Stairs Remodel – Retrospective
Why Did We Do This?
From approximately July to November of 2017, our stairs underwent a transformation from this:
You may be wondering why we would bother changing the stairs. After getting into it, we wondered that a few times as well! It’s a big project to say the least, especially for two people with limited woodworking experience.
The way the stairs used to be matched the rest of our floors perfectly, but there were a few things we wanted to take care of. The most important issue to me was that whoever installed the laminate that we used to have didn’t use the right kind of adhesive and the back of almost every tread laminate was able to come up if you stepped on the nosing. This was a bit unsafe, very noisy, and overall just unpleasant. At the time we were expecting a baby within a few months and had a goal of eventually putting a carpet runner down the stairs before we had a baby old enough to crawl around. I didn’t want to put a carpet runner on top of treads that could move around because it would just make it harder to address the problem later. So we knew we had to do something. I had actually already tried regluing some of the tread laminate covers but it was problematic because they were installed in a way that was meant to be permanent and removing them required doing some damage. My wife also didn’t love the black color of the rails, spindles, and skirt boards so this was the perfect opportunity to change things up.
The real action for this project started on July 4 since I had the day off of work. Without really planning out the whole project ahead of time, I went ahead and began ripping up all of the old laminate from the treads and risers. It took a few hours and involved a sledge hammer, pry bar, and power drill for removing screws. Here’s what we found underneath the laminate:
What we have here is a set of pine treads and risers. If you’re not familiar with the terminology, the treads are the boards that you step on, and the risers are the vertical boards at a 90° angle to the treads. Treads normally have a nosing, or a little bit of extra length that hangs over the edge of the risers. As you can see in the photo, these treads do not have nosings. It appears that the nosings were sawed off in order to facilitate installation of the laminate tread/riser covers.
At this point we contemplated just covering everything with carpet and being done with it. We did have a few creaky treads that would still be creaky even with carpet on top, and carpet all the way across wasn’t actually what we wanted, so we decided to stick with the original plan of having nice looking treads with a carpet runner down the middle. As you can see, those treads don’t look nice, and they are missing nosings to boot so we figured the next step would be to replace the treads.
Pining for Oak
We decided to source new treads from Lowes. The two main options there, at least in our area, are pine treads for $11.70 per tread and oak treads for $29.97 per tread. Our set of stairs has 16 treads so this was about to get expensive at $187.20 for a set of pine treads or $479.52 for a set of oak treads. Being the bargain hunters that we are and not having enough woodworking experience to know better, we went for the pine treads. Obviously, we would need to do something about the risers too. Since they were in good shape structurally, we decided to just put some “RetroRiser” covers over our existing risers. These are thin pieces of poplar, primed and ready to paint. They just needed to be trimmed to size for our risers. These ended up being $9.98 per riser, also at Lowe’s.
We picked up all of the available pine treads at our local Lowe’s, which was only about half of what we would need to finish the project. We also got enough “RetroRiser” covers for the whole project. However, we quickly discovered that no old treads were going to come out and no new treads would be going in without first removing at least one of the banisters. The banisters each have a bit of overhang that would prevent treads (and risers for that matter) from being installed. Taking another leap of faith, I started chiseling away paint from the newel posts (the big posts at the bottom of each banister) and rails, looking for some kind of screws or any hints as to how a banister might be removed without completely destroying it. Eventually I found two wooden plugs on each newel post that could be punched out, and behind them screws attaching the newel post to the structure behind it. I chose to remove the left banister, starting with the newel post, followed by prying up the board that all of the spindles are attached to, and removing the rail from where it attached to the ceiling. All of this was done without a clear idea of whether we’d be able to reinstall the same structure after replacing the treads. During the process my wife got pretty nervous and started sending facebook messages to see if any of our friends our fellow church members knew anyone who could give us some advice about stairs. I proceeded undeterred and was able to get everything out of the way that needed to be removed in order to provide access to changing out the treads and adding riser covers. A few small pieces of wood broke in the process, but they were things that I was confident we could fix with wood glue and/or putty in the end. At this point we were only 4 days into the project and things were going well in my mind, but I had a lot of questions about how everything was going to be reinstalled after replacing the treads. This is the scene we enjoyed for the next couple of months:
At this point I decided to focus on getting new treads and riser covers installed. We could worry about reinstalling the banister later. The treads we bought from Lowe’s needed to be cut to fit our particular staircase. This would involve making them the right width and depth. Also, the left and right side of each tread would actually have to be cut at a specific angle to match the angle of the skirt boards they would be installed against. (Skirt boards are the vertical boards directly to the left and right of the treads as you walk up the stairs). You’d think that a 90° angle cut on each side of each tread would be just fine, but you’d be wrong. I did a lot of research and found out that there are specialized tools for measuring the space where a tread will be installed, and then scribing the measurements onto the treads to be cut. Here are two examples of such tools available on Amazon: Stair Tread Gauge and Shelf Layout Tool, DNB Tools PL200 Stair Wizard. I also discovered a cheap way to make something of similar utility out of two pieces of scrap wood:
I used the scrap wood method as the other tools seemed a little pricey for what you get. The way you use the scrap wood method is you place the scrap wood pieces where the tread will go, each flush against the sides and back of the space, then clamp them together with screw on clamps where they overlap. Then you can pick them up, place them on top of a tread, and trace the edges to see where to make cuts. Voila. Not quite as accurate as the expensive tools, but good enough for the Johnsons. I also used the same method for measuring riser cover cuts. The only difference is that you place the scrap wood pieces vertically instead of flat.
