Wood Attic Ladders Review & Suggestions 2012, Amended January 2013 and August 2015

If you have found this page by a graphic link, please know more up-to-date information is in blog posts, energyconservationhowto, Label: Attic Access.

This is an update and expansion of an open letter to product designers and management of Fakro Industries, in Poland. All links are now public on the web. Any manufacturer may apply information shared.

Background, A Need Of Smart And Safe Attic Access:

The world needs energy-efficient, healthy and well-lighted homes, where people can achieve more. For this, we should first tune up our attics, not coping with dangerous access through a hole or a flimsy, leaky and uninsulated ladder. We in the USA must no longer see an attic as a trash heap, where dirty secrets of construction sloth or stupidity, and an accumulation of roofing debris, may be buried, inaccessible to an inspector. Where an attic ladder is employed for an accessible attic, it should be insulated and gasketed comparable to any Energy Star rated exterior door; it should not rely on some weatherizing afterthought cover.

This is the accessible attic of a ladder installation example which follows. At the link, see that the clean result, with storage and service opportunities that won't damage insulation, is a bonus. Immediate large value is in repair of large energy bleeds, not evident and not possible, in darkness and danger. A blow and go weatherizing competitor, top-rated in my market, would have foregone the access and the most important repairs. The public will be better served where good access is mandatory and ordinary.

Once an attic is accessible and lighted. it can also be the scene of our impending revolution in LED lighting. I installed only three of the wonderful new LED plate lights before placing insulation in the above photo. I can readily work from the decking to string more, perhaps soon as low-voltage direct-current wiring.

The dangerous found condition was hostile, with many head bangers that did little to reinforce a fire-damaged roof. With the inviting access and with strong composite-beam floor framing, simple knee wall braces and steel straps bolted at the ridge, bring functional beauty.  

Detail Of The Attic Ladder in Above Photos:

 I believe wood ladders should deploy in four sections most of the time. Difficult installations declared not possible, and not supported in direct consumer sales, become possible and ordinary. An example is this of a Calvert Model 1035, with so-tall ceiling, FC 130.5", 3.3 meters. The rated FC range is  to only 10' 6", 126", 3.2 meters, and at a steep 68° door angle. Here is the default installation, where an "extension  kit" is added by default method: The prescribed procedure with the extension kit is to cut one step off the third section, resetting hinges. Join that to the four-step extension kit, and trim to reach the floor.

Here is the as-built of the example ladder, where I have improved the stowage tenting, and the ladder door is set at a comfortable 62° door angle down from horizontal. The bottom two sections are brought straight down in-line. There is no scary toppling. The bottom section hooks in a condition nearly vertical as the tent is formed, door open.
I could have done better, with new insight. I have listened to my customer, who reported a near toppling of the tented sections upon slamming down the ladder door. 
The three tented sections of the as-built ladder might be stopped in the ladder frame, if they remain locked together. Tented sections of the default ladder would not be stopped by the ladder frame.
With this better arrangement, a crash is securely blocked. The bottom section of this stock ladder is in fact not longer than others with hinge provision at bottom, but I could have achieved nearly the same result, with a slightly steeper angle. If I could make the fourth section any length I wished, I could reach another ten inches with this 52" ladder, where the third section has three steps, and the fourth has five. This extreme extension will be illustrated further in other wishful examples.

Here is deployment of the as-built ladder, as YouTube video:

Thoughtless default installation of a ladder out-of the box has many needless limitations, and might be used unsafely.

An Accessible Attic Has Strong Floors, Protecting Full Insulation From Abuse:

In the above example photos, 2x6 floor joists have chancy placement on an intermittent mid-span load-bearing wall. With good access, 2x6@16" oc strength is easily improved to that of 2x10@48" oc. The 2x10 thickness shelters R38 insulation under decking. Attics built with 2x4 trusses often have storage directly upon flimsy bottom elements, prone to rotation, insulated at best to R10. Beef up again to 2x10@48 strength, at minimum within a central work area. Where 2x10 composite beams go out further, they support temporary work platforms over hard-to reach peripheral areas.

