How to Build Steps in the Garden
There are two particularly important points to keep in mind when building steps: proportions in design, and safety. The basic rule for proportions is that twice the riser (the height of each step) added to the tread (the part which is trodden on) should equal 24 in. The best proportion is 12 in. tread and 6 in. riser.
Weak or badly constructed steps are dangerous, and great care should be taken to see that plenty of rubble is rammed into position as a foundation. On light, sandy soils at least 6 in. of rubble foundation will be required; less on heavier soils.
Do not build steps that are too narrow. Their width should be in proportion to the feature into which they are designed, but they must be wide enough to permit comfortable and safe passage. From the point of view of design, a sound rule is: the longer the flight of steps, the wider it should be. It is unwise to use small material in the construction of steps, unless it is bedded down into concrete; for instance, small pebbles, small pieces of stone slabs or bricks should not be set in ashes or sand.
The simplest and easiest form of step is made from concrete. In many cases the actual steps and risers will need to be cut out of a solid bank of earth. Begin at the base, and cut away sufficient earth to allow rubble to be firmly packed into place and to leave room for the concrete surface material.
For the construction of the risers, cut pieces of wooden shuttering to the depth of the riser.
Lay a concrete surface on a firm foundation at the foot of the steps. Place the first piece of shuttering in position on this surface and 2 in.—the thickness the concrete will be—away from the face of thepart of the riser. Drive in strong wooden pegs to hold the shuttering in position and fill in the 2-in. gap with concrete. Use a piece of wood to tamp or work in the concrete as it is applied until it finishes flush with the top of the soil and rubble riser. Two or three inches of wooden shuttering will now be left above this concrete riser. This will be the depth of concrete to apply to form the tread. Construct the tread by applying concrete and smoothing it off level with the top of the wooden shuttering of the riser. It will be necessary, of course, to provide shuttering for the sides of the steps as they are built up, unless they are cut out of a bank of soil, in which case the soil itself will support the concrete as it sets.
Curved steps can be constructed with concrete, but they require more complicated shuttering. The method is exactly the same, except that the curves are provided by bending flexible material, such as sheet metal or waterproof hard-board, and holding it in position with pegs.
Stone slabs—coloured, plain, or a mixture of both—are ideal for treads. Although large pieces can be bedded down into ashes or sand on a firm rubble foundation it is better to lay them in a thin base of concrete. About 1 in. of concrete will be sufficient and the joints can either be pointed or filled with concrete. A suitable mix is: 1 part cement, 4 parts sand.
The risers can be made from smaller pieces of slab, also cemented in place, but it is usually better to use weathered or rough-faced bricks, as they are much easier to lay.
Steps can be made completely with bricks, using for preference either old ones or rough-faced types. They can be laid flat or on edge and, if bedded into a thin base of concrete, will produce extremely strong, durable steps.
Where slabs or bricks are used, tap them gently into the wet concrete as they are laid so that they ‘sit’ well into the foundation. Make frequent checks with a spirit level on a short piece of timber laid across the bricks.
If a mixture of materials is to be used in step construction, some attractive and unusual effects can be achieved—pebbles set in concrete with brick orsurrounds, or bricks set at various angles. As paving slabs can now be obtained in various sizes and shades, there are end- less variations in design to choose from.
An unusual flight of steps can be made with logs of wood as the risers. The treads are the earth itself, and the log risers are held in position by strong wooden pegs driven in at each end. It is as well to sink each log slightly in a shallow trench to give added strength and stability.
Logs of at least 6 to 9 in. diameter should be used, and it is best to use wood that has been felled and cut for some time.
As with walls, plants can be added to steps to give a more natural finish. Leave intervals in the treads and risers in which to naturalize suitable plants. These holes must lead to soil beneath, and in many cases it will be necessary to allow for this at the rubble-laying stage of construction.