Ideas from Ed: Step cheater

Ed is a do-it-yourselfer who is happy to share some of his ideas and experiences in this monthly column.

This month:  Step cheater

I need to say something up front.  Many projects require a building permit and inspection of the work to ensure things were done properly.  Even if a permit isn’t needed for your work, you have an obligation to build things (like the steps that are this month’s focus) that can stand up to scrutiny against code requirements, standard tables for strength of treads, etc.  Having said that, however, there are times when the “step cheater” comes in handy.  The step cheater is simply a method whereby you can eliminate a middle “stringer” on a set of steps that would normally require one between the two outer ones.  When is a step cheater appropriate?

            1) if the tread span is just a hair over the allowable length

            2) if your building inspector isn’t afraid to “try something different”

            3) if you want to add additional strength to an allowable tread span

4) if you have an obstruction where the additional stringer would be placed, like a BFR.  (For those of you unfamiliar with the lingo, a BFR is a Big Freakin’ Rock!)

On the deck in this project, I have a small set of steps at each end.  I could have used 2x6s, 2x8s, or even a 2×10 or 12 for the step treads, and they would have been strong enough for the given span.  However, I wanted to use 5/4×6 boards to match the deck surface.  Since they are thinner than 2x material, they would normally need a middle stringer to give them strength.  I used the step cheater method, and the building inspector had zero issues with it.

OK. Let’s get right down to how it works.  First, you need to use 2x material for each step RISER.  That makes them beefy enough to give the needed support.  Then, scrap pieces of 2×4 and 2×6 material are attached to the undersides in such a way that THEY give the needed strength.  Here’s a picture of the stringers with 2×8 risers placed against the deck in a trial fit.  Notice the 2x4s attached to the rear face of each riser, and the front face of the deck.  They are placed 1.5 inches below the riser tops.  You’ll see why in a minute.

The next step is to attach scrap pieces “fore and aft” from underneath.  Here’s the unit flipped over for easy viewing of this process:

For security, those pieces should be attached using construction adhesive and with structural screws, not nails, to resist pulling out.  The front edges, of course, rest on the 2x4s previously installed – the back edges rely on the adhesive and screws to stay together.  With such a short span (like 10 inches or so) there’s very little “leverage” applied during step usage, and remember, this is in addition to the strength of the tread board itself.

Flipped back over, this is how it looks:

The top surfaces of the 2×6 cheaters are flush with the top edges of the stringers, and the deck boards (like the 5/4×6 shown) have a nice flat surface on which to rest. There is plenty of attachment area for the tread boards on the risers, the stringers, and the cheaters.

Here’s the set of steps with all treads in place:

Note that with all installations, the stringers should rest on good, solid material, like the blocks I used here.  I left the bottom riser longer than the rest, giving me the ability to anchor a handrail post both to the stringer and riser, after notching out the first tread.

Here’s the same process, on the other side of the deck.  Notice the top cheater rests on a 2×4 both fore and aft:

With posts and handrails attached, this project presents itself well, and the steps are extremely sturdy. 

One final note for sharp-eyed readers:  Decking boards, and step treads, SHOULD be placed with the curve of the grain (viewed from the board end) arching downward.  Wood will shrink and “cup” as it dries, especially wet pressure-treated wood.  If the arch is up, the board will cup upward, and will hold rain and moisture on the board rather than allowing it to run off.  I used the word “should” in capitals, because sometimes a board will have a dramatic aesthetic flaw.  If the other side is very nice, most folks (me included) will install the nice side up even though it’s not ideal.  You can see that if you look very closely in some of the pictures.

I hope all your projects go well.  Thanks for reading, and happy restoring!