Here is a list of  principles for attic ladder manufacturers and installers:
  • Strong laminated door, insulated always serving heated spaces. 
  • Insulation must not subtract from toe space when climbing on the door section.
  • Door durably gasketed, always.
  • The installation rough frame must strengthen, not compromise, the attic floor.
  • The bottom steps of the ladder must fall to hand of the operator. Avoid climbing on and off a step stool while walking the ladder out.
  • Operating springs and arms must not subtract from free area in passing the constriction of the ladder frame.
  • Choose shallowest door angle down to as little as 57°, as allowed by available step section lengths. Don't trim off step length that could contribute to user convenience and safety.
  • Trim the ladder for convenient location of the bottom step. Then set the door angle where the ladder bears on the floor.
  • Refine floor contact and achieve a friction grip on a smooth floor, with leveler legs. Test ladder arrangements and refine, to preclude confusion and danger in ladder kickout.

These rules may support a network of professional installers, rewarded with some "professional grade" features not offered in DIY consumer ladders.Enrollment of professional installers will be the privilege and responsibility of supporting ladder manufacturers.

Professional Installers:

I achieve difficult installations because I have planning tools I have built, in 2D graphics, where I can test, and learn what works. My insight is constantly sharpened, as I complete custom installations. With Calvert ladders I have employed additional four-step sections and hinges, previously called "extension kit." Fakro has been willing to sell four-step sections and hardware, as open stock without instruction. I cut to length as required and reset hinges accurately, clamping on precise steel drill guides. Few consumers will try this, and I think a DIY market will be served only where puzzle pieces of two, three, four and more steps are factory made with hinge-holes drilled, and where usage is inspired by Lego-like kit guides. Kit part inventory is complicated where hinges have non-symmetric hole patterns, as in all Fakro ladders. 

I think there is need to see attic ladders as personal, peculiar to needs in a particular house, to be served by experienced professionals. The need is as personal as that of a competitive bicyclist. The product is as fragile as a bicycle, inviting of shipment in safe disassembled units. I want to be part of this alternative future in Attic Access, supporting safety, energy efficiency and good use, of our attic spaces. Many in the USA now see an attic as a trash heap, where dirty secrets of construction sloth or stupidity, and an accumulation of roofing debris, may be buried, inaccessible to an inspector. I see a safely accessible attic as necessary, ordinary and affordable.

Avoiding A Step Stool With Large Floor-Ceiling Distance:

I imagine motor-operated door closure, in lieu of a latch. The tension would be drawn from elbows of the limit arms. Gravity would effect release. Use longest door to bring steps closer to reach. Devise a tent latch that is operated easily and securely with a pole. There are ladders that are fully motor-operated. I don't think that is necessary.

Here are edits of remarks posted early in 2012, with update of links to drawings, now publicly disclosed.

Though 2012, this page was not prominently accessible, and links had restricted access. In January, 2013, this page was updated with links now public on the web. Add a new preferred arrangement of a ladder "2009 Flex", rearranging a ladder with sections of 2009 design. Where possible, the third section of a four-section ladder should have only two steps; this for comfortable and secure tenting. Ideally the tented fourth section should be nearly upright before the ladder is raised into the attic. Graphics for topics judged most important will be posted directly as .jpg. Others will remain hyperlinks to Google Docs pdf's.

Add length to third and fourth sections, asking for custom sections not in consumer kits, to better see possibilities with four-section tenting:

For large floor to ceiling distance, a longer door permits safer operation. Here are January 2013 illustrations of 54" ladders with four sections with good tenting, noting an operator not very tall:

Action at January 2013 is directed in part at imminent need of a ladder that deploys within a 48" space, to 92" floor distance, FC. I define "compact deployment" as where the swing in ladder deployment is within the landing space. This is a common need, as in a confining closet, where landing must be accepted as very near a wall, and swinging sections must not hit the wall. Confinement can be even greater, where the swinging steps must clear a header or a shelf. Needs CAN be met, where a planner, suitably paid, knows the constraints, and can build the ladder as a computer model. Here is the plan for my ladder:
LWS-P 22/47 Very Compact Deployment. And here is a better arrangement, as-built. 


