How To Go from Rotten Steps to Functional Deck

At first, building a deck to replace the rotten front steps wasn’t on my radar. How to replace the steps was another matter. Some previous owner had built them with untreated wood in direct ground contact. It must have been a while back; even the landing–well away from Mother Earth–was deteriorating with vigor. So much so that some of the boards had become happy homes for cheery green moss.

Rotten landing boards.

Moss heaven.

From a distance, one might think a simple coat of paint would do the trick. Casual looks can be deceiving.

Before tearing out the old steps, a warning to visitors seemed advisable. This old double wide mobile home is in a city neighborhood, not out in the boonies. Construction site dangers ought to be obvious to the occasional UPS or FedEx delivery driver or Saturday morning missionary, but why take chances? We are a litigious society. What to use for a warning sign, then? Hm…ah! In the garage, one of those easy-to-erase white boards sat in storage. It had been too big to use at the last place (the Border Fort in Arizona) and was still shrink wrapped. After years of extreme summer and winter temperatures, it was now a permanent marker board.


Court defense, just in case.

July 27. It took two and one half hours to tear out the old steps. The wrought iron railing was scrap, too; it went to the garage for the next landfill run. Prying the boards apart was accomplished with the use of a spud bar (like a five foot long crowbar, though the shaft is not as thick and the ends are different). I’ve had that spud bar since 2002. It’s a sturdy piece of steel, great for a variety of digging and prying uses.

When the demolition was done, I didn’t think I’d exerted myself all that terrifically…but I had noticeably bent the spud bar repeatedly. A bit later, my back said, “Tweak!” And I’d slightly pulled something in the left groin area. Nothing drastic; everything except the poor, tortured spud bar seemed as good as new the following day.

Old steps gone, temporary steps in place.

Old steps converted to a load (or two) for the landfill.

Friends and family know I like to work alone, but I have a supervisor on this project. Harvey Sunshine kept an eye on the proceedings through the living room window.

Harvey Sunshine in supervisor mode.

That was enough for one day, especially since I hadn’t yet decided what to build. Once I was off duty, my supervisor settled down between my legs and kept an eye on me. Eventually, the replacement “steps” took form in my mind, an expanded version: A simple deck, eight feet square, which as about all that could look good and fit right. It would also allow construction using single lengths of eight-foot treated lumber. Most importantly, it would allow large objects like the heavy couch to be moved in and out through the front door without causing twist-and-shout hernias.

When my friend Chris and I finished struggling to bring that couch into the house, I swore it would never come out again unless a chainsaw was involved. A moderately spacious landing deck at the top of the new steps would absolve me of that solemn vow.

Harvey Sunshine keeps both eyes on his employee.

July 28. The extreme rot in some of the discarded boards caught my eye.

Rotten to the core.

Today’s accomplishment: Removing “high profile” rocks and using the broad end of a pick to outline the future deck’s footprint. The ground doesn’t have to be completely level as long as the tops of the support posts are cut level in the end. Which is a good thing, considering the fact that spruce tree roots galore make perfectly level ground pretty much impossible.

The footprint for the deck is clearly outlined.

August 2. Time to take a day off, especially since my mental focus on building the deck helped me forget to pay the rent yesterday. No, not on the Montana home. On the rental housing my wife, down southern Arizona way. Can you spell oops? Got that mistake rectified today and decided I might as well bring this post up to date as well.

August 3. Wrestling the first three concrete pylon blocks, posts, and 2″ x 6″ lumber into place along the mobile home front wall was a real booger. None of the “how to build a deck” articles online bother to tell you about that. Start with never-quite-level ground, add 4″ x 4″ posts that flop loosely in their concrete base receptacles, scramble the mess with receptacle “floors” under the posts that are also lumpy and uneven in the manufactured concrete, swirl the need to level posts vertically and side planks horizontally while the whole shebang flutters like a nervous girl at her first prom…yeah, great recipe for long lasting frustration.

Two and one half hours long lasting, anyway. That’s how long it took to get the “west wall” of the deck’s underpinnings pinned in place, using expensive but helpful construction screws. One website says you don’t have to predrill pilot holes for those. I disagree. Loudly.

‘Nuff for one day; time to chill and eat a bowl of cherries.

Attaching a ledger board to the home to serve as a solid reference point would have made this much easier. With a stick-and-tin mobile home, that’s not an option. The deck needs to be freestanding.

Other deck building websites strongly recommend cobbling together a temporary “outside framework” to outline the deck’s footprint and make things oh-so-simple. Okay…but how they manage that, I have no idea. If it works for you, go for it.

