How to Make an Open Rise Stairway - for any scale.

This is the method I've developed to create stairs for our egg house, elf houses, candy corn house, pumpkin house,
and many other projects.  It is useful anywhere you want an open staircase in an irregular or curved structure (or a regular
structure, for that matter).  I suggest that you read through the instructions entirely before starting your staircase.

In this example, I happened to have an empty cardboard oatmeal canister, so I cut it in half and will be
making the curved staircase to fit inside it.  Seems like 1:24 scale will be a pretty good fit, so the stairs will
be constructed at that scale.

First a bit about parts of a stairway and the terms I'll be using -
The part of each step that you walk on is known as the tread.  This term is used for both the distance on the
stringer, and the piece that goes on top of the stringers in an open rise stairway.  I will be referring to the
tread as the distance, and the term "tread piece" as the part that goes on the stringer.
The stringer is the section that the tread pieces fit on (and on a closed or "box" stairway, the part
that the riser skirt goes on too)
The rise is the distance that each step rises from the next.

For this project you will need:

- paper, tracing paper, pencil, eraser (maybe you won't need the eraser, but I always do).
- high quality watercolor paper, cold press or "rough",  in a weight suitable for the scale you're using.
 A 90lb. (190gsm) weight is suitable for smaller scales such as 1/8" & 1/4", but for scales larger
  than that you will probably want to use 140 lb. (300gsm) or up to a 260lb. (356 gsm) paper.
- paper or fabric covered florist's wire & wire nippers.  For smaller scales, use smaller wire, such as
#34 gauge beading wire, and a strip of rice paper to adhere it (see instructions below)
- white glue
- Creative Paperclay
- scale ruler (I've created some you can print out here)
- ruler with metal edge, or, a straight edge cutting guide
- wood or material of your choice in a thickness suitable for the stair tread pieces in the appropriate scale.
- craft knife & blades (paper will dull the blades quickly, make sure you have plenty of new blades on hand, and
change them often)

The first step is to create a grid in the appropriate scale.  An architect friend says that the "optimum"
stairway rise is 7", with a tread of 11", so these are the measurements I usually start with.
I've made some grids you can print out -

Quarter Scale (1:48, or 1/4" = 1')
    6" Rise, 11" Tread
    7" Rise, 11" Tread
    8" Rise, 11" Tread
    7" Rise, 12" Tread

Half Scale (1:24, or 1/2" = 1')
    6" Rise, 11" Tread
    7" Rise, 11" Tread
    8" Rise, 11" Tread
    7" Rise, 12" Tread

One Inch Scale (1:12, or 1" = 1')
(you'll need to set your page orientation to landscape mode to print these)
    6" Rise, 11" Tread
    7" Rise, 11" Tread
    8" Rise, 11" Tread
    7" Rise, 12" Tread

If you need different proportions, you can create your own grid using a scale ruler.  Measure the amount of your rise on the left, mark off  a number of parallel lines with this measurement, then mark off the tread measurement at the top - like this:

stair sample grid

Make your grid a little larger than you think your stairway will be.

Lay a sheet of tracing paper over the grid and trace a line at the bottom of the grid.  This is your baseline.

Measure the distance from the first floor to the second, or where you want the top of the stairs to be.  Mark this distance on your tracing paper, measuring up from the baseline, and draw a second line.  If you're lucky, this line will fall on one of the grid lines.  If it doesn't, adjust your grid as necessary by using different measurements for the rise height, or try another grid.

 In real life of course, stairways vary greatly.  You can make the rise a bit higher or lower, or adjust the tread depth as needed.  For example, an 8" rise may create the height that you want your staircase to be, but with an 11" tread, you may think the stairway looks too steep, so adjust the grid as needed, but within reason. Obviously, you don't want to make the rise too high or the tread depth too small, or the little people that live in your structure won't be able to use the stairs!

Once you have your grid aligned with your stairway measurement, place your tracing paper back onto the grid and draw out your stair step pattern:



Move over one section on the bottom of the grid and draw a line connecting all the intersections at an upward slant

Measure the thickness of material you will be using for the tread pieces, and subtract that amount from the rise measurement on each step.  For example, I will be using a 1/32" piece of wood for the tread pieces, so I'll measure and mark that distance down from each step and draw a line at that mark.

