Building Confidence

Volume 17 Issue 9
ISSN 1923-7162

Welcome to Dave's Shop Talk's Home Improvement Newsletter of questions from our members on their construction projects, a Tip of the Month and a home remodeling article, both from our website at

Tip of the Month

To secure the bottom of a stair stringer to a concrete floor or sidewalk, install screws and anchors into the concrete through a 2x4 between the stringers.

And a Bonus Tip:

New plastic laminate can be glued down to an existing laminate counter top. Rough up the existing top and proceed as usual.

Ask Dave!

Dave, I have asked you questions about this stairway before, but it seems I have even one more question. We are replacing the steps in a narrow townhouse in South Philly. The interior footprint of the house is 14 ft x 40 ft. The house was built in 1925 and the old (very tired) stairs are too steep, thus the new stairs are not simply an exact replacement for the old stairs. We are also attempting to visually open up the space on the ground floor. These steps were (are) unusual in that they run the thwart the house, more or less in the middle of the house. The basement stairs are directly below the stairs to the second floor. The floor to floor height is 12 ft and the width of the house is 14 ft and therefore the stairs will need to make a turn. The (non-structural) walls on each side of the old stairs will be removed and the main span of the new stairs will be "floating". Since the building is 14 wide and there has to be a 3 ft landing on the second floor and then one the other side of the house where the stairs turn, the main span has a horizontal run of 8 ft. Philly is somewhat in a state of flux relative to enforcing code. For years they were very lax, but after a building collapsed 3 years ago (and killed 8 people) they are attempting to rigorously enforce code. There are only 31 inspectors in Philly. Long story made short ... it is unlikely a residential refurb will get inspected, but if they do, you better meet code as it is almost impossible to get a variance. Sorry about the long preamble. The architect's drawing show stairs that use two routed stringers, one on each side of the stairs. The old opening for the stairs on the 2nd floor is 36" wide. There are bedroom walls on each side of the 2nd floor landing and it would be very expensive to move these walls to open up the 2nd floor entrance to the stairway. Since the stair treads fit into routed stringers and not on top of the more normal zig zag runners, the actual stair tread width has to be 37 1/2 wide (the routed pocket on each side is 3/4" deep). Thus the stringers cannot fit into the opening at the top. The stringers will need to be hung from the 2nd floor. Which (finally) brings me to my question: How do you hang a stringer ? Can you lag bolt it, or do you need to thru bolt it, or something else? Nick P.S. Until I started this project I did not realize how many rules there are in the stair code and how few stairs are actually up to code.

Hi Nick,

Here is a drawing of how I hang a stringer from the top floor and support it on the landing or bottom floor:

In your case with limited width of the stair opening, I would cut out the stringers out of a 2x12, not dado them into a solid board, and install a 3/4" skirt board on the outside of the stringers. Stop the skirt at the opening, so the first step down won't have a skirt. At the top floor install the stringers against the opening. The edge of the stringer must be cut back the thickness of the plywood, at least 5/8" thick, the same thickness as the other risers, so everything is uniform. I extend my risers to the bottom of the tread, so I can fasten it to the back of the treads for extra support. You also should be able to get a 3" screw from the side of the stringer into the box joist of the opening. Drill for this screw through the stringer so it won't split.

You can also make a support similar, as shown, if you prefer:

In your case, I would go with the plywood riser attached to the 3 stringers and the notched support on the landing. When building the landing, I prefer to make the landing the same height as one of the treads so the risers and runs above the landing are the same as those below the landing. The code stipulates each riser must be within 1/4" between landings. It is easy enough to construct the landing at a tread level if you layout the total rise from upper floor to the bottom floor. You can discuss this with your builder to see if he agrees.

Hope this is helpful,


A nice story about your return visit to AK and northern BC. It is country that can't be forgotten. In the late 80s I ran tour boats and tug boats up on the panhandle. However, I was taking away a job from the locals and they didn't like it. I returned to Seattle, and then gave up on working on the water altogether. I think it was the right thing to do. I am more secure now than I think I might have been had I stayed. Bruce

Thanks for the reply, Bruce. I'm glad we finally did that long trip, we really enjoyed it. We love it here on the South coast, we travel to the US San Juan Islands and our own Gulf Islands, as well, in our boat. We live in a beautiful part of our world!


Hi Dave, I am planning to frame and insulate my basement but I am unsure what to do around the area where my septic pipe comes through the wall - any suggestions? I am also unsure how to insulate the wall that runs against my stairway. I don't want to lose any width on my staircase if I can help it but the stairs are up against the concrete. Nicole

Hi Nicole,

I would suggest strapping the wall with 2x4s, keeping them away from the wall 1/2" to 1" to allow air movement. Insulate with fiberglass batts R-12 3 1/2x15 or 23. You can strap the walls at 24" on center. Insulate around the pipe. Install vapor barrier, cut it neatly around the pipe and tape the poly, with red tuck tape, to the pipe.

