joint between the hanger and the rim joist, Greg fastens 2×4 pressure-treated blocks to strengthen the ledger.

Our group circulated a drawing of that detail and came up with several improvements. Carl Hagstrom worried that nails, and especially lags, would eventually work their way out of the blocks because of wetting cycles. He was also worried that short blocks might split, even with through-bolts for fasteners. Frank Caputo suggested using a piece of pressure-treated plywood and through bolts.

Composite & PVC Stringer Spacing

Mike Sloggatt said he would skip the hanger altogether and extend the stringers up under the deck and cut them to fit tight against the next joist, or against a header—a perfect solution for a wood deck. But modern materials aren’t so friendly. TimberTech composite deck boards require a minimum stringer spacing of 12 in.; their PVC decking requires a minimum spacing of 10 in. Azek decking requires a minimum of 9″ between stringers, from center to center! For anything greater, Azek provides several recommendations for additional blocking. With all those stringers, it’s much easier to install a hanger beneath the rim joist.

A Simple Solution

We continued to look for a the perfect solution until one night, after a few beers, Tom Brewer finally spoke up: “Why not extend the tails on the newel posts to support the hanger, then you can bolt the hanger through the back of the newels.” (see below)

Someone else chimed in and suggested we extend the outer stringers flush with the back of the newel posts, otherwise they’d be fastened too close to the end of the hanger: Even if we used Simpson’s new stringer hanger (LSCZ), the nails would be right at the edge-grain of the wooden hanger. Besides, by running the outside stringers to the back of the newel posts, bolts could pass through the stringer and the newel post in the opposite direction (see below), reinforcing the upper newels so they’d easily handle 200 lbs of concentrated load—another IRC code requirement.

Concerned about the lateral load of the stair carriage on the newel post tails, Carl Hagstrom emphasized that the base of the carriage must be fastened securely to the concrete pad—a critical component in the design: Any movement at the foot of the stringers would allow hinge-point movement between the stringers and the newel-post tails. (see below)

Just to be on the safe side, we sent a drawing of that detail to a building inspector from the City of Los Angeles. He liked the detail—a lot. His only demand was that we use 1/2″ through bolts for all fastening connections.

Securing the Bottom Newel Post

Deck and stair railings are required to meet a 200 lb. concentrated load in any direction. While bolting the upper newel posts to the stringers provides substantial reinforcement, securing the lower newel posts is always problematic, especially when code requirements conflict. Current IRC code requires a continuous handrail from the top riser to the bottom riser, which means bottom newel posts must be set on or in the concrete pad beyond the bottom riser. One way to meet that code requirement, and still bolt the bottom newel to the stair carriage, is to apply a continuous handrail in addition to the guard rail descending a stair. We’ll discuss those options in a later article on High-end Details for Decks and Porches. To learn more about current codes and how they affect deck and porch construction, pick up a copy of the JLC Guide to Decks and Porches. For specific code definition and explanation, check out Deck Construction, which is based on the 2009 IRC.

Start with the finish

Jed Dixon always says: “Start with the finish and work back to the rough.” That’s the only way to solve the second problem that most carpenters encounter with stairs: keeping the risers within the code-required 3/8″ variance. The easiest way to ‘see’ the finish and measure from the finish to the rough, especially on a complicated stair, is with a story pole. For this article, we’re ‘condensing’ Jed’s JLC Live presentation. The only things missing are the side trips Jed takes during his clinics, and the jokes.

The Rough-to-Rough Rise

When you layout stringers, you have to measure the rough-to-rough rise from where the stair begins on the ground or concrete to the top of the deck joists. To get that measurement on a porch that’s fairly close to the ground, you can hold a long level out over the joists, but on a deck that’s 5 feet or more over your head, it’s easier to use a laser (see photo, right). Besides the rough-to-rough measurement, you also need to know if any brick or stone or other material will be installed after the stairs are in, and how thick that material is. You also need to know the thickness of the treads and the decking.

In the example we use at lumberyard clinics, the rough-to-rough measurement is 28 5/8 in. The decking and treads are 1 in. And the stone or brick added later will be 2-1/2 in. thick.

