Table of contents.
Aluminium | Timber | Step  | Safety and Tips | Raising and Handling | Electrical Safety | Cat Ladders |

Aluminium Ladders

By far the most common ladders today are the extruded aluminium ladders.
Either single pole or extensions.
There is a huge variation in quality and strength of the ones on the market.  All I can say is get the best you can afford.  Look for solid construction. If you are hiring a ladder it will be of good quality and strength, maybe check that it has not been damaged.

You can pick up used ones for a good price sometimes.  You will be able to tell if it has been damaged.

back to top

Timber Ladders.

Still some of them around. In single form and extensions.  They are made out of  strong straight grained softwood, (spruce comes to mind?)

They are ALWAYS clear finished.  So that you can see any defects.  Don't trust a timber ladder that has been painted for any reason.

Wooden ladders tend to dry out and get loose as they go older.  There are rods under the rungs, joining the two sides together.  They are a bit like motor bike spokes, so I can't see any reason why they could not be tightened up and the ladder given fresh life.

It is a very unsettling experience climbing a sloppy ladder.  Apart from the normal in and out movement as you climb, they also sway side to side.

back to top

Ladder Safety and Tips.

It is rare that you just go up and down a ladder.  You use it to do a job, so you could be carrying tools and materials up it.  You could be on it and be sawing or drilling.  You can apply many kilograms of thrust to the ladder, over and above your own weight when you are working on it, so you need a solid support.

As far as I know ladder rungs are set at 1 foot apart.  So an 18 pin (rung) ladder is 18ft long, plus a bit.  A double 18 pin extension will get you safely onto a 28 ft high roof.  Say four rungs overlap at the join, three rungs over the top and a foot or so for the slope.

extension ladder safety
ladders - correct position.

On the right is a sketch of an extension ladder leaning on a roof edge.

The angle of the ladder to the vertical is important.  Four to one is the recommended angle ratio.

Note! In nearly 50 years up and down ladders I have never done any sort of measurement for this.  Always I've done it by eye and what feels right.  Having said that, when I was taking the photo below, earlier today I decided to set the ladder at 4:1 ratio and straight away it felt too steep for me.  I needed a bit more out from the wall to feel comfortable.  Just my opinion, but you have to work with what feels right.

If you have it too steep, as you are climbing up it the top tends to skitter about or feel loose.  There is not enough weight resting on the roof edge.

If you place it with too much angle, the bottom is liable to slide out, but more importantly you are making the ladder itself carry too much of your weight instead of the ground.  Also you will be leaning at an unnatural angle as you climb.

