Everything You Need to Know About Ladders

Learn how to safely use ladders and scaffolding to paint areas that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to reach. Find tips and information on ladder safety, choosing the right ladder for the job, and much more.

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Ladders and scaffolds allow you to safely access surfaces that otherwise would be difficult or impossible to reach. Ladders come in a variety of heights, widths, and configurations; oftentimes, they are made from wood, fiberglass, or metal. We'll walk you through all the different types of ladders, plus how to safely choose and use a ladder.

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Types of Ladders

There are three main categories of ladders: non-self-supporting ladders (meaning the ladder must lean on something), self-supporting ladders, and scaffolds. 

Non-Self-Supporting Ladders

  • A straight ladder, a single section, is indispensable for general use. Though not longer than 30 feet, it's the most common of portable ladders and combines practical height with easy maneuverability.
  • Extension ladders, essentially two straight ladders fitted with guides that allow one section to extend beyond the other, offer the greatest length in a general-purpose ladder. Wood ladders can't have more than two sections and must not exceed 60 feet. Metal and fiberglass ladders can have as many as three sections but must not exceed 72 feet. Individual sections of any extension ladder must not be longer than 30 feet.

Self-Supporting Ladders

  • A standard stepladder has flat steps and a hinged back. It is self-supporting and its height nonadjustable. Standard stepladders can't be longer than 20 feet and should be used only on surfaces that offer firm, level footing, such as floors, platforms, and slabs.
  • A two-way stepladder features a set of steps on each side. With them, one person can work from either side or two people can work from the ladder at the same time.
  • A platform ladder is made with a large stable platform from which you can work at the highest standing level, which can't exceed 20 feet.

Scaffolds are assembled platforms, with or without wheels, that allow one or more persons to work at increased heights comfortably, safely, and efficiently. Scaffold height can be increased by fitting additional sections to the frame. Scaffolds offer a primary feature not available in ladders—their working area is both wider and deeper, allowing for greater coverage before a move is required. You can construct a platform or working scaffold using ladders, ladder jacks, and planks.

Ladder Safety Tips

Follow these tips—plus your ladder's manufacturers directions—for optimal ladder safety. 

  • Inspect every ladder before use. Make sure the rungs are secure and are free of dirt and paint buildup.
  • When extending or retracting an extension ladder, hold the rope firmly; if it slips, the upper section can fall on your fingers.
  • With an extension or straight ladder, make sure that the tops of both rails make solid contact with the wall and that both legs are placed firmly on the floor or ground.
  • Foam boots or pads on the tops of an extension or straight ladder can keep it from sliding and protect the walls.
  • Make sure the spreader bar of a stepladder is fully extended and locked before you use it.
  • Set the base of a straight or extension ladder 1 foot from the wall for every 3 feet of ladder height.
  • On the ladder, keep your hips between the rails for good balance.
  • Do not push or pull too hard on a scraper while on a ladder.
  • Always wear rubber-soled or nonslip shoes on a ladder.
  • Avoid working in wet or windy weather.
  • Do not climb a wet ladder.
  • Keep all ladders away from power lines.
  • Place plywood under the legs of a ladder to ensure solid footing.
  • A ladder (or scaffolding) can be secured by tying it to a sturdy portion of the house or to a large eyebolt in the wall or fascia board.

How to Choose a Ladder Material

Most ladders are made of one of three common materials: fiberglass, aluminum, or wood. There are pros and cons to each.

Fiberglass

  • Strong and light
  • Safe around electricity
  • Corrosion resistant

Aluminum

  • Lightweight
  • Not for use around electricity
  • Corrosion resistant

Wood

  • Economical
  • Nonconducive when clean and dry

How to Choose a Stepladder

Choose a ladder size that will let you reach high enough to comfortably paint the maximum height of the walls of your house. Be sure to look for the label on your ladder that lists maximum weight load.

How to Choose an Extension Ladder

Support points for extension ladders reflect section overlap, ladder angle, and 3-inch extension above the roof line.

How to Raise a Ladder

You can raise a ladder in four easy steps:

Step 1: Start with the ladder flat on the ground and make sure the extension section is on the bottom. Station a helper at the end of the ladder with a foot placed against the bottom of each leg. Grab the other end of the ladder, lift it above your head, and support it by holding the third or fourth rung. If you don't have a helper, set the bottom legs against the foundation of the house and raise the ladder using the procedures shown in this and the remaining steps.

Step 2: Take a step forward and move your hands to the next rung down, raising the ladder as you move forward. Continue moving forward, pushing the ladder toward an upright position and moving your hands from rung to rung. When the ladder is close enough, have your helper grab a rung so both of you are supporting the ladder as it approaches vertical.

Step 3: Continue raising the ladder, one person pushing and the other pulling, until the ladder is vertical. Then place your feet against the legs of the ladder to keep it from kicking out.

Step 4: With your feet against the legs of the ladder, ease it toward the house, with your helper supporting it from the other side and stepping his or her hands down the ladder until it rests on the wall. Keeping your feet on the legs of the ladder, have your helper push it slightly away from the house while you adjust its height. Move the ladder so the legs are 1 foot away from the wall for every 3 feet of height and make sure it's properly supported.

Know the 3-to-1 Rule

Raising a tall ladder can be tricky, and once you have it in place, you'll need to take a couple of precautions to make sure you have positioned it safely.

Your first step should be to check the ladder at ground level. Make sure the legs are on a level surface; on uneven surfaces, slide wide, thick wood shims under the legs to level them. If the ground is soft, which can cause one or both feet to sink, raise the ladder slightly and have a helper slide a 2x4-foot sheet of 5/8-inch plywood under the feet.

Make sure the ladder is positioned so the distance from the building to the feet equals one-third the height of the ladder. If the surface slopes away from the house, put a 2x4 behind the ladder feet and drive 2x4 stakes into the ground to secure it.

Use ladder boots or wrap and tape rags to the top of the rails to keep them from slipping or marring the siding.

How to Level a Ladder

There is perhaps no more dangerous condition associated with using a ladder than setting it up on sloping ground. Even a 1-degree variation from vertical can send painter, paint, and ladder quickly groundward. Yet the soil around most homes is usually anything but level.

So what if the ground is not level? You can remedy some situations by supporting the ladder on a plywood sheet and shimming the legs level, but leg extensions offer a more secure solution.

These accessories bolt to the ladder legs and are adjustable along their length, creating legs of different lengths that accommodate sloping ground. Leg extensions are built in on some ladders. Add-on extensions are available from your ladder dealer.

How to Stabilize a Ladder

Even a well-supported ladder may prove slightly unsteady as it approaches its maximum usable height. You can add to the stability of the ladder by placing ladder boots on each rail top. These rubber accessories help keep the ladder from slipping sideways and protect the side of the house from scrapes and gouges.

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