Story Pole Layout

Using a piece of 1×2 or 1×4, measure up from the bottom and make a mark a line at 28 5/8 in.—that’s the rough-to-rough height of the stair.
Then start laying out the finish details starting at the bottom. Measure up 2 1/2 in. and draw a line at the top of the brick.
Next, layout the 1-in. decking on top of the deck joists by measuring up 1 in. from the upper rough-to-rough line.

Now it’s easy to ‘see’ and measure from the finish to the finish.

Measure from the top of the brick to the top of the deck. That’s the finish-to-finish rise, in this case, 27 1/8 in. (see below; closeup on right)

Divide that measurement by the total number of risers. Because the maximum rise allowed by IRC code is 7 3/4 in., in this example we use 4 risers.

A construction calculator is a must for laying out stairs. Without it, you can’t overcome cumulative error. Here’s what that means: Using a calculator, enter 27 1/8 in. then divide by 4 in. The result is 6 13/16. Now clear the calculator a couple times and enter 6 13/16, then press  + and = three times. The sum is 27 1/4 in. That represents a 1/8″ cumulative error in just four risers. On a taller stair, it’s easy to end up with a cumulative error of over 3/8 in., especially if you’re using a framing pencil to mark your lines.

The Risers (Rise)

A construction calculator will prevent cumulative error if you allow it to. Clear the calculator a few times, then enter 27 1/8 in. Divide by 4. The result is once again 6 13/16, but that’s just the number in the display. If you push the “INCH” button (see image, right), you’ll see that the calculator is actually using a decimal fraction to do the math (6.7813). The calculator is then rounding off the decimal fraction to an inch fraction carpenters are accustomed to working with. Let the calculator do its job. Press the + button ONCE then for each succeeding riser, just press the = button and the calculator will provide an exact location for every riser: 13 9/16 in. and 20 3/8 in.

Measuring from the top of the brick, layout those locations on the story pole. Those marks are the top of the deck boards on each tread. Measure back from each mark 1 in. to locate the top of each riser on the rough stringer.

The Treads (Run)

The IRC code requires a minimum tread width of 10 in., with a nosing between 3/4 in. and 1 1/4 in. A 10-in. rough tread works perfectly with most manufactured stair materials: With 1/2-in. riser stock tucked behind two 5-1/2 in. standard deck boards—on top of a 10-in. rough tread, the nosing on each tread will project about 1 in. (see below)

Stringer Template

Now that the story pole is complete, it’s time to layout the stringer. Most carpenters pick a straight piece of stringer stock for the first stringer. After cutting out the treads and risers, they use that board as a template for laying out all the other stringers. But the template never ends up as perfect as you wish. First, you can’t overcut the treads or stringers or you’ll weaken the stringer, so you have to finish the cuts with a handsaw or jigsaw, which means the cut lines are rarely finish quality. And using a piece of 2x material for a template makes it even more difficult to get a straight clean line on every stringer.

Frank uses a piece of 1×12 for stringer templates, which is easy to layout. He can overcut the treads and risers and get perfectly straight lines, and he even uses a miter saw to make the cuts, so the template can be used to cut the skirt boards, too. More on that later.

Stair Gauges (Diagonal)

If you’ve ever used a gauge block to step off dentil molding, you’ve probably learned that gauge blocks never work perfectly. That’s because of cumulative error—both small errors in math, and the thickness of your pencil line. Stair gauges are just like gauge blocks. Framing squares are great for laying out stairs—in fact, there’s no better way—but used by themselves, they don’t solve cumulative error problems. Instead, use a construction calculator to layout your stringer template.

Once more, divide 27 1/8 x 4 risers. The result is  6 13/16 in.

Press the “RISE” button. (Click image to enlarge)
Enter 10 in. then press the “RUN” button.
Next, press the “DIAGONAL” button.

That’s the measurement you want!

We allowed Jed ONE side trip in this article because this is an important tip! While you have the diagonal measurement on the calculator, press the PITCH button (see image, left) and record the pitch of the stair. That’s going to be important when you cut the template and the balusters! The pitch on this stair is 34.14 degrees.

