Restoration Guide: Stairs

Shannon Lee

Editor's Note: This is article 6 of 6 in Chapter 5: The Partitions, Ceilings, Walls, Stairs Guide of Old House Web Restoration Guide. This guide was developed and edited for old homes from original materials in the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Rehab Guide.


Section 1--Home Restoration of Treads and Risers

All stairs have treads, but not all stairs have risers. Treads are the areas where you place your foot to climb the flight of stairs. Risers are the areas behind the treads. A staircase with risers is called closed-riser stairs, and those without risers are known as open stairs.

The most common complaints homeowners have about their stairs is the squeaking sound they hear when they walk up and down the staircase. Here are a few ways to correct the issue:

  1. Graphite powder stops squeaks. Locate the area where the squeaking occurs, and blow graphite powder between the tread and the riser. This lubricates the area, reduces friction, and eliminates squeaks, but it is only a temporary fix.
  2. Refastening treads from above. Nailing treads in place can stop the squeaks. Target your efforts near the source of the squeak, attaching the tread to the carriages or the riser. Countersink the nails for safety and attractiveness.
  3. Refastening treads from below. If you can access the underside of the stairs, wood blocks can be glued into the area between the tread and riser, thus eliminating movement. You can also refasten the treads to the carriage.
  4. Fixing with wood wedges. Stairs in an old house often have molding where the riser meets the treads. That molding can be removed and wood wedges can be pushed between the risers and treads to eliminate squeaks. Replace the molding and it looks as good as new without any damage to the wood.

Section 2--Tread and Riser Replacement

Treads are the part of the stairs that get the most wear and tear. Luckily, replacing treads that are completely worn out is a relatively easy project.

Starting with the bottom three or four treads, remove the balusters (shafts that support the handrails) from the sides, and then pry up the treads, taking care not to damage the carriage underneath. Install new treads and risers as you go up, leaving a gap between the finished work and the old treads to allow plenty of space to work.

When you've completed the replacements, carefully line up where the balusters will go, and notch the treads appropriately. Install the balusters and fasten all parts securely.

Section 3--Fixing Sagging Carriages

The carriage is the support underneath your stairs. Sagging carriages can lead to serious issues with safety, but the good news is that they can be easily reinforced. If the carriage has sagged to a point of causing variations in height along the staircase, this potential hazard could mean a staircase needs to be entirely replaced.

Screwing metal angle brackets or wood blocks through the carriage and into the support structure is a good way to shore up the carriage. Occasionally a carriage can be removed and replaced with new wood, leaving the majority of the original structure intact without compromising safety.

Section 4--Fixing Damaged Balusters

Balusters usually have three types of connections: filleted, doweled, or dovetailed. Each type requires a different method of restoration or replacement.

  1. Making balusters stronger. Loose balusters can simply be reattached to the railing with nails or screws. Either attach them from the bottom, or countersink nails and screws from the top and fill the holes.
  2. Filleted baluster replacement. Replacing old fillets at the rail and base can make the baluster replacement look seamless.
  3. Doweled baluster replacement. Replacing balusters with dowels on the end can be an easy process, but it does run the risk of scraping the tread if not done carefully.
  4. Dovetailed baluster replacement. Dovetailed balusters are the strongest you can install, so don't be surprised if replacing them is a bit difficult. However, the longevity of the style makes the work worthwhile.

Section 5--Total Replacement with Prefabricated Stairs

Sometimes preservation of the staircase in an old house is not possible. In that case, prefabricated stairs can make the replacement job easier. Keep in mind the current building codes and whether the original stairs are part of the home's supporting structure.

  1. Prefabricated stairs. These stairs arrive ready for installation. Simply attach the stairs at the header in the stair opening and shim underneath the bottom riser until the treads are perfectly level. Installation should go smoothly if you follow the manufacturer's instructions exactly.
  2. Prefabricated stringer. A new way of installing stairs that takes much less time and labor, prefabricated stringer stair systems can be more expensive than their traditional counterparts.

Section 6--Installing Attic Ladders

Attic ladders are practical ways to reach the additional storage space in the attic, but might not be an original feature of your old house. Installing factory-built attic stairs requires shoring up the ceiling area you want to cut for the stairs, choosing an attic ladder that fits into the appropriate space, and careful planning to assure safety and meet code requirements.

When installing a prefabricated attic ladder, make certain to follow the manufacturer's directions exactly. Measure numerous times to ensure cutting the proper size hole in the ceiling, and finish your work by adding insulation to the top side of the attic door, to enhance the energy-efficiency of your old house.

About the Author

Shannon Dauphin is a freelance writer based near Nashville, Tennessee. Her house was built in 1901, so home repair and renovation have become her hobbies.

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