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Ladders & Scaffolding Buying Guide

Think the one ladder at your local big box store is right for you? You're probably "rung." Finding the right ladder isn't just a matter of measurements. Design, material, and weight ratings are all important factors in choosing the right ladder for your needs. Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind while shopping is the height you need to be able to comfortably reach and the load your ladder must bear. After all, the whole point of a ladder is to make you taller, so buying something too short just won't cut it.

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Types of Ladders

Ladders can be categorized in a variety of different ways, but to keep it simple we'll start with the two main categories: step ladders and extension ladders.

  • Step ladders are easy, uncomplicated, and recognizable thanks to their universal A-frame design - two sides (a climbing side and a supportive side) are joined by a middle hinge. On top of being easy to fold and carry, step ladders are sturdy, secure, and self-supporting, making them most popular choice for general household tasks and the best bet for tasks that keep you relatively low to the ground.
  • Extension ladders are not self-supporting, but are multi-part and come with two (or more) lengths that can be extended together vertically and leaned against a support to increase the ladder's height. Extension ladders are best for projects that take you more than 17 feet off the ground and are typically very lightweight compared to the height they provide. Extension ladders can be expanded to reach higher heights and easily collapsed for transport and storage. When using an extension ladder it's crucial to choose one high enough for the job - an extension ladder should extend at least three feet above the roofline or work surface.
Louisville 2 ft. Fiberglass Step Ladder
Louisville 2 ft. Fiberglass Step Ladder
Ladders and Scaffolding

Got the basics down? Time to get more specific. The type of ladder you need also depends on where you plan to use it. Step ladders can be set up in the middle of a room beneath a burnt-out light bulb, for example. An extension ladder can be leaned against a wall to provide access to a roof, or against a tree to rescue a stranded cat (aww). But some types are designed for specific functions or locations. The most common examples of ladders and scaffolding are:

  • Attic ladders are distinguished by their compactly folding designs, which can fit neatly behind a hinged door in the ceiling and quickly unfold when needed.
  • Extension ladders can extend up to 28 feet and are designed to be balanced against a stable support
  • Fire escape ladders are a must-have in any home. Fire escape ladders are compact for storage purposed and designed to provide an alternative escape route from second or third-story windows. You should have a fire-escape ladder in every occupied room on floors above the main level of your home.
  • Multi-purpose ladders are designed to be versatile and can act as a step ladder, extension, or even a scaffold ladder and can be used on stairs.
  • Platform ladders feature an added platform to keep supplies in easy reach and help prevent unnecessary trips up and down the ladder. Painters, electricians, and carpenters often rely on platform stepladders to hold tools while they work at the right height.
  • Scaffolding ladders provide large work surfaces and bracing to support projects that demand long-term standing and working. Locking casters help provide stability.
  • Step ladders range from two to twelve feet in height and feature an A-frame design for stability. Step ladders are self-supporting and ideal for most household needs.
  • Telescoping ladders allow you to adjust the height to fit the task at hand, making it useful for any number of projects.
Material Concerns

Now that you've mastered the basics, it's time to take it up a rung. There are three main materials to choose from when shopping for ladders: wood, metal, and fiberglass. All three materials have pros and cons and come with unique benefits that are better suited to different applications.

Buffalo Tools 6 ft. Steel Multipurpose Scaffolding
Buffalo Tools 6 ft. Steel Multipurpose Scaffolding
Werner Heavy Duty Wooden Access Ladder
Werner Heavy Duty Wooden Access Ladder
  • Wood ladders are functional, affordable, and decorative, offering a more traditional look than other options. Wooden ladders are specifically recommended for electricity-related tasks, since - unlike their metal counterparts - they're naturally nonconductive. It's important to remember, however, that wooden ladders are often assembled with metal parts, which make them unsuitable for electrical work. Wood ladders should never be painted, since paint can cover up damage or defects that indicate the ladder is unsafe to use. You should also treat your wooden ladder with a sealant to protect it from moisture and other elements.
  • Metal ladders are strong, durable, and resistant to corrosion, making them ideal for indoor and outdoor use. They are also a lightweight option, making them easy to transport. However, a major drawback to this style is their ability to conduct electricity. While metal ladders can be used inside or out, because steel and aluminum (the most common materials for this style) conduct electricity it's important to never use a metal ladder around power lines or electrical wiring. If you do opt for a metal ladder, make sure to look for plastic or rubber feet to provide extra grip and stability.
  • Fiberglass ladders are a good all-around choice for strength and durability, thanks to the non-corrosive nature of fiberglass. These ladders are designed to last. And unlike metal ladders made of steel or aluminum, fiberglass ladders are nonconductive, making them ideal for doing any electrical work or for use in areas near power lines. Fiberglass ladders often carry a higher price tag than wooden or aluminum ladders, so it's up to you to determine if your needs justify the cost.
Weighty Issues

Since whatever ladder you choose will literally be supporting your body weight, it's a good idea to make sure you choose one that can withstand the pressure. It's also important to take into consideration any tools, equipment, or other supplies that will be on the ladder with you. Ladders typically carry a label listing the maximum weight they're designed to safely support. It's important to check this duty rating before stepping foot on a rung. These ratings are:

  • Type IA: industrial duty (industrial applications); 300 pounds
  • Type I: commercial duty (industrial applications); 250 pounds
  • Type II: professional duty (commercial painter, handyman, etc.); 225 pounds
  • Type III: household duty (general use); 200 pounds
Werner D6016-2 16 ft. Fiberglass Extension Ladder
Werner D6016-2 16 ft. Fiberglass Extension Ladder