My way of going about it is different. (Those readers who know me well are now laughing, yelling, “Oh, really?!” at the screen.) Once the Frustration Boards (see above photo) are whupped good and proper, they serve as the base line. It took two more short-shift sessions to get all of the pylons, posts, and stringer/beam planks in place. During that time, I frequently checked the layout using a combination of carpenter’s square, level, and plain old back-off-and-eyeball. Left and right “walls” were put together before the away-from-house “wall” wrapped up the package. This used up five of the nine pylon blocks, leaving four to add the following day, along with the last few stringer/beam boards.


Photo clarification follows.

The foreground “wall” was added last, tying the final two outer corners together.

An inside look at the southeast corner.

All nine concrete block pylons are now installed, with posts secured to boards and/or vice versa.

August 6. With all nine post-to-block bits squared away, no joist will have to span more than four feet. Even with 24″ spacing between joists, that is well within load parameters. However, for several arbitrary reasons, I decided to get funky with the spacing. Four of the spaces will be 20″ on center with the fifth at 16″ on center. The closer spacing will be located nearest the steps.

What “arbitrary reasons,” you ask? Well…at either 16″ or 20″ spacing, one of the joists would have ended up hitting a 4″ x 4″ post dead center. That just didn’t feel comfortable, hence the arbitrary numbers.

There was one other “Uh-oh” that popped up as the stringer beams were being installed: Each is perfectly aligned with its outer-wall mates but somewhat lower than the outer-wall top boards. Why? Because, apparently, treated lumber comes “wet.” None of those 2″ x 6″ planks are perfectly straight. The slight warping ended up creating gaps (and risen top edges) ranging from 1/8″ to 3/16″ in height. Yet the inner joists must match up perfectly with the outer boards and must also rest firmly on the stringer beams. No gaps! So now what?

Any pro deck builder reading this post will undoubtedly shake his head, maybe even his finger, at this. You built it all wrong! That might be true…but in the end, it always works out. So, what to do about those gaps? Hm…ah! Wedges!

Wedges might not be uptown Charlie Brown GQ spiffy pretty, but nobody’s going to see them, they’re cheap, and they do work. Ask any mobile home dweller who’s ever leveled a mobile home. Problem solved…and then it dawned on me that I’d dodged a real bullet. How horrible would it have been to discover the inner joists were going to end up higher than the outer “wall” boards? Whew!

When the joists were installed, though, very few wedges needed to be used. Most of the connecting points were right on. The deck angels must have taken mercy on me.

Joist hangers were used to connect the joist boards to the outer wall boards. Then hurricane ties locked each joist to each stringer it crossed.

Joist installation showing wedge, joist hanger, and hurricane tie.

Ready for the decking.

August 8. Decking planks were then added, beginning at the outside edge and working toward the house. Why? The final board may have to be ripped-to-fit. That “odd board” will be less noticeable next to the dwelling.

The first decking board has been installed.

Figuring the math for the decking boards is tricky. I did not get it exactly right. Originally, the plan was to install eleven 2″ x 10″ planks, probably having to rip #11, but when eight of those were installed, the remaining space didn’t look right at all.

It wasn’t. That eleventh plank would have too much wood extending beyond the support lumber and too little wood on that same support. It would be unbalanced. In a word, “Hm-m-m….” Happily, I had several 2″ x 12″ planks in the garage. Two of those, with no ripping whatsoever, would fit A-Okay. How about that?

Note: I had to use ten-foot planks because the deck length ended up being a few inches more than eight feet. Had I left a little more margin for error in my planning, eight-foot planks would have done the job. Other sites say to install all the decking boards and then use a circular saw to trim the ends nice and flush, but I didn’t dare wait. Give me eight feet worth of planks to cut precisely in one go and I will without a shadow of a doubt mess something up. So I cut off the excess from each board as it was installed.

Deck surface complete. Next stop: The steps.

August 9. Building the new steps came next. There are numerous detailed websites covering that process, many of which were located by Googling “how to build stair jacks.” The site I ended up using as my primary reference was excellent overall, with plenty of photos, but there was one confusing statement. The author stated firmly, “There will always be one more riser than the number of steps.” This made no sense to me; my jacks ended up with the same number of risers and runs (steps).

Even using a proper guide (clamping a piece of wood to a carpenter’s square), no two of my jacks came out exactly the same. And yet the step boards, when laid across the four jacks, all proved to be perfectly level and in perfect contact. There had to be a “step angel” involved; I can’t come up with any better explanation. But I’m not complaining!

