This post is completely irrelevant for most readers. If it doesn’t apply to you, just move along. I’m posting this for a very specific target audience who would not otherwise be reading this blog.
This post is a brief description of a how to build a sturdy, cheap, relatively light-weight system to allow paraplegic wheelchair users to go from floor to chair and vice-versa, within their homes. In a nutshell, this is a set of broad, shallow, lightweight carpeted steps, coupled with a pair of standard “pushup bar” padded handles to allow the paraplegic user to mount those steps.
Making this set of steps requires power tools and a place to use them. But the design is simple enough that any halfway competent D-I-Y carpenter can make them.
Edit: That’s the steps and one push-bar, pictured above.
I didn’t take pictures as I made this set of steps. So this amounts to a materials list, some crude drawings, and a set of written instructions. And, I hope, one picture of the final product, which I will include when I can.
I won’t belabor this, because I only know it second-hand. And those who face this problem first-hand know this better than I do.
It’s fairly tough for many paraplegics to get from floor level back into their wheelchair or other seating. Or to get conveniently from a seated position down onto the floor. In particular, the floor-to-chair scenario can occur after a fall from a wheelchair, if the standard technique of “flipping” the user and chair upright does not work or work well.
There appear to be few or no good solutions commercially available that address this problem, for the user, in their own home, at reasonable cost. Something that makes it easy for a routine transfer from floor to chair and vice-versa.
There are commercial (i.e., medical institution) powered lifts for this purpose, but they are both expensive and not really “home” items. There are air-assisted lifts that appear slow and cumbersome. There was an aluminum ladder-like device costing roughly $900, but it is no longer in production and more-or-less none are available for sale. There is a D-I-Y ladder-like device made from PVC tubing, but it contains a large number of fittings (and so is fairly expensive to build) and is reportedly somewhat hard to use. There are commercial devices made for the elderly who may have fallen and need assistance getting back to a standing position, but these tend to be narrow, plush devices that would be difficult for a paraplegic to use.
The key insight in this posting is that you can just make a set of wide, shallow, carpeted steps. You don’t need any sort of handles or rails attached to those steps. Instead, you can use standard “pushup bars”, costing maybe $15 for a set, as a portable set of handles for mounting that shallow staircase. (The person for whom I made these steps had this insight, not me.)
This vastly simplifies the construction, so an amateur can do it with thin cheap materials. By contrast, if you build in handles, that’s much more complicated and requires much stronger materials.
So this is just a set of broad steps. No rails, no handles. The user sits on the steps and uses those push-up handles to work their way up the steps, backwards. Or down, forwards.
With this approach, the only challenge is to make a set of broad, shallow steps that are a) sturdy enough to be used by an adult, and b) light enough to be (say) moved around on a carpeted floor.
Tool and materials lists, and written instructions
Caveat: This is probably a little over-built for the purpose. As specified, I’m guessing this has an upper weight limit of at least 300 pounds, based on the lack of any noticeable flex when I sat on them.
Note on terminology: On a staircase, the treads are the horizontal pieces, the risers are the vertical pieces between the treads, and the stringer is what the treads sit on. As shown here. The whole assembly is a staircase. The treads on this staircase have no “nosing”, that is, each tread sits flush with the riser beneath.
Overall description. Below are plans for a set of four shallow steps. They were dimensioned to be cut from a single 4′ x 8′ sheet of plywood.
Overall, these steps are:
- Length: 4 feet.
- Height of top step: 18 inches.
- Number of steps: 4.
- Step tread width: 30 inches side-to-side
- Step tread depth: 12 inches front-to-back
- Step riser height: 4.5 inches.
I made this as a four-step unit, with 4.5″ riser height. It could just as easily be a three-step unit with 6″ riser height. This posting gives dimensions for the four-step unit only.
The step size (30″ x 12″) is set to accommodate the user and the handles. Unless the user is particularly small, the step can’t be made much smaller than the 12″ x 30″ shown here, and still accommodate the push-up handles.
Construction is “glued and screwed”. This means you don’t need clamps to hold it together as the glue dries, but you do need to drill a lot of holes for the screws.
You don’t have to be very precise in your carpentry. The joinery here has to be solid, but you are going to cover all your joints and most of the raw plywood edges with carpet. A little error here or there does not matter.