Here is a YouTube video of the deployment of this ladder.

While this effort is beyond what a distributor or retail seller can offer, the solution is a lesson to ladder manufacturers. Manufacturers, sellers and consumers should know there can be resources to meet most needs, without compromise of function or safety. An attic ladder can be a very personal thing, demanding support comparable to demands upon professional sellers of bicycles. We all have our own needs and preferences. Ladders are like bicycles too, in being at risk of damage in shipment if fully assembled. Cost of custom fitting a ladder can be lessened where a professional installer completes assembly from less-fragile packages. A professional ladder market might be served with "professional" grades of ladders. One common feature of professional-grade ladders would be safer steps.

Hereafter is text seen through 2012, for conversation with Fakro:
Default Ladders, as assembled in the factory:
Default ladders have three step sections of equal length. I think this is not good design. The fold-out of the opened ladder is then designed "tight", minimizing the length of the ladder door such that swinging steps just clear the ladder frame. A "pinch problem" is permitted where the free end of the ladder must remain pinched against the middle section until the sections rotate past the ladder frame.

A variable in the installation is claimed as virtue:
Intelligently designed mounting brackets allow length adjustment of the ladder within 1½” after installation to set ladder evenly on the floor or provide adjustment (e.g. after floor renovation).
In fact, the virtue is attained only if the steps are trimmed with sections mounted at the high end of the adjustment range. Set at top of range, however, the pinch problem is maximized:
2009 LWS-P XX_47  Default at top of range
A large step backward in innovation, in 2011:
Two factory-set families are noted in the illustrations, "2009", where the top step is 4 cm below the top of the upper section, and "2011", where the top step is 12 cm below the top of the upper section. The families equally share the pinch problem. The 2011 lowering of the top step by 8 cm, three inches, is adverse however. The step to a thick R38 floor is nearly the ten inch step pitch for 2009 placement. Trick, low, placement of that step is dangerous. I hope Fakro design will revert to 2009 placement of the top step. Note that 2011 arrangements surrender competitive advantage against many ladders, where the top of the ladder is midway between steps.

A default 47" ladder will be safely operable by a person about 5'3" (160 cm) or taller, though with effort to keep the swinging sections from toppling. A default 54" ladder is safely operable only where the operator is about 6' (180 cm), or taller. Where a ladder is of default section lengths, most operators will prefer trimming with the on-door step section at the bottom of the setting range.

Most customers can be better served where the installer finds means  to control swing arcs to clear interferences, to control  landing space and to avoid unlucky trim at the bottom step. The "pinch problem" is eliminated in a "flex" design, where half of a step length is trimmed each from the bottom of the second section, and the top of the third. Then, just pull down at the free end of the ladder. Other trims can be designed for a variety of purposes. Just ensure the third section remains equal to, or shorter than, the second.

Illustrate "Flex" trims, for step placement of 47" 2009 ladders:

Ladder angle may be changed from 65 degree default,  by raising or lowering the limit arm pivots, engaging lag screws to the rough opening frame. Where framing allows, even for the default ladder frame 65 degree position, remove tee nuts from the ladder frame before installation, and use lag screws to the RO frame, to serve as limit arm pivots. Using lag screws with head fairings, removes the only snag of an object carried through the ladder frame. Socket head cap screw to tee nut pivots in the ladder frame, have ripped many an insulation bag for me. The cap screw heads are small enough, that they act sharp.

As recently as 2008, limit arms were shipped with multiple holes that might engage the cap bolt pivots in the ladder frame. The purpose of the multiple holes was not explained, and was lost to customers. There were two pairs of holes in arms. The shift of a hole pitch reduced ladder angle by about two degrees, and shifted the door-closed angle of scissored limit arms nearer to vertical. The adjustment was not usable if steps were set at the top of the range adjustment on the door, unless others, like me, felt free to reset hinges at customized section lengths. With reduced angle and steps at top of door range, swinging sections clashed with the ladder frame. The extra holes were poor as means of coping with "unlucky" trim, where the bottom step is too near the floor. Angle range plus and minus three degrees (range 62 to 68 degrees) is more useful.

