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How to Read Grade Stakes: A Guide for Efficient Construction Projects
7 minute read
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Tim Forestell
July 4, 2023

How to Read Grade Stakes: A Guide for Efficient Construction Projects

One crucial skill for construction equipment operators and field workers is the ability to interpret grade stakes. Grade stakes give information to everyone involved in a project. This information is about the desired height for adding or removing dirt and shaping the land. Hub stakes always accompany grade stakes, which serve as the actual point of reference for the measurements.

Reading grade stakes can be challenging due to the various symbols and shorthand used. In this guide, we will explain the fundamentals of interpreting different types of grade stakes and their role in enhancing efficiency during land grading, excavation, and site preparation processes.

What are Grade Stakes?

Grade stakes, also known as surveyor's stakes, are crucial for conveying the desired fill, cut, or slope of a specific area on site. However, before installing grade stakes, it is essential to establish benchmark stakes. Without an accurate reference point to work from, knowing the amount of cut or fill required becomes meaningless. Benchmark stakes are marked separately to avoid any confusion between the two.

The benchmark points and grade stakes are communicated in the design plans and drawings. Land surveyors and engineers working on the project calculate the precise measurements. The surveyors or engineers then calculate the measurements for the grade stakes, which are subsequently placed by the engineering firm.

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It is important to note that while we will go over some of the general "How-Tos" of reading grade stakes below, not every company does them the same way. If you have any questions on how to read the specific grade stakes on your site, it's best to contact the survey company or your foreman.

What are the Different Grade Stakes?

While we're going to cover each one later, here are the different types of stakes you will commonly find on a project:

  • Benchmark Stake

    • One of the most important stakes, these benchmark stakes or reference stakes or reference points are the reference point for the entire site. They typically are marked with "BMK" and lots of other digits that include the site's exact elevation above sea level. These cannot be moved because the elevation will be different across the whole site, making these the reference point for other grade stakes.

  • Boundary Stake

    • Boundary stakes set the boundary for a project. In residential areas, these can often refer to the property lines of homeowners. It is crucial not to touch anything outside of these stakes. Sometimes they can be marked with the acronym "LOD" which means the limit of disturbance.

  • Cut Stake

    • Cut stakes refer to where you need to dig, or cut, the dirt. They are marked with a C, for cut, and a number that refers to where you need to dig. Cut around the stakes, not underneath them, to avoid messing up the reference point. You should only remove them once you have graded everything around them correctly.

  • Fill Stake

    • Fill stakes are the opposite of cut stakes where instead you need to add dirt to that area. Similarly, these stakes are marked by an F and some digits. They can also just have a line on the stake which is the line you need to fill up to.

The Importance of Reading Grade Stakes

Misreading grade stakes could impact a project timeline. While grades will always going to be checked throughout the project, reading grade stakes incorrectly could make you have to redo your work, delaying the project. This leads to inefficient and unproductive work and can impact timelines, scheduling, and budgets. That's why reading grade stakes accurately is so important.

How to Set Up Grade Stakes

The most important aspect is picking the benchmark site for the project. Understanding this information will assist in determining the exact measurements needed for cutting and filling in the project. Additionally, it will impact the calculations involved in determining the numbers.

Placing grade stakes for DIY projects is less extensive than for large commercial projects. For most projects, the engineering firm that you're working with will set the grade stakes. On DIY projects, you'll require grade stakes, a self-leveling laser, and a grade rod. These tools will help you determine where you need to cut, fill, or slope any of the grades. Here's a great video on how to read grade rods.

Construction Basics: Reading Grade Stakes: A Detailed Guide

Reading grade stakes can seem like a daunting task but it's quite easy. While reading them requires knowing lots of shorthand, there are a few best practices to know. However, not every company uses the same shorthand, colors, and numbering system (some companies may calculate feet in 12ths and others may do it in 10ths). To make it easy, you will want a rod that calculates feet in 10ths.

Common tips for reading and working with grade stakes:

  1. Read the numbers from the top to the bottom.

  2. Do not touch anything outside the boundary stakes or limit of disturbance.

  3. Do not remove the grading stakes until after the project is done.

  4. Do not stand in front of the laser when measuring grade as it will affect the read.

  5. If you're placing the stakes, make sure not to hold the grade rod on an angle as it will affect the grade measurements.

