Self Standing Staircase




Stairs. Everyone has seen them. Everyone has used them. And most people avoid them whenever possible.  They are fairly simple depending on how much detail you go into on them. They just take a little planning, a little math, and a steady hand. The ones I designed and built/will build were designed so that they could be loaded up on a truck or on a forklift and be strapped down and be put on the ground and be done with it.  Since these were made to go up against a Hesco in Afghanistan precision wasn't really the greatest concern. They just had to be sturdy and long lasting. So, lets begin!

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Step 1: Tools and Supplies

Alright so lets begin with the tools shall we. 

Must have's:

1- Hand Saw
2- Hammer
3- 16d Nails
4- Framing Square
5- Pencil
6- Tape measure

Things to make life easier:

1- Circular Saw
2- Jig saw
3- Nail Gun
4- Stair Gauge
5- Board Bender
6- String Line
7- Chop Saw

Now for the supplies. I can't tell you the cost of the project cause honestly I don't know. We just went out to the yard with all the wood and just started building. Kinda the perks of building in the Seabee's, you have all the wood you need. But anyways.

At least 6 good, straight, uncracked 2x12x16-They really do have to be pretty much perfect otherwise it will cause headaches later.
2- 2x6x16
3- 2x4x16
3- 4x4x16

Step 2: Math and Measurements

I cant exactly remember all of the math for stairs, so I'm sorry I cant just throw it on here for you. BUT I did do some searching around on google and there are websites where you just plug in the numbers for it and it gives you the amount of steps and the sizes of the steps and so on.

The good news is though that there is a easier way to do the math without finding exact numbers for applications like mine. Basically find the finish height which is from the ground to the top of where you want the stairs to go. For me this number was 84", the height of a 7B Hesco. Now divide that number by 7, the height of the average step. For me I got 12 steps exactly. Other applications may get more or less steps or maybe even a half step left over. We will basically just take that off of the bottom step and make it smaller than the rest of them. Or if it doesn't matter just take that half step off completely and say screw it if its for something like a tree house.

Like I said above the average tread height is 7 inches. the average tread depth is 10.5 inches. If you did the exact math you may have something a little different like 7 1/8 and 10 and 5/8 or something. Thats ok, the set up is all the same just a little adjusted.

There are going to be 3 stringers on the stairs and each one is made out of a single piece of 2x12, which is where the stairs get their strength. The outside stringers will be 36 inches wide from outside to outside. So to make that you will need 2 2x6x36 pieces that will be used as a header and a footer and will be demonstrated later. The legs will have a piece of 2x6 across the bottom to keep them spread out and even that will be 33". Also the treads will be made out of 2x12's and they will have an inch overhang on each side of the stringers so they will be cut at 38 inches. The hand rails are sort of custom to each stair case so what I did is cut the 2x6 for the baluster  at about 48 inches to be cut down later for the right height.

The legs that go perpendicular to the ground were cut at 82.5" to allow for the finish height and bracing on the ground were cut to 120" which was found using the pythagorean theorem (A^2+B^2=C^2). 

Step 3: Set Up and Layout

Now that you know how many steps you nee and the measurements of the treads its time to set up the framing square. I helps tremendously if you have the stair gauges. They basically lock into place and take out (some) human error when laying out the stringers. If you don t have them it will be best to have one person hold the square and one person mark, and keep the same jobs for both people throughout the project. One person may put the square down differently than the other and it will waste wood when you go to cut and put together. Also if you start without the stair gauges don't use them later on on a different stringer and vise versa. Trust me. I don't know how but it gets WAY off. Oh did I mention you also need patience for this project?

If you are using the stair gauges make sure you don't put the gauge right on the measurement you need. Off set them a little bit to the outside of it so that you get the fill measurement onto the board and its not cut short.

Time to layout the stringers. Take the square and put the 7 side at the left and the 10.5 on the right and put it on the 2x12 as far to the left as you can get it with the 2 measurements still on the board and mark the outside of the square. then take the mark from the 7" side and carry it straight across the rest of the way. this is the top step and will be cut out later

Now take the square and align the side with the 7" with the 10.5" mark you put and mark it again. Repeat untill you get the desired number of steps. 