Pattern Illus. #1:

Now you'll need to decide on the width of your staircase.  In the example, I'm making the staircase 2 1/2 scale feet in width.  Add that to the rise measurement of each step and draw a line across the tread width.

Pattern Illus. #2:

Now add a small amount to the top of each tread width - the amount will depend on the scale of your stairs.  It will be used as a glueing and marking tab (see below) so the amount is up to you - for most patterns, 1/16" to 1/8" will be an easy to use tab.

Pattern Illus. #3:

Next draw two parallel lines along each tread width.  The width of these lines isn't important, as long as they are thin enough to move freely.  They will be used as a gauge for the opposite side of your stairs (see below) so just guess the spacing dependent upon the size/scale of your grid.  Again, 1/16" to 1/8" is a good measurment for most patterns.

Pattern Illus. #4:

Now you have a completed pattern for the inside stringer, and have created a gauge for the curve of your stairway and for your tread on the opposite stringer!  Transfer the pattern to watercolor paper.  Make sure you transfer
the lines of the rise height minus material width (what is now the top of your rise height, as in Pattern Illus. #1) and the stairway width (Pattern Illus. #2) which you can draw as dotted lines to indicate where you'll need to score and fold.
Cut out as indicated below.

Lightly score then fold the pieces as indicated.  Remember that this is the INSIDE stringer (the side with the tightest curve).  Score the paper to the outside of the fold.

Sorry, I drew the illustrations before I decided on which way I wanted the stairs to go, so my actual cut-out piece is backwards from the drawing - (I realized that it would be much easier for me to hold the stairs, etc. with my left hand and take pics for you with my right, so I have the stairs going up toward the left). Here is my cut out watercolor piece.

In the next photo, I've folded the curve/tread gauge pieces and tabs at the score lines.

Cut a piece of florist's wire, or wire of appropriate size, to the length of your stairway and glue to the inside (underneath your folded pieces) as shown below:

Hold your stairway in the position it will be in your structure, then bend the wire so that the end tabs are flush against the wall, matching the curve of your wall.

Now you have one side of your staircase curved to shape.  The next step is to cover the sides with paperclay.

Roll paperclay out to a thickness that is just slightly more than the florist's wire or other wire you used.
(Paperclay guidelines, click here)       (Instructions for rolling out specific thicknesses of paperclay here)

Brush a thin layer of white glue over the watercolor paper/wire, allow a few seconds for it to become tacky, then apply paperclay over the wire, covering the side of the staircase. Do not apply paperclay to the gauge pieces.  Repeat this procedure on the opposite side. Do this gently, so as not to bend your staircase out of shape!


I've applied paperclay
to both sides of the watercolor paper.  While I was applying the clay I was thinking about what I wanted the finished staircase to look like.  Aside from that, the cardboard I had cut from the oatmeal canister was still on the table, waiting for me to throw it out or do something with it.  I decided I would like the side of my staircase to look like carved wood, and that I'd make a decorative stamp from the cardboard.  I also wanted to show you one of the reasons why paperclay is so much fun!  You can choose to make the sides of your staircase decorative or not - if not,  set your piece aside until the paperclay is dry, and skip to the end of this box for the rest of the instructions.

Here's how I decorated mine -

I sketched my design onto my staircase grid pattern:

Transferred this design onto the cardboard, once for the inner piece (the small circle inside the design, which I wanted to protrude from the curved portion - Remember, the stamp will be reversed) once for the outer piece.  I glued the two pieces together and clamped them together until dry.

Next, I found a wood scrap that was about the right size for my design, and glued the cardboard piece onto the end of it.  Then I applied some wax to the cardboard (just used a white candle stub, rubbed it over the cardboard, then used a heat gun to melt the wax & make sure that the cardboard was completely covered).  My stamp is ready to use now, but before I press it into the paperclay I'm also going to dip it in baby powder as an added aid to prevent it from sticking to the clay.


Now all I have to do is stamp this along the side of my stairway (dipping it in baby powder each time before pressing it into the clay).