For the stairs, you could strap it with 2x2s and use 1 1/2" styrofoam. The finished stairs should be at least 34" wide. Insulation and stair width is a bit of a compromise.

Hope this helps,


I am laying 6" wide by 3/4" t&g maple in a room that is 40' by 40'. Should I start in the middle of the room or the edge? The building is in the high desert of Wyoming, so the humidity changes are much less than a greener climate. Max humidity is about 30-50%. Thanks!

It is better to start with the first piece about 1/2" away from the wall. If the wall is drywall and above the flooring start flush with the wall. Pick the longest, straight boards, have the tongue out. Hand nail the first couple of strips, through the tongue, to be able to get away from the wall enough to get the air nailer in position. Watch the discharge from the exhaust of the gun, it may be oily and stain the wall finish. I usually wrap a rag loosely over the exhaust to prevent this. Some guns have a swivel on the exhaust to prevent this.

The first piece is face nailed at the back, then away you go. Snap a line on the tongue edge of the first piece to get a good straight line right at the start. Don't depend on the wall being straight!

A trick, if you need to change direction, going through a doorway into another room, for example, is to rip a spline of hardwood so it will slip into the groove snugly, not too tightly. This creates a tongue so you can go in the opposite direction. Glue the spline in the first piece only and continue installing in the opposite direction.

Make sure before you start that you acclimatize the packages in the rooms where you intend to install them for 48 hours or as written on the packages. Leave them in the packages for this process.

Your baseboard should be 3/4" thick or use a shoe mold or quarter round to get past the wall gap.


Feature Article of the Month

(taken from our website:

How to Build a House 1: House Lot and House Plans

The house lot and house plan is like a horse and carriage, you need both parts for it to work properly and one comes before the other. It would be silly to have the carriage pulling the horse. Just as it would be to buy a set of house plans for your new dream home before buying a lot. As some houses are suited for a level lot others are suited for a steep lot. Which way is the view, toward the front or back of the lot? Is the house layout compatible with the lot layout? Are the windows looking out in the direction of the view?

You and your spouse have finally come to the conclusion you want to build your own house. This may include physically driving every nail or acting as the General Contractor and hiring sub-trades to do the work. First thing to do is go and look around for a nice house lot. Consider the area in which you want to purchase, the price of a lot or acreage and the amount of view or privacy provided.

Finally the day has come to walk the lot you have chosen. Now you can research the type of house to build to fit that lot. I live on a sloped lot to the front. My house is a two story with full basement. I have basement entry on the front side and second floor entry on the back of the house. Looking at the front we have a three story house, from the back a two story house. Our view is in the front, our back is bordered by a green belt of trees. Our entrance is through the garage at the front or up the front stairs to the main floor. I bought a catalogue of house plans and my wife and I picked three possible plans that would fit our lot. We came to an agreement on which house we wanted to build and sent off for the house plans. The only variation I did to the stock house plans was to add two feet to the ceiling height of the garage. I ran into rock which needed to be blasted. To save two feet of blasting by raising the ceiling height in the garage from 8' to 10'. This was a good decision on my part since I use the double garage as a workshop, as well. It's nice to have a couple of feet of extra height when swinging around a sheet of plywood.

How to Build a House, Second Step: Find Your Plans

Most house plans can be chosen from a catalog of stock house plans. If unable to satisfy your options for a house to build an architect would be more than happy to design you a house plan from scratch or alter a stock house plan to suit your individual needs.

Before delving into the realm of building codes and permits, you should understand how to read a set of house plans, also called blueprints. The Building or Engineering Department in your municipality, regional district, city or county has requirements on the drawings that they expect to see from you in the process of issuing you a permit.

A set of house plans consists of drawings showing different views of the house from different perspectives. The term "plan" is used to designate a bird's eye view. The viewer is above the house looking down at it. Plan views include the Plot Plan (each type of plan is defined below), the Foundation Plan, the Floor Plan, and the Roof Plan. In some sets of house plans we can come across a Reflected Ceiling Plan, which shows the ceiling as if laying on your back looking up, rather than flying above it and looking down. A set of house plans usually is not limited to plan views. It should include Elevations and Sections. An Elevation is the view of the side of the house or a wall in a room as if the viewer is standing back and looking straight at the house. A Section is a drawing of the internal aspects of a wall or floor, etc. as if the viewer cut the wall or floor of the house in two with a knife to see what it is made of. Common to each drawing in a set of house plans is the Scale. To fit the size of the house you want to build on a sheet of paper the drawing is reduced in size. This reduction is known as the scale of the drawing. Most drawings in a set of house plans show - Scale: 1/4" = 1'-0". This means that every 1/4" on the drawing represents 1 foot on the house or 1/48th scale.