The bottom step is done similar to the top except for you carry the tread length across instead of the riser length. Since there is going to be a 2x6 on the bottom and at the top as a header and a footer you will need to mark those lines to be cut out to make it flush to the ground. A 2x6's actual measurement is 1.5x5.5 so you will need to mark that on the bottom as shown in the picture and on the top so that its flush to the top of the tread going down the back of it. Also if you had to take some height out of the bottom tread now is the time to do so. just measure from the bottom up and draw a line then put the marks for the 2x6 to be cut in. I'm sorry I forgot to take a picture of what the top looks like with that part laid out so I may have to update it later with it.

Step 4: Cutting

This part is pretty self explanatory but when you are cutting the treads with a circular saw don't cut past the line. You will have to come back through with a hand saw or jigsaw and cut out those little pieces. Annoying? Yes. Necessary? Absolutely. This is when its good to have a stringer without cracks before hand. If not you'll end up like me wasting time and lumber when it spits.

At the same time that one person is cutting the stringers another can be cutting the treads and the header and footer and also the balusters and legs to length. Make sure to check the measurements I mentioned before. I'm decent at math but hey everyone is wrong once in a while right? Once you cut out everything on the stringers its time to cut the let in's on the legs. If you don't know what a let in is its a basically taking the leg and cutting the width of a 4x4 into it and only half of the thickness will be taken out so that the 2 boards set into each other flush(ish). I know it sounds confusing but I have included a picture that will hopefully clear it up.

One thing about the leg that'll be on the ground, remember that there will be a 2x6 at the bottom of the stairs so make sure to make the let in the right size for it and on the right side of the leg. Learn from my mistakes.

Step 5: Putting It All Together

And it begins to take shape. Start off by putting the header and footer on the outside stringers and then put the middle stringer dead in the middle of them. Make sure to put 3 16D nails in each one. Its easiest to do this step with them upside down but be careful you don't break a tread off or you'll have to cut a new one.

Flip the stringers over after you have them all nailed in and layout all the treads you cut on the stringers. I normally wait on the top one till last just cause it a little bit of a pain. Now remember that there is an inch over hang on each side of the stringers. What I do is make sure one whole side is good and nailed in with the right over hang and then go to the other side and try to get it as close as possible. This is where the board bender comes in handy but don't push too hard or it'll break the stringer. After you get the outside ones nailed you can just nail the center one in and not worry too much about if its dead on. Remember to use 3 nails in each stringer when putting the treads on.

If you want to put these up without being self standing this is when you can do so. Just nail it up to whatever it is your putting it on and then add the top tread then skip to adding the railing

Its time to add the legs onto it. Its easier to have someone help you hold them in place while you nail them in place but you can also take scrap blocks and nail them in place (to where you can still get them out mind you) so it is held up while you nail it.  I put about 5 in each side of it that were touching the stringer and the header and then 2-3 through the top of the step just to make sure. when you put the legs on make sure the let ins face the inside as pictured, they can face out but its more or less for looks to have it face in. Nail it in the same way as the other legs just make sure its flush. when you nail the let ins together nail one side then nail from the opposite direction and do that with 4 nails, 2 on each side.

Step 6: Putting It All Together Pt. 2

Let's stand that bad boy up. Once you have it standing you can do the cross bracing on the perpendicular legs. It may seem like over kill once you stand on it like I did after you stood it up but it never hurts to be cautious.

You can either take a tape measure and measure from one top side to the bottom and cut the angle for it, or do it the lazy man way and take a 2x4 and lay it against it and mark it and cut 2 of them. Either way it gets the job done.

The hand rails can be done one of 2 ways. You can add a piece of wood to the stringer and nail it that way, which to me is kind of sloppy. Or you can cut it into the step even with the stringer and nail it straight into the stringer like I did. I feel its more sturdy and looks cleaner. 

