1.25.2009

Attic Staircase Repair

I thought I might branch out a bit from the techno-babble and do a little home repair info on this post...

I live in a house that like many others has a wooden folding attic stair case. This is great as it gives me access to store junk away in the attic and it folds up almost unseen into the ceiling- but when they start acting funny they can become a real bitch. An attic staircase could also be considered a 'gadget' by some, so here we go...

My attic staircase was gradually making it impossible for to pull the stairs down without use of a step ladder and a pry bar. In a normal folding attic staircase, there are folding metal bars on either side that act as both as a hinge and a support for the assembly (the piano hinge at the end of the staircase does almost nothing for support- as I discovered when working on this project). In my situation, the rivet hinge on the left side of the assembly was wearing out and allowing the arms to distort and bend inwards to 'grab' the stairs before they could properly open:

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Initially the weight of the stairs would cause them to fall free from between the arms with a good tug (and a loud noise), but after a few more months it had progressed to the point where I had to manually guide the staircase arms with a pry bar just to open the attic.

I finally gave up last weekend and decided to fix it.

The first thing I had to do was identify and remove the arm that is causing the problem. The left arm was the main culprit and this was obvious as it was pretty badly bent; additionally the hinge rivet on this side had a great deal of play. The right arm has a little play as well, but it doesn't seem to be causing any problems (yet).

I removed the spring tension from the left arm by removing the nut from the side of the staircase, partially closing the stairs and then pulling the arm off of the bolt:

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Once the end of the arm was free, I pulled the staircase down, removed the spring at the top (it unhooks easily as there is no tension) and worked on removing the arm from the staircase framing.

NOTE: if you need to climb on the staircase at this point, be sure that you stand will all weight on the right side as there is nothing supporting the left side!

The hinge assembly is attached to the stairs by two rivets through a metal flange anchored into the 1/2" wood of the staircase framing. I removed these by grinding off the flaring with a 3/8" metal drill bit:

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The back of this rivets are not secured, so I needed leverage from a pry bar to keep them from spinning while drilling out the exposed side.

When this was done I had the left stair arm in-hand. There were obvious bends in the metal so I used a bench vise to flatten these out.

I took the arm to Lowe's to see if they had a replacement, but no luck (maybe Home Depot carries such items?). Since this was not available, I used the arm as a sizing guide fro the replacement bolts I would need. I decided on 1/4" lag bolts to attach the frame and a 5/16" hex bolt to replace the upper hinge rivet.

Once back home, a 1/2" metal drill bit was sufficient to drill out the back-side of the rivet hinge- while being careful not to damage the metal plate or the arm while grinding off the end of the rivet.

Re-assembly was fairly easy (compared to removal):

Step 1: replace the rivet hinge

A 5/16" x 1-1/4" grade 8 fine thread hex bolt is used to replace the primary rivet hinge. I probably really don't need a grade 8 bolt (they are a bit harder metal than the standard grade 5 bolts) but it was only about $0.40 more than the standard- and I am all for overkill.

The bolt goes into the mounting plate and projects the thread end out for the arm to pivot on. I used a 5/16" lock washer and a few flat washers between the bolt head and the inside of the mounting flange. The washers are for spacing (1-1/4" is a bit too long- by design) and to push the head of the bolt into the wood- preventing it from turning once the lag bolts are installed (next step).

To allow the bolt to act as a hinge, I put additional 5/16" flat washers on either side of the arm and closed the assembly off with a 5/16" locknut. The locknut is very important as a normal nut will eventually loosen from the opening/closing of the stairs.

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Step 2: Re-attach the arm to the staircase.

I drilled pilot holes and installed four 1/4" x 3" lag screws with flat washers to replace the rivets that were removed. Initially there were only two rivets holding the arm in place, but- as stated before- I am all for overkill with these kind of projects.

Depending on the material behind your staircase you may need longer bolts; in my house there is a 1-3/4" LVL beam to either side of the staircase and 3" is an ideal length:

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Step 3: re-attach the spring

This part will require to people as it is practically impossible to re-attach the arm to the stairs with the stairs down.

Connect the upper spring assembly to the top of the stairs (i.e. re-hook the spring onto the J-bolt on the end of the arm and go into the attic and have someone close the stairs behind you. They may need to use a step-ladder to lift and support the stairs as it will not want to stay closed with only 1/2 the spring tension it normally had.

While in the attic, re-connect the side of the arm to the bolt on the lower section of the stairs, tighten the nut down and you are done! (as long as your helper will oblige by pulling the stairs down so you can get out out of the attic).

Final assembly:

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I keep a small ratchet set in the attic to check that the bolt isn't coming loose....

25 comments:

  1. Anonymous12:24 PM

    Nice, man. I was lazy like most humans and now the arm rivet completely broke off and I have to find a replacement. I could use a bolt and washer, but I figured I would do that last resort. Like mom used to say, "A Stitch in time saves 9". Good job, wish I got pumped earlier.

