You may not spend much time really getting to know your attic, but when you do need to climb up there, its sure easier (and safer) if you have fold down stairs to use as a proper attic ladder! Who really wants to use a stepladder all the time?
Reasons you want easy access to your attic include projects such as adding electrical wiring and fixtures, adding or inspecting insulation and numerous other home maintenance tasks. And if you have extra space and plywood sub-flooring, it can be a great place to store less frequently used overflow garage items.
Now, if we’re talking about an attic big enough for grandma to move in to and you are finishing it off as living space, you’ll want to install a real stairs. Otherwise, installing a pre-made pull down attic ladder is the bomb!
A lot of new homes now come with these ladders installed directly by the builder as an option, which is worth doing unless you rarely plan to access your attic space or would rather do it yourself. If you already did; smart choice and enjoy! But if your home doesn’t have one yet, read on and learn how to install a pull down attic ladder the fun way … well to some people it will seem fun at least.
Several types of attic ladders are available, depending on the type of access you have. If your attic has an entry point built into a wall instead of the ceiling but is too high to reach without a ladder, you can purchase a straight ladder made of wood or aluminum that mounts securely to the wall.
Many attics, especially in new homes, have a ceiling access point or hatch, in which case the pull down type of attic ladder is the most convenient, since you have only to pull it down with an attached piece of rope and unfold the bottom section of the ladder. A spring loaded mechanism makes it easy to flip the unit back up and out of the way when not in use.
Installing one of these babies is a moderate difficulty do-it-yourself project that any homeowner with the right tools and home improvement skills can do in a couple of hours. If you only own a cordless drill and a hammer with a fiberglass handle, this project could be beyond your skill level. But, if you own or have access to a miter saw, reciprocating saw, air compressor and nail gun, you will love this job. Incidentally, the reason this one is a fun project is that it’s all your idea; this is not a “honey-do” project, it’s really more of a weekend warrior job!
Here’s how to install your pull down attic ladder.
Basic list of the tools and materials you’ll need to do the deed:
- Cordless drill, drill bits and screw drive bit or cordless screw gun
- 3 1/2 or 4 inch long lag screws
- Air compressor, pin nailer, finish nailer and air hose
- Miter box saw (to cut trim)
- Tape measure, two ladders and at least one hammer!
- Pre-made folding pull down attic ladder
- Framing, casing and trim materials; varies based on what comes with the ladder.
- A willing, able-bodied helper; preferably handy with tools!
Attic Ladder Installation Steps
- When you purchase your pull down attic ladder, be sure to measure first as they come in different sizes. You need to know if you ceiling is 8 feet or 10 feet high.
- If you don’t have an attic entry point yet or want to install the ladder elsewhere, map out the best access point and cut a small hole in the ceiling drywall to be sure you have good access to the attic space and adequate framing from which to mount the ladder. Your attic entry should have adequate clearance for the ladder jamb to fit, along with the casing and the door must have room to fold down freely without hitting walls or objects below.
- Check whether your roof structure has trusses or rafters as this can make a difference in terms of how the ladder needs to be mounted.
- Once you have purchased the attic ladder, un-box it and lay it on the floor with the ladder frame facing down and the lid facing up.
- Measure and cut your casing material before you go up into the attic space to install the ladder. Cut the casing to size so that it will fit around the ladder lamb and set it aside until after the ladder has been mounted. Or, you can do this later whenever you want … the old “I’ll get to that all that trim stuff next week”.
- If the ceiling where you are mounting the attic ladder is sheet rock, mark a rough opening and cut the drywall away; always better to error on the side of not enough than too much when roughing out the opening and be sure to read your manufacturer’s directions completely before cutting the opening to size; this is one of those things you just don’t want to get wrong.
- If you are installing your attic pull down staircase in a location with a previously existing attic hatch or opening, cut out the framing around the old opening using a reciprocating saw to remove it.
- If needed, use a reciprocating saw to cut joists and nails that hold joists which need to be removed and cut around the ceiling trim using a utility knife to smooth the edges. Note: use extreme care when removing joists and consult an expert if you have any doubt about harming roof framing or ceiling structure!
- Cut some new 2×8 inch joists and header to size and frame out the rough opening for your attic ladder. Use 16d common nails to attach the side joists to the header. Nail through the existing ceiling joist into the ends of the new side joists and fasten the opposite ends of the new side joists using metal joist hangers. Use your reciprocating saw or a drywall knife to remove excess ceiling drywall inside the new opening. You should now have the opening for your pull down attic ladder completely framed and ready for installation.
- Install temporary 1×4 inch cleats at either end of the opening, driving 2 1/2 inch screws into solid framing so the cleats can support the weight of the ladder temporarily.
- With your helper’s assistance, lift the staircase in its collapsed position into the attic space and drop it into place resting on the cleats and tap shims into place around the edges as needed to center the ladder unit within the opening.
- Lower the stairs far enough to drill pilot holes through the side framing into the joists and fasten it using lag screws as specified by your manufacturer; maybe add a couple more for extra piece of mind. Remember, the casing needs to be level and centered, so drill pilot holes if your ladder casing does not have pre-drilled holes, put each bolt in loosely first and adjust shims as needed while tightening things down to avoid over setting.
- Remove the temporary cleats and trim off excess shim material after everything is secure.
- Pull the folding ladder down with the bottom section still folded up and use lengths of 1×4 to check the length and angle of the ladder. Trim the ends of the bottom ladder section as needed to accommodate the length and angles so they will rest flat and secure on the floor.
- Install the casing you cut earlier, sand, primer and paint as needed … or put it off; there’s always next weekend. Congratulations and enjoy your new pull down attic ladder; you’ll have fun showing this one off for sure!
Tips of the Trade
- Deck your attic with plywood if you intend to use the attic for storage; this greatly reduces the chance you may step or even fall through the ceiling sheetrock below.
- During home renovation and major remodeling or re-roofing it’s a good time to install a pull down ladder since things are torn apart anyway.
- Plan your ladder location so that you have the best possible access without having to move furniture, cars or other stuff out of the way.
- Never cut a truss or rafter unless you know what you’re doing; better consult an expert on that part of the project if you aren’t certain.
- Watch your head; roofing nails many times protrude through the sheathing and you will have plenty of rafters (or trusses) to hit your end on as well!
- Remember that any job like this one involves lifting and climbing up and down ladders, so slow down and take your time. Do so at your own risk, knowing that when this project is done, you won’t have to use a step ladder to get into the attic again!