Though I was asked only to repair this set of exterior brick
stairs, I knew that simply repointing its crumbling mortar
joints would be a case of treating the symptom and not the
disease. Due to uneven settling, some sections of the brickwork
were offset from adjoining areas by as much as an inch (see
Figure 1). The 65-year-old bricks themselves were in good
shape, but the structure was failing; the only permanent
solution would be to remove the old stairs and build new ones
on a reinforced concrete footing.
When I tore out the old bricks, I wasn't surprised to see that
they rested directly on the soil. This was a fairly common
practice before World War II; even as recently as the mid-90s
I've seen masons laying bricks for steps directly on the
ground. A poor practice to begin with, in this case it was made
worse by the soil's uneven quality, with large, deeply embedded
rocks interspersed with soft, loamy clay. Such a mixture of
solid rock and plastic soil is a near-perfect recipe for uneven
settlement and frost heaves. To pour the reinforced concrete
footing — in my opinion, the single most important
measure for producing enduring masonry steps — I would
need to excavate to sound soil. (I'm in North Carolina, but in
a northern climate you would need to excavate below the
In addition to providing a solid, monolithic base for the
stairs, I wanted to control the water that would inevitably
come into contact with the brickwork. Laying the bricks with
full, well-packed joints would help keep out both groundwater
and rainwater, while installing a drainage system around the
perimeter of the stairs would direct groundwater away from the
I also planned to pitch the treads to shed water down and off
the steps; an internal drain system would allow any water that
did get into the stairs to get back out again.
Laying Out the Brickwork
To lay out this stairway, I had to throw out my usual concerns
about getting things level and square. For starters, the stairs
had to begin and end at the existing sidewalks, which were
neither level nor precisely parallel to each other. Instead of
building the steps level from side to side, I would start at
the public sidewalk and make gradual adjustments until I made a
smooth landing at the top sidewalk. And because I wanted the
stairs to shed water, both the supporting slab and the stair
treads would need to be pitched, not level.
Figure 1.Laid directly on soil (top), the bricks
of this 65-year-old staircase were displaced by as much as an
inch in some areas (bottom left). The mixture of large,
unyielding rocks and soft, loamy clay underlying the steps
caused the differential movement (bottom right).
Another constraint was the size of the bricks. For aesthetic
reasons and to enhance productivity, it's important to plan
masonry jobs so that you're working with full, uncut brick
courses. If I had been building this set of stairs out of wood
or concrete, I could have simply divided the stair's total rise
of 49 3/8 inches by 7 to arrive at a 7 1/16-inch riser height.
But in brick, riser size is severely limited: I normally build
each step out of one course of stretchers (bricks laid in their
normal position) and one course of rowlocks (bricks laid on
edge), which works out to a riser height of 6 11/16 inches.
Seven 6 11/16-inch steps would have a total rise of 46 13/16
inches, or 2 9/16 inch less than the difference in height
between the lower and upper sidewalks. Rather than being a
problem, this was ideal, because it allowed me to pitch the
stairs by 2 9/16 inches over the stair's 87 3/8-inch run (or a
little more than 1/4 inch per foot) to shed water, while still
using full-size courses.
Pouring the Footing
The footing for these stairs could have been stepped up inside
the bank, so long as I made it continuous and it rested on firm
soil. Unfortunately, though, the soil at the front of the
excavation was rocky and the soil in the rear was soft, loamy
clay, so I had to remove or break off the rocks and excavate
the soft material down to good, solid soil to provide a firm
base for the concrete (Figure 2).
Figure 2.To provide a solid base for the stair's
concrete footing, the author had to remove or break apart large
rocks and excavate down to firm soil (above). The finished
footing (right) steps up exactly the height of one brick step
and is pitched about 1/4 inch per foot for
I installed simple forms at the front and rear of the
excavation to hold the concrete and guide my screed. The wood
form at the front of the footing was supported by a galvanized
landscaping spike on one side and a galvanized steel bracket
driven into a convenient rock seam on the other. At the back of
the excavation, I used a polyethylene border restraint (often
used in the paving industry) as a form. Supported by spikes
driven laterally into the ground, this form could be left in
place after the pour without any structural consequences.
To reinforce the footing, I added a grid of rebar. Because I
got down to such a good base of soil (almost all embedded
rock), the steel might be considered structurally redundant.
But it cost only $45, which I consider cheap insurance against
uneven settling — and cracking — of the footing.
Since I was pouring a pitched footing, I used 3-inch-slump
concrete, a pretty stiff mix that is hard to move around but
stays put when screeded off to a stepped and nonlevel surface
(wetter concrete would tend to slump toward level).
Whereas laying out and forming the nonlevel footing was a
little tricky, the actual pour went smoothly, and my helper and
I placed the concrete in about 30 minutes. The result is a
sturdy, two-tiered footing that rests on a jagged surface of
mostly rock. Both sections are pitched toward the street,
parallel to my reference line, with the lower section flush to
the sidewalk and the upper section higher than the lower by 6
11/16 inches — the height of one brick step.
Building the Wing Walls
After pouring the concrete footing, I built the wing walls.
Since each wing wall would be capped by a 4-inch-thick rowlock
course, I had to lay out the top of the wing wall first, then
measure 4 inches down from that line to establish a guideline
for the field bricks. To hold the line, I used improvised
brackets and block deadweights at the top and bottom (Figure
3). Once I had laid up the field of the wing wall, I set two
string lines to guide the installation of the rowlock
3. Brackets built with scrap 2-by
material held the strings the author used for setting the field
brick for the wing walls (top) and the rowlock border (bottom
left). Because bricks with full mortar joints resist water
intrusion better than concrete block, the author used brick
left over from earlier jobs for the below-grade portions of the
walls (bottom right).
I needed to cut the bricks to conform to the slope of the wing
wall, so I calculated the pitch of the slope, then made a
couple of jigs from scrap plywood and 2-by stock to hold the
bricks at the proper angle on the sliding table of my brick saw
Figure 4.The author used jigs mounted on the
sliding table of his brick saw for the angled cuts needed for
the wing walls (top). For the mitered course topping the wing
wall, he screwed an angled 2x2 to a plywood scrap (bottom
left). A second jig made with 2-by triangles held the bricks
for the angled rip cuts needed for the wing wall's rowlock
border (bottom right).
To calculate the pitch, I subtracted the odd-sized top tread
from the overall run of the stairs (87 3/8 - 16 3/8 = 71).
There were now six treads, with a total length of 71 inches.
Each tread, therefore, would be about 11.83 inches (71 ÷
6 = 11.83), or 11 13/16 inches. The risers, as we've seen, were
6 11/16 inches. So the pitch was 6 11/16 in 11 13/16 or,
rounded to roof framing terms, 6 3/4 in 12. This is the pitch I
used when I made the jigs for my saw.