Time To Build The Staircase ~ Part 1

After two years of debate and indecision and tabling the motion, the Design Committee finally had to make a choice as to which material to use for the stairs to the loft and the roof deck — concrete or steel? Whichever we chose, it had to fit into our Natural Industrial Bling design style.

Concrete would be easy. Just build form work and pour. I’ve done it a zillion times. But if we chose concrete for the stairs, we would have to tile them, and how do you squeeze Natural or Industrial or Bling out of tile? We were at a loss with concrete.

But steel. STEEL! It just screams INDUSTRIAL! And if we were to use diamond plate (also called floor plate) steel, well it just doesn’t get any better than that! Here is a photo of diamond plate (source) :AAA - metal-diamond-plate

So with no experience working with this metal, and without knowing if my homemade sheet metal brake would be able to bend the stuff, and without knowing how I was going to support the staircase, I made my measurements and headed down the mountain.

For $85 per sheet, I returned with five, one-eighth-inch thick, four by eight-foot sheets of diamond plate steel. I also bought four sheets of diamond plate aluminum (also $85 per) to make shelves in the dry room. But that is another post.

Here are the sheets in the Honda. The aluminum is on top:


The first order of business was to cut the steel plate into pieces — a riser and a tread in each piece. As big as my DIY sheet metal bending brake is, it didn’t even begin to bend the eighth-inch steel. So Aramis and I talked and decided to use the angle grinder to make a groove half-way through the thickness of the plate. One “step,” consisting of a tread and a riser, looks like this before it is bent:


You can see the groove that divides the tread from the riser. We made the groove on the backside of the metal.

Here is a video of Aramis cutting the groove for easier bending:

Next we put the sheet in my homemade sheet metal brake to bend it: P1000624-002 Cynthia shot a short video of Aramis and me bending the steel. My back was sore the next morning! I didn’t really care whether the stairs started in any particular place on the first floor. They could go a foot one way or the other. But it was important to have the stairs end up at the triangular top landing. So I decided to build the stairs from the top down. In the States, a friend used to call me “The Upside Down Carpenter,” because I frequently worked from the top down. Anyway, here the triangular landing is in place and we are installing another landing; I hold the landing while Aramis welds it into place:


The top triangular landing is somewhat small, so to give people a few extra footsteps to get their balance, I made a second landing just below the triangular landing. By the way, the right side of the lower landing still needs to be leveled and welded into place.

Here is the underside of the triangular landing: P1000626-002 Next we installed seven steps and another landing. Another landing? Yes. There are eighteen steps in this flight of stairs. Should someone fall on the stairs, it is a long way down without the extra landing. Here is the underside of the steps so far:


On the left wall, the steps are welded to pieces of rebar that will be firmly embedded in the stucco. On the right, the steps are welded to pieces of angle iron, which are in turn welded to the container wall.

And here, at the end of day two, are the steps from above:


It will be quite dramatic when someone walks to the top of the stairs and is faced with a wall that is entirely glass. There will, of course, be a handrail across the window.

I think that once the diamond plate steps are cleaned and oiled that they will will have a nice Industrial Bling quality and a stunningly simple design:


I absolutely love the nice crisp bends on the steps. I’m happy that I spent all that time making my DIY sheet metal bending brake. By the way, as the project progresses, we will trim the foam panels on the right to follow the angle of the stairs.

The next day, Aramis and I fabricated and installed the remaining seven steps. Cynthia tested the staircase, acting out my favorite scene from Gone With The Wind: P1000634-002 And Jabo, who doesn’t have much experience with stairs, tried them out, too. He caught on quickly and had a ball running up and down the stairs:


This picture shows the midway landing really well.

Here are his antics in video:

Later, after Aramis had left for the day, I spent an hour cutting the foam panels to their new elevation:


I use special clips to tie the panels together while Jabo stands guard.

Here are the stairs from the top. My plan for the stairs is to wire brush them (using the angle grinder) clean them, then heat them somewhat with a torch and apply boiled linseed oil, then buff off the excess oil. I think that this will give a real nice gun-metal finish. The stairs may need retreating a couple times per year, but there won’t be paint to scratch, or paint to hide the beautiful steel patina:


On the right side of the stairs you can see spaces where the container wall corrugations go in and out from the stairs. I plan to apply the M2 foam panels on this wall, also, to hide the spaces.

The next photo shows the foam panel wall from the living room side. The handrail will be hidden just below the top of the wall. We chose to enclose the stairs behind the foam panels so that people will be surprised when they go around the corner and see the unexpected style of the stairs for the first time. The wall also provides more space for hanging art in the living room: P1000655-002

I worked out the height of all the steps and marked the elevations on the container wall. We used the laser level to transfer the marks on the wall to each individual step as we worked our way down to the bottom step. Here are my calculations, mostly in centimeters:


To keep the height of the risers just under six-inches, easy for the senior set, I chose to use 18 risers. And because each riser worked out to five-and-fifty-one-sixty-fourths, difficult to measure with a tape measure, I chose to work in metric. Much easier once you get the hang of it.

