Staircases & ladders: Secrets to Building Them Safely

Whether it’s a loft, attic, or rooftop, there are times when you need a ladder of some kind but don’t have one. Although these situations can be frustrating to say the least, the solution is within your grasp! Anyone can learn to make their own ladder or staircase for their own unique situations! Theoretically, a ladder is a very simple piece of woodwork made with 2 stringers and treads. Of course, in practice, there are several factors one must bear in mind when attempting to construct this simple but brilliant work of engineering.

Due to the nature of its use, it’s imperative that your ladder is built strong. I don’t have to tell you the dangers of doing work whilst balancing precariously on a weak, shoddily-built ladder. So how do you build a “strong” ladder? Well, the secret to making a strong ladder – or staircase – is very simple. – Notching! That’s right, by notching a small amount (5mm or more) into your stringers for each tread, you add crucial support to your ladder. Screws, nails, or glue in any combination alone is NOT ENOUGH.

You must provide a niche into which each tread can fit snugly, so your screws aren’t the only thing between your safety and a broken arm – or worse! Note that screws WILL MOST CERTAINLY come loose over time without the support of notches! Ladders and stairs often have to put up with some pretty “heavy” traffic as well as deal with any additional weight when carrying things up and down them. Whatever your particular use for it is, there is no wisdom in taking chances with ladders and stairs!

One viable alternative for notches is tacking a sliver of wood underneath each side of each tread, essentially creating a similar secondary support. I personally prefer the full notch, and believe it’s safer, but for those of you who don’t have much time or the tools, this is a fairly passable option. Just remember to use slivers of appropriate cross-section. Small wisps of wood that can be broken with your bare hands do not pass for “appropriate” slivers! I would also use a dab of wood glue when tacking these slivers.

Another point to note is that unless you’re notching deep, you may also need to add diagonal bracing to restrict the ladder’s tendency to “fold” itself. (On a staircase this won’t be necessary as it will be anchored at the top and bottom.) Notching deep is only possible when and if your stringers can handle it. Of course this depends on the cross-section of your stringers, but you generally shouldn’t notch out more than a third, as any more could compromise the structural integrity of your project.

In conclusion, ladders and staircases are made to lead to high places – places you don’t want to fall from! Remember this when you construct your own ladder or staircase and don’t make the same mistakes others have!


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