Towards the close of 2017 we built these wooden balau stairs in Blythdale Beach, KZN. The original treads had been made of 19 x 68mm balau deck boards. Because the spacing between the stringers was 1m the stairs were very springy and were bouncing. The general rule is that a 19mm thick piece of balau can be spanned a maximum of 500mm before it needs to be supported by a bearer of sorts. In the case of open riser stairs this is often not possible because one would need a third stringer that would need to be notched to accommodate the tread. As such when we build stairs using balau that are normally 1m wide we increase the thickness of the balau to 30mm which stops any bounce. 40mm can also be used but is really just a waste of wood and therefore money.
The original balau stair treads were installed in 1997. The way the treads had been made up was to attach a cleat to the underside of each tread at the ends. The cleat was screwed from below to the treads (deck boards) and then the whole tread in its complete form was fixed to the steel cleats which were welded to the steel stringers. A bolt had been used to secure them from the top through all the timber and steel with a nut below. Water had therefore been able to penetrate the balau from the top where the bolt hole had been drilled and this, over a 20 year period of time had caused the balau to rot at the bolt hole. Then rest of the treads were in perfect condition with no rot whatsoever, 20 years down the line. Not all balau behaves that way. The balau that was used was obviously of very good quality. Nowadays the quality varies a bit more but balau still remains the most cost-effective hardwood for outdoor applications, be it decking, pergolas or screens.
To avoid the same fate of rotting at the bolt hole we fixed the entire tread in its made up form from below with a stainless steel coach screw instead of a nut and bolt all the way through the timber. As such the only way water can penetrate the timber now is from below which is highly unlikely. Water can still get trapped between the timber cleat and the timber treads but with no end grain to penetrate it should give us more than 20 years of life. 99% of water ingress is absorbed through the end grain of wood and not the face grain. By drilling holes, especially from the top, one exposes a section of end grain and water sits in the hole and gets absorbed. As a precautionary measure when we build sun decks and have to drill from the top to fix our board to the bearer we fill the screw hole with epoxy to keep the water out. There are other hidden fixing methods but I am yet to find one that works the way it was intended to. Deck boards screwed from the top through the face and filled with epoxy remains the strongest and long lasting method. But it is vital to check the epoxy plugs at maintenance intervals and replace if necessary. In the case of these stairs drilling from below into a 30mm piece of balau was ample fixing strength and reduces water ingress.
These balau stair treads we pre -oiled before installation which made it quicker and easier to get them installed.
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This wooden stair job started off as just a few stairs to gain access to the granny flat from the other side of the garden and then progressed into a small balustrade on either side too. The client originally had a fence there of CCA pine slats which we had to remove and then build our stairs. She wanted to then put some sort of fence on either side to keep dogs out and originally we were going to re-use some of the CCA pine slats. After speaking to her we agreed that a balau balustrade at the same height as the stairs would finish it off more neatly and add more value to her property.
The stairs were fairly simple and we used two stringers on each side of 30 x 228 balau. We then attached cleats at the required height for each tread. For the cleats we used 30 x 40 balau and for the treads we used 30 x 140 and doubled them up to get a tread of 285 wide with a 5mm gap in between each board. This type of stairs can only really be about 1m wide before you need to increase the thickness of your timber to 40mm. If the timber is too thin and the steps are too wide then the tread will bend each time someone walks on it. If you want to make your stairs wider than 1m then you must use a 40mm thick piece of balau. If you are using pine then this thickness needs to be increased even more because pine is so much softer than balau.
I prefer to use a different system when building wide stairs. One can add an extra stringer in the middle to give it support. However the stringers on the end have the cleats attached to the inside of them. The stringer in the middle cannot have the cleat attached to the inside as the stringer itself will protrude above the level of the tread. So you will need to cut recesses out of the middle stringer so that the tread can sit on a flat surface.
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The other alternative to this is to build a structure underneath each tread on which deck boards are attached. This method is common in building stairs with closed risers. The above method and the one we used on this build is common for stairs with open risers.
We had a challenge on this job in that the wall that we were going to attach to wasn’t straight and looked as if it had been moving over the years. So instead of attaching to the wall we sunk some posts in the ground and concreted them in. This way the wall can continue to move without pushing or pulling our stairs over.
We filled our holes with epoxy and saw dust mixture to get a colour match and sealed it this time using Timberlife Ultra Care Gold. The Ultra Care Gold has a higher wax content and is suitable for vertical pieces of timber where the sun’s rays are not as direct as the horizontal pieces.
I went back to this client’s house to repair a broken fence and our stairs and balustrade are still as good as they were when we built them. They need to be re-sealed again but otherwise the balau has held up well.