  • First and foremost! Look for any electrical power lines and keep away from them.
    • Near where you are proposing to work.
    • Near where you are raising the ladder.
    • Near you if you have to carry the ladder in it's raised position say around a corner.
  • Make sure the ladder is in good condition.
  • One ladder, one person only on it at the same time. Don't get your mate to bring stuff up to you.
  • Always make sure that the ladder is on a firm base.
  • Make sure it is strong enough for the job.  Ladders have weight ratings on them.  I disobeyed this simple rule once on a step ladder.  I was lifting up a 9" x 3" hardwood beam, and the back frame of the step ladder collapsed under me.  No warning.  The beam nearly took my ear off.  (I could have spent the rest of my life looking like Vincent Van Gogh :-)
  • Always have the ladder at least three rungs or say 1 meter higher than the roof edge, to give you support as you step on and off.
  • Never step on any of those higher rungs though, use the one lower than the edge to get onto and off the roof.
  • If you are working on a wall, keep the top three rungs for your hand grip, don't stand on them, get a longer ladder if you can't reach.
  • For extension ladders use the manufacturer's recommendations for minimum lap. Personally I hate to see ladders stretched out to their maximum.  I always go for extra strength that more lap gives.  If your ladder is not long enough, NEVER EXTEND IT PAST THE RECOMMENDED LAP! Go out and hire a longer one.
  • Don't over stretch out on a too short ladder. It is dangerous and apart from that it is not efficient.  If you are drilling, you want to be pushing at just about chest height, not stretching above your head.  Simple logic.  
  • When I was into sailing an old saying was "one hand for the boat and one hand for yourself". The same thing applies to ladders also, always have three points of contact with the ladder, two feet plus one hand, or if stepping off the ladder onto the roof two hands and one foot.
  • The ladder can be roped at the top and bottom if necessary, but tie the ropes to the sides and not the rungs.
  • On sloping ground don't just pack up one leg with something. This is dangerous as the spring of the ladder can move it off the packer.
  • Make a definite provision for a solid base by either leveling the ground and providing a sole plate or if on sloping concrete provide a decent sized piece of ply to rest a leg on, then secure the base with ropes.
foot of a ladder
ladders - Swivel the bottom of the ladder fittings inwards and then bounce on the bottom rung to dig them into the ground.
top of ladder secured to a gutter with multigrips
ladders - Top of ladder clipped to a gutter with multigrips.  I should have put a rag or something in between to stop the ladder marking the gutter.  Naughty!
  • On firm ground like the lawn on the right, flip the base pieces to the inside of the ladder and jump on the bottom rung a couple of times to dig the pointy bits in. If the ground is softer provide a good sized timber sole plate.
  • If the top feels a bit insecure I have also partly unscrewed a couple of roof screws, used tie wire to fix the top of the ladder to them and then screwed them down again.
  • The photo shows an occasion where I clipped the top of the ladder to the gutter using multigrips to stop it sliding as I was carrying tools onto the roof.
  • Never put anything at the bottom that can cause you to trip as you get off the ladder.  I have seen a couple of star pickets used for holding the bottom rung.  More danger of stepping on them than what they are trying to stop. 
  • Don't tread mud and crap onto the rungs, (and then onto the roof too).  Clean your feet first.
  • There is a term called "walking a ladder". This does not refer to carrying the ladder vertically from one place to another but it means that when on the top of the ladder you wriggle it sideways to extend your reach (say when painting gutters). DON'T DO IT! sooner or later you will reach a point of no return. In addition you put all the weight on one leg of the ladder which could cause other problems.

The older I get the more convinced I am that some jobs should never be done when you are alone. I am not saying that you may need a helping hand to do the work. What I am saying is just to know that there is someone nearby to call in case of emergency. Working on ladders, particularly high ladders is one of them.

I went onto a house job about four years ago and there was a young guy sitting in the shade. He looked sick and he was grey, still suffering from shock.
He had been trying to fix a 6 M. length of metal gutter onto a two storey house on his own from a ladder, and he had lost it.  He had fallen about 16 feet.  I think some shrubs broke his fall and he was unharmed apart from cuts and bruises.
The house was empty and he was lucky that he didn't need assistance.

He told me after that he always fixed gutters on his own and had never had any trouble before!  I doubt he ever did it again.

back to top

Raising and Handling Ladders

Straight away the term "foot it" or "footing a ladder" comes to mind.

You are about to raise a 30 ft. ladder.  You say to your offsider, "foot this for me mate".  You go to the top end. He gets at the bottom or foot and puts his boots onto it holding it firmly to the ground.  You lift up your end above your head and walk towards your mate hand over hand on each successive rung, as it gets higher your mate grips the sides and pulls up also.  When it is vertical you both maneuver it into position.

You may not have an assistant handy, so you push the foot into a wall, a pole (not electrical), anything quite solid that will stop the ladder kicking up when you get past half way.

Once you have it vertical you have one hand low down on a rung and one as high as you can reach and just lift it a touch off the ground and walk with it to where you want it.  If it starts to lean, rest it down and steady it before moving again.

Dropping it is the reverse procedure.

A small extension you can handle one man, lift it and extend it with the ropes no worries.

For large extensions, extend it first then lift as normal.  If you land on the roof but need it a bit higher, a pull on the ropes will take it up a couple more rungs or so.  Make sure that the hooks on the top part of the extension are properly locked into place before you start using the ladder.

If you are short of room to raise the fully extended ladder, raise it in it's compact form and extend it when you have it vertical, with one man holding the ladder and one pulling the ropes.

back to top

Electrical safety ladders.