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  2. THANKS! I followed your diagram for the hinge and it worked PERFECTLY. Five times as strong as the previous bold driven into the wall. Thanks for taking the time to set this page up, and for sharing your experience. Helped me out big time. Much appreciated.

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  3. Anonymous3:20 PM

    Thank you! When I read your "pry bar and step ladder" line I thought - wow! this dude is me! Like Brad, you helped me out big time. I now have easy access to my luggage. thanks again.

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  4. Anonymous7:09 PM

    This was helpful. However, Rather than try drilling the rivets out I used a Dremel tool with the miniature cutoff wheel attached. I ground down the rivets until the hinge arm was free. Then I ground down the back side of the rivet connecting the arm to the pivot bracket. Removing the rivets from the wood was a bit tricky but I used a screwdriver and hammer to beat them backwards out of the wood then I had to beat them down away from the hole because the space behind them was not enough for the remaining rivet body to fall out. Once the rivets were out of the holes they could be removed. I used 1/4 X 3" hex head lag bolts just as you did to reattach the pivot bracket to the wood frame. However, instead of using a nut and bolt to reattach the arm to the pivot bracket I used a 5/16 X 2" hex head lag bolt. The same type as the 1/4" bolts. I tightened down the bolt until there was just enough play for the arm to move. This way there is no chance of any bolt or nut coming lose and needing constant adjustment. Using the lag bolt anchors the hinge much better. I also bought enough bolts to do the opposing side because I know it will go at some point. Hope this helps anyone in the future.

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  5. any ideas on how to pull the spring so that it can be reattached?

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  6. Best thing to to is disconnect the spring arm from the ladder itself, connect the spring, and then use the spring arm itself for leverage to extend the spring, pulling down on the spring arm until the opening for the connector bolt and the insertion point for the bolt line up, and then insert the bolt and tighten. Best if you can have someone help you, they can hold the weight of the ladder while you attach the spring, and as you pull the swing arm down, they can have the bolt ready to seat and then tighten...really a two person job. you can look around on other sites and there are other methods to reconnect - some tell you to have someone underneath, pushing the ladder up from below, while you are in the attic. With the attic fully folded and up in the attic, as if stored away, it's easier to stretch the spring just a little way to the eye in the swing arm - tricky part is twisting the spring to get the loop into the eye. I tried this way, and ultimately went with the way I described previously. good luck, and wear your safety glasses, just in case.

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  7. Had to do the same thing and drilling out the rivets worked great!

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  8. How long did it take for you?

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  9. Thank you for this blog. Really old hardware: metal flange has holes using bolts and nuts instead of rivets, and arm looks totally different but I followed your steps and everything turned out GREAT! My hinge rivet had completely blown out of the flange when I lowered the stairs. Luckily the spring hung onto the arm and didn't hit me. Removed the arm and spring like you said to and cut off the back of the hinge rivet with a hacksaw and pried the front head off, leaving a nice hole so I didn't have to drill a hole for the bolt. Straighten the bent part of the arm that holds the end of the spring. Used grade 8 - 3/8" one inch bolt because it fit the hole better. My overkill: used 3 grade 8 washers (one by bolt head inside metal flange, one on each side of arm), lockwasher and nut!
    Used 4 - 3" lag bolts on metal flange like you suggested. Tied a rope to top step of bottom section of stairs, went up into attic and pulled stairs up. Reattached spring (hardest part) lowered stairs and climbed down. It works better than it did 25 years ago. Bought two sets of everything for when the other arm goes. It all cost less than $5.00 at Home Depot (not counting lag bolts, I had them from before). I was looking at $200.00 to $300.00 to replace the whole attic stair unit plus labor costs before I found this blog. Great job. Yours is the ONLY blog out there that deals with this problem.
    Best wishes with all your future endevors. Thanks again.

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  10. Great post and good pictures!!!

    Had similar problem with a Memphis Folding Stairs ladder. Right rivet at pivot plate loose causing spring arm to bend inward and hit ladder. Finally rivet pulled out of pivot plate. Releived spring tension with door open by removing locknut holding spring arm to plywood panel which acts as a closure when stair is shut then slowly moving spring arm up until all tension released from spring allowing it to be removed from spring arm.
    My pivot plate had no rivets to attach it to the frame. Had four 1/4" screws and nuts instead. Was able to unscrew the screws and remove the pivot arm. 3 of the 4 nuts fell down after removing the screws. Hacksawed the rivet on the spring arm and used a 3/8" by 1 1/4" bolt and locknut to reattach spring arm to the pivot plate. Used a lockwasher and large washer at the head of the bolt and 2 smaller washers to sandwich the spring arm to the pivot plate and a locking nut to hold the arm to the plate.
    Took my time and got the pivot plate mounted using the existing 1/4" screws and nuts. Used a needle nose locking plyers to hold the nuts and placed it and the nut thru the small space between the frame and supporting lumber. This negagted using lag bolts and made the install very similar to the original mounting except that the 3/8" bolt replaced the oiginal rivet.
    Reattached the spring to the spring arm and pulled it down to the bolt on the plywood cover piece.
    Had to tighten the locknut on the pivot plate tighter as there was too much play with the bolt when not tightened almost to where the spring arm was almost tight against the pivot plate.
    Did all of this from below using a long stepladder. Never had to go into the attic or pull stairs up into the attic.
    Total time including a trip to Home Depot to get a bolt was about 3 1/2 hours. Would have been quicker if I had help and the bolt.
    Bought another bolt in case the other side gets loose.
    Noticed the rivets holding the ladder to the plywood closure panel are working their way out after 20 years of use. Will drill additional holes and use bolts, washers and nuts to reinforce the mounting when it gets a little warmer. Was 18 degrees today and I had to open garage door to get enough light to see what I was doing. Used a drop cord as an additional light source.

