Installing Unfinished Hardwood Stairs

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Refinishing your hardwood stairs is a project you can tackle yourself

If you want to refinish the treads and risers of your staircase and there are walls on each side, you can tackle this project yourself.

When installing treads and risers on an unfinished stairway, your main concern is to make them look beautiful. If the treads are rounded and overhang the risers, build them out before installing them.

If you have steps with existing banisters, the steps are probably hardwood, no matter how bad they look. Plan to refinish them by thoroughly sanding with an orbital sander, as a belt sander is too powerful and may do more damage. Also, use a stripper to remove any finish the sander misses.

This project guide focuses on installing risers and treads for stairs with walls on both ends, so there are no balustrades or handrails to contend with for this installation. If you have a balustrade or a fancy handrail, consider hiring a professional, unless you are skilled in woodworking.

WHAT YOU NEED FOR THIS PROJECT

1
Cut the risers
Cut the risers - Installing Unfinished Hardwood Stairs

• Cut the risers one at a time and measure each one to determine its length and width.
• Cut the risers to width and then measure the height in a couple spots. If the measurements are different, you’ll have to cut an oversize tread and then trim to match.
• Add ¾ inch to the largest thread length and cut the riser to this length.
• Put the riser in place and set a compass so its legs are 3/8-inch apart.
• Scribe along the wall with the compass, drawing a line on the riser.
• Cut along the line with a jigsaw. Once you’ve made the cut, scribe and cut on the other end of the riser.
• Cut remaining risers to size.

Tip: When you cut risers, cut an 8 to 12-degree bevel along the edge that meets the tread. Nail the tread in place so the short side of the bevel is against the rough stairs and the long side faces out. The bevel keeps the edge above dirt, saw dust and bumps that otherwise may cause a gap in the seam.

2
Nail the risers
Nail the risers - Installing Unfinished Hardwood Stairs

• Nail the risers into the pieces of framing beneath them called stringers. You’ll find a 2x stringer against the wall on each side of the stairs and one down the middle.
• Nail two 8d flooring nails into each stringer and drive them below the surface with a nail set.

3
Trim the treads
Trim the treads - Installing Unfinished Hardwood Stairs

• Begin with treads that have one rounded edge. Cut each tread to a width that will leave 1 inch overhanging the riser, then check the length, measuring in two places.
• For treads that need to be trimmed to fit, add ¾ inch to the longest measurement and cut the tread to this length.
• Put the tread in place and set compass so the legs are 3/8 inch apart.
• Trace along the wall with the compass, drawing a line on the tread.
• Cut along the line with a jigsaw.
• Once you make the cut, scribe and cut the other end of the tread.

4
Install the treads
Install the treads - Installing Unfinished Hardwood Stairs

• Glue the tread to the steps with construction adhesive. Apply the adhesive to the step, rather than the tread, to minimize the squeeze-out onto the rounded edge.
• Install the tread, clean off any adhesive that may have squeezed out, and then nail it into place with 8d flooring nails.
• Drive two nails into each stringer and then cut, scribe and install the remaining treads.