Building a set of stairs from wood can be a challenging task for the beginner. Building a set of concrete steps can be an even harder task. If you don’t want to buy precast concrete steps, there are only options to buy help or make them yourself.
Reading this, you are probably after the second option. For that, this article will help you through the steps of building the DIY concrete forms to the finished concrete surface.
Planning concrete stairs details
The first step in forming concrete stairs should be planning the stepped layout. Start by drawing a simple blueprint or sketch of your step design. It’s good to take your time and measure well so that everything will fit nicely.
The usual step riser is around 7 ½ inches, but it can be a little lower or higher depending on the project. A 7 ½ inch riser can be done with 2×8 piece of lumber as a form board and it’s easy to cut if you own or can rent a table saw.
A step tread should be at least 12 inches long. Anything less and it can be hard for adults to walk on and accidents can happen. It could be even doubled so that everyone can step on it with ease. If it’s house front stairs it can even look pretty good and sturdy. The bigger step is also easier for coating and decorating if you want to stamp it with a wood pattern for example.
Let’s say we will go with the 7 ½ inch riser, it’s time to count the stairs then. We need to measure how high the stairs will go up to. Let’s say for the sake of making this easy that the height is 30 inches so we will end up with 4 steps, the highest one being on the level of our door. Any other height we just divide it with the height of our riser and we’ll get the answer.
Forming concrete stairs
Now it’s time to build the concrete stair forms. Something like 2×8 yellow pine can be good for your form boards, but it’s really up to you. Using spruce or yellow pine species is not always necessary, but it’s a good idea especially if you’re building a wide step.
Also, 1×8’s can be used in the place of 2×8’s as long as it can handle the weight of the concrete. The higher the stairs are, the more there will be pressure forming. Personally, I like to be safe than sorry, a failed form can ruin a good day.
Building the forms is a simple task. Just start with the bottom step first and remember that you’re pouring concrete steps against house. This means the sides and front needs to be strong and able to hold against weight.
Cut your form boards to the proper length and screw them together for easy removal. The form can be nailed together as well, but personally, I don’t like it as removing the forms might damage the fresh concrete if done too heavy-handedly. Also, place the screws from the outside so that they can be removed later.
Once the first form is built, we need to square it up using a framing square and drive the stakes on the outside of the form using a sledge hammer or large maul. The stakes have to be firmly on the ground so that the form doesn’t move. It depends a lot on the soil, but here again, better little too deep than too little. After that, we screw the stakes to the form so it will stay put.
Now we have the first step formed and we’re ready to go higher. Now we just build each form smaller than the last by how many inches we want the tread to be and set it on top of the last form. Now we just use screws to attach every form together with extra stakes or something else. Depending on the form of stairs, we could have done the sides from one board even.
Fill the form with rough stones or dirt
Now we’re ready to fill the form with something. We don’t probably want the whole stairs to be made out of concrete as it can be pretty expensive as other materials can be used as well such as rough stones. Some stairs are made with the leftover concrete pour, but here I assume everything is made by hand.
We must make sure that we have a minimum of 4 inches of solid concrete on the sides and on the steps. We don’t fill it all with stones or dirt so we can have concrete all around so the water and other things won’t eat the base of our steps. Also, we need to compact everything with a tamper before we start for the best results.
Also, this is the point where we consider if we want rebar added. Steel helps with the pulling forces that concrete is weak against. For extra strength with big steps, I’d add some in to be safe.
How to pour concrete step
Now we’re finally getting some action, it’s time to pour those steps. Depending on the type of ready mix concrete, we can make 1 or more at the wheelbarrow at a time. Concrete has a pretty long working time, from 30 minutes to 1 hour, so it’s really up to skills how much we dare to make.
Even with wheelbarrow, it’s good to do the mixing as close to the forms as possible to avoid unnecessary moving. Concrete is heavy I tell you and lifting kills backs. Concrete can be shoveled straight from the barrow or bucket at the start if we don’t want to lift heavyweights.
If we don’t close the steps with the board, we need to wait for it to harden a bit before we move from step to step. If we do it all at once the pressure will let it escape from the lower steps and we don’t want that. If we’re impatient, we could also consider concrete that hardens fast.
Finishing concrete steps
Now the final part, finishing concrete steps. This step can be the hardest for beginners as it requires you to have a few tools and a little skill. The kind of tools depends on the last surface we want. Rubber, hard, or sponge float (some like to brush as well) is needed for the finishing.
The finishing float is used to smooth out the hardening concrete as it dries. It can’t be too wet and also not too hard. The kind of that you can finish by doing small circles with the float without applying too much pressure. It will level the surface and make some texture on it.
Sponge float might be easiest for beginners, but some find hard plastic floats easy to work with as well. Floats don’t cost that much and it’s easy to make a little test piece of concrete slab for yourself to practice on. That way you know what you’re doing when the time comes to do the steps.
Once the finishing is done, it’s time for you to use the small broom if you like. Drag the broom from one side of the step to the other in one uniform stroke without lifting it from the concrete. This leaves small little lines that give the tread some grip to prevent slipping.
Now we’re finished and it’s time to let the concrete harden. After some hours the forms can be removed and if there’s extra concrete on the sides, it can be removed carefully with a trowel.
Concrete doesn’t dry in a sense, water makes a paste with cement and some of it goes off as vapor. To make our stairs and steps as hard as possible it might be good to water them a little. Not too much, because it will affect negatively, but small shower just so that the surface gets little moisture.
This is easy and cheap way to build concrete stairs next to your house. The land/dirt isn’t that expensive and you might even have some on your property already. The concrete price will depend on the size of the stairs, but it shouldn’t be too expensive.
Main thing here is building the forms so that you don’t have to worry about them giving in to concrete pressure. After the form is good, you only have to worry about the finish of the surface.