    MFS wanted over $62 to replace both spring arms as they say that they are slightly heavier. Would have been a real job to do both of them. Think this method is better than the original rivet to the pivot plate. Since I had washers and the locknut total cost of parts was $0.43 for the 3/8" bolt which fits thru the spring arm and pivot plate very nicely with no slop.

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  11. Excellent post! I could not have done the repair without your article & pics. Thanks from West Virginia!!

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  12. I had this same problem and your description of it was right on the money. Speaking of money, the fix cost me all of $2.15. Thanks for your article.

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  13. Did the repair as describe above, but despite having less play than with the old hinge rivet, the arm was still rubbing on the stairs. It looked like the metal plate was either somewhat bent or worn, causing the arm to still be out of parallel with the frame. Quick fix was to remove the plate and rotate it 180 degrees, causing the arm to move closer to the fram than the stairs. Works fine now.

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  14. Many thanks for your grand idea! The locknut idea works perfect! Saved me from ordering a whole new assembly after I bent the old one back into place and followed your steps.

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  15. Outstanding post. Extremely well laid out and the pics are excellent. I'm amazed everyday that I can go onto the web and find a tutorial like this for such a specific topic. This blog makes me wonder if there is a market out there for replacement hinges...

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  16. This worked like a charm! I was fortunate enough that I didn't have to remove the pivot plate as it was well secured. But the rivet that attached the spring arm to the pivot plate had sheared off. It only took one lag bolt and a couple of washers to make a new pivot point for the spring arm, and voila! I did climb up into the attic and had someone below close the door for me so I could reattach the spring. I must say that made the job quite easy. Springs scare me more than electricity. I've seen my share of accidents with them that makes me respect their potential energy. With my stairs closed, the springs are basically completely compressed. A safe attachment only took seconds this way.

    Thanks so much for the terrific article.

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  17. I am looking at a pull down stairway that needs attention. The left side is the culprit. Coincidence? The Homo Depot does not carry replacement parts.

    It was very comforting to see a blow by blow description of a fuzzy idea that was trying to form in my head.

    You did a great job with this post. I am deeply appreciative. I punched to Preview box and they want to know if I am a robot. I'd better not say "Danger, Will Robinson!"

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  18. Thank you so much! This exact thing is what's wrong with my attic ladder. I too checked Lowes. no replacement parts. searched online. found you! We're going to try what you're suggesting and see what happens. Great detailed description of step by step instructions. great pictures!

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  19. Thanks!!! VERY GOOD AND RELIABLE INFORMATION. Cross this off my "Honey Do List". :) :)

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  20. Hey, thanks for posting these instructions -- my attic hardware had the same problem, and your site saved me a lot of trial-and-error when it came to fixing it.

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  21. My top stair got broken by a very heavy person standing on it. The length of wood (I think it's called the stringer) into which the stair attaches on the one side and all the hardware on the other side was also broken. The very heavy person repaired by glueing a piece of wood to the stringer and reattaching all the hardware and the stair tread. The problem now is that the stair no longer closes properly. It appears that the top hinges have bent down and the one side, now with an extra piece of wood to contend with, has bent out. Any ideas of how to repair? I may have to replace the stringer and top stair tread, I think. But I don't know about the top hinges. Any ideas? Thanks in anticipation.

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  22. Thanks for posting these instructions! Worked like a champ and saved me some money!

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  23. Great post on how to repair an attic ladders. It will be a help to us. Thanks for sharing.

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  24. I was just about to buy a new set of stairs. Worked great. Thank you for posting.

    JP Long Island, NY

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  25. Wow! Rarely do I take the time to respond online but am truly thankful for your help. Had actually bought an entirely new replacement ladder at $230 after taxes (Canadian)and after seeing how painful it was going to be to remove the original one I thought I should Google attic ladder repairs and stumbled upon your post. Thanks to your detailed instructions and pictures even I, a totally incompetent homeowner, was able to follow your steps and fixed my original one for about $5! Again, thanks a million! Well, $225, to be precise :)

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