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This wooden balustrade we built in Everton Kloof, Durban was for an established client of ours that we have done various amounts of work for in the past. She had had some stairs built in brick and concrete down the bank to access the lower level of her property. We had to wait a few weeks in order for the concrete to cure properly before we drilled into the side of it. It is always a pleasure installing a wooden balustrade onto a concrete substrate as opposed to a brick or block substrate. With concrete your holes can be drilled easily and the sleeve anchors used to secure the posts to the side of the stairs take nicely and bind properly. When drilling into bricks, or even worse blocks, the cavity that exists in the brick or block almost always creates a problem in that the sleeve anchor has nothing to set itself against and ends up turning on itself and not binding properly. It is most frustrating and sometimes results in drilling new holes to find a solid substrate or even going the chemical anchor route. If one is drilling into blocks with large cavities, it is sometimes better to go the chemical anchor route from the beginning.
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Chemical anchors come with sleeves that are inserted into the holes first and then the two-part chemical is squeezed into that and then a thread bar is inserted. The chemicals dry very quickly, in a few minutes or less, and the thread bar is then fixed securely in the wall. A post can now be pre drilled and inserted over the thread bar and washers and nuts fastened onto that. It is a much stronger bond than sleeve anchors, albeit more expensive. Currently chemical anchors can cost about R300-00 per tube, the size of a tube of silicone, and the sleeves are about R15-00 each.
This wooden balustrade needed to have a bend in it that can be seen from the pictures alongside as the top tread was deeper than the rest of the treads. There was a small landing at the top where the balustrade needed to be level with ground. This was the normal vertical picket style balustrade and we sealed it using our favourite Timberlife Satin Wood Base 28 in a mahogany tint. Using this product will result in lower maintenance costs going forward as no sanding will be required when re-sealing. You simply clean and re-seal.
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Balustrades are not the easiest thing to install. One needs to be very careful that both rails are parallel to each other and that they are parallel to the tips of the risers. Of course the tips of each riser will not necessarily be in a straight line. What we do is run a straight edge or fish line across all the risers to get an average line that we work from. The lower rail is then set parallel to this line and the top rail and hence the capping is set to this, again parallel. One also needs to be careful when taking corners. Often the distance between the capping and the steps can vary, especially if there is a landing involved. Where a balustrade arrives at a landing one needs to step the balustrade so that the capping will remain at the 1m mark above ground.
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These timber stairs I built-in Durban were the first stairs I built. This was towards the beginning of my deck building career and I had no idea really what to do. I had been involved in carpentry for a fair while so I had an understanding of timber, how it behaves and how to construct and manufacture items, but I had no idea of what needed to be done to build stairs both effectively and affordably. I resorted to Google and surprisingly, or not, I found hundreds of videos on how to make stairs. Mostly American videos so a few adaptions to our local conditions and I had a good idea of what was required.
I used the more conventional, more expensive method of building stairs. I took three pieces of 50 x 220 stock and cut my treads and risers out of the timber (see the diagram attached). This is done by first calculating the riser and tread based on the height of the deck that you need to reach with the stairs. Although an optimal height of each riser is about 190mm and the tread about 280mm, it will vary depending on the vertical height so as to keep each riser and tread the same height and length.
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Once these two measurements have been calculated, one uses a large steel square to draw the risers and treads on the stock. The square is simply placed on the stock and the two points are marked off on each end of the square resulting in a right angle where the tread meets the riser. The trick was cutting through the 50mm wood with a hand-held skill saw. My skill saw has a small blade so it kept jamming and burning the wood. In hindsight I would have used 40mm stock or even less as the strength of the timber exists in the width, not the thickness. So a 30 or 40 by 220 would have been much more affordable and much easier to work with. Nevertheless, we persevered and eventually had 3 lovely stringers cut and ready for installation.
From there it was a matter of placing the stringers in place with the tread level and securing them in place with posts concreted into the ground. The inner most stringer was secure directly to the wall using sleeve anchors and this became our starting point from which we set the others, level to that and to ground. With all our stringers in place we decked the surface using 19 x 68 deckboards. We added a bit of substructure to the sides to accept our cladding, clad it and sealed it using a Nova product. Nova produces some top quality timber preservatives, but be careful not to mix them up with the varnishes. Varnish is a no go on any deck as it will peel and flake as the sun breaks it down. To get it off afterwards is near impossible and varnishing over it again results in a blotchy effect. One can’t use anything other than varnish once it has been varnished so stay away from varnish or anything that dries on the surface, with the exception of water based sealers. An article on sealing decks can be found here.
You can find a large reference base on Wikipedia about stairs here.
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