Tools and Cuts
During this project we acquired a number of new tools, a mitre saw and table saw among them:
I took part of a Saturday to make some tread and riser measurements and attempted to cut some treads to size. The measurements were made with the existing treads still in place. I just made the measurements on top of the old treads and assumed everything would work out (and it did for the most part). I measured and cut about two treads that Saturday, and tested out the new treads by placing them on top of the old ones. What I discovered while working with the pine treads is that there is a lot of variance between individual treads, and that many of the treads were slightly warped or twisted in a way that made it unlikely they could sit completely flat on the stringers (the stringers are the structure that treads sit on top of, which you will see further down in this post). Around this same time, I got a phone call from a friend of a friend who heard that we needed some advice about stairs (thanks to my wife’s previous facebook requests). The person who called me had recently redone all of the stairs in his house on his own and had a lot of advice to offer, including strongly recommending that we use oak instead of pine. That advice, combined with what I had already seen, was enough to convince us. We bit the bullet and returned all of our pine treads (except the ones I had already cut) and got oak treads instead. And boy am I happy that we did! After working with a few of the oak treads I could see a huge difference in quality. The finished product is a creak-free installation that I’m very doubtful we could have achieved with the pine treads that we originally bought.
Stripping the Paint
At this point we took a break from working on treads and started thinking about what would become of our banisters and skirt boards. My wife didn’t love the original black, so we decided to go with white. Or off-white, rather. We pulled up a piece of trim near the stairs and took it to get color-matched at Sherwin Williams. Which, by the way, is a whole different experience from getting something color-matched at Lowe’s or Home Depot. The man who helped us at Sherwin Williams spent probably more than half an hour working on matching our paint. We were actually getting impatient, but when I saw how good the match was I no longer had any complaints.
The original black was (obviously) dark and was only one of the many layers of paint and finish on the rails, spindles, and skirt boards. We decided to strip the black paint off before painting everything white. This ended up being a huge mess and not a very fun part of the job, but we did discover that paint stripping gel is really cool! My wife helped out a lot with this part of the project (while pregnant!) and we were worried about the smell of a paint stripper bothering her or being bad for her. But we found something called Citri-Strip that is awesome. It still has a bit of smell but it’s nothing that will make you pass out and didn’t bother my wife at all. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves about how this all went down. It was messy and tedious and I don’t want to talk about it. 🙂
Dreading the Treading
I spent a lot of time procrastinating the tread replacements, so this part took a while. When I finally got around to it, I spent one entire Saturday making tread and riser cuts and measurements using my scrap wood method for measurements, a table saw for depth adjustment cuts, and a mitre saw for angled side cuts (with various angles, very few actually being exactly 90°). This was so much more work than I thought it would be, going up and down the stairs for repeated measurements, checks, and adjustments. After a whole day, I had measured and cut all of the treads and risers except for a few small exceptions that I would finish later on (like the weird shape of our bottom tread).
In addition to being measured and cut, each tread also needed to be sanded smooth, and have holes pre-drilled for screwing the treads into the stringers. In addition to screws, I planned to glue each tread to the stringers below it. According to my research, the “glue and screw” method would provide the best chance of ending up with a creak-free staircase. Unlike the people who installed the previous tread laminate, I wanted to use a really good adhesive that would be extremely long lasting. After more online research, I decided to go with “PL Premium 8x” which you can get at your local hardware store or online (Loctite PL Premium Fast Grab Polyurethane Construction Adhesive 10-Ounce Cartridge (1417170), for example). I spent another whole Saturday sanding treads with a small handheld orbital sander that I picked up at Harbor Freight Tools (if you’re new to this stuff, the benefit of the orbital sander is that it rotates in a pattern that prevents the grit of the sandpaper from forming swirls on your workpiece – I highly recommend this for obtaining smooth finishes). I then spent another day making measurements for where to put the pre-drilled screw holes and actually drilling the holes. I needed nice smooth edges on my screw holes because I planned to plug the holes with little wooden plugs once the treads were installed. To drill holes with a nice smooth edge you can’t just use any old drill bit. You need something like a brad point bit or forstner bit. This is what I used: DEWALT DW1720 Brad Point Bit Set, 6-Piece.
