Creating a stairway by cutting steps into a dirt slope can be a great landscaping tool. In addition, outdoor stairways make walking up hills easier and safer. With a few simple tools and a bit of preparation, you can create such a walkway in as little as an afternoon. Be sure to call 811, the national call-before-you-dig phone number, to locate any underground wires or cables before doing any digging.
Preliminary Calculations for Your Stairway
Before beginning your stairway, you'll need to calculate the total height of the slope. Use a tape measure to determine the distance from the bottom of the hill to the top of the hill. Be sure the tape measure is laying flat on the ground when you take your measurements.
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Next, decide how many steps you'd like to have. Comfortable landscape steps have a "rise" of about 6 inches. Divide the height of your slope by 6 inches (or however many inches tall you've decided to make the rise of your steps). If, for instance, your slope is 60 inches tall and you plan to build steps with a 6-inch rise, you will need 10 steps.
In addition, you'll need to calculate the depth or "run" of each step to ensure you have adequate materials. A comfortable run is approximately 12 to 16 inches. This gives most people plenty of room to rest their foot as they walk up the stairs. This means you'll have to cut into the slope at least 12 inches horizontally at each step point.
Mark Your Path
To help guide you as you build your stairway, insert posts into the ground on either side of the path you plan to build at both the bottom and the top. Tie a string around each lower post and run them up the hill. There, attach the strings to the upper set of posts. This outline of your stairway will serve as a guide when you begin to dig out your stairs.
Stair Material Options
You have a variety of choices when it comes to the materials for your stairs. Your decision will depend on material cost, the aesthetic you prefer and your climate. If you live in an area that has harsh winters, you might consider avoiding stone steps, which can be slippery.
You can use large, flat stones or wooden planks for your steps. It's helpful to have some sort of tread like these rather than just bare earth. You may also use wood as a retaining wall to prevent erosion of your dirt steps. For instance, large retaining boards or vertical barriers against the rise of your steps may prolong the life of your stairway.
How to Dig Your Steps
Use your measuring tape to mark out the stairs you plan to dig and insert posts or boards at the edges of your stairway's outline. Always begin shoveling at the bottom of the hill. When you dig, shovel into the earth horizontally at the base of your slope so that you form a flat surface. You may first need to remove grass, weeds or loose topsoil. You'll want to dig deep enough that the soil is packed down and firm. Use a level as you go to ensure that each step is flat.
As you progress up the hill, dig approximate step shapes into the soil. You can finesse them later. If you're using retaining wall pieces along the rise of each step, add them as you go to prevent erosion or crumbling of your steps. Add tread materials last and then remove all posts and markers.