Based on Home Depot prices, you need about $75 worth of materials. You will end up with some glue, screws, paint, and a few scraps of plywood left over.
Of this, half the cost is for the sheet of plywood that provides stair treads, risers, and stringer (the body of the staircase). This ply sheet is reinforced throughout, but I would hesitate to use thinner material than the (nominal) half-inch plywood specified here. And cheaper material such as MDF (medium-density fiberboard) probably lacks the structural integrity that you need.
Optionally: If you want to add rope handles to this, you’ll need to pick up some fairly large diameter rope. Even for cheap rope, that would add another $10 to $15 to the cost. The unit pictured above has rope handles using half-inch polypropylene rope.
Time to completion: Actual construction time is probably in the neighborhood of six hours. But that has to take place over two or three days, to allow time for glue and paint to dry.
- Two pairs of saw horses
- Circular saw (“Skil saw”)
- Table saw (recommended)
- Small hand saw (“crosscut saw”, optional, to clean up the stair cuts)
- Straightedge at least 4′ long
- Two small (2″) C-clamps to hold straight edge to plywood
- Rafter square or similar large square (recommended)
- Drill and bits, including screwdriver bit
- Paint brushes (for glue and paint)
- Sharpie or pencil
- Tape measure
- Razor-blade knife a.k.a. Skil knife (for cutting carpeting).
Exhibit 1: Plywood cut list. See note below on 29 1/8″ dimension.
Exhibit 2: Lumber and trim cut list
Exhibit 3: Assembly details on risers, marking gauge, step, and stringer.
You are going to cut your 4′ x 8′ sheet of plywood into three sections. The first (A) will become the stair treads. The second (B) will become the stringers (or sides of the staircase). The third (C) will become the risers.
You will then cut up the furring strips and 2×2 into “glue blocks”, and use these to assemble the steps with screws and glue. There are quotes around “glue blocks” because real glue blocks aren’t screwed into place.
After painting the sides of the staircase, nail on the PVC molding to cover the raw edges of the plywood that will not otherwise be covered by carpet. On the bottom edge, this also serves as a slick “sled runner” to allow this to move over carpet easily.
You then attach the carpet. I found that, by far, the easiest way was to attach it with screws.
Optionally, drill holes in the staircase portion and add rope handles.
Step 1: Cut the plywood sheet into three sections. If you’ve never done this before, look at a few YouTube videos on how to cut a straight line with a circular saw, e.g., https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=43yMzyd1U1w You need to add the width of your circular saw foot to the measurements in each case.
You’ll end up with three pieces, marked A, B and C above. These are 30″ wide, 27″ wide, and 29 1/8″ wide, respectively. Each is 4′ long, the width of the plywood sheet.
Piece A: The treads. Cut the 30″-wide piece into four 12″ x 30″ stair treads. A table saw makes this easier, but this can be done with a circular saw and straightedge.
Piece C: The risers. The risers fit BETWEEN the stair case sides, so to match the 30″ stair treads, they must be 30″ less two thicknesses of plywood. Measure the actual thickness of your plywood before you make this cut. And make it, to the best of your ability, 30″ less twice the thickness of your plywood. In my case, that was 29 1/8″. YMMV.
Why are the risers 6″ long, instead of 4 1/2″? That’s so you can tack on a glue block below the level of the step, and attach the back edge of each step to the riser in front of it. This supports the back edge of the step and makes for a much stronger, stiffer set of steps. This will be clear at the assembly step, I hope.
Piece B: The stringers (staircase sides), lay out the lines.
Caveat: The bad side of the plywood will show on one finished side of the staircase. That’s the only way to do it and have this fit into one sheet of plywood. Just don’t be surprised when that happens.
Draw the diagonal. Mark points that are 4 1/2″ from either end, along the short dimension, as shown on the diagram. Draw the long diagonal line between those points.
Draw the stair riser lines. Mark points at one foot intervals along the long sides, and draw in those one foot lines as shown, all the way across the piece. You will need that full line later, as you drill these sides.
