Theatre Thursday

Building Flexible Ship Stairs for Escape Stairs

As I looked at my stock stairs and the narrow “backstage” area I needed them to sit in, I realized it was time to invest in a “new” stock item.  I needed something that could be flexible as escape stairs… anywhere from 3 feet high to 10 feet high… time to build ship stairs.  I had used them in college, for ever ago, and had to rake my brain as to how we built those.


I had a few bumps along the way… missing my center on one set so I had to re-do the carriages… teaching teens how to measure and level and square their work… not to mention teaching teens how to use the tools.  Still, we moved ahead and got to work.  Here is what I did to create this nifty new stock escape stair.

A couple vocab words first: Carriage = the sides of the stair unit; Rise = the height of each step; tread  = the part you step on; cleat = attached to the carriage for the tread to sit on.


The carriage is made up of 2 pieces if 2×4.  I used 10 foot 2×4.  We attached 1 foot cleats using carriage bolts (luck for me I have 100s of these kicking around) centered and 2″ in from the front and the back.  Each cleat was 12″ apart at the center.

I couldn’t really afford 1×12 lumber for the tread, so I used 3/4″ plywood.  I used the scrap 3/4″ plywood I had in the shop.  Lucky for me I had enough… I am not sure if I really saved money because I needed to add a 2×4 at the front of each step for added support. I made these stair 30″ wide and 10″ wide.


We had to work at making them level.  Remember, I had students building these, and although they were instructed to use a carpenter’s square and straight edges, we did need to make a couple adjustments to make each tread level.

I added an extra 2×4 at the bottom of the carriage lumber and a 3/4″ plywood tread that was 20″ wide.  These act as a pivot point while forming a foot at the bottom and a pad to match the supporting platform at the top.


I then screwed the top tread to the platform and toe-nailed the foot to the floor.

The treads placed at 12″ centers give the unit a 12″ rise when vertical.  This rise drops to around 4″ as the run of the unit increases.

We then added 2×4 rails to help support the actors as they went up and down them.

Again… these stair units are best as escape stairs.  The kids have been using them for a couple weeks now.  They were a little skeptical at first, but now they are converts.  They are sturdy and flexible.  I need that.  Money is tight and I need more options in stock!

6 thoughts on “Building Flexible Ship Stairs for Escape Stairs”

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