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Installing an Attic Ladder

by Lorenz Prem
published on September 15 2011 2:21 pm

The attic access in my home does not come with a built in attic ladder. It's located in a closet. Every time need to work in the attic, I have to empty the closet to protect its content from the lose insulation the attic, and carry a step ladder into the room. Climbing into the attic is a bit of an athletic undertaking. Enough is enough. It's time to install an attic ladder. Let's take a look at what it takes to get this done.

Proper sizing

Two measurements are important when installing an attic ladder. The ladder's width and length.

The unit's width is determined by the spacing of the ceiling joist in your attic. They are installed either 23" or 26" on center. The unit must match the distance between the joist.

The unit's length is determined by the height of the room. Each attic ladder has range of room heights it can support. Take a measurement from the finished floor to the ceiling. Purchase an attic ladder that supports your particular ceiling height.

Finding a proper location

The instruction manual that comes with your attic ladder will specify the size of the rough opening you need crate for your unit. A rough opening is a hole in your ceiling that is supported by framing all around.

Unless you are willing to change the framing of your roof, most attic ladders can only be installed parallel to the ceiling joist. They just won't fit any other way. This will limit your choice of location somewhat.

Also consider how the room changes when the ladder is in its downward position. You want to avoid having to move furniture when opening the attic hatch. The space just above doors is a particularly good location, because it is unlikely that furniture will be place right behind the door just below the ladder.

The ladder has a direction. In the down position the user has to mount the ladder from a specific location. Make sure there is enough room to do that comfortably. One the other end of the ladder the user has to climb into the attic. Make sure there is enough room to do that too.

Climb into the attic and survey the install location from above. Electrical wiring and other utilities may be located just above the door. If there are any, they will have to be moved.

Also make a note of the available headroom. The ladder should be installed in such a way, that a full size adult can climb into the attic without having to worry about headroom too much. Don't install the ladder to close to the eaves.

Read the instruction

All attic doors are different. This guide can only give you an overview of what needs to be done. There is no substitute for reading the instructions that come with your attic door. Do so before beginning the install. This will help you anticipate problems before they happen.

Rough opening

Once you have located a suitable place, begin by creating the rough opening. A rough opening is a hole in your ceiling that is supported by framing all around.

Climbing into the attic. Remove the insulation from the area you are installing the door. Back below cut an access hole in the center of the finished opening with a drywall saw. We do this because it's easier to work on the ceiling from below. Create an opening that's big enough to get your upper body into the attic. In that position it is much easier to measure and cut the eventual opening.

The roof joist that are already in place frame the two long sides of the opening. We still need to install blocking on each end to complete the frame. Locate one end of the opening and install blocking with screws. Make sure the frame has square corners. In some cases the stairs require double blocking to be installed. Consult you installation manual for details.

Locate the other side measuring from the piece you have just installed. Cut and install that side to complete the frame.

The fastest way to cut the drywall to size is to cut the paper on the attic side with a utility knife. The frame forms a natural guide for the knife. Snap the drywall off by pulling it downward. It will break at the cutline. Cut the other side and remove the piece.

Secure the remaining drywall to the new framing members with drywall screws.


Installation is done from the top side. Secure two braces, two strips of wood, across the opening on the ceiling in the room below; one at each end. These braces must be strong enough to support the unit. They must also be flush with the ceiling. This will align the underside of the door correctly.

Place the door in the opening. Move the door through the opening at an angle to get it past the braces you have just installed.

The door is attached to the joists with nails or screws. The instructions will include a nailing pattern that must be followed. Shims must be inserted between the casing of the door and the joists. If this is not done, the force created by the nails or screws will warp the casing. The unit will not open properly.

From above, drive in as many fasteners as you have access to. The collapsed ladder will limit your access to some. Once the ladder is secure, have a helper remove the braces and open the door. Drive in any fasteners you have missed.

Now that the door is in place, the ladder's length needs to be adjusted. How this is done differs from ladder to ladder. Read the instruction and complete the required procedure. It can be difficult to climb out of the attic while the ladder is not set up properly. If need be, stay in the attic and let your helper adjust the ladder.

Adding trim

Like standard doors, the attic door does not include any trim. Installation is straight forward. Cut the trim to size and attach it to the frame with brads. You have a choice to either accentuate or under-state the opening. Visually busy trim will pull the eye to the door. Some say that since it is impossible to hide such a big door, it's best to make it look good. Flat trim will make the door disappear as much as it can. Either choice is a valid option.

Adding insulation

You can do a few thing to make your door more energy efficient.

  • Some doors do not have seal where the door meets the jab/frame. If yours does not, add a standard door seal in that area. This will eliminate air movement. Door seals are available at all home centers.
  • Fill the opening between the framing and the door's casing with expanding foam. This will insulate this area. Use foam rated for windows and door. General purpose foam can warp the door's frame. Wear gloves when you do this. Expanding foam will stick to everything.
  • Some ladders have enough space between the ladder and the door to fit insulation. You can glue a piece of rigid foam insulation onto the back of the door. Make sure that there is still enough space to use the door. When a person steps on a rung of the ladder, his or her toes will extend beyond the depth of the ladder.
  • Consider building an attic ladder tent out of rigid foam board for your ladder. An attic ladder tent is a tent made of insulation that fits over the door when it is closed. The tent must be removed and put back into place every time the door is opened. You must be willing to do this or otherwise the tent's benefits are wasted. In colder climates and attic tent can save a lot of energy.


An attic ladder is a safe and convenient way to access your attic. If you use your attic for storage, an attic ladder will greatly increase the utility you derive from the attic space. Install can be chore, but once installed, you'll love your new attic ladder.

About the Author
"Lorenz is the founder of Hingmy. When he is not reviewing power tools or improving the site, he is building things in his workshop or playing hockey."