With the diagonal measurements, you can eliminate cumulative error from tread to tread. The distance between the tip of tread #1 and tread #2 is 12 1/16. Now press the + button and then the = button. The distance to the tip of tread #3 is 24 3/16. Press the = button for the remaining tread locations. In this example, 36 1/4 in. would be top edge of the deck.

Start by striking a line for the first riser, about 16 in. from the bottom of the template. (see image, right) We’ve installed the stair gauges on the inside of the framing square, to make it easier to do live presentations, but whether you install them on the inside or the outside doesn’t matter—as long as the rise is 6 13/16 in. and the run is 10 in.

Next, hook your tape on the tip of the first riser and measure up the diagonal to the second riser—12 1/16 in.
Mark all the diagonals with the tape measure secured in the same place.

Now you can place the framing square on the template aligning the upper edge with the diagonal measurement mark at 12 1/16 in. and there won’t be any cumulative error.

To be certain the framing square is right on the measurement mark, hold your pencil on the mark,
then slide the framing square right up to the pencil and scribe the riser line.

Use the same technique for the laying out the next two risers and treads. (see below)

Make the template rough-to-rough

Even though all the treads and risers are laid out, the template is far from finished. At this stage it could be either a finish-to-finish template or a rough-to-rough template. Stringers are rough framing, so we need to cut the template for the rough measurements. That means transferring a few details from the story pole to the template.

Bottom details

Hold the story pole on the template with the bottom of the first tread board on top of the first tread, then strike a line across the bottom of the story pole.
Then extend that line across and beneath the first tread—that’s the line of the concrete pad.

Using the story pole is the easiest way to avoid a bottom riser that’s too tall and ensure that the stringer sits right on the rough concrete pad. With that detail completed, the template can only be used for rough-to-rough layout.

Top Details

The top of the stringer is a little tricky because it extends 5 in. to the back of the newel post. Mark that dimension by holding the framing square at the 5-in. mark. (see below)

To make it easier to install the stringers, Mike Sloggatt likes to cut the stringers so the tops register off the bottom of the deck joists. In the set we use for our clinics, the joists are only 2x4s (it’s just a set!),

so we measure down from the tip of Riser #4 (the top of the deck) 3 1/2 in,
then use the framing square to scribe a line along the top of the stringer.

If you’re using 2×6 joists, you’d measure down 5 1/2 in.; for 2×8 joists, the notch would come down 7 1/2 in. and cut into the extended tread line.

Cutting the template

We said earlier that a miter saw is the best thing to use for cutting the template, and it’s surprisingly easy to do.

Start with the riser diagonals toward you.

Swing your saw to the complementary angle of the pitch (90-34.14 = approx. 56 degrees). Cut the bottom of the template at that angle, then flip the template end for end and roll the template so the diagonals are against the fence.

First cut the top of the template, then cut each of the treads.
Next, swing the saw to 34 degrees and cut the risers, working from the top down.
Finally, flip the board one last time and cut the top where the back of the stringer flushes out with the back of the newel post.

You only have to swing the saw once.

In our next story, we’ll show you how to use the same template for cutting out the finished skirt board—with a router! And we’ll share some great tips on installing manufactured handrail on a rake, and dressing up a high-end deck.

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40 Responses to “Solving Porch Problems”

  1. Andy Engel

    That’s a great solution. I particularly like the stringers going back to the sides of the newels so you’re not relying on the cross-grain tensile strength of the 2x hanger block.


  2. Bryan Diffley

    My father, dead 10 years, is laughing in his grave after reading that explanation. It is sad you have to explain how not to enter pencil error into a layout. He cut hundreds of stringers for decks using a framing square with out stair gauges and they all managed to fit.

    • Gary Katz

      You missed the point (sharp pencil or dull pencil), and maybe your father did, too. Lots of carpenters have. It’s not the pencil that creates the largest part of the error but the fractional cumulative error caused by rounding, even to the nearest 1/16 in. Sure, it’s not that tough to overcome cumulative error. I’ve watched carpenters do it and I’ve done it for years: All you have to do is layout the stringer a few times until you get it right. But with the calculator, you do it only once. And it’s perfect.

