Creating stairs in a bush setting is hard work but worth the graft, writes Justin Newcombe.

There is nothing prettier to New Zealanders than a gentle walk through the bush. So building a few rugged steps to help you up the sloping bits under the trees should be no trouble at all, I thought. Dig a hole, pop in a post then concrete, that doesn't sound too hard. And because I want you to read this article then feel like you could probably cope with a little bit of post-hole digging this weekend, it's tempting to just leave my story at that. I wouldn't want to put you off, it's not boot camp, it's the weekend.

Sadly, I have to tell the truth. Digging a post hole in a bush situation is really hard work. As I discovered, it's not just the big roots that get in the way, it is all the little fibrous ones that make digging challenging too. The tool of choice in this situation is a 20-kilo bar. The sheer weight of the bar makes it easy to break up the soil in the hole and most tree roots. Lifting the bar up and down is a bit of a workout, but the momentum of the bar reduces the jarring which becomes tiring when using lighter tools. The good news is, that once the posts are in you are well on the way. You can often be tempted by difficult situations such as this one to take short cuts, but for a long-lasting functional solution the old adage still applies. No pain, no gain.

If the maths of calculating riser and tread sizes defeats you, good old Wikipedia has some helpful rules of thumb for suitable proportions and all the stair-building lingo.

Step 1


Erect two string lines on either side of the slope at the appropriate height. Make sure they are the same width apart at each end. Using a straight edge (in my case a long piece of straight timber), a level and a tape measure, measure the length and the height of the staircase from top to bottom.

Step 2

Decide the height of each step riser (for an easy climb aim for a rise of between 130 and 140mm, 200mm is getting quite steep). Then divide the height of the stair case by the height of the riser. This gives you the number of steps. Then divide the number of steps by the length of the staircase to give you the depth of each tread. This tells you how far apart each post needs to be.

Step 3

Casually dig your easy-peasy post holes through clay, rocks and gargantuan tree roots using your 20-kilo bar. Avoid tools with big heads (shouldn't be hard, the English rugby team went home ages ago) these make it difficult to dig in this situation. Bunnings have a good selection of quality trenching and small head shovels that will really save your back, arms and shoulders.

Step 4

Set the posts, making sure to check and recheck each one is straight, level and square. Make sure the concrete is not too high in the hole as it is a real pain to have to chip it out after it's set.

Step 5

Using the string line as a guide, clamp and screw the sleeper steps to each post then drill a guide hole, on an angle, through the post and into, but not right through, the sleeper.

Step 6

Using a socket adapter (ask at Bunnings) on your drill, drill in the coach screws. I used 180mm screws and did two per post.

Step 7

Nail 200x200mm timber to the side of the steps.

Step 8

Fill the step with clean fill like old bricks or concrete (but not with soil, as it compacts too much). Finally, cover the step with 50mm of decorative builder's aggregate or gravel for an attractive finish.

Next week:

I'll show you how to make a railing fence, and in our final stage of this project, some rustic macrocarpa lighting bollards to light the steps and the bush.