A set of house plans does not give instructions on how to build a house. It only draws the shape of the house to scale and specifies certain sizes of lumber and building materials to use. A good set of house plans will show the building code requirements as needed in its general area. The house builder is responsible for knowing the code for headers over openings and good framing practices. The building inspector is the final authority. He will inspect the house plans and will mark all over them in red ink anything he wants to draw to your attention.

How to Build a House, Third Step: Know Your Plans

These are the common drawings in a set of house plans:

Plot Plan or Site Plan: This is a plan view showing the building envelope (the perimeter of the house) in relation to the lot's boundaries. It should have the shape and outside dimensions of the house and lot, the location of the driveway, and the set backs of the house to the lot lines. The Plot Plan may have height elevations at the corners of the house and lot, as well as a geographic direction indicator: north, south-west, etc. The scale may be a bit smaller (Scale: 1/8" = 1'-0").

Foundation Plan or Basement Plan: This drawing is a Plan view of the foundation walls and slab of the house. It also shows the floor joists above it, their size and direction, shown by arrows.

Floor Plan: This drawing shows each floor of the house (main, second, etc.) and indicates the floor or ceiling joists above it or the recommended roof truss layout. It should show the layout of the kitchen along with the appliances and kitchen cabinets. It will show the exterior wall and interior partitions and any stair layout. It also may show the layout of the switches and lights and plugs, as well as hose bibs, plumbing fixtures and heating ducts. This drawing may refer you to a Section or Cross Section it wants to detail and the direction it is looking at in the section. This is shown on the floor plan in a circle with a point on it. Inside the circle is the letter of the section and the page on which to find it. The point or arrow on the circle refers to the direction the viewer is looking from. The circle is attached to a line which cuts the drawing along a certain part to depict the internal section of that part of the house.

The drawing may show a Detail, which is a larger scale drawing of a certain area to more clearly display it. Details are usually on the same page.

Elevation: This drawing shows each side of the house including the foundation and roof, as though you took a picture of the side of the house. This view shows the configuration of the windows (sliding, casement, awning windows, etc.), the outside doors, handrails, gutters, the pitch and overhang of the roof, the siding, roofing, and any chimneys. Usually the dimensions are left off, but the drawing is to the scale noted. This drawing is used to determine the shape and openings of windows, with bathroom windows noted as obscure, the look of the exterior doors, and the shape of the roof. The height of the house can easily be determined, as well.

How to Build a House, Fourth Step: Submit Your Plans

When you purchase the house plans, go over them very carefully and determine if the dimensions add up, if the layouts make sense and are according to the building code. At this point in the process you should be familiar with the building inspector who services your area. Probably you will need to phone him and ask questions about building code requirements, such as how deep do the footings have to be to get below the frost line. Once you are happy with the house plans and no further changes must be made, submit them to the local authority having jurisdiction in your area. He'll take a minimum of two weeks or longer, depending on how busy he is. Don't be surprised if the house plans come back with red ink all over them. This is normal. The building inspector just wants to draw your attention to certain details which he finds necessary. After all, he is working for your best interests: the safety and durability of your house.

How to Build a House, Some Final Questions

One question to ask the building inspector is if you need a survey of your house lot. It may be an old lot and the iron pins are no longer available. A survey may be in your own best interest. Get that neighbour back to his own side of the property line.

When hiring sub-trades, the homeowner is responsible for Workers Compensation if anything happens to a worker. Check to see if the sub-trades have their own coverage. In my locality we are required to cover our own employees but not ourselves if working alone. As a homeowner employing a sub-trade or worker you may be responsible for any injury. Better to check it out before hand for your own assurance.

It is also smart to consider a construction insurance that protects you from liability, fire and theft. Before long you will have a good sum invested in your new house that should be insured.

Don't be overwhelmed when looking at your house plans. Get good advice if you have any questions before you start. Take one step at a time. Nobody builds a house all at once; we start with the footings and build from there. The next in this How to Build a House series will discuss the foundation of your new house.

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(Ask Dave) (About Dave)

Your source for building tips, woodworking & furniture plans, house plans and building advice directly from Dave...

Hi, I'm Dave Osborne. With over 50 years experience as a journeyman carpenter, foreman and contractor in heavy construction I enjoyed working with apprentices and sharing the tricks of the trade that others shared with me. Now I get emails from Members all over the world and we include many of my answers in our Free Monthly Newsletters. Some of my answers include drawings and instructions specific to a project, but may also answer your questions. I use correct construction terminology, so you can confidently inform your building supply dealers or contractors exactly what you need.


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