  6. If there is a circled number at the top, it says "off" at the top, or has an "o/s" it is an offset stake. These ensure that you give enough room to the equipment operator to maneuver around the stakes without removing them. We will get into what those are below.

Here's a great video about how to read and set up grade stakes.

How to Read Benchmark Stakes

Benchmark stakes, as mentioned, are the most important stakes on any site. These stakes have the precise elevation above sea level on them and are marked with "BMK". They cannot and should not be moved. They reference the exact elevation of the "hub", which are square-topped stakes, right next to them.

How to Read Boundary Stakes

Often denoted with "LOD" for "limit of disturbance", boundary stakes communicate the project's boundaries. They should not be moved. Nothing outside these stakes should be touched.

How to Read Fill Stakes

Fill stakes are used to signify an area that requires you to add dirt or material to that area. They are marked with an "F" followed by a dash and some numbers.

Example: "F-2.43". This means that at that stake and the surrounding areas, you need to fill in 2.43 feet of dirt. Sometimes surveyors will also mark the stake with a line signifying where the dirt needs to be filled.

How to Read Cut Stakes

Cut stakes are the opposite of fill stakes and communicate areas where you need to cut or dig dirt. Similar to fill stakes, they communicate the cuts with the letter "C" alongside a dash and some numbers.

Example: "C-2.43". This tells the operators to remove 2.43 feet of dirt from the stake and the surrounding areas. Reminder: do not dig around cut stakes until the very end to not remove your point of reference and a surveyor has checked your grade.

How to Read Slope Stakes

Slope stakes are usually a type of cut or fill stake. For example, a slope stake might have denotations like "C-3.64 @ 2:1".

This means that at that stake, you need a cut of 3.64 feet. The 2:1 refers to the slope you need to create from one stake to another. For example, from the stake at the top of the slope you need to have a cut of 2 to 1.

How to Read Station Stakes

Lined up across the job, station stakes are reference points to where you are on the job site. These are essential on big projects that cover a wide area, including road working projects and site preparation. The first station stake of any job reads: "STA 0 + 00".

The first number represents the number of 100ths of feet you are from the first station marker. The second number represents the division of 100-foot lengths or 50-foot lengths. For example, a station stake of "STA 100 + 50" would mean the stake is 10,050 feet into the job.

How to Read Offset Stakes

Each type of stake listed above can be an offset stake. These stakes typically have a number circled at the top, "OFF", or "O/S" somewhere on the stake. They also have a hub stake right next to them in the ground.

If there is an offset stake, it is communicating that you want to cut or fill at a distance away from the stake. For example, if a stake has "4' O/S B/C" on it, that means that 4 feet from the bottom of the stake is the back of the curb.

Using Grade Stakes in Different Projects

Grade stakes are used across almost every project during the site preparation process. Whether you're building foundations, doing site excavation, land balancing, or landscaping projects, grade stakes communicate digging and fill requirements. That's why equipment operators need to know how to read grade stakes.

Grade plans will change depending on the needs of the project. The way grade stakes are written depends on the engineering team or site surveyors. If you have any questions on your job, connect with the foremen, surveying team, engineers, or project designers to get your answers. They can communicate their naming and reading process with you.

Equipment for Grading Projects

Several types of heavy equipment can be used for grading. On smaller-scale projects, these include compact track loaders, backhoes, skid steers, and mini excavators. On large-scale projects, grading equipment includes motor graders, dozers, crawler excavators, and wheel loaders.

Understanding grade stakes is an essential factor in being a great equipment operator. We hope this guide has been a great starting point in how to read grade stakes for your next job. No matter the job, you can rent all grading equipment with DOZR. Search DOZR for construction equipment rentals.

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Tim Forestell
Tim Forestell is one of DOZR’s co-founders and CCO. Tim got started in the industry as VP Operations for Forestell Landscaping before founding DOZR with Kevin and Erin. Aside from the amazing team at DOZR, his favourite thing about DOZR are the customers. Working with DOZR renters every day gives him a peek at the evolution of different projects and hearing stories about projects being developed from start to finish.
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