    • Tim Uhler

      I was taught to use a square and guages, then a “real” stairbuilder posted his way of doing it (same as the article) a number of years ago at Breaktime. I tried it and haven’t looked back. Yes the stairs fit either way, but using the CM to calculate the diagonals and take care of the error is a better way.

  3. Mike Pelletier

    Very good article, I preach the premise of “finish-to-rough” constantly to my guys, it is my mantra. We do full scale shops and/or story-poles and it saves a tremendous amount of uncertainty. The simple exercise alone helps us better understand whatever it is we are building. And we are sure to get the desired outcome. Now to train the architects!

    As to cumulative error, I learned my lesson 30 years ago when my father-in-law let me step off a pair of rafters;-) Then he layed one out with old-school math, measuring the diagonal on a square with his tape and running the math on the rafter with a pencil. You know the result, valuable lesson learned, I never stepped anything off again!

  4. Ray Browne

    I’ve always cut my stringers with a Skil saw and finished the cut with a jigsaw, is the overcutting present by using the miter saw to make the stringers not an issue? I’ve noticed some carpenters who use a 6″ Skil saw(ie. less overcut) to cut the stringers without a jigsaw, the 6″ blade lets them off with only a 1/2″ or so of overcut.

    • Gary Katz

      You still have to do the same thing to prevent over cutting, no matter what size saw you use. You have to finish the cut with a handsaw or a jig saw. In the article, we were demonstrating how ‘nice’ it is to cut a template for some kind of 1x stock. THAT you can over cut, so making PERFECT cuts on the miter saw creates a nice template–much nicer than using one of the 2x stringers as a template. Plus you can use that template for cutting out the finish skirt, which Frank and Mike will demonstrate in a later article.

  5. Keith Mathewson

    Great article Gary.
    One thing you may find useful, if you mark the diagonals at the tip of the framing square you will not need to use a speed-square to lay out the rest of them. The end of the board is the starting point. Here is a link to a Youtube showing it

    • Gary Katz

      I think that’s exactly the technique we demonstrated in the article? We didn’t use a speed-square to layout the stringer, just the framing square, and we place it on the diagonal tick marks. That, in conjunction with the stair gauges makes it very fast and easy to layout the stringer without any cumulative error.

      • Gary Katz

        OHhhh! I watched the video. I see what you mean! That’s a nice technique. Very easy to see where to place the square. I set my pencil point on the tick mark at the top of the stringer and slide the square up to the pencil mark, which works, too, but not as clean as your technique.

        Oh..the speed square was used just to hold the tape measure during the demonstration–so the audience can see the tape and the face of the template/stringer. That article is based on the live demo we’re doing at all the Frame-to-Finish Katz Roadshows this year.


  6. KeithM

    As a person with a graduate math degree, I’m laughing, too.

    “Now you can place the framing square on the template aligning the upper edge with the diagonal measurement mark at 12 1/16 in. and there won’t be any cumulative error.”

    Excuse me, but the “Diagonal” computation is already rounded to the nearest 1/16″ by your calculator. While I agree your technique is pretty slick and avoids pencil thickness errors, I think you are fooling yourself. The exact thing you were trying to avoid is hidden in your reliance on the calculator.

    “A construction calculator is a must for laying out stairs. Without it, you can’t overcome cumulative error. Here’s what that means: Using a calculator, enter 27 1/8 in. then divide by 4 in. The result is 6 13/16. Now clear the calculator a couple times and enter 6 13/16, then press + and = three times. The sum is 27 1/4 in. That represents a 1/8″ cumulative error in just four risers. On a taller stair, it’s easy to end up with a cumulative error of over 3/8 in., especially if you’re using a framing pencil to mark your lines.”

    • Keith Mathewson

      From Keith Mathewson to KeithM,
      While I’m sure your advanced math degree serves you well I think you missed the point on how to avoid cumulative error. The point is NOT to clear the calculator. The display is rounded to the nearest 1/16th but the calculator retains the fraction to several points past the decimal and as such greatly reduces cumulative error. If one were so inclined one could take all the measurements out to 5 places past the decimal but I don’t think it would improve anything.

