Going from prototype to finished concrete steps to commercial product.
My sweet wife and our kids settled into the flat prairies of south Saskatchewan where we live along the Qu’Appelle River Valley. This area is a gash from the past glaciers running roughly east to west about 100 miles north of the Canada/US border. There are lots of hills and a need for concrete steps.
This area is known as a winter refuge for the first citizens of The Great plains. It has developed from an early trading route to a year-round destination for those seeking relief from the hot summers we have. There’s a chain of six lakes covering 400 miles and the Qu’Appelle River ends up draining into the Red River system.
This area is a beautiful spot to build a home, but it also throws some challenges at you. The first challenge is the weather, 40 above to 40 below. Snow and rain as Mother Nature decides; some years lots, some years not much. We expect the frost to go down four feet in the winter, but this year it was seven feet easy – a challenge for building and maintaining concrete steps.
The shape of the valley can be gradual or rather vertical. Getting man, materials and machine up and down can be a problem while respecting others’ property and working with the local environmental laws.
My problem is building concrete steps or other options on a hillside that will last and be safe. Many kinds of stairs have been made: wood, brick, stone, cast concrete. Some last just a year and some many years. Builders have to take the weather and potential ground movement into consideration. Handrails are unheard of here.
Building my concrete step prototypes
I have done a fair amount of landscaping in the valley, all kinds of retaining walls, patios, stairs, paving stones, gabions and decks. Cast-in-place concrete is heavy, expensive work to be done properly. Getting rid of bad concrete steps is a huge pain.
I’ve had my best success with paving stone. And when it’s hit with a flood it is easy to repair. So let’s make something along the line of a paving stone accessory.
The facts are these: Gravity some days is your friend and some days not. Landscaping can move – think erosion, frost heaves and the odd flood. Concrete is heavy. Rebar can corrode. Poorly laid concrete steps fail. And there are less-than-ideal staging areas and an acute shortage of skilled labor.
Working near a shoreline requires permits and erosion control and machine use are monitored. It’s always best to keep on the good side of the authority. Disposal of concrete, treated lumber and other debris is difficult and costly.
After lots of net time and a few calls, I started reading about concrete counter tops and fiber-reinforced concrete. I looked at material pricing. I’m familiar with building stairs, rises, runs and landings. That’s where the concrete steps come in.
So, what would it take to make a mold? I have lots of mold-making experience. What materials are available locally and what needs to be brought in? So a few sketches were developed and all the good and bad design of concrete steps remembered. How are we going to stick these on tara firma. How can they stack? How about stability? And how are we going to accommodate drainage?
Mold 1: Armed with a working drawing, I made a concrete steps mold out of scrap plywood. The mold caught the parts I really wanted to see and understand. I coated the inside and outside with lots of polyurathane and let it dry. I bought some Quikrete 6000 PSI mix and then picked up some poly fiber from the batch plant and went to work.
The concrete steps mold was levelled and supported, and the concrete mixed. I mixed per the directions using as little water as possible. I had to grab an old reciprocating saw to help vibrate the stiff mix and get it into place. I used a trowel on the top and edged it. Then I covered it with a sheet of polyethelene and walked away.
It hurt to not play with it until 48 hours had passed. When the hour came I went at the concrete steps mold with a driver to pull screws. The first step popped out with some sweat and was not too bad for the first run. Some air bubbles, but no big deal. I set it aside and reassembled the mold to make another and that went well, but I realized two things:
_ Plywood was not going to be durable for many molds
_ The base of the riser would not work as planned
But I wanted to know how strong my concrete steps mold was, so I asked a friend to stand on the stair with some bricks. And we jumped up and down on them; two guys about 180 lbs. each hitting a 48 x 16 inch tread. We jumped for about five minutes or until a beer was needed to cool down the knees.
There were no cracks, no catastrophic failure, so I was on to something. Then it snowed. This event gave me 10 months to get ready for actually pouring concrete steps the next spring.
Mold 2: Make a “Plug.” This is a model of the finished piece. Whatever the surface looked like would be replicated. I had some interior hollow core doors saved from a recent Condo renovation; perfect material for this concrete steps application. This model had to include “draw angles” and no undercuts, so the female mold could be removed. As the plug was being constructed, I ordered some West System epoxy and a 4 oz. woven fiberglass cloth.
The female concrete steps mold had to be made so it could be removed without damage to the mold or the object cast inside. Using the epoxy, fiberglass and wood, the female was laid up. The wood was used to add strength to the mold and to make a way to reassemble the mold for repeated use.
