Steps come in all different shapes and sizes. From concrete formed and poured, to full block concrete steps, to natural stone units, to building a step for yourself. There are many different ways to get the proper step for your project. However, if you want under cap lighting in your steps the best way to do this is to build your own step using retaining wall blocks and a cap on top. This is built similarly to that of a retaining wall except it will not be retaining anything. There are products that we recommend when looking to tackle this project as well as installation methods that will ensure the longevity of your steps.
This is your complete guide to building block steps from the design process, choosing the products, base preparation, and building the block steps.
How to Build Stone Steps
Building stone steps is a process that is fairly similar to that of a retaining wall installation. The same products and base materials are used. The only difference being the height calculation for one or multiple steps may add a little bit of complication depending on the choice of products.
Here are the steps from design to final cap in building block steps:
Designing Block Steps and Choosing Product
Installing the Initial Course
Building Up the Steps
Adhering the Caps
The main consideration when it comes to the design of block steps is to choose a product that appeals to you AND can create the height of step that you want it to. There are wall blocks of all shapes and sizes. Some are rock faced to be more traditional and others are smooth to be more contemporary or modern in their appearance. We choose our step products to match the material we are using around the step which typically involves matching a retaining wall product or something to contrast the pavers leading to the step.
Another consideration in the shape of the step is whether you want it to be curved or straight. Straight steps are much easier to build because you just need to purchase the wall blocks and ensure that you have corner units with them or purchase them separately. Some rock faced walls require you to chisel corner units out of the blocks. Curved walls require you to build the curve based on the wall block you have chosen which can also be customized by you increasing the gap at the back of the wall blocks which will not be visible. However, the complication comes with the caps as you will need to cut each cap to the curve you have created.
Choosing the cap involves a consideration of step tread and lengths of the caps. The tread of the step is the depth of the step. We aim for a minimum of 12 inches for a step tread, but prefer a 16 inch step tread. Something to consider is that steps that are higher work better with a smaller tread whereas steps that are shorter work better with a larger tread. If you step up and the step is short, your stride will be longer on the depth of that step, whereas if the step is higher you will have a shorter stride which will work best with a shorter tread.
There are some options on the market for step treads that can compliment the retaining wall block that you choose which are just retaining wall caps. This can keep your step consistent from wall block to cap. Or you can choose to contrast the wall block by installing a wall cap that is made of natural stone. These have the benefit of coming in much longer pieces than a concrete-made product. They are also beneficial because the caps will experience the most traffic and the most wear-and-tear, but natural stone is natural stone all the way through. However, concrete caps will expose the larger aggregates of the stone inside of them over time with that wear-and-tear. That being said, concrete-made products usually hold up better to salt that is used to melt ice in the winters whereas natural stone should be sealed to prevent this breakdown.
A consideration for both wall blocks and caps is the rise of your steps. It is important to note that your step height is your wall block height, you do not need to add the cap into that height. For example, if your wall block is 6 inches and your cap is 2 inches your step height will be 6 inches. This is because every step after the initial step is the height of the wall block less the cap height of the previous step and plus the cap height of the next step. This means that your initial step would be 8 inches, but you would bury 2 inches of that initial step so that it would be 6 inches in height similar to your next step up.
We aim for a minimum of 6 inches to a maximum of 8 inches. But you should consult your building code for this. Preferably you are building your steps as one single unit, meaning the rise is consistent from one step to the other with maybe some variances in your first step up and your final step up depending on the measurement from final grade to top of threshold.
To decide how many steps you need in the first place you need to take that measurement. You also need to know what the final height of the grade will be if you are laying a patio and to measure from that to the top of your final threshold. There are a couple of considerations with this measurement. If your final threshold is a flat concrete landing you can use that full measurement. However, if your final threshold is the top of a sill that you then need to step over to land on the inside floor, this is a greater step up and over with that final step so you may want to make that final step smaller in height.
Therefore, if you are planning your steps you should take this measurement and divide it by the planned height of each step. For example, if the measurement is 21 inches and your planning 7 inch steps then you are building 2 steps with that final step being the landing. With this, it would be ideal that you find a wall product and cap that would work to 7 inches.
However, if you have a step block product that you know you want to work with you may need to manipulate these numbers to work to that. For example, if you have wall block and cap that works to 6 inch and your full measurement is 21″ you have two 6″ steps and a final 9 inch measurement. In this case you have a few options. You can raise the final grade of your patio if possible by a few inches. You can raise your first step 1.5 inches and have a 7.5 inch initial step, a 6 inch second step and a 7.5 inch final step. This is not ideal, especially if the final step is up and over the sill threshold, but a possibility. Alternatively you can combine both of these options or find a new product.