    • Gary Katz

      Keith Mathewson is correct.
      I’m sorry, but in this case you’re wrong.
      But I’m more sorry that you feel the need to ‘laugh’ at someone who is taking a risk and putting their neck out there to help other carpenters. I realize that a lot of folks think that the internet is a place where you laugh at other people, but that’s not the purpose of this magazine. Laughing at folks will only discourage people who are trying to learn more about their craft.

      If you read the article more carefully, particularly the two sections you quoted, you’ll understand what I mean, especially if you have a ‘graduate degree in math.’

      The calculator isn’t working in 1/16 in. increments, or even in fractional INCHES. It’s working in decimal fractions carried out at least four places to the right of the decimal point–whatever that is. As I said, and you quoted, if you were to cut a gauge block, rather than use the calculator to step off the risers, you’d be off 1/8 in. in 4 risers, 1/4 in. in 8 risers, etc. I’m NOT talking about thick pencils here. I’m talking about staying within the 3/8″ code requirement.

      I don’t have a graduate degree in math. In fact, I’m really dumb when it comes to math. It’s taken me years to learn how to use a construction calculator–and the patience of many good carpenters who have been teaching me. I have learned enough to know that I’d never want to work the way I used to.

      But I do have a masters in English and I never laugh at the way other carpenters write. What’s the point?

      • KeithM

        Sorry, I apologize, I did not mean to be insulting, I was just feeding off Bryan’s comment.

        I missed the section about how the calculator holds more precision than it displays. This was clear in the other Keith M’s video, where I picked up on it.

        I learned trig, chemistry and physics on a slide rule, then moved on to computers. Significant digits and cumulative errors were always considerations there.

  7. larry haun

    Hi Gary and friends,
    Thanks for the stair article. I always enjoy people’s ideas on stairs. I will have to try cutting stringers with a miter saw. Must give you a cleaner cut—may be too clean for an old framer like me.
    A couple of questions—especially for exterior stairs…Do you ever just cut the top and bottom of the outside stringers and use “clips” to secure treads to these stringers? The between stringers get notched. On the Habitat houses I help build these days, that’s what we do. It gives a little cleaner look on the outside without having to use a skirt board.
    And—do you ever just build boxes when the total rise is small? You know, of course, that you can build a full size box for the first riser, a smaller box for the second riser, and then step up on the deck for the third riser. That can be trimmed with a skirtboard if it looks a bit ragged.
    Thanks for all. I enjoy your material. Larry Haun

    • Gary Katz

      Hey Larry,
      This article was just one approach for framing and finishing a stair (the next article will cover using that template to rout out the skirt board–very easy to do and slick, too.)
      I know other carpenters who use the same clips you’re talking about. Simpson makes some that I know of. But we interviewed several ‘high-end’ deck builders while researching this presentation, and this was the approach we came up with. I think the neatest part is the header attached to the newel post tails, which makes it such a snap to hang the stringers on any side of any deck.

      The only thing I don’t like about using the clips and not notching the end stringers is the water and dirt buildup against the inside face of the stringer. But maybe that’s a small detail.

      And yes, I’ve seen guys build boxes, too, but with the wood we use today, I’d be worried about trapping all that water inside those boxes!

      • larry haun

        Thanks for the reply.
        I have never thought of tying a rim joist into the newel posts….So good Idea. I have hung a joist below the rim joist to catch the stringers, but I always braced it back to something other than the newel posts.

        • Gary Katz

          That wasn’t my idea. Tom Brewer came up with that solution. He’s one of those quiet brilliant guys that you have to really listen to on the rare occasions when he says something. Mike Sloggatt came up with the idea of carrying the stringers to the back of the newels so they’d bolt through the sides rather than mount to the front of the ledger (or whatever you want to call that thing! I don’t think it’s really a joist?). The whole ledger idea was Greg DiBernardos. Like I said in the story, a lot of carpenters contributed to the design. I don’t know what I was thinking! I should have called you, too!!!

