Stuart’s Deck, Part 1: How to Reinforce a Deck

Stuart is a close longtime friend of my parents, and especially my father.  Stuart’s house is on a steep incline in two directions, and getting to his front door requires somewhere around 40-50 steps up a long set of cement stairs. Because his driveway is in the back, and because of the long stairs in front, his back door is used as the main entrance. He lives alone after his wife died and is becoming less and less stable on his legs, especially after being diagnosed with diabetes.

Stuart has a seriously degraded deck on his back porch. It wasn’t ever done correctly either; instead of decking boards on top of his joists, he had 1/2″ plywood that has pooled water for decades.  He has literally been walking only above the joists to keep from falling through and injuring himself, and his stairs are falling apart too.

Because he needs to enter and exit his home with his increasingly wobbly legs, we need to get a new situation happening for him.  His church agreed to pay for the supplies, but didn’t have anyone with the skill set to complete the project.  I’ve never built a deck but agreed to fix it up for him, and my father (who had a stroke 2 years earlier and maybe isn’t what most people would refer to as “skilled help”) was 100% in to help me out. Although he cannot read anymore and is often confused by simple things, there wasn’t anyone else I’d want help from more than he.



Foolishly enough, I never took a “before” picture of his deck.  I did find a Google Earth image which shows how the whole thing is dipping into the center from both sides (and added the three black lines for emphasis).




Under the deck was a hoarder’s fantasy stash. It took half a day to get it out and sorted into “keep” and “toss” piles.

Believe it or not, the three posts you are looking at are brand new.  I’m not sure how it’s possible that this thing hadn’t collapsed without any supports underneath, but apparently it hadn’t yet. I drilled holes in the cement for the anchors that hold the black brackets in place, then put all three posts in, then ran two 2 X 6 pressure treated boards on front and back of the posts (connected with carriage bolts). These two supports will hold up the front side of the joist boards. We also put a new 2 X 10 pressure treated board on the front side (header board).




We need to save a lot of money on this project because we are ballin’ on the proverbial budget. I looked it all over and found out that the ledger board attached to the house was sturdy and just fine, and only the front tips of the joists were rotting because of how the water was pooling and draining for so long. I decided on cutting partial boards and “piggybacking” them to the existing joists. We were able to save a considerable amount of money this way instead of replacing the whole length of the joists. Also, each of the joists is attached to the support boards with joist brackets, and we replaced the brackets attaching the joists to the ledger board as well. Now that the structure is actually capable of supporting (a ton of) weight, we can move forward with the stairs, decking, and handrail.




We put in the stair stringers (3) and the treads today.  The stringers are the zigzag shaped pieces on a diagonal and the treads are where you step on the stairs. We purchased the stringers from Home Depot, without having to cut anything. We have also now put in the two posts that are at the bottom of the stairs for the handrail. The Old Man is looking pretty happy about our progress so far!




The kickboards (vertical pieces that you don’t walk on) have been put on now too. We also had to add this little patch of concrete to fill the gap between the sidewalk and where the stairs used to end.  The stairs before were shallow and too long.  A lot of folks build stairs this way because they are under the impression that they will be easier to walk up, when the opposite is true.  The natural stride of the average-sized human indicates a more standard stair depth and length.  It is usually best to go with the standard size for stairs.




We screwed in some temporary steps for Stuart so he could still get to his back yard while we are coming and going day to day. We also tacked in a temporary handrail for him to use on the stairs until we can get to that part, for which we left the two rotted posts in for (and the whole railing on the end). These will be cut out later when we get to the decking.




Today is going to be our decking day.  We have the first board placed on the front edge of the deck. Placing this first piece is very important to get right so you don’t get decking placed all the way up to the house and find out that it isn’t square with the bricks. Also notice the excess hanging over the right side.  Instead of cutting each board and trying to have them lined up just right, I always leave the hangover and snap a chalk line and then cut them all at the same time.  This way the edge is much more uniform.




Here is where we are after an intensely hot summer day of installing decking. We are using 3″ decking screws to attach them to the joists, which is a lot of drilling and a lot of friction resistance from the screws.  I opted to buy a pack of Phillips drill bits that were very cheap.  I would not suggest trying to save money on this particular purchase when installing decking.  Every single one of my 25 pack snapped and broke.  I went back to Lowe’s and shelled out the cash for a pack of DeWalt bits; only one of which broke on me.




Today we are starting on the posts for the handrail.  We have our first three installed now (plus the two cemented into the ground at the bottom of the stairs). For each post, I notched out the top to accommodate a 2 X 4 and the bottom to run down the width of the header board. Each post has to be connected to the header board with two carriage bolts to satisfy our local code.  I am just using screws to fasten them for the moment, and will go back around and drill all of the holes and fasten in carriage bolts after they are all in place and leveled.




Now all of our posts are connected and ready for a handrail. We are hungry and headed home for lunch.




Here is the beginning of the handrail.  We attached a (single) 2 X 4 for each horizontal stretch and cut 45° angles on the corner at the left of the photo. You can also see in this photo that the carriage bolts have been added to the handrail posts.




We put in the angled handrail piece for the stairs and began to add balusters.  For the balusters, instead of purchasing them for a ridiculously expensive price, I ripped about three of the 2 X 6 decking planks we had left over (to 1 1/2 X 1 1/2″), cut them to height, angled each end, and pre-drilled the top and bottom hole to attach them. I would suggest cutting a spacing board and using that in between the balusters as you go instead of trying to measure each one.




We are forced to quit for the day due to the rain. We did get all of the balusters up except for the run going down either side of the stairs.  After that, we will only have the rail caps left to go! Stuart is currently giving the handrail a good jiggle and overly approves of the sturdiness factor. Considering what he is used to back here, that may or may not be saying much.




We are adding in the tops of the handrails today. We started here on the stairs.




Continuing around the left side…




…and the last stretch is done now.


Stuart’s church is going to send in the Boy Scout troops to come paint on the stain, so this is about it for us over here!




Here is a photo of two good old friends that are happy to be done working on this.  They will both sit up here and complain about politics for years to come!

We were really happy and honored to come help Stuart with fixing his deck up.  We’re thinking that the chances of him falling through plywood and injuring himself are much lower now 🙂

Thanks for letting us help you out, Stuart!  It was a lot of fun to B.S. with you two old fogies for several days in a row!



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