Re-Finishing your stairs is definitely a daunting task, no doubt. I’ve been putting it off for a year since I didn’t want to create a bunch of dust in my house for something cosmetic. Now that I’m done, I must say it really wasn’t that bad. Using the right tools and a handy shop-vac, I was able to complete this project in a few days with very minimal intrusion to our day to day lives. Also surprisingly, the cost of this project was very minimal. I believe all in, we spent under $300 CAD. Insane right?
- Mitre Saw
- Drill & Driver Set
- Circular Saw
- Brad Nailer
- Combo Square
- Angle Ruler
- Oak Tread
- Oak Risers
- Liquid Nails (or PL Construction Glue)
- Wood Stain
- Polyurethane Top Coat
- (If you have a landing) Oak Nosing
- (If you have a landing) Oak Flooring
This tutorial will be a bit different than normal as I want to break down the process into sections to help you understand the purpose of each. I tried to find another solid tutorial out there to reference, but most are quite vague and don’t go into enough details. They’ll undoubtedly set you up for failure as they brush over some important steps.
For the tread and risers, I would love to share an affiliate link to generate some commission from this but I won’t do it since big box stores tend to charge a killing for these. A lot of the big box brands also tend to have a wood veneer layer vs being solid wood. What you should do is look up your closest privately owned flooring or stair material shop and give them a call. For context, each tread at Home Depot costs about $33, whereas I picked up the solid oak treads at $17 each. Risers came out to $5 each as well, so the savings in material was about 50%.
Cut off nosing
- Cut off the nosing. First things first, prep work. Doesn’t matter how you get there, the goal is to remove the lip or overhang from each of your existing steps. We need to do this so that the new tread doesn’t protrude past the skirt board. To do so, use a depth gauge or a combo square to mark the underside depth of the nosing. Then trace that depth on the top face of the step. Repeat for all steps.
- Using a Circular saw, set the depth of the blade to just pass the thickness of the board. Plunge cut from one side of the stair case to the furthest distance you can go. You will likely have about 6″ on both sides that need to be cut out manually. You can use a jigsaw to take it closer to the end, a handsaw and carve it, or use a multitool like I did.
- If you finish your cut and find the nosing doesn’t pop off, you can use a flathead screwdriver to pry it open. It should pop very easily. If it requires too much force, check to make sure the depth of your saw is cut through the nosing.
- Repeat 1-3 for all the steps being replaced. If you plunge into your existing riser a bit, don’t worry as it will be covered with the treads.
- Check to make sure you didn’t leave any nosing protruding beyond the riser in front. If so, shave it off with a multitool or chisel. If the step overhangs the riser even a bit, it will cause the new riser to bow out and be out of alignment.
Sand, Fill and Prime the Skirt boards
- Sand the skirt boards (if required). My builders roughly whipped on a coat of paint when they handed the keys over to us and we clearly beat them up since. If your boards are scuffed up, give it a quick sand. I used an orbital sander with 120 and 220 grit to take it down. You’ll notice a round sander can’t get into a square corner, so I pulled out my multitool and attached the sanding head to it. This was my first time using this and not going to lie, it’s pretty awesome. With the orbital sander, I attached the shop-vac directly to it, and with the multitool, I just held it close as I sanded. This kept the area super clean and dust free.
- Fill the nosing gap as well as any large holes with wood filler, then sand flush when dry.
- At this point I opted to just prime the skirt boards first. As you can see, I really didn’t try to cut any corners with the paint. Just make sure you follow the grain of the wood and don’t accidently leave any blobs of paint. If you do, you’ll need to smooth them out when it dries or it will cause the treads/risers to sit uneven.
Treads and Risers
- First off, if your stairs are anything like mine, every step might be slightly different. It helps to mark all your treads and risers so you know where the puzzle fits after you finish your cuts.
- Measure the width of your riser and cut the risers to width. My width measured 32″, so I cut mine down to 32 1/16″ and did very thin passes until I had a tight fit. Repeat until you have completed all steps.