  8. Craig

    I lay my first stringer on top of another and cut through the first one with my skill saw, partially cutting the second one. Then I put the second over the third and finish cutting through it and continue this procedure until I am done. I always use a basic calculator and convert the decimal to a fraction, this way I do not have to deal with rounding. I wish every framer would think about the finish. We would have plumber and straiter walls.

  9. Tim Uhler


    I loved the article. It got my wheels turning, although we rarely build anything like this. Front or back porches here are nearly always concrete.

    But now I’ve got something to keep in mind, especially since we are working with two customers to build them custom homes. One of which is on the water and will have a fairly large deck and possibly stairs (if they want to pay for it).

    I love this magazine and am glad you still have it going. When I become a real carpenter, I’d love to contibute to it :-)


  10. Lanya LaPunta

    We, at TS&F (Trip Stumble and Fall) Construction, where we might not be good, but we surely are slow … thank you for the ideas and direction(s) given.

    Although I possess neither an advanced degree in mathematics or one in English, I am the managing director of our finished carpentry division (better known as “The Not Ready for Stain Grade Players”) where our motto is “putty and paint make it what it ain’t … I was quite impressed with this article.

    Obviously, we/I do very few decks, but for those few that we will do in the future, we’ll attempt to implement many of the tips and directives set forth within the body of your text.

    All that I can add is that I thank you for an exceptionally helpful aritcle that is not only well written, but quite clear in direction. Moreover, it surely gave this old dog a few new tricks to attempt (special emphasis added to “attempt”_

    Many thanks.

  11. Jim Pappas

    Great article, I really like the post attachment method you use. I only have one problem according to the current building code the stair railing does not meet code. Reason being, you need to have a continuous hand rail through the landing. With that said using the calculator combined with the story pole is a great way to do stairs, I’ll never go back to the old method.


    • Gary Katz

      You’re right. Good catch. The handrail must be continuous from the top riser to the bottom riser. But like a lot of carpenters, we decided to anchor the bottom newel to the stair carriage in order to meet the other part of the code–200 lbs of load at any point on the railing. It’s tough to meet that code when you bolt the newel to existing concrete. With the newel post fastened to the stair, some inspectors would require continuous handrail installed on the face of newels. We’ll be talking about that in the next article on high-end finish techniques.

  12. Rich Rustmann

    To reduce cumulative error, I learned a long time ago to take advantage of a simple tool placed into the handle of a combination square, the awl. I’ve since refinded it’s use to a utility knife for marking. The finer line make it harder to see at times but is more accurate than a pencil line. As you guys know some P.T. lumber when wet is hard to leave a mark with a pencil. Next best thing is a pen line.

  13. Robert Kerr

    Great article. Is there any way you could condense this into a handout that I could use in my office. I am a Building Official in Ct. This would be a great help in an effort to get code compliant stair systems

  14. Robert Robillard

    Great article guys.

    I use my utility knife to mark the layout under the premise that it is sharper than the pencil. I then go back and draw it with the pencil for my visual benefit.

    • Gary Katz

      A knife blade does leave a sharp clean line, and I use them occasionally on finish work, when my 2 5/10 pencils aren’t leaving good marks. But actually, I almost wish we hadn’t mentioned the thickness of the pencil line in that story! It’s a red herring! :) The pencil doesn’t contribute to cumulative error unless you’re moving your tape measure from mark to mark. At the most, the error you’ll get from a thick pencil to a thin pencil would only be 1/16 in. or a little more, and that error won’t “accumulate” if you layout the edge of the stringer with ‘horizontal’ tick marks for each tread/riser intersection using a calculator and not a gauge block.

  15. John Chinn, owner of III Nails Carpentry, Richmond VA

    Shucks, guess I better stop using a sharpie to draw my layouts! Jus’ funnin, great tips everyone; bottom line is: stay within code, be as perfectionist as you want to, at the end of the day be happy with your craft (and what you get paid to do it!).

