A Lofty Project – Installing an Attic Ladder

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Tired of dragging out the sketchy stepladder whenever it’s time to schlep another load of worthless crap valuable mementos up to the attic? Instead of wiggling your butt through a 14” scuttle hole in the ceiling, wouldn’t it be sweet to just tug on a string and have a sturdy ladder drop down, leading to an opening roughly 2’ wide and 4 ½’ long? Sounds like it’s time to put the boxes down, hit the home center, and spend this Saturday installing a drop-down Werner attic ladder. Whether you’ve tackled an attic ladder install before or not, follow along with our detailed experience, including obligatory before and after shots.

install a compact ladder
Easy access–but keep Chris Christie off this one…

Attic Ladder Sizing

Standard attic ladders fit an attic opening of 22-½” X 54”, and if you wanna supersize it, you can get one up to 25” X 66” in aluminum or 30” X 54” in wood. Of course, not every dwelling space has room for a full-size access ladder. But even if your ceiling space is tighter than Chris Christie’s Speedo, don’t despair, there’s a solution out there to ease your storage burdens. Werner makes a compact ladder that can fit in a space as small as 18” X 24”, with a weight capacity of 250 pounds. It’s great for setups where the only available access spot might be in a closet or a small hallway or bedroom, or a garage where you might not want to install a larger ladder. It can accommodate ceiling heights from 7’—9’10”, weighs only 15 ½ lbs, and can be easily installed by one person.

So Where You Gonna Put That Attic Ladder?

installing an attic ladder
Wouldn’t this look better with a big hole in it?

If you have an existing attic ladder that’s done its time, you’re in luck, you should easily be able to find a new ladder to fit the opening, and the hard part, prepping the opening, is all done. If you’ll be creating a new opening for your ladder, the first thing to do is to figure out where it should go. The easiest location often ends up being in a hallway, both for ease of access and because normally there isn’t a lot of furniture there to get in the way. Measure the height from floor to ceiling to determine which models will fit in your space. The Werner website has some great tips on choosing the right ladder for your space, including detailed specs on their various models, and videos demonstrating how they work and how to install them.

install an attic ladder
Attic access in a box–shrink wrap included!

The instructions that come with the Werner ladders are excellent. They list all of the tools and miscellaneous screws, etc. you’ll need. The tools are pretty basic, and are likely already in your DIY tool crib. They give particular emphasis to the prep phase; making sure the stairs you choose are right for your space, checking clearances where the stairs will open and rest, and making sure there are no obstructions like ductwork, wiring or plumbing in your proposed location. They also provide thorough instructions on how to prepare your rough opening, including how to install a double header if you need to cut a joist (which sounds intimidating, but is really pretty straightforward). Werner (or more likely, Werner’s attorneys) makes it clear that if you don’t feel comfortable tackling the installation, you should hire a pro. But we don’t need no stinkin’ pro – we’re DIYers (or pro’s)!

A Greener Hole In Your Ceiling

install an attic ladder
The Energy Seal model keeps more of your air where you want it

The folks at Werner provided HF with one of their new AE2210 Energy Seal attic ladders to evaluate. It has an aluminum ladder, gas struts for smoother opening and closing, a load capacity of 375 pounds, and weighs in at around 55 pounds, so find a friend to help you with the installation (tell ‘em they can have first pick of whatever crap treasures you discover up in the attic). It comes well-packaged, and seems very sturdy and well-made. We have an older high-capacity Werner wooden attic ladder, and it has held up very well.

When you cut a hole in your ceiling to install any kind of attic access, you’re losing some of your insulation to do it, and you have the potential for your opening to act as a big chimney, sucking your conditioned air up and into the attic. The Energy Seal model comes with a gasket around the perimeter of the door that reduces air leakage by 60%, and an insulated door that provides five times the insulating value of an un-insulated model.

install an attic ladder
Follow the edge of the joist, square over, repeat

I installed the Werner Energy Seal where no ladder had ever gone before. I chose a spot in the hallway, with the opening roughly under the peak of the roof, for maximum headroom when entering the attic. After making sure my chosen space was all clear, I poked a drywall saw down through the ceiling adjacent to one of the trusses, then measured 54” along the truss and poked it through again. I then went below and used my drywall saw to cut, following the edge of the truss. I used a framing square at each end of the cut to square the line across, then cut along the adjacent truss, made my two cross cuts, and admired the hole! At this point, with a 2X4’ hole in your ceiling, you’re pretty much committed to the project.