Remember that if you are planning to overlay the concrete landing after the final step, you should add in the height of that product to your total height.
Once you have the total number of steps and the step tread, you can then know the footprint of that step including its total length and width. This will help you to quote the step, calculate the amount of materials, and deduct the amount of square footage from your patio if needed to get the correct quantity of paver square footage.
The preparation of the base is the same for any retaining wall. We do like to install our steps on either dense graded material because it will be excavated deeper than that of a patio, unless there is a lower area to drain to we will use an open graded material. You can also install the blocks on a concrete base and auger below frost line and add rebar to ensure stability.
The excavation includes the depth of the base plus your buried amount of the step. We like to embed a minimum of 4 inches of our wall block below grade. But this will depend on the height of your wall block and based on how much you need to manipulate the height of your steps based on the design process stated above.
After the excavation, the subsoil is compacted and a non-woven or woven geotextile is installed. The base material is then installed and compacted. In climates prone to freeze-thaw cycles, we install a 6 inch to 8 inch base and compacting in lifts that our compactor is capable of.
Much like a retaining wall, the wall units can be laid directly on the base material and a dead blow hammer can be used with a torpedo level to level the blocks front-to-back and side-to-side.
We prefer to screed level HPB or 1/4 to 3/8 inch clean chip (you can also use concrete sand) to then simply lay and level the blocks. You can also add a slight slope forward to allow for proper drainage off the steps or you can do that when adhering your caps.
If you are installing up against a building / masonry you will have to build a relief wall approximately 0.5 of an inch away from the wall to ensure airflow. If you build right up against the masonry or wall of the house it will put pressure on the house and lead to moisture problems with the masonry.
Your initial course should follow the footprint of the steps. The outside perimeter of the steps will follow how wide you want to make the steps and you should also plan this to the length of your caps to ensure that they fit nicely with no awkward cuts. For example, if you are using 4 foot caps and that works for your length of your step you would not want to build your wall blocks to 4 foot 2 inches.
Then you need to plan how many steps you will have and where your initial course for those steps will land to lay those initial courses. This measurement would be the tread of your step caps and you would measure from the face of the initial step wall block to the face of the next wall block. That would provide you with a flush face of the cap to the wall block. If you want to have an overhang, you should deduct the amount of that overhang. Typically we aim for a 1 to 1.5 inch overhang which helps to hide under cap lighting. Additionally if you are using an aggressively textured stone, you may want to add in some buffer for the step cap to sit against that texture or be prepared to cut the back of your step cap to that texture.
When laying your initial course you can set a string line parallel with the structure you are building to so that your steps are straight or you can simply have a tape measure on hand measuring from the structure each block to ensure you are the same distance away.
Building up the steps is easy from here and may require some chiseling and some cutting. Simply lay the wall blocks on top with a minimum 1/3 stager, sweeping off the bottom layer of any debris, and using any locking mechanism that comes with the wall blocks.
You will want to fill in the steps with a 3/4″ clear angular crushed stone especially if your caps do not extend the entire length of the step which would tip them over if hollow. Alternatively you can fill this area with wall blocks level with your steps as you would with the initial layer and building them up.
The caps can then be installed on top of the wall blocks and adhered using a hardscape adhesive that can adhere concrete to concrete or natural stone to concrete. The adhesive should follow perpendicular lines to allow for the the movement out of any moisture that gets trapped.
Why Building Steps with Pavers is Not Recommended
To a professional, seeing a step built out of pavers versus seeing one built out of retaining wall block with a proper cap placed on top sticks out like a sore thumb. This is because modern pavers have spacers built into the sides of them. This ensures consistent spacing from one paver to the next when building a paver project. But when pavers are used to build steps, these spacers are unsightly. They ruin the look of what the step should be. Additionally, a paver is not typically finished on the sides. That means that the same color blend you see on the top may not be the same on the sides. The same could be said about the concrete mixture as well.
All of these aspects lead to a step that even though it may be built with retaining wall blocks (though we have seen our share of steps that are built entirely from stacking pavers), the final cap is built of pavers and ruins the entire aesthetic of the step. Bricks on the other hand can make for a unique aesthetic tying in that look that a mason can create.
How to Build Steps with Pavers Properly
Not all steps built with pavers are poorly designed. Pavers can be used on the interior after the step caps are installed to create a paver landing. This is especially useful for the first step leading out of a doorway as described above. Typically a front door has a concrete porch which allows a homeowner or guests to be able to pivot and open the door for someone else without trouble. But for a backyard door, this is typically not the case. This is where building a larger landing can have a great functional use to be able to pivot with enough room to open the door for someone or handle the door with one hand and a tray of food with another.