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Stepping Up
Tips for Installing Large Stone Steps

At this summer retreat on Lake George in upper New York State, DeFranco Landscaping installed a patio of irregular bluestone flagging, a retaining wall of dry-laid granite stones, and 10 steps of heat-tempered bluestone. Owner Anthony DeFranco's team was able to put in the steps at the same time as the wall was being built, with the patio going in last. To reduce the amount of proposed impervious surface area and to help in reducing the site's impacts on the lake, almost 2' of crushed stone was used for the base of the patio. Gator Aqua Rock fills the joints between the pieces of flagging.

On the shores of Lake George, in the Adirondack Mountains in northeastern New York, a new homebuyer wanted to tear down an existing residence and replace it with a larger, modern house. He enlisted the help of Ric Santamaria of Round Tree Construction who after hearing the plan, contacted Tony DeFranco for a couple of reasons.

First, DeFranco is a licensed professional engineer and could provide site design and permitting for the project, which had to meet the strict Adirondack Park Agency requirements; and second, DeFranco has his own landscape company that could handle the installation of most of the outdoor amenities. "Our two businesses make us one of the local lake experts that have been recognized for our reputation and our expertise of doing the right thing around one of the most heavily regulated bodies of water in the country," notes DeFranco.


The crew started at the lake level and worked their way back up while the site was full of other construction activities and only one way in and no easy way to get equipment down to the lakeshore. After the site was excavated, a new timber wall was constructed along the shorefront with concrete foundations to support an articulating dock system.


On top of drainage fabric, 8" of clean #2 crushed stone was used for the base. A rammer, or "jumping jack," and hand tampers compacted the stone. The 800-pound steps were set with the help of a specialized block clamp attached to the arm of a mini excavator. Notice the two-inch "key" on the front bottom edge of the step being installed (inset). This was done at the quarry so each step would overhang the next one and lock in. After a stone was set, the area behind it was readied for the next one by more excavation and the installation of drainage fabric and crushed stone. A 4' level was used to check the accuracy as the team moved up the incline.


After the steps were finished, the rest of the site was graded and top dressed, and sod and native shoreline plantings were installed. Other advice from DeFranco include double checking that all pipes and utility conduits that will run under the steps are exactly where they need to be before setting the steps; using skid steers or mini-skid steers to maneuver heavy stones in areas too tight for a mini-excavator. And in places that are even tighter, metal pipes can be used as rollers to move the stones, and metal bars can be used as levers to help place them.

The Build
Besides a patio of irregular bluestone flagging and a retaining wall of dry-laid granite stones, the hardscape included 10 steps of heat-tempered bluestone. "We built the stone retaining wall as we built the steps, then put the patio in," DeFranco remembers.

To prepare the site for the steps installation, all of the existing hardscape was removed. After initial excavation guided by a laser-level benchmark established by the site surveyor, the 1,000-pound base step was set. From there, the area was cut back about four to five feet and six to eight inches down. On top of drainage fabric the DeFranco Landscaping team put clean #2 crushed stone that was then compacted. To finish the base, stone dust was added.

Each step weighs around 800 pounds and came with a special feature - a two-inch "key" removed at the quarry on the front bottom edge so they would overhang the previous step and lock in.

"It was the first time I've ever seen anything that intricate but it made putting those steps in very easy" says DeFranco. "They were very expensive but they were a very nice set of steps."

A specialized block clamp was mounted to the arm of a mini-excavator to hoist and help maneuver the steps, which were delivered directly from the quarry. "There was enough bluestone in the project to ship directly, which is pretty unusual," DeFranco states. "It usually goes to our local stone distributor and they will either deliver to us or if it is a small enough load, we will go pick it from them."

After each step was set, the ground behind it was excavated more, drainage fabric and crushed stone were put down, and another step was installed.


When installing stone steps in your landscapes, it is important to ensure that the stones will not be slippery when wet. The Building Stone Institute recommends using the following finishes to reduce the risk of slipping: tooled, flamed, sandblasted or a natural cleft. A small amount of slope is advised to help promote water drainage. However, be very careful to not give too much slope, as this could result in a serious safety hazard. The International Building and Residential Codes states, "The walking surface of treads and landings of stairways shall be sloped no steeper than one unit vertical in 48 inches horizontal." So for instance, a 12" tread should have no more than 1/4" of a slope from back to front.


For outdoor steps, it is recommended to use bluestone, granite or other igneous rocks, which were formed through the cooling of lava and are therefore durable, resist weathering, and wear well, instead of sedimentary rocks, formed through sediment being cemented together, or metamorphic rocks, formed when other rocks are subjected to enough heat and pressure to change physically or chemically. Soundness in your stairs comes from a strong base so tamp it to provide a solid foundation. Each base area should be perfectly level from side to side to guarantee the entire staircase is level; possibly the hardest part of the installation and it must be done with precision to keep pedestrians safe.

Industry Best Practices
According to home improvement website, the minimum amount of tread depth should not be less than 10 inches; the maximum amount of rise should not exceed 7.75 inches and the width should be at least 36 inches. It is not explicitly required to incorporate overhanging treads, although the best measurement for each stair over hanging a riser is about 1/2" and ought to remain uniform throughout the entire staircase. says that the formula for the ideal relationship between rise and run is "Twice the rise plus the run should equal 25 inches to 27 inches. Although, each state has building code regulations that must be adhered to when constructing private or public sets of stairs.

The Building Stone Institute states, "Important considerations for selecting stone for this type of work are: surface finish, resistance to wear, slip resistance, resistance to staining, and maintenance. The use of porous limestones and soft, (clay-rich) sandstones is not recommended. High traffic areas require less porous, harder stones as these are more resistant to staining and wear."

Though DeFranco used blusestone in the Lake George project, which is a recommended material, he says he typically chooses granite because it holds up even better against the elements. His company sometimes pours concrete steps and has installed precast, reinforced concrete stones from various manufacturers. DeFranco offers a word of caution though.

"Sometimes the rebar and wire mesh don't have enough coverage and you can get rust spots. I think it is a rare occurrence but it is something to look for. When you get materials delivered to a jobsite from a manufacturer or dealer, you really want to inspect closely because anything that is chipped or slightly damaged is where you are prone to see these spots."

The project was completed in the summer of 2017 with the hydroseeding and sodding of the lawn areas. That year, DeFranco Landscaping and his consulting engineering business were awarded the Irving Langmuir Award, which is given by The Fund for Lake George for excellence in development and stewardship: recognizing DeFranco's dedication to protecting the lake by implementing low-impact development practices.

As seen in LC/DBM magazine, March 2018.

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December 10, 2019, 7:00 pm PDT

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