GIMME SHELTER- Stair master: Putting up a pull-down

Kelly Brignac, K & M Carpentry

Q: I have a rickety old pull-down stairway to my attic. How big a chore is it to replace the stairs?  Can I install it myself or do I need to hire a carpenter? 

A: If you decide to install the stair system yourself, make sure you don't do it all by yourself! Get a competent helper because teamwork is going to be the key to getting the job done right. Safety is also an issue. These stair systems are cumbersome. You'll need two people to lower the old one and hoist the new one. Also, make sure you have a sturdy ladder. Too often we see non-professionals attempt a job like this using their old rickety ladder. The last thing you want is a big stairway crashing down on you! 

The stairs come in two or three different sizes for different ceiling heights, but the frame is usually a standard size. Make sure to measure the ceiling height, but don't worry about exact specifications as the stairs themselves come long. You can cut them to size later. 

First, remove the trim around the old stairway opening. Try not to damage it, as you'll want to replace it when you're done.  Next, lower the stairs and have one person go up in the attic. Most of these stairways are screwed right into the headers and ceiling joists that form a rectangular bay. The person in the attic will begin removing the screws as the person below stands on a ladder and lowers the stairway frame. 

Now pass the new stairway up to the person in the attic. Next, screw a 1 X 4 across the opening and have the person in the attic lower the stairway unit on top of it. This will keep the stair frame flush with the ceiling as the person in the attic begins screwing it into the joists and headers. It will also keep the person below from having to support the stairway. 

The stair frame should fit nicely onto the old bay. But it probably won't be an exact fit. Since it's important that the stair frame be an exact rectangle, have the person in the attic place shims between the stair frame and the bay where there are gaps. This way the stair frame won't bow when the screws are put in. 

Finally, lower the new stairway and see how it meets the floor. As we mentioned, the stairs come long, so you'll probably have to cut them down to fit. You want it to have a solid footing against floor, so make sure you cut the stair at the proper angle. Also, make sure the pull down rope is at the height you want.

Now just nail the old trim back up, fill the nail holes and gaps with wood putty, and re-paint. 

Kelly Brignac