- Everything for New Zealand Gardeners
Design Plants How-To GardenHub
Kowhai - 'Sophora microphylla' Click Here for Article
   Design Basics | Garden Style | Colour Garden | Great Gardeners | Design Projects
Home Garden Tasks Garden Events Gardens Open Newsletter Subscription a-z Index Classifieds Garden Societies Site Map About Us Search

Member NGIA

Design Project
Making Simple Steps

Designing and building steps doesn't have to be hard. Think through the project and remember to 'measure twice and cut once, and you can create a simple flight of steps that will be practical and enhance your garden.

On a steep or difficult site and when building a long flight of steps always get professional advice and help.

Measuring and Planning
Assess the number of steps required by calculating the amount of fall where you plan to site your steps. Using a builders level, stakes and string, you can calculate how much the ground falls away from the top to the bottom of the slope in question. Measure the amount the ground falls (BC) over your chosen distance (AB) to plan your steps

Divide the height of the fall (BC) by the desired height of the risers to get the number of steps. Multiply the number by the tread depth plus the depth of the riser timbers to calculate how much space the entire flight of steps will take.

Allow for one or two people to use the steps, or for a grand gesture. If you want to place pots on the steps remember to allow enough room not only for the pots but also for people to pass safely.

Plan ahead to work with standard size pavers, timbers or other materials and size the steps accordingly - you'll greatly simplify construction.

In a tight corner or narrow area of your garden, think of safety issues first. Make the steps as wide as you possibly can, even if you have to sacrifice planting space. It's easier to negotiate a small pot on a step than very narrow steps.

Handrails for safetyHandrails are essential for safety for almost all steps. Steps that used a great deal and those used by the very young or anyone unsteady on their feet need a handrail. Low use flights of only three to four steps in the garden, where the width is sufficiently generous and the ground does not fall away, can probably dispense with a handrail.

Height and Depth
Shallow steps don't leave enough space to put your foot. If the risers are too short you'll feel as if you are 'pitter-pattering', often taking every second step and increasing the chances of tripping. Too shallow a tread will not give you enough space to put your foot down safely, too deep and you may feel as if you are over-striding.

Outdoor steps need to be 13-18cm (5-7in) high. Steps should be at least 35-40cm (14-16in) deep and 1.0m (3ft3in) wide. Remember that wider steps not only look more generous but they are safer and more comfortable to use. Two people must play follow the leader on steps that are a 1.0m wide; at 1.5m they can walk abreast.

Try out steps near you home and in public places to find the fit, and the look, you want. Write down the measurements (yes, take a tape measure) to get it right when you get home.

Your design and choice of materials will have as much influence on the difficulty of the task as the terrain.

The selection of the right surface material for the situation is critical. Not only is cost and the ease of installation a factor here but also safety. Steps that are slippery or that collect moss or ice are lethal.

There a huge number of options here, many different materials that you can use. Look for the 'cobbles', bricks or pavers made specifically for outdoor use.Bricks especially should be rated for outdoor use or they will fracture in the frost and become mossy and greasy easily.

When designing your steps, choose pavers that are a manageable size and will exactly fit into your design, thus eliminating any cutting. Steps can be, say, two pavers deep by 20 wide.

Laying Out the Steps
Using your preferred step dimensions work out how many steps you will need. Divide the fall of the slope by the height you have selected for each riser. Calculate the space required by multiplying the number of steps needed by the tread depth of each step.

Starting from the bottom, mark out the entire flight with string and pegs. Check again. Remember to allow for the riser timber if this will sit level with your pavers; exclude it if you plan to place the pavers over it. Always measure twice, cut once.

Excavate to allow for the depth of the pavers selected plus an additional 3-5cm (1-2in) for the base material. Check frequently with a builder's level to make sure the steps will be level and horizontal.

At the bottom of the steps excavate to allow for a single row of pavers as a mowing edge. This will eliminate the regular edge trimming that is otherwise required.

Compact the earth with the bottom of the spade, taking care not to damage the leading or front edges of the steps.

Check your measurements again, placing the riser timber and pavers on the excavated steps as a double check. It's a lot easier to change now than later.

Next Page

General Step Guidelines
Treads minimum of 30cm (12in) from front to back
Risers higher than 18-20cm (7-8in) are uncomfortable to use
Width less than 60cm (24in) wide is uncomfortable and narrow

Steps add drama and ease movement around the garden

Steps add drama and ease movement around the garden


This project is intended for small flights of steps for private use only. Large flights and those on very steep and exposed positions will require a professional builder.

Steps and slopes are subject to slumping and you may need a permit before you can begin construction. Check first with your local authority.

A surveyor and engineer should always assess very steep, exposed slopes or banks subject to slumping or collapse before any construction is undertaken.

You will Need
  • You will needSpade/shovel
  • Builder's level
  • Stakes, string and tape measure
  • Hammer, nails and saw
  • Weed cloth
  • Crusher dust and cement
  • Riser timber and stakes
  • Pavers
  • Builder's trowel, mallet

A curve of informal steps

A curve of informal steps


The slope falls (BC) over the distance (AB)

Measure the amount the slope falls (BC) over the distance (AB) to plan your steps

Calculate the number of steps

Divide these measurements in suitable step dimensions. E.g. a height of 1.0m will need about seven steps of 15cm.

Risers and tread depth

Step risers (red) and tread depth (yellow) must be adequate

Two people must 'follow the leader' on narrow steps, it's better if they can walk abreast

Two people must 'follow the leader' on narrow steps, it's better if they can walk abreast

Our garden 'before'. Definitely in need of design input

Our garden 'before'. Definitely in need of design input

Use a level
Check measurements and levels frequently
* Back to Top * Home * Design * Events * Garden Hub * How-To * Plants *
Copyright 2002 Limited. All rights reserved.
Last revised 08 Oct '02