How to Work with Scaffolding Safely

Updated: May 12, 2023

How to rent, setup and use scaffolding when you have to work on your roof, siding or chimney.

FH02OCT_SCAFFP_01-2Family Handyman
Working from scaffolding is much easier and safer than working from a ladder. It's stable, forms a wide work platform and provides a wide reach. You'll do a better job in half the time by not having to constantly move a ladder. We show you how to set it up so it's safe and secure.

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A full day

Step 1: Rent scaffolding for those high jobs

The next time you have to work up high, consider renting scaffolding rather than struggling with ladders. Scaffolding provides a large, stable work platform where you can stack materials and set up your tools. With scaffolding, you can easily reach all areas of the repair to do a better job in half the time. And you’ll save tons of time and energy by not constantly climbing up and down to reposition your ladder.

Guardrails attached to the top of the scaffold frames allow you to concentrate on the task at hand without worrying about falling. We’ll show you how to set up your rented scaffolding so it’s safe and secure and then show you a few of the home-repair jobs where scaffolding really shines.

The frame scaffolds we’re using (sometimes referred to as “pipe scaffold”) are perfect for exterior work and are available at most full-service rental centers. Also check the Yellow Pages under “Scaffolds, Rental” for businesses that specialize in scaffolding rental and sales. You’ll usually get lower rates and expert advice from these specialists.

The setup we show is ideal for most projects around the home. It consists of 5-ft. standard end frames and cross braces to make a 7-ft. long scaffold. In addition to base plates and a guardrail system, the main components of a scaffolding system are the frames and cross braces that you stack and combine end to end to make larger scaffolds. The most common frame size is 5 ft. wide and 5 ft. tall, but other sizes are available depending on your needs.

The distance between frames is determined by the length of the cross braces, 7- and 10-ft being the most common and economical. Rent adjusting screws and base plates for easy leveling on uneven ground (Photo 1). Rent casters if you plan to move the scaffolding. Top the frames with three 7-ft. planks and a guardrail system.

Measure to determine the ideal platform height for your job. Keep in mind that your working height is about 4 to 6 ft. above the scaffold planks. The rental salesperson will help you choose the correct size and style of scaffold for your task.

I’d recommend limiting the height to two sections. After that, stability becomes an issue and you have to take special precautions. Once the height exceeds three times the minimum width of the tower, you must tie the scaffolding to the building at specific intervals. A five ft. wide scaffolding needs to be tied in when it exceeds 15 ft. high. We won’t cover scaffold tie-ins in this article. Ask your scaffold-rental specialist for specifics on tie-ins, if necessary.

Most rental centers will deliver and pick up rented scaffold for an additional fee. Otherwise you’ll need a pickup truck or trailer.

Step 2: Assemble the frame and base

Photo 1: Assemble the base parts

Begin assembly by laying two end frames about 7 ft. apart, near your worksite. Slide on the adjusting screws and base plates or casters now so you don’t have to lift the entire scaffolding later to put them in.

Photo 2: Secure the connections

Secure the base plates (or optional casters) to the adjusting screws with the special pigtails or toggle pins supplied. These pigtails are designed to lock in place. Use the same connectors to secure the guardrail posts to the scaffold frame and connect stacked scaffold frames where they join.

Close-up of pigtail pin

Pigtails are one type of securing pin

Photo 3: Install cross braces

Stand one end frame and slide the crossbar ends over the pins. Rest the cross brace on the ground to temporarily support the first end frame while you move the other one into position. Tip the second frame up and slip the opposite end of the cross brace over the pins in the second scaffold frame. Complete the frame setup by attaching the second cross brace on the opposite side.

Photo 4: Position and level the scaffold

Slide the scaffold into position and slip 2×10 lengths of lumber under each base plate. On sloping ground, level the blocks by shimming under one side as shown. Level the scaffolding with the adjusting screws

Even though the basic setup procedure is the same, scaffold hardware varies slightly from one manufacturer to the next. Ask for manufacturer’s instructions if your scaffold looks different from that shown here. Photos 1-5 show you how to set up the frame and install the planks.