The actual tread replacement needed to occur on a single day because my plan was to start at the top and work my way down removing old treads, then work my way back up installing new treads. I blocked out a whole day for this, and asked my wife to get everything that she needed for the day from upstairs and bring it down in the morning. As planned, I started from the top and worked my way down, removing each tread with a combination of sledge hammer, pry bar, crow bar, and power drill:
Once at the bottom, I started working my way up. On the day that I had cut all of the treads and risers, I did not actually make riser height adjustments because I needed the new treads to be in place before I could know exactly how tall to make them. So I placed my table saw outside the front door of the house and made riser cuts as I went along, gluing and screwing treads, and installing riser covers using a trim nailer (I rented a gas cartridge-powered trim nailer from Home Depot for this purpose. I didn’t end up loving up, but I’ll show you a pneumatic trim nailer that I did end up loving a little further down).
At the end of the day, we could walk up and down the stairs again, although at this point I stipulated that we couldn’t wear shoes on the new treads before the staining and sealing step (socks or bare-foot only!). I spent part of another Saturday hammering small wooden plugs into the screw holes with a rubber mallet and sanding them flush. I started out just using a sander to try to make the plugs flush. This used up a lot of unnecessary sandpaper because I discovered a much easier way halfway through. I had recently purchased a dovetail pull saw (this one) for making the corner cuts on the bottom tread (see above photo) and I discovered that you can hold it flat against a tread and actually saw off most of the protruding part of a wood plug before sanding off the small remainder. This was a huge time saver once I discovered this method.
Staining and Sealing
The final step for the treads was staining and sealing. We used a dark stain and Minwax Super Fast-Drying Polyurethane For Floors which is great because of it’s (relatively) fast drying time and the fact that it doesn’t require a sanding step between coats. The (somewhat) obvious way to apply stain and polyurethane to treads that are already installed is to do every other step, let them dry, then do the other set of every other step. Before applying any stain or polyurethane, though, I taped off the edge of each tread to try to avoid getting stain or polyurethane on things other than the treads:
I then applied stain to every other step, waited a couple hours (can’t remember how many), applied polyurethane, waited more hours (4 I think?), then applied a second coat of polyurethane. Then I waited at least 12 hours before stepping on those treads and staining and applying polyurethane to the other half:
Bringing Banister Back
I think the next thing I did was to reinstall the left banister. This was done primarily with a pneumatic nailer, and also some screws. The nailer is just a trim nailer (small nails) but it’s one of my new favorite things: Freeman PFN1564 15 Gauge 34 Degree Angle Finish Nailer. It didn’t jam up like my previous nailer rental did, and it’s just really cool. I used a lot of nails getting the board that hold all of the spindles mounted again, and a couple nails on each spindle, and some more nails on various parts of the rail. After reinstalling the newel post (big post at the bottom), I had to replace the wood plugs that I punched out previously when removing the post. I didn’t have any plugs of the right size and couldn’t get any within my desired timeline of finishing the project so I did something that’s probably not the greatest: I just filled the holes with wood putty and painted over them.
The Last Steps
At this point we could taste victory. The remaining steps were just caulking and painting everything. The treads (before caulk) had small gaps on either side due to lack of precision in the measuring and cutting process (whoops). I fixed it up with a nice bead of caulk all the way up the left and right side of the treads and risers. I first taped (using painters tape) where the caulk edge would go, then applied caulk, then removed the tape before the caulk dried to ensure a nice clean edge. This was a long, slow process and took an entire weekend. Once all of the caulking was done, we just had to finish up painting and do some small finishing touches, and then we were done! The stairs still don’t have a carpet runner down them but we are considering the project finished for now until our little one is old enough to crawl around. (Stay tuned for part 2! It should be easier. Fingers crossed.)
You might think I would say something like “don’t start a project until you know how much it’s going to cost and what all of the required steps will be.” If I had followed that advice, I really never would have started this project at all. It was so completely out of my league in terms of experience that there is absolutely no way I could have planned every step of the project before beginning. I had to do a lot of googling and youtubing and visiting hardware stores along the way and discover the next steps as I went along, just getting by on faith that others had done this before so I could probably figure it out too (with appropriate research). So I guess the lesson I learned and the advice that I would give is actually this: Don’t be afraid to start a project you don’t completely know how to finish; you just might learn some stuff along the way. This project was completely worth all of the work and time spent, both in terms of the results and the experience gained. So if you’ve got a daunting project you’ve been thinking about getting started on, sometimes you just have to go for it and then take it one step at a time. Good luck and have fun with that. 🙂