In the end, just one wedge needed to be added. Not from any fault of the jacks (or stringers, either term being acceptable), but because there was a dip in the old sidewalk concrete. The hanger selection at our local building supply store was limited, and besides, the steps were built on a Sunday when the store wasn’t open. This looked like a problem, as the outside pair of hangers ended up protruding, creating a surefire stub-your-toe scenario. Thankfully, a bit of angle grinding eliminated that pedestrian hazard.

Stair jack cutting guide.

Stair jack.

Stair jacks hung and ready for step boards to be added.

Steps completed. Showing like they do (at this point), the hangers might be considered ugly and unprofessional by some. This stairway is, however, rock solid and will last for decades, and to me that’s what counts.

August 10. What’s left? Oh, yeah, the railing. Well, you know what? The basic deck and the stairway are somewhat rigidly structured; there are only so many ways to build them to meet code. But railings are another matter. Height is somewhat standardized at a minimum of 36 inches, but there are nearly as many acceptable railing designs as there are builders. If you doubt that, Google “deck railing designs,” click on Images, and knock yourself out. This is one area where your imagination is free to roam as long as the end result is sturdy enough to provide safety.

Which is why this post will now skip to the end product, the completed railing, without any intermediate photos. If readers want to know more details about the railing, we can open a discussion in the Comments.

Completed deck.

August 11. Now, what to use for stain? This deck is made of 100% pressure treated wood, but that doesn’t mean it won’t appreciate a bit of protection. In the end, I decided on a solid (covers like paint) redwood stain. The color is common in our neighborhood and will fit in. Just as important, the opaque nature of this 100% acrylic stain covers up imperfections and minor construction errors perfectly. The best brand in town turned out to be Cabot. That stuff goes on thick and heavy and in fact a gallon can of Cabot solid stain feels much heavier than an ordinary gallon can of paint. It’s also expensive, but only requires one coat to get the job done.

One coat of solid Cabot redwood acrylic stain, and done!

Another view. Like Pringle’s potato chips, I couldn’t settle for just one.

Next project? Painting the house…if our unseasonably rainy August weather will hit the road and let a little sunshine come back.

8 thoughts on “How To Go from Rotten Steps to Functional Deck

  1. Looks good Fred. I need to get the steps off my front porch replaced. I am going to have a 4×4 post embedded in concrete at the bottom of the steps. I am tired of it wobbling when I lean on it, and my grandson is using the lower rail of it to hold onto, to help him up and down those steps that are higher than his knees. He usually squats down to go down, and has to stretch mightily to get those stubby little legs cranked high enough to get a foot on the next step. I will have the top rail and then a lower 2×4, to use to help make it sturdier. I also want it built on a concrete pad, or concrete pavers. That will help the wood stay healthy, and dryer in the monsoon months. We need to build up that driveway along that end of the porch, so it doesn’t have a puddle build at the bottom of the steps. I have to wade through ankle deep water when it rains, to get to my little truck. I try to park it at the other end when it rains, but when it rains during the night, I sometimes do not get it moved in time.

  2. Makes sense to me. Your thinking is similar to mine in looking for a concrete base (which the deck and steps now have, but the old steps did not) and for sturdy construction. I considered the “lower 2″ x 4” concept but found that having the vertical railing posts (a) half-sit on the steps or deck surface and (b) fairly close together (less than a foot apart), it all came out surprisingly solid. But you can never make those things too strong.

    At the Border Fort, I built up the driveway a bit every year, using leftover 1 1/2 inch rocks until the pile disappeared and then putting the backhoe to work. Not that either one of us has a backhoe at the moment. 😀

  3. Looks good, Ghost. Now you even have a little porch to sit on when the weather’s nice. Have you thought about putting some planters with pretty foliage around the bottom to hide the feet? That would look nice and add a pop of color for curb appeal.

    Harvey Sunshine looks like a pretty mellow cat. He’s beautiful. I have cats myself. I think every human needs a feline (or three) to share life with. How old is he? Did you have him at the Border Fort?

  4. Thanks. I’d say “Thanks, Manny,” but the comment says it was posted by “Anonymous….” 😀 I’d like to sit out there, too, if I ever find the time. Planters aren’t something I would do. In fact, I got rid of every possible sign of previous planters and flower beds that existed on the property as being a pain to maintain. I’m pretty basic when it comes to design either inside our outside of a house. That all changes when there’s a lady in the home who feels differently (Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy), but with Pam living in Arizona now for medical reasons, I’m momentarily free to display my minimalist tendencies. I don’t even believe in lawns, though of course they’re kind of required in town. My idea of landscaping is to (a) have a place well out in the country with no visible neighbors and (b) keep the vegetation knocked down near the house as protection against wildfires. In other words, like the Border Fort…but in Montana. If I have to be “stuck” in town for a while, though, Deer Lodge isn’t a bad place to be stuck. Good town, good neighbors.

