Replacing My Deck Stairs: A Refactoring Parable

When we had the inspection for our house last December, the inspector pointed out the stairs leading down from the deck to the back yard. He said that the boards were starting to rot and we'd probably need to replace the stairs in the spring.

I'm not exactly a super handy man, but I figured that I could handle this problem. I went out to Home Depot and bought some nice pressure treated stair treads and the stair angles to attach them to the stringers (side note: there's a piece of zinc coated metal to connect pretty much any two pieces of wood.)

On Monday morning with my hammer and pry bar, I set out to remove the treads, thinking that I would have the new treads on by the end of the day (or surely Monday at the latest!) As I started pulling off the old treads I started to notice that the stringers were a bit weird. Definitely not like the ones in the deck building book!

Small pieces of wood had been tacked onto the stringers to support the stair treads and the risers. There didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to the additions: the builder of the stairs simply added a piece of wood wherever he thought was necessary.

As I pulled off further treads, I noticed that at one point the middle stringer had boards nailed onto both sides. Upon further inspection, I found that the stringer had been cut in two (clearly with a circular saw) and then patched back together. Seems like it would have been a better idea to start from scratch and cut another stringer, but I guess they were either in a hurry or they wanted to save money.

Of course, this haphazard approach to connecting things to the stringers (mostly things were nailed on with a few screws here and there (Why? You've got me!) lead to cracks in the stringers at the tips of the treads, which meant that as I removed the treads, the stringers were breaking apart.

So, about halfway through the removal of the treads I realized that I was going to need to replace the middle stringer. About three quarters of the way through I realized that I was going to have to replace all of the stringers.

Let me tell you, once you realize that you don't need to keep some things intact, you can take things apart a lot faster.

As I got closer to the deck that the stairs landed on, I realized that the stringers were simply sitting on the deck boards and that those boards were rotted clean through. I'm glad it didn't collapse over the winter, and I guess that speaks to the strength of wood, even when people do strange things with it.

So, the deck boards had to go as well.

At this point it was getting to be pretty evident that not a lot of planning had gone into this deck. This became abundantly more clear when, as I was removing the deck boards I realized that, while one railing post was centered on a joist, the other was about 3/4 of an inch away from a joist. Couldn't they have made the stairs 3/4 of an inch wider?

Throughout the project, I encountered a few boards that were in good shape and well attached, but I had committed to everything going.

I finally finished, about five hours after I started. What I was left with was this:

sore muscles and the wish that there was version control for the physical world. Now all I have to do is rebuild the deck and the stairs before my son's birthday in two weeks...


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This is Stephen Green's blog. It's about the theory and practice of text search engines, with occasional forays into Machine Learning and statistical NLP. Steve is the PI of the Information Retrieval and Machine Learning project in Oracle Labs.


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