Note: Cutting a riser perfectly 90 degrees factors in if your stair skirts widen or narrow slightly from step to step, but it doesn’t factor whether your skirt boards slant in or out. If you want a perfect cut, you can easily make a cutting jig to scribe the angle of each cut. I would have done this if I were to make my cuts inside the basement, however to be honest I was just lazy to make a jig. You’ll notice the end result makes this almost invisible anyways. If you don’t want to make a jig, you can also do what I did with the treads in the steps below.
3. Treads depth. Next, measure the depth of each step and add the thickness of your riser. This distance represents the distance from your nosing to the end of the tread. My step measured 8 1/4″, with the riser thickness being 1/4″. The nosing thickness was 1 1/2″, so I set my table saw fence at 10″ and ripped all the treads to size.
- Riser Height. Since the order of placement from bottom up is riser, tread, riser, tread – the riser for the next step sits on top of the previous tread. Hence, using a tread cutoff – place it on the step and the riser on top to mark the cut line for each riser. Note since the tread nosing has some overhang, your cut doesn’t have to be perfect as it will mask any imperfection. I took off 1/8″ from the cut line to ensure it didn’t extend above the next stair. You want the tread to rest on the old step, and not be propped up by any overhang caused by the riser below.
- Treads width. First the mistake. I tried to cut sides the easiest way possible, but quickly realized that the stairs would look terrible if I didn’t factor in the tapering/widening of the skirts. Here’s a look at what happens when you cut your tread at 90 degrees.
So how do we fix this problem? It’s actually quite simple, you just need to determine the angle of the skirt boards. A typical tread jig resembles a straight edge measuring the width of the step, with two adjustable arms that pivot out to replicate the actual step. You can then transpose this onto your tread with the perfect angles of your step.
To be even more precise, it is also possible to scribe the contours of your skirt board by using a spacer and a pencil. This method is the most precise but also takes the longest since you need to make your cuts exact with a jigsaw.
So being the lazy guy that I am, what did I do to fix the problem?
Solution. I took a cutoff from one of the risers, which was already cut to size. I then butted it up against the actual riser so it would mimic the end of the tread. Taking an angle ruler, I measured the angle of each cut individually. I made my cut about 1/16″ wide and then worked my way back in until I had a perfect fit.
The one thing you should pay extra attention to is making sure the nosing face is flush end to end as gaps may be magnified when going up the stairs.
Dry fit each step as you go and leave the boards in place until you have all pieces in place.
At this point you can secure them in place if you plan on staining them directly (see below for how). In my situation, I wanted to stain them outside in the garage, so I took each piece off and marked the corresponding number for reference.
Landing Area (Optional)
The landing area is dependent on circumstance as not all homes will have. If you don’t have a landing, skip this step. This is how I tackled mine.
The landing area comprises of two parts – the flooring for the landing area, and the nosing. I picked up 10 sq ft of hardwood, and 3 ft of nosing.
Nosing. The nosing piece has an overhang much like a tread, and with most stair landings, you’ll need to notch a slot for the skirt boards so that they can lay flush with the floor area. In my situation, I needed to notch both sides for the skirt boards, while also making a slot for the stair straps to slide under.
Skirt board slots. First up, I cut the nosing to the correct width of the landing area. Then using a speedsquare, I marked the location of the skirt boards on both sides. I then used the crosscut sled on my table saw to cut out both sides. If you don’t have this, you can remove the slot any way you like with the tools you have. A handsaw will work just fine as well.
Stair Straps. Now that the nosing can slip in between the skirt boards, I still wasn’t getting a flush landing because the stair straps were raising the ends of the board about 1/8″ of an inch. To compensate, I marked the width of the straps onto the nosing, and took it to the table saw. Setting the table saw at 3/16″ of an inch (slightly higher than the amount needed), I carefully ran the board through the saw over and over until I notched out two passageways.
Caution: be careful not to run the nosing all the way through as you may cut out the other side and make the passageway visible from the face of the nosing.