The pivot position should be raised or lowered in an arc, if the the door-closed position of the elbows  of limit arms is to be held constant. Adjustment to steeper angle can otherwise cause elbow clash with the top face of the door, preventing door closure. Adjustment to reduced angle can raise the elbow to over-top vertical, jamming the door closed. This bracket  has been used successfully in several installations, to prescribe the arc of pivot positions. I now prefer to just use brackets as drill templates for the location of lag screw pivots, avoiding more holes for mounting of brackets. With experience, I do not even need the drill guides.

"Better" Ladders Illustrated:
I imagine a Professional class of wood ladders that encourages sales through installation professionals. Greater value, compensated, should offset the cost of professional installation. The key professional feature might be prettier, stronger, protruding steps, a safety matter in better toe engagement. Protruding steps are features of LWF ladders with 8.2 cm leg width, and of "consumer" OLN ladders with 7 cm legs. I suggest that instead, protruding steps on 8.2 cm legs should be standard for all Pro ladders. Use less-pretty steps of LWS ladders, with 8 cm legs and non-protruding steps, for consumer ladders. Reduce the inventories of swing sections, if steps and frames/ doors might be separate in shipment. Similar inventory simplification is seen as the reason for step width to be fixed in all ladders, at 15", an oddly small fit in a 30" frame. 15" steps are a regretful replacement of so-much-wider steps in a decrepit big American craftsman ladder. With LWS, LWF and OLN, there are now three families of step sections. If three families make sense, let the third be wider steps for wider Pro ladders. In addition to the Pro, protruding steps, allow that "better" ladders also restore the 2009 step placement. Volunteer some innovation in default section lengths.

The top step is again 3.8 cm down from the section top. Not down 11.8 cm, the adverse ~3" shift. With this, also  presume freedom to have a 100 cm fourth section, with steps wherever they fall. The maximum FC at 65 degrees becomes a big 127".

A "better" 54" ladder does give good FC range and easy deployment, even with simple three sections.

FC is 135" for illustrated 62 degree angle. Reach further with steeper angle, and still pull straight down, safely.

I am newly aware of Radex as another ladder maker in Poland. Their ladders are studied for lessons, with my translations from European metric. They are not smarter about location of the top step for service in a thick floor. Look to all models for "Safe Lock", implying hardware-control of ladder kick-out. Be aware that floor traction in Leveler Legs is also a preventive of kick-out

Why not market safety features I have illustrated?

Plan for installation in a thick, well-insulated floor, where the ladder frame is well below the step-off floor. Show this is thought-of, in 2009 design.

Plan for fall prevention with a safety pole at egress. Plan for solid, well-lighted  egress in attic. These can be matters of advocacy for a ladder manufacturer.

At 8/16/2015, Edit Remarks For Fakro Attic Ladders, Better Informed By 7/24/2015 Factory Visit.
Safer steps with protruding edges? Accept factory decision to discontinue this feature of OLN, LTK and LWF ladders, these known to me through USA sales and installation. The cantilevered leading edge may sometimes break off. Where the protrusion was a feature of now-discontinued cheap OLN  ladders with 25% narrowed steps and perhaps less-select wood grain, I have personal experience that such fracture can be dangerous, sometimes releasing one side of a step to fall under user weight. Know there is a way to safely have protruding steps.to promote toe space. Calvert USA makes ladders with strong birch plywood that will not split. Calvert USA at this time, does not offer protruding steps. 

Debate over where to divide default ladder step sections - I have voted for division of Fakro wood ladder sections at closest proximity to a step that the hinge bolting allows, rather than about midway between steps. I call this "2009 Design." I believe design at 2015 is restored to such cuts.

A safer wood ladder top step - As one who climbs attic ladders thousands of times in a year, I have stepped many times with regret, on the top of a side rail, instead of upon the ladder top step. I find this upsetting though I am usually secure, holding onto grips of a safety pole.
This is a safety pole bridged between elements of a tall 2x4 truss array. Safety poles more often bridge between attic floor joists and roof joists. So far, all employ select, smooth and strong kiln-dried 2x4 fir lumber.