Depending on the number of steps you may need more or less balusters or just how confident you are in them can determine that. I used 3, one at the top, one in the middle and one at the bottom. If you didn't cut these pieces do so now.

If you decided to cut the baluster into the step find the middle of the step and measure half a 2x6 on either side of it and cut it out but remember that there is only an inch overhang and the 2x6 is an inch and a half thick. once you cut it out take the pieces you cut and flush it to the bottom of the stringer at the bottom and at the top and middle put one corner at the bottom of the stringer but don't overhang it. Yet again not for strength but for looks. When you nail these in one thing to remember is you want to nail it with the nails going opposite directions. Not like the let ins, but one angled up and the other angled down. What this does is it causes the nails to oppose each other  so its not as easy to push it out as all straight nails would be.

Once you put the balusters on take a tape measure and mark a comfortable height for the hand rail n the top one and the bottom one. Then take a string line and put it on the 2 marks and pop it. and now you have a nice even angle that takes out all the guess work of it. Just cut that off and measure from the tip of the top one to the other side of the bottom one and add 2 inches for over hang.

Cut 2 2x4's to that length and then nail one to the outside the outside of the rails flush to the tops. Then take the second and line it up to the top and bottom and flush it up to the outside of the first 2x4. 

Step 7: Finished!

There you have it.  Just load it up on a truck or move it by hand (its extremely heavy and awkward though) to your treehouse, guard tower, or just leave it as a stairway to nowhere. Thanks for reading. I hope you learned something and any constructive criticism is more than welcome.

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34 Discussions


7 years ago on Introduction

Thank you for your service, and your Instructable.

I was wondering if the railing might not be stronger if the baluster were part of stick of lumber that extended all the way down to the base, rather than ending at the stringer? This would give give better leverage to suport the railing. I would think that someone racing up/down the stairs in combat gear who missteps and falls against the railing might exert quite a lot of force outwardly on the railing - enough to pull out the fasteners between the baluster and the stringer, or splinter the wooden stringer, perhaps.. I was thinking that it could go to ground level, and tied into the base structure with a 2x spacer (to account for the width of the outboard stringer of the stairs). I would think that such a board might even be able to substitute for the uprights supporting the stair stringers, if the boards in the base were tied to the outside of the stringers instead of the inside of the stirngers, as you have been building them. The combined support/baluster could tie to the boards in the base in a T, perhaps reinforced with plywood triangles at the T to stabilize the joint laterally. With such a structure, the torque on a baluster of an outwardly exerted force on the railing would be taken up by the connetion to the base, and the fasteners tying the baluster to the stringer would only have to hold against the outward force, instead of both the outward force and the torque exerted as in the present structure.

It's just a thought, and I haven't sat down to work out the stress calculations involved. It's just that I know that I've seen railings on decks, and the ones that are just tied into the joists of the deck are much more wobbly than the designs where there is a continuous post coming from the footer to the railing, and fastened to the joist. You DID ask for constructive criticism...

1 reply

Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

That is very true. I appreciate your input. You are right that if someone in full battle rattle (which adds about 50-70lbs) falls into the hand rail full force there is a chance it will fail. And all of the ideas you stated are great and will most definitely re-enforce it. My one concern I see with what you said is replacing the uprights with the 2x6 baluster. I feel that the 2x6 would be too narrow thus unstable and weaker than the current 4x4. One alternative could be taking how it is now and just adding your idea to it. Extend the 2x6 all the way down the upright while using 2x spacers to nail into it. You obviously have a more in depth and professional knowledge about this than I do, and as I said before I greatly appreciate your input.


4 years ago on Introduction

This is just what I was looking for. Thanks for posting and sharing.

Sea bee's are bad to the bone, I worked for one years back, and he was in WWII, he could literally make chicken soup from chicken *@#$. Good job on the stairs, but an old timer showed me a quick tip for building free standing stairs that made em a lot easier to make and stronger. Just cut the middle stringer out, and layout the outside stringers. Then nail 2x4 or 2x2 to the layout marks on the runs (the steps) of the outside stringers. Nail the treads to the middle stringer, and then the tops of the 2 by's on the uncut outside stringers. By not cutting the outside stringers they keep 100% of their strength. just thinking about big dudes with all there equipment, I am sure what you built is more than enough, just trying to help out people who protecting me and my family.

