If your home is short on storage space—and whose isn't?— don't despair. A practical solution might literally be hovering right overhead. Nearly every home has some sort of attic space. The area usually isn't heated or cooled, and often has limited headroom, but it's still an excellent place for storing seasonal clothing, books, luggage, holiday decorations and other closet-clogging stuff. The challenge, however, is finding a simple and safe way to gain access to the overhead space.
Many older homes have a small hatchway in the ceiling. There's no ladder or staircase, just a square hole with a plywood cover. To get into the attic, you must climb a stepladder, then hoist yourself up through the hole—a simple task if you happen to be Tarzan or a champion gymnast. Coming down is even more adventurous, especially with an armful of boxes.
We'll show you how to enlarge an existing hatchway to create a bigger entrance to the space, or create new access. We'll then install a rigid one-piece staircase that smoothly glides up and down from the ceiling, assisted by two pairs of steel cables attached to spring-loaded drums. In the up position, the staircase is hidden by a large, flush-panel door. When it's pulled down, it meets the floor at a comfortable 57-degree angle. It also has a full-length handrail for added safety. Make sure there's enough headroom above the attic floor so the staircase can close properly.
Cut out attic access opening
Snap chalk lines onto the ceiling to represent the rough opening of the attic staircase. This step is necessary regardless of whether you're expanding an existing hatchway or creating new attic access. Peek into the attic to make sure there aren't any ducts, wires or pipes in the way. Then cut out the rough opening with a drywall saw.
Remove joists and other obstructions
Cut out the ceiling joist and any wood blocking that's in the opening. Leave the header from the hatchway in place and use it to form one end of the rough opening. Nail a new header between the joists on the opposite end of the rough opening to complete the framing. Secure the drywall ceiling to the new framing with nails or screws driven up from below.
Construct the opening frame
Temporarily screw a pair of 1x3 cleats to the ceiling across the rough opening. Build a finished frame out of 1x8s to fit snugly into the opening. Lower the frame down onto the cleats from above, then fasten it to the framing with 16d nails or 1/4-inch-diameter, 3-inch lag screws. Remove the temporary 1x3 cleats.
Mount the door panel
Mount the door panel to one end of the finished frame with the continuous hinge provided with the staircase. Check the swing of the door, making sure it closes without binding and that it fits flush within the frame.
Install spring drums
Next, screw the left-hand spring drums to the 1x8 frame directly above the door hinge and up against the header. Mount the right-hand spring drums on the opposite side of the frame. Attach the header-guide frame between the two sets of drums; it will be used later to hold the upper end of the staircase in position.
Install pulley system
Screw a small cable pulley to each side of the finished 1x8 frame; position each pulley 20 inches from the header that's opposite the door-panel hinge. Attach each small pulley with three 1-inch-long screws. Bore pilot holes first to avoid splitting the 1x8 frame.
Assemble the staircase
Slip the stair treads into the angled dadoes milled in the two stringers. Secure each pine tread with four screws. Then use a wrench to tighten the threaded ladder rods that pass beneath each tread. Leave out the top three treads so you can easily fit the staircase between the header-guide frame mounted above the door panel.
Attach staircase to door panel
Stand the assembled staircase in the opening and have someone support the base as you climb up part way. Grab the top of the stringers and squeeze them in until the slide bars on the header-guide frame slip into the channel grooves on the outside of the stringers. Now install the top three stair treads. Slide the steel door-guide frame onto the staircase, then attach it to the door panel with six 1-inch-long screws.
Mount cable holders
Using the pilot holes located near the fourth tread, mount cable holders to the side of each stringer. Reach up to one of the spring drums, grab the cable closest to the header and carefully pull it out. Pull the cable across the small pulley and down to the cable holder mounted to the door. Hook the cable end onto the holder. Use the same procedure to connect the cable from the drum on the other side of the stair.
Calibrate tension for a smooth glide
Adjust the tension on the cables until the staircase glides smoothly up into place and closes without slamming shut. If the door doesn't close all the way, increase the tension by disconnecting the cables, winding them around the spring drums two times; then reconnect them. Finish by nailing casing molding around the perimeter of the opening; paint it to match the ceiling.