At this time I ordered some water-reducing concrete, and added mix and fibers from Fishstone. It came with a huge sticker shock from Couriour – buying an American product basically doubles the price (in Canada). I got a yard of fresh sharp mason’s sand and some nice 3/8 crusher gravel, normal Portland. Then I went to borrow a mixer.
My math was a wee bit off because I made the concrete boil. I had just a little too much air entraining the additive, so that first concrete steps mold was toast. On the next mix everything worked great. My friend was over and helped me move and demold the first new one and set up for another pour. Yes, it’s a two-person job.
So I poured molds for four concrete steps. Then I got very busy and it snowed. I did take some elevations of the area in our yard that needs attention with concrete steps. Turns out I needed a tread and riser to turn a corner. So it was back to the sketch board where I drew a tread/riser that is commonly called a winder. This had to mate with the first concrete steps, which were just a straight 7” H x 48’”W x 16” D tread.
Mold 3. (The right swing) This Plug was a bit harder, keeping code in mind, and extended the reach of the material abilities. It ended up needing a second part inside due to a captive angle.
Since the Epoxy was shipped in and it was winter, I tried local suppliers where I bought polyester resin and mat fiberglass. That was a bad decision. Epoxy and woven glass was the right combination for the application; the polyester molds held for seven pours and are still not in bad shape.
During this time I was thinking of the need for this product and if I could sell concrete steps, but that takes some capital investment. Sell molds and a DVD? Sell rights to a pre-cast company? In the end, I still need concrete steps and potential clients still need to see the product.
Installing my concrete steps
The day came when I had two friends over who had worked with me in general construction for years. We were going to install concrete steps on the side of a hill coming around the corner of my shop’s foundation.
We set to the task and 2 ½ hours later we were done: It worked as planned with one straight step, seven right-sweep concrete steps and two more straight concrete steps. The middle step of the curved run comes off the corner of the foundation. The layout was easy thanks to working through the project so many times on paper.
Each part was 140 to 170 lbs. and each tread holds the riser above. Each leg of the riser can be dug into existing ground or supported with larger bricks made with extra material from the concrete steps. The concrete steps are filled with gravel (3/4) for drainage and to lock the design into the landscape.
My friends were impressed with the speed to set and level the concrete steps (which included two beer breaks). So the goal of easy installation was satisfied. My sweet wife was the first to trial the concrete steps. She was pleased with the stable, even rise and run. The solid feel and look of the concrete steps was far better than the temp setup that it replaced.
As fate would have it, my boiler died before Christmas. The plumber who came to fix it commented on the “nice steps” as he walked down carrying his weight in boiler controls. Over the holidays my daughters came to visit and commented that “the death slope is gone” and replaced by concrete steps. They had asked previously about the pile of concrete materials in the yard. Now it made sense.
Cost of materials and molds was $600. The time investment was about 40 hours spread over months. But the value to the right homeowner is high.
Benefits of using concrete steps
If the ground moves the concrete steps can be leveled again. And the options to finish concrete continue to grow with new colors and surfacing techniques.
The concrete steps project created minimal ground disruption and no hauling concrete forms up and down hill. There was no wheeling concrete and now need for pump trucks. And these concrete steps were ready for instant use, no curing time. There was no metal to corrode, so everything was easy to clean.
What do I think I have to do to take these concrete steps commercial? First, get compressive strength test done and then get a flexurale test. (Unfortunately, the only available lab is 500 miles away.)
My advice on building concrete steps: Look at local suppliers and get a handle on concrete mix quality control. For the future, I’m looking to expand on hand rail attachment ideas for concrete steps. I’ll also look at liability insurance implications and how to develop a manufacturing guide and installation guide. Finally, I want to develop a web presence when ready.
A left sweep mold is under construction and more straight molds are needed for my concrete steps. I’ll be looking to design a lift to move stairs single-handedly while demolding. And I want to keep track of the hours to manufacture and costs, which will help determine pricing.
Selling my concrete steps?
This spring I will be evaluating the installed product to see how well it survived the freeze/thaw cycle. The next test is 12 stairs rebuild our walk to the lake. Then I’ll need to make a few steps to be sent for testing. I’m almost at the point where I can bring over a general contractor and a landscaper to gauge sales interest.
I hope to write additional articles that detail mold making, concrete mix and the progress of bringing ideas to market.