Upstairs, Downstairs

03 Jul

Every set I think I’ve ever played with for the last several years had stairs.  Let me just say this about stairs, I hate stairs.  I love how they look, I love the fact it breaks up a set and they give it a feel of realism but… I hate stairs.  Even when you don’t see them… you have to build them it seems.  Actors need to come in, out and down in every play and stairs weigh a ton and are hard to move.

Worse, every play seems to need some kind of grand stair case and for high schools and small sets, it’s a pain to try to accommodate them in the build because you can’t just go down to home depot or Lowes and buy curved stingers.  I guess maybe in some places you might, but for the most part … if they’re curved you have to custom build.  Custom build always means time, and or, money. 

So… how to deal with them.  I know for a lot of people this may seem to be a lot of obvious information, but you’d be surprised at how many people don’t know how to make curved stairs, or worse are intimidated by them.  Or others, like me, just hate having to build stairs – even if, like me, they love seeing them in a set when it’s built.  Okay, so I don’t ‘hate’ them, I’m a big fan.  I just don’t like having to be the guy building them.

The easiest way to build curved stairs is to start with a normal staircase build design, and work from there.  If you look at how they did the sets for this smaller scale production of Phantom of the Opera…  this is where they started…

And then they added the curve design…


Which works very well.  Now, a curved stair case is really nothing more than just cutting curved boards from plywood, and then attaching them to your stringers.  Normally, a stringer – the saw shaped boards which the steps are attached to, will be a straight board.  Naturally that’s not going to work on something that’s curved.

For that you need to create stairs without a stringer.  At least, not a standard stringer.  The easiest way is to build a supporting frame under curved sections of stairs.  You need to know where they’ll start, and where they’ll end and then curve 

So plan out your shape, and then work from there.  In the illustrations below (from David R. Whitney’s web blog on A Midsummer’s Night Dream production – you can see that the steps aren’t really curved.  If you look on the plans – they’re really made instead by instead of having rectangle shapes – a series of quadrilaterals – rectangles which are wider on one side, than the other. 

The runners – the treads of the steps, are cut on the ends to match your curve, and assembled by screwing into a frame.  As you can see, the stringers here are replaced by an infrastructure of supporting rectangle frames with upright support boards.  In the image below I’ve highlighted these with red lines the verticals – shown in blue, and horizontal supports – shown in green (this is just a side view – it does not show the connecting boards.  The actual view is somewhat of a rectangle with the step supported by a the horizontal boards).  As you build each step, the backing of the current step extends up past the horizontal support – which makes the front of the next step.


As you create each step, the vertical boards become not only the support for the tread (are of the step you step on) but also for the rise, by screwing them together this provides additional stability for the step and stairs as they tend to brace each other with each step added. 

Once assembled, the steps themselves may not be a perfect curve, and may actually have a series of straights angles.  If you can tack a piece of 1/8th or even 1/4 inch luan sheeting on them, this will curve to the general shape.  If you use a hot air gun on the luann while gluing and tacking to these you’ll find it curves easily.  It’s not completely necessary except on tight curves but it will help a lot on them.  Once you do this, you’ll find it will provide you with a very nice curved surface toward the audience any other small imperfections can be hidden with trim, the stair rail and the newel. 


Posted by on July 3, 2013 in How To



6 responses to “Upstairs, Downstairs

  1. Matt McCormick

    November 21, 2014 at 2:41 pm

    The stairs I get. What about the curved handrail?!

    • rjakobson

      December 8, 2014 at 6:41 am

      Wow… feel horrid about not seeing this until now.

      In order to make the curved handrail you have a couple of options. The easiest of which is to use plywood and a scroll saw to cut several curved sections. These you then place on top of each other, and glue. A similar method is used here to make curved moulding around a door frame. Since the 40 foot rule applies (it’s never going to be seen closer than 40 feet) – you can be a bit sloppy and use say several 3/4 sheets cut to a curve and then shape and carve.

      Now, if you want something a bit more — detailed… You can use laminate glued together. Basically take several (4×3 inch wide rail would be 24 strips of 1/8 inch subflooring laminate. Set your vertical rail posts, and then attach a strip to the handrail to follow the shape. Then another glued, making sure to overlap where your 8 foot strips but up together. Then repeat this process, over and over. A single strip of 1/8 laminate that’s 8 feet long and 4 inches wide will easily curve to any of the rails. So what you’ll wind up with is a curved laminate that you can run a router or sander over to shape. Here’s a nice video that demonstrates the laminate method. Similarly you can go really hard core – and create a wreathed hand rail. This is actually how some of the finest handrails are made.

      • Matt

        January 9, 2015 at 2:42 pm

        And I feel terrible about never saying thank you!

  2. Matt McCormick

    January 9, 2015 at 4:31 pm

    One other question: supply list. Are those 1×3’s being used for the framing?

    • rjakobson

      January 9, 2015 at 7:03 pm

      In the break away pictures? Those are as I recall are standard 1x4s from Lowes on the curved side, but you could probably use a 1×3 as those are cheaper. 1×4’s handle more load so my preference would be to use those, and you pick up considerable MOR (psi load) strain from that extra bit of wood. I have seen people build the curvature side frames from 3×4 plywood bonded to make a 1 1/2 x 3, but frankly that to me smells of safety hazard.

      These are short steps, and they will travel for set movement, so we won’t have more than 2 people on a step at a time and they’re at the most 3 feet before we tie into a landing area. A 1×3 would be safe enough, but the price difference isn’t enough to justify it to me.

  3. Matt

    January 9, 2015 at 7:07 pm

    Thanks! We’ll definitely go 1×4. You’ve been really helpful!


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