The DIY Guide to Installing Stair Treads

stairtreads

Our carpeted stairs were gross. When we moved into our 10 year old home a year ago, we we knew the carpet on the stairs needed to be replaced.

Big box stores quoted us around $1,500 just to replace the carpet with wood – and we’d still have to do all the demo and prep. No thank you. Our final cost for the stairs was $800, and that included buying power tools (a great investment!)

Here’s how to use your DIY skills to replace your carpeted stairs with wood treads.

Tools and materials required to replace stair treads and risers: 

  • Sliding compound mitre saw (rent or buy – this is the one we used)
  • Nail gun and air compressor (rent or buy – here’s the one we bought)
  • Stair tread template (here’s the one we bought) – Worth every penny!
  • Power sander and fine grit sandpaper
  • 42″ oak stair treads (what you step on)  – Pine treads are about $11/piece, oak treads are about $16/piece. We bought 42″ treads, because the width of our stairs was a little wider than the standard 36″ pieces.
  • 42″ oak stair risers (the vertical piece that goes above the tread)- Pine risers are about $8/piece, oak risers are about $12/piece
  • Clear polyurethane and stain (if you want a different color than natural wood). We used Miniwax, but if you can go to a professional flooring store and get a better polyurethane, we’d recommend that. Miniwax will never leave a perfectly smooth finish.
  • Natural bristle brush – Nylon won’t work with oil-based polyurethane
  • Pry bar – To remove carpet tacks
  • Crow bar – To remove treads
  • Utility knife – To cut up carpet or score risers
  • Measuring tape
  • Pencil

Step by step instructions (with my very handsome husband as the hand-model and DIY builder):

1. Sand and stain/polyurethane your treads and risers: This is what takes the most time. We used our garage as our workspace so we could sand outside. We sanded each of the treads with a fine grit sandpaper and a little power sander and wiped them down with damp cloth.

There are actually two ways to do this step – You can install the wood and then stain/polyurethane the pieces. This is so the nail holes don’t show once you tack the treads into place. We didn’t want to deal with waiting for the stairs to dry (yeah, we needed to get to our bedroom!) So we did all the prep beforehand, and we had no issues. It’s up to you!

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When you don’t have sawhorses, you use what you can find. We used a trash can and a table saw to rest the wood on. Whatever works!

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Remember, if you’re staining, you’ll want to stain before you polyurethane. Or you could get a stain/poly combination.

IMG_4701We polyurethaned each of the boards and laid them out to dry. You need to do this at least 2 times. We have a friend who’s a professional floor installer who told us we only needed 2 coats, and he was right! One coat to soak into the wood, and the second coat to protect. Make sure to lightly sand between coats, because the first coat seems to bring out the “grittiness” in the wood.

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2. Remove the carpet and underlay: Go to town and rip up the carpet and underlay. It goes pretty quickly. Cut it at the top of the stairs, if the carpet carries onto the upstairs landing. Bye bye, gross old carpet! IMG_4747

2. Remove the carpet tacks: Pry off the carpet tack strips. Careful, they’re sharp! We’re doing this so it’s safe to tear up the treads later. You could skip this step, but you might get poked by carpet tacks!

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3. Remove the treads: This requires some serious muscle (enter handsome husband with big muscles, or whoever you can talk into helping you!) Use a crowbar and hammer to wedge it under the treads and pry off. Once you have a little bit of the tread up, hammer upwards to remove the tread. Our treads were solid thick pine, but the risers were just plywood, so those were easier to remove.

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You’ll end up with the bare stringers- and no way to get back up the stairs! We stuck the cat in a room upstairs while we were doing this project. If I were to do this again, I’d keep all pets downstairs so you don’t get concerned when they’re not meowing and have to tiptoe up the risers to check on the cat…not that I did that…. ok, maybe I did.

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4. Start measuring and cutting: Let me introduce you to the brilliant stair tread template. It’s $20 and was worth every penny. It’s two plastic ends that you attach to a 1×3 that’s a little shorter than the width of your stairs. We used a flat strip of wood we had around the house, because the 1×3 we bought was bowed (if you buy one for this project, make sure it’s straight!)

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Lay the template on the stair stringers and tighten the template so you get the exact angle and length of each side of the tread or riser.

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Then mark your boards with a pencil, or score them with a utility knife. I’d recommend using a knife, so it doesn’t leave pencil marks.

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Use your compound miter saw to cut the board to exact angle. Line up the laser to cut it juuuuuuust right. Work your way up every stair until you have all boards cut. Warning, this took us all day. All. Flipping. Day.

5. Install your risers and treads: Because we were “nervous,” we didn’t install as we go. Instead, we cut and measured every riser and stair, and installed at the end. But you really should install each tread and riser as you move up the stairs.

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Start with the bottom riser, then place the tread on top of it. Then the riser, then another tread, and use this pattern until you reach the top. The riser rests on the tread. Use PL premium adhesive in a caulk gun to install the treads. Using a lot of adhesive on each tread helps act as a leveller. We used 3 tubes of adhesive for 15 stairs.

Then use your nail gun and 2″ nails to tack the boards into place. Use a 45 degree angle so the nails won’t wiggle out as the stairs start to get worn in. A 45 degree angle has a better chance of keeping that nail in place. The more nails you use, the less squeaking you’ll have. You can use wood filler to fill the holes. We haven’t done this yet, because you can’t see where the nails are. We’ll get to it…eventually!

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WARNING: Your stairs will SQUEAK. A lot. For us, it was because the edges of the wood were pushing against the trim. This’ll be fixed by walking on them and wearing them in, and by caulking. The caulk creates a buffer between the tread and trim.

6. Caulk and paint: I tried to paint the side stringer trim before we installed. What a bad idea. Because the treads are so tightly cut, they scraped up the trim as we were fitting the the treads and risers into place.

So tape off your stairs, and paint the trim with 2 good coats of paint. This takes forever, but it’s well worth it.

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Now caulk the gaps between the stairs and trim. Using white caulk specifically designed for trim, get ready to make a mess. Cut off the tiniest tip of the caulk and squeeze small lines into the edges. Then use lots of paper towel and a big damp rag or towel to wipe off the excess. Plan to get your fingers messy and wipe off a ton of excess caulk. This was the best thing we did, because it helps fill in the gaps and stopped the squeaking.

Before caulking:

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After caulking and painting: IMG_4837

And you’re done! That’s the final step to making your ugly carpeted stairs into gorgeous wood stairs that’ll stand the test of time (and help add major value to your home). 

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Questions about installing stairs? Comment and let us know your questions or advice for other DIY stair installers! 

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