    One other downside to having planters with nice foliage is the weather. The winters can be long here and the summers short, so for more than half the year there wouldn’t be much foliage to help with hiding anything, anyway.

    Harvey Sunshine really is mellow. And beautiful. Full of love. We did not have him at the Border Fort. After we moved into the Deer Lodge house last year, he was one of several cats that occasionally showed up, wandering the premises. The previous human occupants of the home, renters, had always left the back porch breezeway access door open and neighborhood cats were free to hang out in the rear, attached porch as much as they wanted.

    The others eventually figured out this was no longer a free roof for one and all. They gave it up, especially one big, long-furred, black cat we instinctively distrusted. But Harvey kept showing up for months. By August of 2017, he was even camping out under one of the vehicles all night at times. It was clear that he was not feral but unclear whether or not he might have a home elsewhere. One day, I finally caught up with the last nearby neighbor; we’d seen Harvey hanging out on the man’s porch and didn’t want to be accused of stealing a kitty for obvious reasons. But no, not his feline.

    That was the day Harvey had finally decided he was going to adopt us, period. He’d come into the back porch and loved Pam up. He’d talked to me in the front driveway, announced it was time to pet him, and even climbed into my lap as I sat on the (old) steps, tucking his head firmly under my arm. When I told Pam she was clear to claim the kitty, she was over the moon. Next thing I knew, she was lugging Harvey around (Pam is tiny and Harvey is long-bodied, so lugging is the right term), joy just radiating from the both of them.

    But she couldn’t move him from here when she had to move back to Arizona, so she’s had to settle for making friends with two feral cats the landlady had been feeding for the past 10 years. She also made friends with a young skunk and an entire family of raccoons until she quit putting food out in the afternoons.

    The vet told us Harvey was three years old last year, which would make him four now. Right in the prime of his cat life.

  5. Did you really get rid of that gorgeous fuchsia clematis you had there? I may never speak to you again, if you got rid of it and didn’t bring me a cutting of it. I have been trying to get one that color for years, and can’t find it anywhere.

  6. Fuchsia clematis? I don’t remember it at all. It must have been there and I must have posted some sort of picture, and you must have commented on it, but my mind is absolutely blank on the fuchsia coloring. Do remember some deep blue-to-purple flowers along the back concrete. Haven’t dug anything up roots and all or anything like that. but have mowed where flowers used to be. I say used to be, because everything died back pretty early this year as I refused to water the lawn if nature wasn’t going to do it. Most of what I got rid of were old, rotten landscaping timbers (small poles, really) and one canvas “pot” full of potting soil that had nothing growing in it.

    It’d be tough having you never speak to me again, so I’ll be keeping a sharp eye out for anything flowery that might pop up next spring. I’m planning on putting some time and energy into the lawn in 2019. Didn’t do it this year because the dandelions had taken over everywhere, the permitted watering hours here in town are super funky (not enough water until the city can afford to drill another well), and the sprinkler I have looks cool but doesn’t put out enough volume. This summer the focus was on replacing the front steps and painting the house. Next year (hopefully) it’ll be sprucing up the garage a bit and painting the exterior, plus totally reworking the back yard.

    That’ll all be after bringing a load of Pam’s stuff down and visiting with her in April, of course.

  7. You were trying to identify it, and I told you what it was and how to care for it. You said it was by the garage. My dad had one that color, and he also had two of other colors, neither as pretty or as hard to find. It was at their house when they moved in there, over 50 years ago. He kept it going all those years, just by watering it and clearing out the dead stuff every couple of years. When they both died it was still going, but it did not get watered and died. I have been trying to find it and I find purple, light pink and white, but no fuchsia. If you don’t want it, dig it up and bring it to me in a bucket. I will get it going here. Gorgeous flowers. If you do want it, just bring me a cutting of it in a baggie with damp paper towel. I will turn it over to Rodger to get going good and then plant it here..

  8. Wow. That is a beauty, and the weird thing is that I still do not remember it at all, though now I do know exactly where it was. 2017 and early 2018 were pretty tough for me in a number of ways; I guess “fuchsia recall” ended up deep in ye olde memory banks somewhere.

    The flower did not show up at all this year, or at least did not bloom. Don’t think I killed it by neglect, as last year we did run the sprinkler in that area on a fairly regular basis. We had a surprisingly wet spring this year, right up till around the first of July, so it ought to have had enough water this year, too, at least until that date. Anyway, I will keep an eye out for it. Had it been clear to me last year that you wanted a cutting, Pam and I could have brought one down on one our bimonthly runs, but….

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