Slot the nosing. Since the wood flooring has slots for each piece to connect, we needed to replicate this on the actual landing nosing piece. I used a cutoff from the hardwood to calibrate the table saw fence and blade height, then ran the nosing through to create a tight fit. This will also keep the flooring flush with the nose when it’s in place.
Dry fit all pieces together. Once done, I cut the flooring to the right width and dry fit all the pieces together to cover the space of the landing. Now we’re rolling.
Stain and Paint
Staining is really a matter of personal preference. The natural colour of oak is quite beautiful on its own, so you may not want to proceed at this point. We wanted to stain it with our favourite walnut, so this is what we did:
- Light sand (220) the treads and then Wood Condition. Although you don’t need to, we let the conditioner dry overnight. Wood conditioner is really a preference thing, but it really helps the grains pop. See above for an example of before and after conditioner is applied.
- Light sand (220) and then oil stain two coats. We used our favourite Walnut oil stain, but of course you can use any colour you like!
- Paint and prime your risers. While the treads were curing, I turned my attention over to the risers. I did a light sand (220), followed by prime and paint.
- Paint your skirt boards. Since we’re on whites – with the paintbrush still wet – I ran inside and did a paint finish on the skirt boards as well.
Secure your Boards!
Pretty easy stuff now. Since everything was dry fitted, all you need to do is match up the numbers on your board with the numbers on your steps. I used leftover construction glue, spread out a generous amount and then used some cutoff shims to even it out.
Once the boards were pressed firmly into place, I brad nailed them down.
Repeat with each step, working your way up the stairs. Now the hard part is done, you can really see the stairs coming together.
- To clean up the staircase, I used white caulking and ran beads across all the seams between the risers and skirt boards. I should have just covered the brad nail holes too but I ended up using wood filler for those.
- Colour match Wood fill or Caulk the seams between the tread and skirt boards (if any). This part is up to you. I originally used a colour matched wood filler to fill any gaps, but I actually didn’t like the look of it highlighted the slight bowing in the skirt boards. There were very minimal gaps, so I ended up using white caulking instead.
- Top coat prep. Since this is a staircase, it’s recommended you use an oil based poly since it stands up to wear a lot better. However, since my wife is pregnant, I wanted to minimize the VOC in the house, so I ended up using my water based polyurethane for four coats. Since the poly cures slight yellow, tape off all the edges of your steps. Once done, run a quick sand at 220 and then vacuum up all the dust.
- First coat Poly. Run your first coat and let it cure. I’ll do a full tutorial on how to do this later, but the main points here is to apply the coats in the direction of the grain and make sure you don’t have a pool of solution sitting on one spot for too long. The poly comes on creamy, so you’ll see if you have any residual to wipe off. The curing time is only about 2 hours on water based solutions so its quite fast to work with. I started at the bottom and moved my way up.
- Second Coats. Before each additional coat, I ran a 400 grit sand paper across to smooth out any dust that may have cured on the steps. Once done, vacuum the stairs and use a lightly damp towel to wipe off any extra dust. You can proceed with your second coat. Do this until you’ve completed at least 3 coats (again, I did 4).
- Final sand. Once all your coats are done, run a 800 grit across everything. Your steps should be butter smooth right now, just the way you like it.
- Fill your riser and trim holes with caulk / wood filler and paint final coat if required. Based on how well you put everything together and nailed in the risers, you may have to do some patch work. For me, I wasn’t trying to hide my brad nails on the risers as I was also doing the side trim at the same time, so I filled them with wood filler, sanded, primed and painted those areas. In hindsight, after seeing how well the caulking blended the sides of the risers, I probably should have just used caulking and been more strategic with my nails. All good though, minor details. (I haven’t actually painted yet as I’m finishing another project before I paint the both together, so I’ll post final shots then.)
Looks like you’re done! Now that was a lot of steps and a lot of detail, but in reality, doing your steps is quite simple. I think the daunting aspect comes from just how many steps you have to face and the different layers of work involved. I hope breaking it down was helpful, and you can learn something from some of the mistakes I made. Goodluck!
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