Here's a photo of the stairway after stamping.  I had to press the stamp in fairly deep to get the full design, so quite a bit of the clay squished out around the stamp - that's ok, I'll clean it up with a file & sandpaper after the clay is dry.

If your stairway is sharply curved you would not be able to use a rigid stamp of this size, but you could either make a smaller design, use a rubber stamp, or draw in a design with your sculpting tool.

When the inside stringer of your stairway is dry, you're ready to make the other side!  You can clean up the paperclay a bit, but don't get too carried away at this point, since you don't want to lose your tread gauge pieces.

On a piece of paper or cardstock large enough to accomodate your stair pattern, draw a series of parallel lines matching the rise height.  Temporarily tape or tack in place to allow it to follow the curve of your structure.  Hold the inside stair piece in place and make a mark on the floor where the bottom of the piece will go.  Align the tread gauge tabs along the lines, with the two tabs from each step aligned with the corresponding rise line on the cardstock. Mark where each of the tabs meet the line.  You don't have to line them all up at once, just align each step as you go along and check periodically
to make sure you haven't moved the piece (make sure it is still lined up with the mark you made on the floor).

After you've marked the position of the tabs, remove the cardstock.  You should end up with something similar to this:

(Hint - if you have a lot of stairs to line up, it's helpful to either color the tabs & the corresponding lines, such as making every other line green and every other set of tabs green, or number the lines and corresponding tabs)

Using your marks as a guide, draw a vertical line, at a right angle to the rise lines, at each position indicating where the step should be.  (my picture is kind of crooked, but the lines were straight).  Draw a straight line from the endpoint of the top step, to the where the inside line of  the bottom step would fall if continued to the edge of the paper, as shown below.

You now have your pattern for the next (outside) stringer section.
Transfer this pattern to watercolor paper, cut out, and add wire as you did for your first stringer.  Bend stringer to shape along the wall, and cover with paperclay in the same manner.  Set aside to dry.

While the second stringer is drying, you can clean up the first one and remove the tabs.

When both stringers are complete, you'll make the patterns for your tread pieces as follows:

Place the outside stringer on a sheet of paper and hold it down as it would be in the structure (bottom of the first step flat on the paper, rest of the stringer will be up in the air).  Trace around the curve. 
Using the pattern for the outside stringer, which you created previously, draw lines from each riser point to the edge of the paper, then number the steps.  Place the mark for the edge of the last step at the edge of your curve tracing, curve the paper to follow the tracing, and mark the lines for each tread width.  Continue curving the paper around the tracing and marking each tread distance, then number the sections to correspond with the numbers on your stringer pattern.

From that curve tracing, measure at several points inward towards an imaginary center point and mark the distance of the staircase width (this will be the same tread distance you added in your pattern (Pattern Illus. 2).  Sketch a light line connecting these points, so you'll know where to place the other stringer.  Hold the next stringer in place and trace the curve.  

Cut a strip of paper with a straight edge at the bottom, and long enough to follow the curve of the inside stringer.  Measure and mark the tread depth along the bottom edge of the paper (this will be the same distance you used for the tread depth on your original grid, that you made the inside stringer pattern from).  Mark these points along the curve in the same way you did for the outside curve, then draw lines between the corresponding points on the outside and inside curves.

This is the pattern for your stair tread pieces, but you will now need to decide whether or not you want them to overhang the stringer.  If you want an overhang at the inside and front edge, trace the tread pattern, separating it into individual tread pattern pieces, and add the overhang to each piece.  It is also helpful to draw an arrow on each piece indicating the side which goes against the stringer.

Transfer these patterns to your tread piece material and cut them out.  Depending on how confident you are in your pattern, you might want to transfer them to cardstock first, cut out the cardstock pieces, and test fit them on your stringers.  Mark the cardstock pieces and adjust your pattern accordingly, if necessary.

All that is left to do is sand & paint or stain your pieces, then glue the tread pieces to the stringers!
I didn't take pictures of my staining the wood treads and cleaning up or staining the paperclay stringers, that would be, here is  my staircase stained & glued:

The little piece you see by the stairway is a scrap piece of dry paperclay that I used to test the stain color on - it's a good idea to do this before staining.

Here it is glued into the "structure".

...Note...if you are making the stairs for your pumpkin house, don't glue them in place yet.

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