The first ramp I ever built on my own worked, but it was a piece of crap. Two pieces, actually. It consisted of twin lengths of particle board shelving material, duct-taped on the single step of my college apartment and extending into the grass beyond a narrow access sidewalk. It was fine during the dry fall months. When the winter rains came, I found myself with a slip and slide into a mud-pit.
Over the intervening 15 years, through supervising the construction of a dozen or so subsequent ramps of varying height and complexity, I’ve managed to learn a few things. Building a good ramp isn’t that complicated, provided you know what you’re doing, but it gets expensive quickly if you’re paying a licensed contractor or buying a premade ramp to go up more than a step or two.
So, what’s our motto here? DIY to the Rescue.
There are a variety of online guides to ramp building, and they provide construction techniques in much greater detail than we can here. But for dimensions, most feature phrases like “you have to have a minimum of,” and “a maximum ramp slope is 1:12,” meaning each inch of vertical rise requires 12 inches of ramp length. That’s because they’re following ADA guidelines for access ramps.
The ADA guidelines are a great place to start to familiarize yourself with the basics and dimensions of ramp construction, but remember that ADA guidelines are one-size-fits someone. Depending on chair width/length and strength, you can get by with platforms that aren’t as large and slopes that aren’t as gradual as ADA guidelines mandate. By the same token, if you have limited function but use a manual chair and want to be able to wheel into your house with a bag of groceries on your lap, a 1:12 slope may be too steep.
Dimensions can be tough to visualize, and changes difficult to make after construction. So, if you’re unsure of sizing for platforms, switchbacks or even a comfortable ramp width, an easy prototyping method is to grab some sidewalk chalk and a tape measure, and sketch out your ramp layout on an empty parking lot. That way you can test how your chair moves within its constraints.
As long as you’re building that ramp for you, and not public access, you can typically design to whatever specs work for you. My current ramp is 30 inches wide and features one platform connecting two sloped segments, both of which are in the range of 1:8 to 1:9 for slope. It’s steep, but doable for me, and because of porch height and yard layout, any lesser slope would’ve required multiple switchbacks and removing existing landscaping. For me, a steeper ramp was less of a pain than a complete remodel of a yard that we only plan to live in for a few years.
If you have friends in chairs who you might want to have over, think about them, too. My wife had to partially deconstruct the railings on our current ramp so NEW MOBILITY’s newly minted editor could navigate the tight platform in his power chair, and he still almost died. Corollary note: Ian has excellent driving skills, and is not particularly vindictive — I, fortunately, still have a job.
A door access ramp needs a platform, somewhere flat to unlock, lock, open and close the door without you fighting to keep your chair from rolling away. I’ve had door ramps without a platform; it’s not something you want to deal with. If you already have a porch or some sort of landing platform that’s large enough to back up, close the door and turn your chair around on, great. If not, build one.
Wood is by far the easiest ramping material to work with for the DIYer. You’re going to want to buy treated lumber for any exterior ramps. It will cost more in the short term, but save you in the long run, as even parts of the ramp that are going to be undercover can deteriorate fairly quickly in a rainy climate if they’re made of untreated wood. Any parts that are exposed to the elements should be stained or painted to prevent sun and/or water damage and resulting rot.
If you live somewhere with real weather — rain, ice, snow, frost, etc. — giving your ramp some sort of texture for grip is vital. Grip tape works, but can be expensive to cover any sort of distance and isn’t the most visually appealing. Another option is an adding an anti-slip additive to paint, available at home improvement stores, and painting the surface of your ramp.
In locations that get a significant amount of snow, it’s worth considering using a grated metal for the ramp surface. While metal is more difficult to work with, a grate provides some inherent traction and allows snow to fall through instead of immediately accumulating.
Lastly, aesthetics. If you care about looks, it’s difficult to build a DIY ramp on a tight budget that complements the exterior of a house. The cheapest building choices are the most utilitarian, meant to be covered by finishing materials. If you have the option, building a ramp inside a garage is worth considering for a couple of reasons. One: Who cares what it looks like? It’s in your garage. Two: It’s protected from the elements, so you can build out of cheaper, untreated lumber.
It is possible to install a functional ramp on a budget — you just need a plan and a friend or relative with some carpentry skills. Make sure to check your local building codes to ensure legality, as some apply to ramps once they reach a certain height.
If DIY isn’t an option, there are programs across the country to supply free ramp construction services to those who need them.
• Free Ramp Builder Directory: ramps.org/free-ramps.htm
• Guide to ADA Ramp Standards: access-board.gov/guidelines-and-standards/buildings-and-sites/about-the-ada-standards/guide-to-the-ada-standards/chapter-4-ramps-and-curb-ramps
• Ramp Building Overview: lowes.com/projects/build-and-remodel/build-a-wheelchair-ramp/project