We replaced the original bluestone treads with 2-inch-thick by 12-inch-wide limestone treads, which cost less per lineal foot in our area ($13 vs. $9, including the rock-face treatment) and seem to adhere better to mortar.
Because of the rock facing, we had to measure carefully and order the stair treads to fit. The retaining wall caps had to be cut on site, so we estimated lengths, then allowed a little extra for waste. We used a circular saw and an angle grinder, both equipped with diamond blades, to cut the stone. When we set the treads, we pitched them so that water would drain away from the steps.
Walkways and Railing
While we were finishing up the treads, we formed the upper and lower walkways that connect the two sets of steps. Each walkway measures about 4 to 5 inches thick and is reinforced with welded wire mesh fabric. To prevent ponding and to direct water into the yard and away from the driveway, we pitched the formwork slightly — about 1/4 inch per foot — away from both the house and the retaining wall.
For crack management, we installed an expansion joint when we poured the longer upper slab. After floating the wet concrete with a wood float, we waited until all the bleed water had evaporated before giving the walkways a broom finish for traction.
We couldn’t reuse the existing rail, so we installed a new aluminum rail system. It cost about $51 per lineal foot, or $2,650 installed. We also replaced the porch columns, but because we finished the project in cold weather we haven’t been back to finish the painting yet. Even though the total project budget was less than $25,000 (which included repairs to another retaining wall), my small crew kept busy during a slow time, and we learned a little about working in a historic neighborhood.
Rob Corbo is a contractor in Elizabeth, N.J.