Draw the stair tread lines. Finally, every place the one foot lines intersect the diagonal, use your rafter square (or closest equivalent) to sketch in the actual “staircase” shape. Align one arm of the square with the 1′ lines, align the other with the intersection of the 1′ and diagonal lines, and draw in the cutouts for the stair treads.
Piece B: The stringers, make the cuts.
First, cut it along the diagonal using circular saw and straightedge.
Next, cut out the triangles of waste material to form the stair tread and riser cutouts. These are short enough to do free-hand (with no guides or straight edges).
A note on using a table saw for this. Set the blade as high as it will go, to make the cut as vertical as it can be. Either run the cut right up to the crossing line (and so over-cut it on the bottom of the piece), or stop the cut just short of the crossing line (and so require finishing the inside corners with a hand saw.) The carpet will cover up any minor over-cuts.
A note on using a circular saw for this. Set the blade to run deeper than you normally would, to get the cut as vertical as feasible. Then it’s the opposite of the table saw. Either cut up to the crossing line (and finish the interior corner with a hand saw), or cut slightly past the line. Again, the carpet will cover up any minor over-cuts.
Step 2: Cut up the lumber. As shown in the list. Cut the large pieces first. They will, collectively, take up three pieces of furring strip, with some left over. As you read down the furring strip list, what you are looking at is a pair of “uprights” for each riser, followed by “crossbars” for the risers.
Step 3: Make up a marking jig, to help mark the plywood for drilling holes. Take a scrap plywood triangle, and screw it to a scrap piece of furring strip that’s maybe a foot or two long. So it kind of looks like a hatchet when you are done. Now you have a jig you can use to mark the thickness of plywood, the thickness of furring strip, or the thickness of furring strip plus plywood.
Step 4: Assemble the risers.
A note on all drilling the holes, if you’ve never done this before. In the plywood, you are going to drill clearance holes. Choose a drill bit slightly larger than the diameter of your screws, including the threads. In the lumber, you are going to drill no holes at all, not even tiny pilot holes. You just don’t need them, and it goes a lot faster without them. If you are particular about the looks, and have countersink bits, feel free to put countersink holes around the holes in the plywood. With bugle-headed sheetrock screws, that doesn’t really much matter.
Match up your risers, uprights, and crossbars, from front of stairs to back of stairs.
- 4 1/2″ riser and two 4 1/2″ furring-strip uprights
- 6″ riser and two 9″ furring-strip uprights
- 6″ riser and two 13 1/2″ furring-strip uprights
- 6″ riser and two 18″ furring-strip uprights
- 6″ riser and two 18″ 2×2 uprights.
All five of these also have one 26″ furring strip crossbar.
Now assemble them so that you have five narrow plywood panels (the risers) that stand up on legs of varying height. Each one will look like a broad inverted U when finished.
Drill two clearance holes in each side of each riser. Drill three clearance holes across the top of the riser. Each hole should be about 3/4″ from the edge.
(Optionally, drill three holes along the bottom edge as well for the three middle risers only. Not for the very first one, and not for the very last one. If you skip that at this point, you can do it later. You’ll use those to “hang” the back edge of each step on a glue block attached, via these holes, to the back of the riser.)
Apply glue to one side of the uprights and crossbar, where they will contact the plywood riser. Lay them on a table. Apply glue to the riser. Place the riser on the uprights and crossbar, and screw the plywood riser to the lumber. USE A SQUARE at this stage, to make sure the uprights are perpendicular to the long distance of the riser.
Set these aside to let the glue dry.
Step 5: Drill the plywood stringers (staircase sides).
You now need to drill clearance holes, in the plywood staircase sides, so that the screws in those holes will find the edges of the uprights of the risers. That means the holes have to be at least a thickness of plywood away from the plane of the stair riser, but no more than the thickness of plywood plus flat furring strip.
This is where you need your marking gauge, described above. Hold the plywood of the marking gauge on the old 1′ lines (in line with the front face of the riser), and sketch in both sides of the piece of furring strip. Your holes have to go between those two lines.
Use between two and four screws per upright, depending on which step you are working on, as shown. As before, if you want to countersink the plywood holes, feel free, but it’s not strictly necessary.
Step 6: Drill the stair treads.
You can either stack up and drill the stair treads now, or drill each one as you install it. If you stack and drill, here’s how it goes.
