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.