Stairway Lighting requirements (C) Carson Dunlop Associates Stair Stringer Specifications
Building stair stringers: strength & construction codes & requirements

  • STAIR STRINGER SPECIFICATIONS - CONTENTS: about how should stair support stringers be constructed, what alternative materials can be used & what are the stair stringer building code specifications for strength & load bearing requirements.
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Building stair stringers: codes & strength requirements for stair support systems; how to build safe stair stringers that don't sag, squeak, collapse, or lose their treads.

This article describes the construction and building code specifications for the support of residential stairways: how strong should the stringers be, and what are the load bearing requirements of stairs and their supporting stringer beams.

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Stair Stringer Codes & Specifications: required strength for stair supports

Stair Tread Support Choices & Relation to Stair Stringer Notching

Stairway Lighting requirements (C) Carson Dunlop Associates

  1. Stair treads can be placed directly on top of the horizontal surface of cutouts in the notched stair stringer.

    This approach is very secure provided that the stringer depth is great enough and the cutout depth shallow enough that the remaining stringer material is strong enough to carry the weight of the stairway and its users (1-? arrow in sketch at left).

    [Click to enlarge any image]

    Of course if the stairway is supported by securing the stringer to walls on both sides, this cutout depth weakness problem is mitigated or eliminated. More about too-deep stringer notching is in our stair stringer defects article at Deck Stair Stringer Notching Too Deep.
  2. Stair treads can be placed between the stringers and supported by cleats or supported by grooves routed inside the un-notched stringer.

    If the stair treads are set into grooves routed into the stringer, in a 2x stringer the groove depth should be 1/2 the thickness of the stringer (typically 3/4") and additional support by cleats or by gluing and end-screwing through the stringer sides into the treads is good practice.
  3. Stair treads butted against an un-grooved stringer inner face and then nailed or screwed through the stringer into the stair tread.

    Watch out: We do not recommend this stair tread approach as too often we find the treads break away from the stringer causing catastrophic stair tread collapse and perhaps serious injuries. If you encounter a stair built this way you should add glued & screwed cleats to support the treads. Also see Unsafe Stair Tread-to-Stringer Connections .

Reader Question: sagging stairway: is there a code I can check on stair stringer construction?

Rich O said:

So, used improper terminology below, believe I should have used "stringer" versus "riser", the entire 12' stringer (wood construction) is now deflecting as if a support has failed. Thanks again, Rich

My house in Westminster CO is just out of warranty and one of the staircase risers has started to visibly deflect (and squeak) when traversing the stairs. I've requested the builder take a look, in the meanwhile, is there a specific code I can refer to in order to ascertain if the stair was properly constructed? Thanks, Rich

Reply: Model building code specifications for stair support stringers

Unsafe exterior stair stringer and riser height (C) Daniel FriedmanYes a riser is the vertical board enclosing the space between horizontal walking surfaces, i.e. treads. The stringer is the support for the stairs - it functions as an angled beam and must support both the dead loads and live loads of the building stairway.

Let's be clear first that a significant concern with the strength of supporting stair stringers (effectively angle beams) arise because a typical 2x12" (or rarely 2x14") stringer is in some stair designed notched to carry the stair treads on the horizontal notch face and stair risers on the vertical notch face.

My deck stair photo at left shows very deep notching in a stair stringer (as well as multiple other safety hazards and code violations). Less than 2" of lumber was left in this stair stringer 2x after the builder cut his tread notches.

Notched stair stringers are widely used and are acceptable if sufficient supporting strength is provided. I prefer to avoid deflection or even collapse problems by using a solid stringer, connecting stair treads to cleats.

It's also worth emphasizing that in all cases the connections are as important as the beam strength. The connections of stair stringer to the risen-to platform, of treads to stringer, and of railings and posts are critical for safe stair construction.

Those worries out of the way for a moment and assuming your question pertains to a notched stair stringer system that is sagging or deflecting, if a stair stringer is deflecting, depending on the amount, it may be damaged or may have been inadequate to begin with.

For safety, investigate and determine what repair or additional support is needed.