And if you want to make a similar flight of stairs, remember to bring money for cutting disks, two-to-three dollars each:


There is still some life left in a few of these originally-seven-inch disks. And once they get down to four-and-a-half inches, you can use them on the smaller angle grinder for cutting other metal stuff. But still, this is a lot of disks and a lot of cutting!

And here is Jabo, signing off for this post: P1000646-002 That’s all for now. Thanks for stopping by.

8 thoughts on “Time To Build The Staircase ~ Part 1

  1. I LOVE those stairs, and especially of Cynthia’s stair drama photo. I think Jabo likes the sound his claws make on the metal. Watching the videos was fun too. Can’t believe how fast the progress is moving along. If you were in the states, you’d have news reporters there everyday.

    • Thanks Lynn,

      I like the sound my feet make on the stairs, too. I thought that Aramis and I would be at it for at least a week. But three days? Some progress! Armando and his crew will start the stucco next week. I can’t believe it is all going so fast. I also wonder why it isn’t done yet… Thanks for the comment. Fred

    • Jon, I think that the foam panels are faster, stronger, and lighter weight. I have read that they are much more hurricane resistant than block. They do need two coats of stucco on each side rather than just one for the block walls that they build here. Our panel walls have far fewer cracks in them than do the block walls. I was able to erect that wall in about two hours (minus the stucco). Entire projects can be done much faster if you rent the shotcrete pump and have a bunch of guys to trowel the stucco as it is sprayed on. Thanks for your comment. Fred

  2. It seems that the famous New England ingenuity is working at a constant and effective pace; well, I believe you are from New England. It has been three years since this project began and I have to admit I feel a bit of envy mixed in with a lot of respect for what you have done and are going to do in Panamá.
    Armando has been exposed to a well-oiled and creative example while gaining great experience besides a paycheck. Many locals have benefitted from your gracious presence in their midst and doing all this while been “green” as a plus.
    It has been a long time since your arrival in Panamá. I looked to see what kept you down there but I guess that is very clear in all those interesting lines of writing. Do you understand Mountain Spanish by now?
    Your seal approved architect was right on the cheap side when talking about your designs but do you feel the same way about the fast part of his comment? It is a labor that is not measured the same way as more practical endeavors I know. Have you come across any other construction that uses containers in Panamá?
    I used to think that what you are doing required will and some dough plus a bit of creativity. I am no longer that naïve; therefore a bit envious. All your experience has led you to your masterpiece, capolavoro, and no matter how much you will it what you have created can’t be easily copied. The stairs are proof. What will the space underneath become?
    Too many questions so I will stop now. November begins with all the nationalistic on-goings including lots of the music familiar to you now, enjoy.

  3. Thank you Alex. Yes, you pegged the New England part. It seems that every day I have to pull the Yankee ingenuity out of my hat. Many days I simply don’t have a clue what I am going to build or how I will build it. But that is the fun of the creative process. There is terror when I approach a task and satisfaction when the job is done and I put the tools away.

    Mountain Spanish? Yes, if I know the topic or the gist I can pick up the conversation. I listen in to the guys talking at lunchtime. Sports, a death in the community, the lottery… and I have to say that I understand, which startles me because I have been told that I have a low aptitude for language and thought I would never speak a second language. Perhaps when I have more time on my hands I can move past the present tense!

    What has kept us here in Panama? I think that it is the not knowing but striving to learn. The language, the culture, the subtle changes of the seasons, etc. They say that we can’t take it with us when we pass from this life. If that is true, and I suspect that it is, then what is it that we are here for? What matters? For me, the answer is, the experience. Or the experiences that make up our days. I am simply bored, and maybe a bit panicky, when life is too predictable.

    I like what you wrote: “It (this house) is a labor that is not measured the same way as more practical endeavors I know.” Very true! So many famous architects have created works that have gone way beyond the practical. Calatrava, Gaudi, and Frank Lloyd Wright, for example, all push/pushed the boundaries to see what is/was possible, what would stimulate the viewer or the occupant. I guess that this is the burden and joy of the artist. And while I cannot compare my body of work to those that I mentioned above, I do want to experience the joy that comes from making something artistic and useful that has never been done before. I find that I frequently push myself to go beyond my first thought, my first plan, or even the easy way. For example, I look at the overhang on the front of the house and say to myself how much work it was, how much overkill it is, and on and on. But then I see how satisfying it is to look at it all done and painted. It gives me pleasure.

    Under the stairs? A half bath off the kitchen and a closet for infrequently used stuff.

    And yes, the next few days well see the start of the holiday season. Starting in early November, it seems that Panamanians celebrate non-stop until Easter in the Spring. This was quite a cultural adjustment as everything takes so much longer during the holiday season. You just have to relax and go with the flow.

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment Alex. Fred

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