I don't yet have an example constructed safer top step of a Fakro wood ladder. Here are graphics from a bid this date, where I show importance in my work carrying large bags of insulation upon attic ladders, of a least-steep ladder, and of avoiding that trick top step.

I am readily able to chop off a trick top step, and to apply a broad safer step resting upon top-section side rails. I will not hesitate to do this, if asked by the customer. As promised to the customer, I will provide, at no added cost, every feature I imagine contributing to customer safety (and my own). 

I have been buying out a wonderful and affordable USA inventory of circa 2008 LTK ladders that deploy at a default 70.5° angle. I thought this was a manufacturing error. At the factory I learned this angle, too-steep for acceptance by USA customers, meets European standards. The angle standard would be addressed in EN 14975, and in BS EN 1475 (UK), readable only for a large fee. Trying to go around this, I find indications that throughout Europe the standard mandates an angle not steeper than 61°. Whatever is true, I stated at the factory that I need an angle near 60° to carry bulky loads. I demonstrated this by outreach of coupled arms, approaching such ladder angle. There, and in the illustration above, feet can not engage the ladder. I made several promises to address contradiction of my understandings in the meeting. The graphics above fulfill the first promise.

At the factory, I reported that my request of the visit was prompted first by recent disappointment in attempted service of a customer with an LWF 54" ladder, needing to install from a 144" ceiling. I settled on this concept, shared with the Fakro factory. It would require manufacture of at least two long ladder sections that could not be produced through normal assembly-line production. I imagined that for R&D purposes and to satisfy the customer, someone could produce the sections. No offer to satisfy the customer was offered by the factory. A factory visit then would prove necessity of the refusal.

I was privileged to tour one of the factories producing wood ladders, green lumber in, and packaged ladders for shipment, out. I was impressed with the automation for accurate, least-cost production. I saw rick stacks of green lumber destined to cure and to be machined as 100 cm step sections. I could not imagine why longer sections could not be produced from a trial rick stack of longer green lumber or from 1x4 cured lumber readily available to the public. I did not know how to express my disappointment. In a meeting after the ladder production tour, I added to the list of graphic demonstrations I would send upon return to my computer in USA. Next then, this graphic sent to the factory before my visit. All of the innovations directly upon a ladder are presented. With web access only, no email, I could not find this at the meeting. I could not simply draw from memory, upon a pad.

Please see the safer, broad top step, best produced as a small bolt-on fixture to an assembly of steps dovetailed into side rails. I believe the step section on-door (first section), should be of maximum length suited to the door, if the goal is long reach. 

The concepts of tenting are indicated, with some need of explanation. Please step back with me to my first education in tenting, in July, 2008, with a ladder newly produced by SSC MidMade, purchased from Sweden via Conservation Technology, in Baltimore.
Lower Tenting Latch or Tent Rest

Upper Tenting Latch

Please see steel upper and lower tenting latches and tenting variability in cut-to-fit of only the added fourth section (extension kit). Tent center of gravity here, distant from the door face, gives need of the upper latch. I have employed such extension kits as needed, whether or not understood and supported by other manufacturers. I have learned to shape better tents, where the second section is shortened, the third section has evolved to have at most two steps, and where I now wish for great freedom in length of the extension-kit fourth section. I have come to want tenting of four ladder sections in most installations, whether or not a three-section stock ladder might reach the floor. I have come to understand, and to assure that I provide, safe tenting, that I now define. 

A safe tent does not come apart when the ladder is stowed in the attic, to interfere with door opening and sections deployment.
A safe tent has care to keep center of gravity closer to the door face and has least-steep ladder door, to minimize turning moments upon a jarred tent.
A safe tent has a lower latch that stays engaged where jarring drop of the door might put the tent in motion absent an upper latch.
A safe tent includes an upper latch, if needed.
A safe tent is retained by the ladder frame if it rolls about the first section hinges.

