Ladders and steps are often vital for DIY work yet all but the simplest and smallest represent a considerable financial investment. With some it’s simply not worth buying; better to hire when you really need them.

Whether you’re buying or hiring a ladder, it’s actually the way you use it that matters most. Although they’re all designed to do exactly the same job, some give you a lot more flexibility than others – and are also a great deal safer to use.

The traditional ladder was always made of wood. Nowadays, a great deal of thought goes into designing ladders which not only use lighter materials – like aluminium alloys – but also give more flexibility in use. Extension ladders which slide apart or fold up, for example. Or ladders with safety feet, ribbed rungs for better grip and special brackets which can be used as supports for scaffold boards.

All these developments can make using ladders a lot safer, but there’s still no substitute for common sense. In general, if you’re using an old ladder, do check it thoroughly before you start climbing, particularly if it’s been stored out of doors.

Single section ladders

Timber versions are often just flat sided pole ladders, though it is possible to get them with square or D section rungs, sometimes in aluminium. Some taper towards the top and, if very long, the stiles are often reinforced with steel cable set into the back. Glass fibre stiles with aluminium rungs are now also available. Aluminium ladders offer the same rung choice as wood, are generally ribbed for extra grip, and come with solid I section or hollow box stiles.

Push-up extension ladders

These are 2 or 3 single-section ladders linked in such a way that, by sliding them over each other and locking them in position with locating hooks, you can vary the ladder’s length. This makes it versatile, easy to use, and reduces the storage space needed. Usually each section can be separated for use as a single section ladder. Heights vary but most 2-section versions have a fully extended height of between 3 and 10.5m (10 and 35ft), though some go as high as 13.5m (45ft). The 3-section models range between 4 and 14.25m (13 and 47ft), though with most manufacturers, 9 to 10.5m (30 to 35ft) is the upper limit.

Rope operated extension ladders are used primarily by the trade. These are extended by using a system of ropes and pulleys and locked with a patent locking device. This makes them a lot easier to use, but does add considerably to the cost. Heights tend to be greater, but most are in the 6 to 12m (20 to 40ft) bracket for2-sections; 9m to 18.25m (40 to 60ft) for 3-sections.

Series ladders

Normally made of aluminium, a series ladder consists of up to four short, normally about 0.9m (3ft), ladder modules which can be slotted together end to end to produce a ‘single section’ ladder. Designed as a means of access, not as working platform, for people like surveyors and service engineers, they are compact but expensive.

Roof ladders

Designed to provide access and a safe working platform on a sloping roof, a roof ladder has wheels at the upper end so you can slide it into place without damaging the roofing material and a large hook which locates over the roof ridge to hold it in place. It should also have padded spacing bars to keep the rungs a safe distance from the roof surface, to prevent roof damage, and be made of lightweight aluminium alloy. Old-fashioned ‘crawl board’ roof ladders are still available, but take skill to be used safely.

Builders’ steps

This is the traditional step ladder with a tapering flight of fairly narrow steps also known as painters’ steps. Some have cross-pieces fitted to the back stay, which is then called a trestle back, to take scaffold boards. Most manufacturers can supply steps in heights from 1.25m to 3m (4 to 10ft). These steps are aimed at the trade, are rugged, and cost more than DIY steps.

Platform steps

Much better for the amateur than builders’ steps, these have wider more comfortable treads, tend to be more stable, and have a good sized platform at the top on which you can stand, or place tools, paint pots etc. Normally, it is this platform that stops the back stay opening too far. Many have a safety rail. Available in timber, aluminium, or tubular steel (with timber treads), most DIY versions offer platform heights ranging from 0.75 to 2m (2ft 6in to 7ft), but models intended for the trade may reach 35m (12ft) or more.

Combination ladder/steps

By sliding, swinging, and dismantling the two or three sections from which they are made, they can be converted from a simple step ladder into what is essentially a single-section ladder. Many can provide unequal legs for use on stairs, and some can be converted into a trestle platform. They come in aluminium, tubular steel and timber versions.

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