install attic ladder
A sturdy header is needed for the hinged end

Next, you’ll need headers at each end of the opening. The header at the hinged end of the stairs is especially important, as it bears the most weight and stress from the opening and closing of the unit. Make sure you use a double header, with two pieces of dimensional lumber the same size as your joists. Nail the pieces to each other, and across the opening, with three nails through the joist and into the end of each board in the header. Be sure the headers are as perfectly square to the opening as possible, so your unit will operate properly. At this point, the hardest part is done! The following eight-minute video shows how the honchos from Werner do it:

Minor Modifications May Be Needed

install an attic ladder
Minor obstacles can be dealt with

My prep was complicated to a small degree by two things: A 1X6” running right down the middle of the attic floor, with electric wiring stapled to it, and the truss connectors. The spacing between the trusses was 22 ½”, which is exactly what is needed; unfortunately, the trusses had been assembled using squares of ½” plywood instead of steel nailing plates. The plywood squares protruded into the installation zone by—you guessed it: 1/2” on either side, so they had to go.

At this point you’re committed…note the offending wire and plywood mending plates
install attic ladder
Out with the 1/2″ plywood, in with shiny newness

Normally, messing with the structural integrity of a truss is something you should avoid, unless you want to be featured on HomeFail.com. This was a quick and sturdy fix, though; the trusses have mending plates on both sides of every connection, and after temporarily bracing the ceiling from below using a 2”X4” “T”, I pried off one plywood square at a time and immediately replaced it with a steel mending plate, nailing the crap out of it with joist hanger nails. The new connections were at least as strong as the old, and much shinier to boot.

install attic ladder
A quick splice, and the wire is out of the way

The wiring problem was resolved by removing the section of 1”X6” that spanned the area the ladder was to go, then cutting the wire around the center of the span (yes, the breaker was OFF for that!)  I then added a junction box on either side of the ladder space, and added a length of wire of the same gauge (12) to re-connect them, routing around my opening.

Filling That Hole in The Ceiling with Your New Attic Ladder

Your next mission is to screw a temporary support made out of scrap 1”X4” material under each end of the opening, to hold the ladder in position while you bolt it into place. Be sure to follow the instructions for placement — the support at the hinge end only protrudes 3/8” into the opening, so the door will be able to swing down.

Measure carefully when installing the temporary supports
Measure carefully when installing the temporary supports

After temporarily securing the hinged end to the header with decking screws, you’ll check the unit for square. Next, just follow the instructions for the sequence to finish securing the unit to the headers and joists with the provided lag screws and washers, shimming where needed to keep it straight and square. If you have an impact driver, this is a great opportunity to put it to work; just be sure not to over-tighten. Even without one, it’s really pretty quick and simple. After it’s screwed in, remove the temporary supports.

install attic ladder
Drill the header through the four holes in the bracket
install attic ladder
Four lag screws secure the ladder to the header

Next, you’ll use your floor-to-ceiling measurement to determine how much of the ladder to whack off. The ladder can be used for ceiling heights from 7’8” to 10’3”, so most installations will require a trim job. Werner provides a table telling you how much to cut off each side, based on your measurement. Just mark the cut point on both sides of the ladder, square it up with your speed square, and use a hacksaw or reciprocating saw to cut the excess off.

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Mark the sides based on your measurement and the table provided
install attic ladder
Trim the sides off, quick work with the reciprocating saw

Now, unfold the ladder all the way, slide the ladder feet onto the bottom, and put some pressure downward to make sure the ladder is in the fully-open position. If your finish flooring isn’t in place yet, use a piece of scrap material to hold the feet at the right height. Mark the holes on each side, drill ‘em out, and attach the feet with the provided bolts and lock nuts.

install attic ladder
Extend the ladder fully, and drill for the feet
The foot gets attached with a bolt and lock-nut
The foot gets attached with a bolt and lock-nut

To finish your project, get some spray foam and insulate the gap between the joists and the ladder frame. To further increase your energy efficiency, it’s a great idea to buy or build a cover to go over the stair unit; most home centers carry them, and (like everything else on Earth) several versions are available from Amazon and the Reach Barrier 3139 Reflective Air² Attic Ladder Insulation Kit (advertiser), also on Amazon.

install attic ladder
Ready to transport your valuable heirlooms!