Safe tenting is fully the responsibility of the installer, Yet, in the graphic for the proposed twelve-foot LWF ladder, I toyed publicly with notion of full reliance upon a tent block, as the only means of tent control with a quite-long fourth section. I think we should fully reject that possibility. I do seek to avoid need of upper latches. A stiff upper latch might be as troublesome as is a tent collapsed in the attic. If an upper latch resists, up so high, how do you act upon it? A manufacturer should be aware of such installer thinking, but hopefully will not let worry stand in the way of flexible customer service. As more possibilities are allowed or are even encouraged, let there be means of growing the pool of installation professionals. Let there be internet resources to inform a home owner, in reviewing custom work done by an installer.

One more on-ladder feature to be promoted in this conversation with Fakro, is use of 
 leveler legs.

Here are refined drawings of my wishes of a 54" LWF ladder to serve with twelve-foot floor to ceiling distance:

Here is the tented condition in-attic, and detail of a perhaps-universal tent rest. The tent rest must not release with expected tent jarring where the door might slam in stowage, or the door slams open in deployment. Tent with the bottom of the step sections just clearing the ladder frame, to be nearest to hand.

At the factory, I saw the test fixture for burn testing of a fire rated ladder, and was inspired to question impact of variable installation on test results. Doesn't it matter how a wood frame of a fire rated ladder is sealed into the ceiling? Enter my flexible grout. I install a Fakro LWF ladder with the bottom edge buttered by a thickness of at least 1/8" flexible grout, and clearances between the ladder frame and surrounding plaster or drywall are fully filled with flexible grout.  I believe flexible grout is an excellent fire barrier. More than half of flexible grout by volume is ceramic microballoons. In alternative framing with thin wood trim bridging sometimes-large clearances about the ladder frame, isn't that a fire path threatening ladder fire rating?

Consider now the notes to self I wrote at the factory meeting, where I was unable to draw what I asked of the factory.

  1. A four section ladder does not have added danger of falling on someone. Prove this. I think I have done so in the discussion of safe tenting, and in refined drawings of a ladder serving twelve-foot floor to ceiling distance. I will seek always to have safe tenting, without a tenting upper latch.
  2. A compact ladder with 31" frame length is a misconception of customer needs. Prove this.
I despise my single installation of such a ladder, a Calvert with 34" frame, in June, 2009. There was plenty of space in this ceiling for a 48" door. The short door was no asset to clearing a door header in steps deployment. I ask for demonstration of any customer situation demanding a short door. I don't expect ever to see such a situation, where I have good methods of four-section compact deployment, within the landing space, and of very-compact deployment with yet-smaller swing distances. Upon request, I will do further on-paper studies to defend this position.
There was no restraint on landing space. The so-steep ladder with tiny hole, is almost useless, in a very large attic where excellent access was badly needed. My relentless urge to think out better ways to serve a customer is fed by shame in such failures.

My last at-factory note to self was to draw and reimagine the header clearance needed for this customer.

My customer badly served with a 31” ladder at 70°, could now have my ordinary installation of an LTK ladder with 60° door angle. I shall offer a replacement, with apologies, at cost of materials. This is yet warranty service, after six years without complaints. At full cost, I should replace any 31” ladder. Let us please abolish 31” ladders and their odd four-section arrangements.

The LTK customizing features are adapted from May, 2015 installation for customer Kolinski. For this conversation, further improve the Kolinski ladder. Add the broad top step and the tent rest. Then offer video of deployment of this ladder, voice in English, and voice in Polish. A first tent rest may be hand-fabricated, even of nylon, tested to refine ease of setting and releasing.

This subject selection is already too large, and confused by continuing ideas and experiments, yet add now photos of a very successful trial of a broad top step, on a Calvert 2254 fire-rated ladder.

Door spring tension is increased and pulled from higher points to balance the greater weight and shift of center of gravity, of the door and step sections.

The broad top step is easily found with a probing foot, assured of not losing balance upon something else. The step also serves as another good hand hold.

Employ all available hand holds for safety atop a ladder, and have secure flooring. Here is the usual principal hand grip and lighting control, upon the safety pole. There should be a lot more to each ladder installation, than can be imagined by a ladder manufacturer.