Stack all four stair treads neatly and clamp them together with your 2″ C-clamps. From the front edge of the stairs, measure in using the marking gauge, as described above, marking where the furring strip edge will be located on the riser beneath the stair. Drill three or four clearance holes in the front edge.
Drill one hole in each side edge, spaced so that it will hit the plywood of the staircase sides beneath. (This is an inferior way to join this, but it’s good enough, given that you are going to glue it.)
REMOVE ONE STAIR TREAD FROM THE STACK. This will be the top tread, and needs to be drilled differently along the back edge.
For the remaining three, drill three or four clearance holes along the back edge of the step, so that they will hit the edge of a furring strip placed flush with the plywood edge.
So the holes at the front are spaced for the depth of a piece of ply plus a furring strip. The holes at the back are spaces for a furring strip only, no ply.
Step 7: Assemble the staircase.
Start with the last riser, the one built using 2x2s. Apply glue to the side of the 2x2s, apply glue where that will contact the stringers (staircase sides), align the 2×2 with the edge of staircase. (The plywood of the riser faces forward, and will be inset 1 1/2″ into the body of the staircase. You want the edge of the 2×2 to align with the back edge of the stringer plywood.) Check your alignment at the top edge, at the back edge, use a C-clamp to hold it in place, and screw through the plywood stringer clearance holes into the 2×2.
Do the next riser, aligning the plywood face of the riser with the vertical edge cut into the stringer. (So the riser plywood will sit flush with the stringer plywood. The furring-strip uprights face the inside of the staircase.) Use glue. But now that the staircase will stand on its own, skip the clamps. Just line it up, at the top and vertically, and drive in the screws.
Continue until all risers are attached. Again, each riser plywood face should end up flush with the edges of the plywood risers (staircase sides).
Attach the bottom three steps, front and sides. Lay a bead of glue where the bottom step will go, apply glue to three edges of the bottom step, lay the step in place, and screw it into place around three edges. (But not at the back edge — yet.)
Continue for the next two steps.
Attach the bottom three steps, back edges. Flip the carcass of the staircase over, and add the 29″ crossbars as glue blocks at the back edges of the first three steps. If you did not pre-drill the bottom edge of the middle three plywood risers, now is the time to drill those holes. Glue and screw the crossbars to the bottom of the riser in front of each step, keeping the wood glue block snug against the stair it will support. Make sure to glue the top surface of the crossbar that will contact the stair above it. Then flip the carcass of the staircase back over, right-side-up, and screw the back edge of the first three stairs to these newly-installed glue blocks.
Drill and attach top step. Here, by eye, determine where the screws need to be on the back edge of the top step. Drill the holes in the step, apply glue all around, and screw the top step into place all around.
Step 8: Paint the sides of the staircase.
No need to be neat, no need to paint the steps. Carpet and trim will cover any mistakes. Allow to dry, re-coat as necessary.
Step 9: Add PVC trim to bottom edge and to back edge of plywood.
You might want to take a file or saw to the ends of the bottom PVC strips, and dull that sharply-cut edge, so that it will glide more easily over carpet. Otherwise, just set them in place and hammer in a few small nails. Then butt the upright piece of trim against the piece along the bottom, and nail into place.
Step 10: Add carpet.
Drape the carpet over the stairs and align. Run screws through the carpet into the tops of the 2x2s at the back. Push carpet back against the riser, and drive screws at the bottoms of the risers.
If you’ve done this right, you’ll have carpet flowing smoothly from top to bottom, and sticking about 3″ out on either side of the steps.
Slit the carpet at every fold, where it hangs over the edges of the steps. Fold the cut pieces of carpet down, as neatly as possible, like wrapping a present. Drive screws through to hold the carpet in place.
Step 11: Optional. Drill holes and add rope handles.
This part is free-form. Holes should be about 6″ apart, just big enough for the rope to pass through. Length of rope depends on how thick it is — the thicker the longer, to accommodate the knot. When it doubt, cut it too long. Run the rope through the holes and tie a simple overhand knot well away from the rope end. Pull everything snug.
If you’ve never cut modern synthetic rope, you should probably watch a YouTube or two. Either cut it with a blowtorch, or wrap the rope in duct tape, and cut through the duct tape to cut the rope.