What terror lurks beneath the stairs? Maybe a need to rebuild them


August 06, 1994|By Karol V. Menzie and Randy Johnson

Is your house trying to tell you something? It's hard for houses, you know -- they can't say, "My windows ache," or "My feet are wet." But there are ways that dwellings can communicate: Leaks, cracks, and popping tiles are ways a house tries to let you know something is wrong and ask for help. If you're paying attention to these hints, you may be able to keep a small problem from becoming a big one, or you may get early warning of impending disaster.

Sometimes, when the hint is tiny, you may be tempted to apply a quick "fix," something that's cheap, easy and covers up the flaw. Resist. You do the house and yourself no favors. Unless you resolve the underlying problem, no fix will work.

A Baltimore reader wrote recently about a staircase that's definitely got something to say.

"In my oldish house," she writes, "the treads are pulling away from the risers in the stairway from the first to second floors. At its widest point, this crack is 3/8 -inch, and its length is almost the length of the step.

"Filling with caulk or plastic wood is impossible -- it falls right through . . . The previous owner solved it by installing wall-to-wall carpeting. It has also been suggested that I install quarter-round molding at the joint between the tread and riser. This decreases the width of the tread.

"Can you suggest something . . . ?"

We can -- but, unfortunately, we can't suggest anything easy to fix this problem. Anything applied on top of the stairs to cover the cracks would be a temporary solution. The cracks seem to indicate that some part of the stair structure is failing. Any true fix will have to be done from underneath.

There are all kinds of ways to put stairs together, so pinpointing a particular problem is impossible until you've seen which method was used. In one typical kind of construction, stair treads are recessed into the side pieces, or carriages. House settlement and wear and tear on the steps can cause the treads to pull away from the sides, leading to cracks. A solution could be as simple as tightening up the tread-carriage joints with glue-coated shims. A more serious problem would naturally require a more drastic solution, such as rebuilding the stairs.

The reader's problem is complicated by the fact that a basement ceiling obscures the under side of the stairs. The only way to accomplish an adequate repair is to remove the basement ceiling. Then a competent carpenter can take a look at how the steps are put together and offer a solution.

After a recent column on deck-building specifications, a Westminster contractor wrote to take issue with our statement that decks built with larger joists (say 2 by 12) would be stronger than those built with smaller ones (say 2 by 8).

He pointed out that in a situation where a mid-span girder is installed, a smaller joist could be used. "I recently lost a job because my customer was very concerned about deflection (bounce, as he termed it) in an 18-foot deck," the contractor writes, "and wanted to be certain I would use 2-by-12s on 16-inch centers. I checked my span charts and found that, with a second girder at mid-span . . . 2-by-8s on 24-inch centers would be much stronger and cheaper to build. . . . He seemed to understand, but in the end thought 2-by-12s would be better. I'm sure he's bouncing along on his deck right now."

He has a good point. By all means, listen to your bidders/contractors on any job; they can always have a better idea about how to build things after they've seen the site and worked out the numbers. It's always a good idea to hire licensed contractors whose work will be inspected by the local jurisdiction to make sure it meets building codes.

The Westminster contractor also brought up another detail, suggesting that all support posts should be dadoed (that is cut out) so girders can be recessed into the post and all the pieces bolted together with carriage bolts. This way the posts, and not the bolts, are supporting the weight of the deck. This is how Randy installs deck supports and it's a good item to include in your specifications.

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