These are usually made out of fiberglass, but some are still made out of timber, for their non conductive properties.  A variation they sometimes have is a rope instead of the top rung, so that the ladder can rest against a round pole safely.

Cat Ladders

cat ladder
ladders - Sketch of a cat ladder showing an exaggerated large size of ladder, just for clarity.

These are ladders for working on steeply sloped roofs.  All the ones I have seen  have been home made and out of fairly flimsy timber.  Say 3" x1"  sides and 2" x 1" rungs.  About the same width as an ordinary ladder.

Sometimes the joints are housed in, sometimes just screwed.

They don't have to be very strong, as they are only designed to stop you sliding off the roof when working on it.  The roof itself provides the support.

Say if I had to fix a skylight in a roof that was over 20 or 25 degrees,  I would probably make up two of them.  one on either side of the work area.  They would give me a secure footing while doing the work.  I could hook my tool bucket onto a rung and also lodge the materials on them.

back to top

Step Ladders

step ladders
ladders - Since the time a cheap step ladder collapsed under me I have always bought the double sided type.

Always extend step ladders to their full width, so that the folding struts are fully extended and allowed to drop slightly into their locked position.

Again these are mostly extruded aluminium, with a very wide range of qualities.  Some of them unfold into an ordinary ladder, but so far I have not seen one of these combination things than I would be happy working on.  A couple of the steel ones I have seen were quite robust.

Apart from just plain strength, these double sided ones give a lot more range for the one ladder position, so if I am painting (cutting in) around a ceiling, I go up one side and reach to paint 4 or 5 ft. then step over the top and reach an extra 4 ft or so.

The small three step ladder is my favourite, I use it for heaps of small jobs around the house.

The taller one is a replacement for a similar one that I had for years.  It got stolen so I replaced it with exactly the same ladder.

back to top

"When I were a Lad"

When I was about sixteen, I spent three days footing a ladder in the center of the town I lived in.  I was protecting the bottom of the ladder,  making sure that no body tried to climb it, interfered with it or bumped it with their car.  I was there to steady it when the other guys were using it.

It was access to the roof of a building that was at least three stories high, but it could have been four.

The ladder was huge.  What we called a pole ladder.  If you imagine a round piece of timber, tapered from say 8 inches at the bottom to say 4 inches at the top, then sawn in half length ways, that was the two sides.

It was about 2' 6" wide at the bottom and about a foot at the top.

I saw a plumber carry a roll of lead up this ladder and it took on a curve that was just about vertical at the top few feet.

We had the foot resting in the roadway, with the footpath unobstructed to provide access to the shop.  About 90% of people chose to walk into the street around the ladder,  rather than go under it.  The old superstition of it being bad luck to walk under a ladder was alive and well in those days.

The old pole  ladders were really good to work on, (once you got them in position of course), but some of the other ladders we had to work on were a different story.

We had triple extension ladders in timber that were nearly as tall as the largest pole ladders.  Because extension ladders need to have parallel sides they weren't half as stiff as the old pole ladders.  I have never seen it happen, but it was not uncommon for an old  sloppy extension ladder to turn inside out when someone was climbing it.  That is the top and the bottom stay firmly in place, but the middle with the guy on it swings through 180 deg. and he finishes up on the inside of the ladder.

Ah..... who wants to bring back the good old days.

Not found it yet? Try this FAST SITE SEARCH or the whole web

coates hire
Hire Equipment
Furniture Fittings - Architectural Hardware - Electronic Locking Systems - Technical Hardware

BuilderBill sponsorship

Quick Illustrated Roofing Glossary Pages.

Types of roofs
Roof Features
Roof Framing
Roof Trusses
Roof Coverings



Please Note! The information on this site is offered as a guide only!  When we are talking about areas where building regulations or safety regulations could exist,the information here could be wrong for your area.  It could be out of date!  Regulations breed faster than rabbits!
You must check your own local conditions.
Copyright © Bill Bradley 2007-2012. All rights reserved.
Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape