Building and buying

Building garden steps: materials, planning and procedure

Thomas Bott

If you own a plot of land on a slope or want to make small uneven areas more easily accessible, building garden steps is a good idea. They can also represent an attractive visual feature, for example if they run through the middle of a flowerbed or interconnect paths in an original way. Building steps in the garden is not very complicated. However, there are some aspects you should be aware of. This includes choosing the right material.

Natural stone steps separating a flowerbed. Grass and plants are already growing up between the steps.
© Getty Images / Solidago

In this article

Material: wood, stone, concrete and more

Before you plan the steps in detail, you should choose a suitable material. Wood, stone, concrete, steel or plastic are generally used. Each material has its advantages and disadvantages. The visual aspect obviously also plays a role because the steps should fit in with the rest of the property.

  • Wooden steps: wood has a strong visual appeal due to its natural look. Some types of wood create a particularly distinguished effect. A further advantage is the relatively low price of the material – although there are quite large fluctuations between different types of wood. The price is roughly between 5 and 50 francs per square meter. What’s more, the sun can lighten wood over time. Rain, on the other hand, penetrates the material and the wood will end up going rotten. Wood is also at a disadvantage when it comes to safety, as it usually becomes slippery when wet.
A wooden staircase with four visible steps standing on a base. A modern bungalow is visible in the background.

Wooden steps ensure a natural look and are not complicated to build. However, the material is slippery and vulnerable to water.

  • Stone steps: steps made of natural stone withstand the weather well. There is a huge choice of types of stone. Marble, for example, looks particularly sophisticated. However, granite is used more frequently. There are significant differences in the price, which ranges from 15 to 80 francs per square meter. However, it should be noted that smooth stone can be slippery. A roughened surface is therefore better.
Natural stone steps in the middle of a garden. There are larger stone formations and flowers at the side.

Natural stone usually blends in very well with the overall aspect of the garden. However, stones are not easy to install due to their different sizes.

  • Concrete steps: traditional concrete is probably the best material for building steps in the garden. It lasts a long time, is not slippery due to its rough surface and is very versatile. Concrete can be mixed with color to correspond to the desired style. You can pour concrete yourself or buy ready-made slabs in stores. It costs around 20 to 40 francs per square meter. Concrete is therefore also relatively cheap.
A child waters plants with a garden hose. In the background at least eight steps made of reddish stone slabs can be seen.

You have a free hand in the choice of materials. However, you should not only pay attention to the appearance, but also to the characteristics.

  • Steel steps: in most cases, this type of staircase is not solidly built, but tends to be open. This makes it less suitable for installation in the middle of the garden. Steel steps are more appropriate for accessing an elevated terrace or even as a staircase to a balcony. Steel can be very slippery when wet, which is why a railing is almost always a good idea. There is also a risk of corrosion due to the weather. Individual steps are available from around 40 francs. Finished steps with railings cost around 400 francs for two steps.
A close-up of a metal staircase. The hole pattern in the metal is clearly visible, giving the steps a more aerial look.

Steps made of metal are usually not solid, but rather have an aerial design. Visually, they tend to have an industrial charm.

  • Plastic steps: steps made of plastic withstand weather conditions very well. They don’t rust and usually last a long time. There is a large choice of colors and shapes. You can buy individual steps from around 30 francs. The price for two steps with railings on a metal frame starts at around 375 francs. The disadvantages associated with plastic are mainly due to the material itself: depending on the mixture, there is a risk of breakage over time. In addition, the surface needs to be roughened, because otherwise plastic can become extremely slippery when it rains.

Outdoor steps: pay attention to legal provisions

Before you investigate planning in any more detail, you should clarify the legal framework for building garden steps. A phone call or visit to the building authority is essential. Ask about regulations and guidelines. If necessary, provide details of the planned construction and obtain a building permit if this is a requirement in your municipality.

Building garden steps: planning and preparation

Garden steps with block steps made of concrete or stone are perfect for do-it-yourselfers. When planning your project, you should first choose a suitable location on a slope. Ideally, this should be an area without trees and with a fairly even gradient. Now measure the area in which the steps are to be located. Use the desired block steps as a guide to the width of the area required.

Next, mark out the corners with rods and connect them with string. This shows the area where you will need to remove the top layer of soil. You will need a spade and shovel. Dig down to around 30 centimeters below grass level where you want the lowest and highest steps to be. Now connect these two points with a slope dug as evenly as possible.

Next step: create a base and position the block steps

To protect the steps from frost and prevent them from freezing due to cold from the ground, you should pour in a protective layer of gravel sand or crushed stone. This should be about ten centimeters deep and evenly distributed over the excavated area. Now the preparations for positioning the steps are complete.

The next thing to do is to fix the steps. To do so, pour about 20 centimeters of earth-moist concrete to where you want the lowest step to be. Smooth it out and compact it. Even at this stage, make sure you stay as straight as possible. Now place the first block step on this foundation. Using a rubber mallet, tap the step horizontally on the sides. You should incline the front edge of the step so that there is a gradient of about one percent. This ensures that water can run off better. By the end of this process, the step should have sunk in by about one centimeter so that it is flush with the turf.

Now pour more earth-moist concrete behind the first step until it is slightly above the rear edge of the block step. Then you can move on to the next step. Make sure that it overlaps the lowest step by about 3 centimeters. Now tap the step again with the rubber mallet until the side is horizontal, flush with the lower step, and the front edge is at the necessary one percent gradient. Proceed in this way until you reach the final step.

Tip: if there is any concrete left over at the end, cut it off and smooth down the surface.

A staircase made of block steps under construction. The concrete foundation is already in place. The steps can now be placed on top of it.

To build a block step staircase, all you need is some gravel or crushed stone, earth-moist concrete and the steps themselves.

Garden steps: a handrail may be necessary

Depending on the height of the steps, a handrail may be necessary. In Switzerland, it is mandatory to install a handrail for staircases with five steps or more. Although this is rarely the case in the garden, you should not lose sight of this fact. If in doubt, a railing made of wood or metal can also be attached later. However, this will require further earthworks. Depending on the terrain, it can therefore be complex.

Conclusion: a few steps to a staircase in the garden

Building garden steps is not very complicated and is therefore also feasible for do-it-yourselfers. However, it’s worth working with a second person, especially when installing block steps. The steps themselves are very heavy, as they weigh around 120 kilograms each. Fortunately, you don’t need large machines or special tools that are difficult to obtain.

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