The right steps to re­fin­ish stair­ways

Con­trac­tors of­fer best tips on what can be a messy job

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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.

Torstar news ser­vice

a stair­case in a Toronto home be­fore ren­o­va­tions. The place had pre­vi­ously served as a room­ing house.

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