The right steps to refinish stairways
Contractors offer best tips on what can be a messy job
Stairs and stairways are often last on the list when it comes to home renovations, even though they are frequently the first thing you and everyone else sees upon opening the front door.
Although not prohibitively expensive, refurbishing stairs is a messy and skilled job beyond the reach of average DIYers. The basics, though, aren’t hard to grasp and with a little help you can take the first steps to elevate your stairs.
Older homes, especially, will need stair repairs and upgrades, says Jordan Spear, a RenoMark contractor.
When it comes to restoring staircases, “the first thing is to look at the structure for safety,” says Spear, who specializes in restoring century homes. “You want to make sure the treads aren’t too worn and ‘cupping,’ and that the nosing is secure and that the railing is all secure and the components solid.”
Refinishing and staining
First, assess the wood, says Chris Palmer, also a RenoMark contractor who was an industrial designer before appearing on TV shows such as Canada’s Handyman Challenge, Income Property, Open House Overhaul and serving as Global TV’s resident handyman expert.
Stairs made from good hardwood, such as oak or maple, are usually worth refinishing. Peel back a section of carpet or runner to check the wood. If it’s low-grade pine or spruce (called “builder grade”) then painting, capping or re-carpeting are the only options, says TV contractor Damon Bennett, another RenoMark contractor.
If you’re lucky, you might need to just replace the most damaged treads. To refinish, remove the carpet and underpad, pull out all the staples, then fill and sand before painting or staining.
“You can’t put water-based stains on oil-based stains, so make sure you get the right product,” says Spear.
An alternative to re-carpeting is re-treading, or capping with new treads. Sometimes called false treads, they can sit on top of the existing ones. After that it’s a matter of replacing or repainting the risers.
Re-treading involves knocking out the existing treads. Replacing them and capping aren’t as easy as it sounds, warn the renovators.
Capping will also change the rise of the step and you’ll be short at the top and high at the bottom. Even just a half-inch difference can cause a stumble. There are veneer tread options in the $20$30 range but the ideal is solid wood, at $30 and up, depending on the type of wood. Also, you’ll either have to make your winders (the triangle-shaped larger treads that allow for a turn), or have them made.
To have a set of 14 stairs capped with red oak treads and risers, including three winders, (plus a corresponding new banister with new newels and spindles) will cost $5,000-6,000 — or more, depending on where you are, who does the work and how much labour is required.
With worn or low-grade stairs, aside from re-carpeting or capping, the other option is painting.
As with staining, prep is everything. Pull out all the staples, fill in the holes then sand, sand and sand again. A shop-vac attachment for your sander will help, as will sealing the work area with plastic sheeting. Wear a dust mask and eye protection.
Check out the pro-level painting stores such as Dulux, Sherwin-Williams or Benjamin Moore for their special tread paint that’s water based and designed to take foot traffic. If there’s a previous oil-based stain or paint on the stairs, you’ll need a bonding and transition coat of primer.
A good paint supplier can match the paint to the trim or to the wall. Painting the treads a dark colour and the trim and risers in white is a popular look.
Railings, carpet and rods
If you’re re-carpeting because the wood isn’t worth refinishing, consider upgrading the entire look with new railings.
Do you replace wood spindles with wrought-iron or vice versa? Esthetics aside, it’s also question of skill. Taking a railing apart can be tricky, notes Bennett.
“You can’t cut them out if you want to use them again so you’ve really got to be careful,” he says. “If you don’t do it right, it will look off. It’s really best to get someone in who has the experience and skill.”
Stair runners are for both esthetics and firm footing, especially for kids and seniors.
Runners can be bought by the foot and installed. Or you can have carpet cut and the edges bound to create your own runner.
a staircase in a Toronto home before renovations. The place had previously served as a rooming house.