How to build and tile steps and walkways (sidewalks)
John P. Bridge, May, 2001 (Revised December, 2009)
Way “back in the day,” I spent about 6 months of my apprenticeship training studying step/stair building and layout. One of the points that was constantly emphasized was that stairs are a hazard to your health — a necessary one but a hazard no less. There are certain conventions that are essential to a safe and eye-pleasing step project.
Think about it. When you walk you tend to build up a cadence where, unless something inhibits you, each step taken is about the same as the previous one in length and speed. The same tendency is in force when you are ascending or descending stairs or steps. If all the steps are not the same height and width, it tends to throw you off balance, and this can lead to a serious mishap.
A good rule of thumb when building a series of steps is called “seven-eleven.” No, that’s not a convenience store chain, it’s a stair-building convention. The front of the steps or “risers” are about 7 inches in height, and the tops of the steps or “treads” are about 11 inches in width. Now this is not a hard, fast rule, but it should always be taken into consideration when a project is planned. In my opinion risers should never be higher than 7 inches, and treads should never be narrower than 11 inches. A step that is about 6 to 6-1/2 inches high and 11-1/2 to 12 inches wide is just about ideal in my book, whether you are building one step or a hundred. People have gotten used to this norm through decades (centuries) of climbing stairs and steps.
Once again, though, although there is leeway in the height and width of steps, all steps in a series must be uniform. The height of the risers cannot vary by more than 1/4 inch, and the width of the treads must be constant to within 1/4 in. On commercial tile projects the tolerance is usually less than 1/8 in.
Do not build steps in tread widths that cause people to take more than one step per tread. A normal person should be able to walk up or down a series of steps without breaking stride. A tread width of, say, 16 inches or more might cause a person’s foot to land on the edge of the tread, half on and half off. The foot tends to slip or tilt toward the next riser, a sure recipe for disaster, especially when walking downward. When ascending such steps it’s very possible someone might trip on a riser and fall forward.
In outdoor construction, nothing is level. All surfaces are tilted somewhat so that rain water doesn’t collect on them. This includes steps, whose treads should be pitched ever so slightly toward the front. In the width of a 12 in. tread, a 1/16 to 1/8 in. pitch is ideal — just enough to keep water from collecting but not enough to cause a slip. It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway — step treads absolutely must be constructed from materials that will provide plenty of grip for the feet. Brick, rough stone, and non-slip quarry tiles are good choices. If your steps are to be simply concrete, finish the treads with a fine broom.
Steps in Conjunction with Walkways
Let’s say we want to build a sidewalk up through the front yard from the street to the entryway, and let’s say the total rise in a distance of about 30 feet is around 3 feet. We have the choice of simply sloping the walkway more or less evenly from the entry down to the street, or we can incorporate a few steps along the way.
Opting for the steps (and the extra work involved) we should remember the “cadence” I mentioned earlier. People have a definite tendency to walk in evenly measured paces, and when you disrupt this, you can cause mishaps.
So you wouldn’t want to just put the steps into the walkway arbitrarily. No, they should be arranged with the “cadence” in mind — a measured length of walkway sloped slightly upward from the street, a step or two (of exactly equal dimensions), another segment of walkway and more steps (with the same characteristics as the preceding ones). A person can safely ascend or descend a walkway such as this without paying special attention to what he or she is doing. It just comes sort of naturally.
On the other hand, imagine what might happen if the steps were of different heights and widths. A person would have to be very careful and pay attention to every step to negotiate the expanse without accident.
Curved Walkways and Steps
Straight walkways, while functional, can get a little boring. Why not throw in a curve or two? Or maybe even make the entire walkway an ellipse. In any case, there are a couple things that should be avoided for safety’s sake. Corner steps, those whose treads are shaped like trapezoids, should be avoided if at all possible. It’s very difficult to negotiate a step whose tread is narrow at one end and over-wide at the other, as those on corner steps tend to be. It’s much better to design curves in the walkway and incorporate the steps at relatively straight segments.
Additionally, walkways should not be radically sloped or curved right at the steps, as this can cause inconvenience and even mishaps. It’s much better to keep everything flowing smoothly without any tight turns. Looks better, too. If tight turns are deemed necessary, have them occur where there are no steps.
Ramps are another necessary evil. They are a definite boon to handicapped people, but they are an absolute hazard to people who are not handicapped. For this reason, if it is at all possible, I believe that steps should be built alongside handicap ramps. If this isn’t possible, then extra attention should be paid to the construction of convenient and substantial hand railings. And, of course, the ramp itself must be constructed of, or covered with, a material that provides plenty of grip for the feet.
Like most things in life, building walkways and steps requires a common sense approach. Keep things moving along evenly with no surprises, and don’t forget about “cadence.” Most important, take it slow and easy, and have fun doing the work. Don’t get in a hurry.
How to Work With Authority
When I wrote Ceramic Tile Setting I incorporated a segment on “Standing Around,” and I later elaborated on the theme in Tile Your World. The crux is that if you are going to do a lot of standing around, you should make it appear to others that you are actually studying the project and thus working instead of merely goofing off. This is particularly true while working in the front yard where neighbors and passers-by will be observing you. Don’t just stand there and look stupid. Make it appear that you actually know what you’re doing. Some of the tricks include propping one’s chin in one’s hand and wrinkling the brow. Legs spread, hands on hips also works well. In short, do your standing around with authority.
On the same token, though, you don’t want to project yourself to be an ace, or neighbors might ask you to help with projects in their own yards. No, it’s better to be just mildly competent — someone whom they might ask for a pointer or two. I know this seems a contradiction, but with enough practice you’ll be standing around like a pro in no time.