  16. Stephen Benoit

    [file] section 1-2.pdf[/file]
    Just a few of our standards. Always order 2 x 12 stringers. We layout and cut stringers up behind rimboard and attach along side of joist or blocking if stringers run perpendicular to joist. We prefer to use timber lags. Don’t forget to layout and cut the rimboard out of the top tread. Know your stringer layout prior to laying out floor joists.
    Put all stringers one on top of the other. Tack bottom of stringers flush. Layout stringers. Square blade with saw table. Cut top stringer. This will mark the next one down. Do not overcut tread and riser intersect. Remove and finish with handsaw or sawzall.
    Sharpen both ends of your carpenters pencil.
    Don’t forget to remove the thickness of the bottom tread from the bottom riser.


  17. Dan Broadbelt

    Thanks for posting this article Gary.

    I watched you and Mike Sloggatt perform this storypole method at one of your seminars in Phila. and thought it was a pretty good system; I just didn’t know if I would remember all the steps the next time I had to build steps.

    I build a set of steps anywhere from 0 to 3 times a year, and every time I do I have to go back and re-learn stair building.

    This time I needed to build a set of stairs for the non-ramp side of a wheelchair ramp, so I read this article and armed only with this knowledge I went to the site and made my story pole for the stairs. Back at the shop with my netbook at hand, I laid out my info on a scrap of 1/4″ ply then used that template to cut my stringers with the SCMS and my Festool (for the cuts the mitersaw couldn’t cut). The cuts were dead-on and it was as easy as you made it look at the show.

    Thanks for sharing.


    • Gary Katz

      I’m really glad the article helped. That’s exactly the purpose of publishing stuff like that–so folks who don’t do it every day don’t have to re-learn from scratch twice a year. A lot of carpenters have appreciated that newel post hanger technique, too.

  18. Rick Carpenter

    I like the stair-hanging solution. May I suggest one additional support? You’re going to have a fulcrum of some (minor!) sort for back and forth movement of the stair handrails, whether that fulcrum is the stringer-hanger or the rim joist if for some odd reason the stairs are not secured into the ground via a cemented newel or attached to the pad (not good, I know, but sometimes this just doesn’t happen). To act against either case, run a 2x at an angle from the middle floor joist to the hanger. You’re more than likely to have enough scrap 2x material and a left over metal joist hanger to do this for free. Either that or run the top newels into the ground and cement them.

    • Gary Katz

      Good eyes. A couple of people, Carl Hagstrom in particular, suggested a similar ‘brace,’ which is especially important if the stair and bottom newel posts aren’t secured to concrete or the ground.

  19. Robert Moreland

    First of all….I LOVE THIS SITE…
    This article mentions a second article to come on using the template to rout out the finish stringers. I can’t seem to find that on the site at all…Is this still available?

    I really appreciate all of your hard work.

    I tried to send this using the contact form but it kept failing to send.

    Thanks again.

    • Tristan Katz

      Hi Robert,

      All of our content is always available, at no cost. The article you’re referring to has yet to be published!

      Thanks for the heads up regarding our Contact Form. I’ll have to look into that and see if there’s a bug somewhere.

      Best regards,
      Associate Editor,

      • Christian

        Great article – just used a lot of these tips to build a new set of stairs off my deck. Ran the top newels through the deck into concrete footers and its super solid.

        Like previous comments – I am unable to find the upcoming article that references trimming out a skirt board and some finish trim. Any idea when this will be published?

  20. Patrick

    Thanks so much for these great tips. I tried it out for a deck I’m building. For the most part the method worked really well, but I found when test fitting the stringer template on the deck that it rests on only on the heel of the stringer rather than bearing evenly across the entire bottom cut. Not sure if that is a problem and I would be grateful for any tips to solve it.

    After thinking about why that happened though, it occured to me that the rounding errors on the risers is probably the culprit.

    For my stairs, the true riser height is 7.28125″, which gets rounded to 7-5/16″. This 1/32″ rounding error means that the angle of the stair gauge is off by about 0.1 degrees and that the treads are out of level by 1/32″.

    Since the story pole method of drawing the bottom cut presumes that the stair gauge angle is 100% correct, the bottom cut will also be out due to the rounding error. It’s not out by very much but even that small amount translates to a big adjustment at the top of the stringer if I lift it until the bottom bears evenly on the concrete pad (about 1/4″).

    I figured out a way to measure more accurately, but the math is complicated. If I figure out a simpler way, I’ll post it here.


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