Now trim out the edges, paint the door, and your hole in the ceiling will be transformed into a magnificent architectural feature. Or at least it won’t be quite as ugly. And it will be a helluva lot easier for you and your stuff to make the journey to the land of dust and trusses.

install attic ladder
Add some trim, paint it, call it done!

The Werner Energy Seal is one of the beefier residential attic ladders available, with a load capacity of 375 pounds. Other models are available, with lower load limits, but when I’m schlepping MY worthless crap valuable heirlooms—and my butt—eight feet up, I want the sturdiest unit I can get. The Werner AE2210 Energy Seal is available from several retailers, including Home Depot for $199. If the compact ladder is more your size, it’s also available at Home Depot for $94. Get one, ditch the sketchy ladder, and make your future schlepping easier and safer.

Trimmed and primed!
Photo of author

About Phil

Phil’s path to the pinnacle of success as HomeFixated’s Senior Writer was long and twisted. At various stages of his life, he worked as a framing carpenter, attended motorcycle mechanics school, served as an Army MP, did a hot and itchy stint installing insulation in Phoenix, owned and operated a small contracting firm doing residential renovations, and worked as an employee of a major airline (Motto: We’re not happy ‘til YOU’RE not happy). He is currently semi-retired, but continues to take on little projects, such as the total renovation of an old farmhouse. Yes, he is a slow learner. Future projects include a teardown restoration of his 1965 BMW motorcycle, and designing and building a kick-ass playhouse for his grandsons. Phil loves spending time outdoors, hanging out with family and friends, cool tools, and a cold IPA when beer o'clock rolls around.

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18 thoughts on “A Lofty Project – Installing an Attic Ladder”

    • Looking through the specs for the various Werner attic ladders, the shortest minimum floor-to-ceiling height listed is 7′. You could try contacting Werner Customer Care at 1-888-456-8457 to see if it’s possible to shorten one of the ladders to the height you need. Good luck!

  1. I appreciate the information and candor of your instructions. I am curious if it is necessary to also double the joists to which you are transfering the load? Also, the shear strength of a 1/4″ bolt is 1000lbs. When attaching mending plates, more nails is not necessarily better. Using a lot of nails actually weakens the wood, especially since the joists are still single. 4 or 5 nails on each member should be sufficient. Another option is adding supports to transfer part of the load up to the rafters. Thanks for the instructions.

    • Yikes – you may NEVER get into your attic! Werner does make a compact ladder, if you have at least a 15″ X 25″ opening. If your opening is smaller, and you have room to make it larger, they have excellent instructions available online, including videos, showing you how to expand the size of your opening to accommodate any of their stairs. It’s a fairly simple process, and once you enlarge the opening, getting into your attic will be easier than putting on five pounds over the holidays. Hope this helps, let us know what you end up doing.

      Instructions for compact ladder:


      List of instructions and installation videos for all ladders:


    • Steve, You think Isis won’t find you hiding in your attic? Stop giving in to your silly fears of such things as Muslim boogeymen or Black Presidents.

  2. Just a consideration, when cutting off the excess at the bottom, we found that they recommend cutting off a tad too much material. If you leave about an extra 1″ or so (measure in the field) at the bottom of the ladder, you will actually be able to engage both pre-drilled holes that are provided in the end cap pieces, and still have plenty of room to adjust the bottom cap for level. While we felt that the single screws holding it should be more than sufficient, the fact that Werner already had pre-drilled holes lower (see “Foot gets Attached” photo above) they were missing an opportunity to make it just that much more sturdy. Otherwise it’s a great product, and very sturdy. I’ll be adding the compact ladder version to my own home in the near future!

    • Oh, and just another small note, if you’re installing above your subfloor only, not your finished floor (ie: carpet, hardwood, etc) don’t forget to hold off the bottom of the ladder to the appropriate FINISHED height. You’ll notice in the photo above we grabbed a small strip of wood the same thickness as the hardwood flooring yet to be (installed) so the ladder will land flat when the floor goes in.

        • That’s what happens when you try to function at 6:34 a.m., and why you’ll NEVER catch ME doing it! And that particle board subfloor was going to be removed, as there’s a plywood subfloor under it, and replaced with 3/4″ tongue & groove oak; the spacer got us to the height of the future floor.


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