2 replies

This sounds like a good idea, but I just cannot visualize it. do you know of any pictures of plans that show this method?

Haha thank you. That does sound alot easier. I built my last set a few days ago so I wont be able to try it out though. thank you for the comment and great idea


7 years ago on Introduction

Thanks so much for taking the time to post this!

I have an insatiable interest in low-tech, low cost, sustainable construction projects, but I'd never heard of "Hesco's" before. They look interesting, so I'm curious why you don't like building them?

I'm not an engineer, and to be honest, it's a stretch to even call me an amateur when it comes to this stuff. I'd really appreciate any feedback or advise you could give me.

Is there another strong, but inexpensive, typeif construction that you'd recommend over Hesco's?

And finally...

It's been said, but not often enough... Thanks for getting our backs!


7 years ago on Introduction

Thank you for your service. And if you are one of the SeaBees who got my son completely drunk for the first time in his life, thank you for getting him dressed and to his plane on time!

I need to learn to read the comments before I go off searching. I had to look up Hesco because I thought your walls looked alot like Gabions!

Great instructable that I imagine (and hope) I will never have need for!


7 years ago on Introduction

First off...Thanks For Your Service !!!!!!!!!!!

nice job with these. my only comment is that when the height of your stairs is over 6 feet, it may be a good idea to add some outriggers at the bottom for stability. Because your stairs are not anchored to footers, there is a real risk of them falling over, unless you have them secured at the top which it doesn't look like you do. there is the 2x6 cross memner that ties the 2 posts together. take that board and extend it out to either side, then add a 2x4 diagonal brace. ideally you want to extend half the height to either side, but if space is limited then extend out however far you can, even a couple feet will do a lot for the stability. if you pile some sand bags on the bottom members, that weight will dampen the vibrations as you go up and down the stairs.
To accomodate uneven ground, it may work a little better in the furture to raise up the boards that you have running along the ground so that only the steps and the posts are in contact with the ground. make it much easier to level and stabalize the stairs.

1 reply

Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

Thank you for your support. To sorta counter your comment, yes it is over 6 feet tall (7' 1 1/2" to be exact) and when on even ground they don't wobble. At all. We've danced on them (no joke) jumped down onto them in full gear and ran up and down them to get tools and they dont budge when on even ground. Notice I keep saying even ground cause they will always wobble otherwise. You do bring up good points though on how to improve stability. And yes in this situation space (at least on one side) was an issue, as you can see it is flush to the wall on one side. Thanks for the the comment. I hope it helps someone with ideas for their own design.


7 years ago on Introduction

Thank you for your service ! Guys like you made life for my son a little better as he served his term in Iraq

3 replies

Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

Thats part of what the Seabees do, go to the places Americans have never stepped foot and build things that most would say it couldn't be done there.


Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

OOH RAW, Seabees. Builder-NMCB 58- Camp Sheilds- Chu Lai- Vietnam- 1969. Ain't the Bees a Hell of a bunch!


Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

Yes they are, but I'm sure they are nothing compared to when you were a part of them. Its great to talk to a man that laid the ground work and set the legacy that we are known for and learn about


Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

Fort? The camp? They are made of Hesco's. One commenter posted a link on them if you want info about them. but basically its a huge wire basket with fabric filled with dirt. Very simple but VERY annoying and frustrating and overall pain in the butt


7 years ago on Introduction

I had to look up Husco:
Embarrassing for a jarhead (now fifty years out of service)

Good work and like the others have said, thanks for joining our military service.


1 reply

Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

Lol dont be embarrassed, they haven't been around too aweful long. I'm debating on making an instructable about them, standing them up and filling them and such. I will say that with in 30 minutes of working with them you wish you they had never been invented


7 years ago on Step 7

You could mount wheels on it if it were going to be moved a lot.