Because stringer notch depth for designs that actually notch the 2x12 or 2x14 framing lumber typically used can vary depending on stair design, codes do not specify explicit lumber dimensions. Instead codes typically specify the strength required of the ending design. One may need to increase the number of stringers accordingly.

For example the IRC specifies that stairs shall be designed to withstand a live load of 40 pounds - as with a building floor.
Individual stair treads shall be designed for the uniformly distributed live load or a 300–pound concentrated load acting over an area of 4 square inches, whichever produces the greater stresses.

Before an inspection has been performed we don't know if the deflection of the stair stringer to which you refer is due to damage (rot for example) or a design inadequacy. But the initial focus must be on the detection of and response to any *immediate safety hazard* such as conditions that could permit a stair collapse, fall, or injury.

Here is a model building code citation for stair stringer support requirements for residential stairs
using the 2003 IRC.

R301.5 Live Load [Specifications for Stair Construction]

Minimum required live load for Stairs 40 psf. c.

c. Individual stair treads shall be designed for the uniformly distributed live load or a 300-pound concentrated load acting over an area of 4 square inches, whichever produces the greater stresses.

301.1.1 Alternative provisions [for supporting stair stringers]

As an alternative to the requirements in Section R301.1 the following standards are permitted subject to the limitations of this code and the limitations therein. Where engineered design is used in conjunction with these standards the design shall comply with the International Building Code.

1. American Forest and Paper Association (AF&PA) Wood Frame Construction Manual (WFCM).

2. American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI), Standard for Cold-Formed Steel Framing—Prescriptive Method for One- and Two-family Dwellings (COFS/PM).

Stair Support Stringer Analysis & Strength Requirements Code & Study Citations

Rich: I wanted to add that in addition to the important Frank Lam (et als) study of stair support stringers, one of the most thoughtful articles I've found on stair stringer design addresses the lack of specificity of stair stringer design in the model codes and provides some helpful engineering analysis and assumptions. See the first stair stringer code and strength requirement citation just below.

  • Christopher R. Fournier, P.E., "Wood Framed Stair Stringer Design & Construction", Structure Magazine, March 2013, p. 45-46. Mr. Fournier is a structural engineer in North Conway NH. His article is available online, retrieved 4/19/14 original source:
  • Aghayere, Abi, and Jason Vigil. "Introduction: Wood Properties, Species, and Grades." Structural Wood Design: A Practice-Oriented Approach Using the ASD Method: 1-24.
  • Aghayere, Abi, and Jason Vigil. "Frontmatter." Structural Wood Design: A Practice-Oriented Approach Using the ASD Method (2008): i-xii. [See Chapter 27, "Combined Dead and Live Loads on Stair Stringers"]
  • Berge, Greg Vanden. Simplified Stair Building. Greg Vanden Berge, 2012.
  • De Tennis, Danielle. "Strength Testing and Analysis of a Stair Header Connection." PhD diss., Milwaukee School of Engineering, 2010.
  • Higgins, Christopher. "Prefabricated steel stair performance under combined seismic and gravity loads." Journal of structural engineering 135, no. 2 (2009): 122-129.
  • Kourakis, Ioannis, and Shawn Li. "Design of a Glass Stair." In Structures Congress 2010, pp. 2650-2659. ASCE, 2010.
  • Lam, Frank, George Lee, Huijun Yan, Jianzhong Gu, and Ata A. Saravi. "Structural performance of wood-based stair stringers." Forest products journal 54, no. 4 (2004).

The preceding citations focus on the supporting stringer used in stair construction and on angled beams and strength requirements. For a complete list of stair building codes see the two live links immediately below.

  • BUILDING CODES for STAIRS - Model & actual building codes for stairs, railings, guardrails, landings, risers, treads, and steps
  • CODES for STAIRS & RAILINGS - Specifications for Stairs, railings, guardrails, landings, treads, & steps based on model & actual building codes


Continue reading at DECK STAIR BUILDING DETAILS for exact procedures for laying out and cutting a stair stringer. or select a topic from the More Reading links shown below.


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