The key to safe scaffolding is a solid foundation. If the base plates or casters rest on dirt, grass, asphalt or other soft material, put them on top of lengths of 2×10 lumber to prevent them from sinking in (Photo 4). We shimmed the wood pads to level them (Photo 4) because we didn’t want to damage the lawn by digging level spots. But a better method is to level a spot with a shovel before placing the 2×10 blocks. Never set the scaffolding on loose fill, snow or next to holes or ditches.

Adjusting screws make leveling the scaffolding easy and safe. Never stack bricks, concrete blocks or scraps of wood under the frame to level it. If your ground slopes more than about a foot over an 8-ft. distance, rent leg extensions. Extreme slopes may require the addition of a short scaffold section under one end of the scaffolding.

Step 3: Add planks and guardrails

Photo 5: Hook on the planks

Lift the rented scaffold planks from the middle and angle them up through the frames until both ends are above the frame. Then lower the plank until the ends hook over the frames. Secure the plank with the swivel catches.

Photo 6: Install the guardrails

Prevent falls by installing a guardrail system. Slide the guardrail posts over the top of each frame and secure them with a pigtail, toggle pin or bolt, depending on what was provided with your scaffold components. Install top and bottom rails between the posts.

Don’t be tempted to save money by using your own ordinary wood planks for the work surface—they aren’t strong enough. Rent special scaffold planks to cover the frames from side to side. Then install the guardrail posts and rails. Rails aren’t required on the side of the scaffolding that faces the building as long as the scaffolding is within 14 in. of the building.

Our scaffolding didn’t require them, but if you’re working where people might walk below the scaffold structure, wire on 2×4 toe boards to prevent tools and materials from falling and injuring someone. Rest the 2×4 boards upright around the perimeter of the scaffold planks, screw or nail the corners together and attach them to the base of the guardrail posts with No. 10 wire.

Once the scaffolding is assembled and in place, double-check that it’s level and resting securely on all four base plates or casters. If it rocks, readjust one of the screws to stabilize the scaffolding. Use the built-in ladders to climb the scaffolding. Don’t climb on the cross braces. Recruit a helper to hand materials and tools up to the platform. If you can’t reach, use a rope and bucket to pull tools to the top.

Step 4: Scaffolding accessories and tips

Photo 7: Set up a workstation

Speed up your work by setting up a workstation on your scaffolding. Pull materials and tools up with a bucket and rope. Major repairs like tuckpointing a chimney are much easier from a scaffold than a ladder.

Photo 8: Ideal platform for working roof edges

Complete the first seven or eight rows of shingles from a scaffold to avoid having to work from a ladder or lean precariously over the roof edge. Then nail roof brackets along the eve and install toe boards before climbing onto the roof. Use locking casters on the scaffolding so you can roll along the entire roof edge.

Casters allow you to move the scaffolding easily without taking it apart, but take a few extra precautions:

  • Install a special horizontal brace diagonally between the two out side frames to keep them square. Ask your supplier about this.
  • Never roll the scaffolding with tools, materials or passengers on the planks.
  • Lock the casters before climbing the scaffolding.
  • Avoid overhead wires when moving the scaffolding. You could be electrocuted if you bump power lines.
  • Don’t roll the scaffolding on steep slopes or near ditches or holes.

Photos 6-8 show a few of the jobs where scaffold rental really pays off. If you have an old house that needs tons of repairs, it might be cheaper in the long run to purchase a basic scaffold setup. Make sure the scaffolding you buy is compatible with scaffold from the local rental shop in case you have to rent additional parts.

CAUTION: Stay away from power lines!

Don’t work around electrical power lines. Watch overhead when moving rolling scaffolding to avoid running into a power line.

Required Tools for this Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

  • Level

Required Materials for this Project

Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here’s a list.

  • 2 x 10 pads
  • Scaffolding
  • Shims