How to Install Stair Treads

Gone are the days when you had to drill holes for screws or hammering nails for installing the stair treads. Not only that it was difficult, but as the house would settle, the nails would become loose and leave the nasty holes that are so dangerous.

If you’re planning to install some good old solid wood stair treads, you should know a thing or two (better try “a lot”) about wood grain, cutting wood, construction and getting around with the power tools. Patience and meticulosity are also necessary, but it’s all worth it when you get to think of the beautiful look of your stairs at the end of it all.

First thing first: what do you need for the job?

Any DIY fan knows that preparing the tools and materials you need for a job is one tip for completing your project.

Here’s what you’re going to need for this project:

tools for Install Stair Treads

  • Nail gun and air compressor (you can rent it if you’re not using it often)
  • Sliding compound miter saw (either you buy it, or you rent it)
  • Power sander and fine grit sandpaper
  • Stair tread template
  • 42″ oak stair risers. You can also go with pine risers as they’re less than $10 apiece, with the oak risers coming for more than $10 ($12 or so).
  • 42” oak stair treads (it’s what you’re stepping on). You may find pine treads for $11/piece, and oak models for as high as $16/piece.
  • You will need some clear polyurethane and stain (when you don’t want to stick with the natural color of wood).
  • A natural bristle brush as a nylon type isn’t a good choice for the polyurethane (it’s based on oil)

You also need a crowbar for removing treads and pry bar for getting rid of the carpet tacks. Don’t forget to get your pencil, measuring tape, and the utility knife for cutting the carpet or scoring the risers.

What are the steps to follow when installing stair treads?

Being meticulous on the job should be a rule of thumb for any project, especially when it comes to constructions.

Without any further ado, let’s take a good look at each and every step of the way of installation:

steps to follow when installing stair treads

  • Sand and stain/polyurethane the treads and the risers

Truth be told, this is one of the most time-consuming phases of the whole process. You can do it outside or inside your garage. You need to sand every tread with some fine grit sandpaper. Use some power sander and a damp cloth for wiping them down too.

Some like to install first the wood and stain/polyurethane it after the installation. It’s an excellent way to do it as it’s going to cover the nail holes too. Keep in mind that you need to wait for the stairs for drying (dah!). If that’s a no go for you, you should start with staining the wood pieces.

You should also keep in mind that staining comes before polyurethane. Either way, you have to let the pieces dry out. Two coats are going to be needed with the first coat soak into the wood, whereas the second one is for protecting the wood.

Another thing to keep in mind is that you also have to sand between coats (only slightly, though) as the first coat may bring out the “grit” in the wood.

  • Remove the carpet and the underlay

It’s time for some rough and tough job. Ripping up the carpet and the underlay (it goes fast) helps you blow some steam off, though. If the carpet goes all the way to the upstairs landing, it’s better that you begin with cutting it at the top of the stairs.

You should also remove the carpet tack strips. Do it slowly as they’re sharp. Even if this step isn’t mandatory, you should do it as you don’t want the carpet tacks to poke you later on.

  • Say “goodbye” to the treads

Now you need to put some muscle into it. Get a hammer and a crowbar for wedging it under the treads, removing it for good. Pry off the tread with the hammer when some of the treads is up. If they’re made of plywood, it’s going to be easier than thick pine, though.

You should stop for a minute and take a look at what used to be your stairs. No way to climb up back, right? Plan so that you don’t have any kids or pets trapped upstairs throughout the installation.

  • Time for some measuring and cutting

Take a leap of faith and try a $20 template for the project. It has two plastic ends, and it may be a bit shorter than the width of our stairs, but it’s still going to work.

Pu5 the template on the stair stringers and tighten the model until you achieve the right angle and length of every side of the tread/riser.

Use the pencil for marking the boards (you can also use the utility knife for scoring as it’s not going to leave any marks).

Get the compound miter saw for cutting the board to the right angle, lining up the laser for accurate results. Don’t stop until you’re done with all the boards. And yes, it’s going to take you a while (even a whole day).

  • Start installing the treads and risers

Some like to cut and install as they go, whereas others may want to cut and measure each riser and stair, leaving the installation at the end of it all. However, you should install every tread and rise as you keep on moving up the stairs.

Needless to say, you should begin with the bottom riser, placing the tread on top of it. Continue with the riser and then add the next tread. You do it over and over again until you get to the top. The riser should always rest on the tread. Install the treads with PL premium adhesive and a caulk gun. Funny enough, you may use the glue as a leveler as well.

You should keep the boards into place with a nail gun and 2″ nails. Make sure you use a 45degree angle as you don’t want the nails to become loose after some time. The 45-degree corner seems to be ideal for keeping the nail in place. If you don’t want any squeaking noises in time (who does?), you should use a lot of nails. Get some wood filler for filling the holes afterward.

Stairs are going to squeak for sure. But caulking and wearing them in, and walking on them is going to help after a while.

  • Finish with caulk and paint

Even though it’s tempting, you should stay on the safe side and not paint the side stringer trim before you’re installing the treads. It’s almost never a wise idea. Since the treads are cut so tightly, the chances are that they will scrape up the trim when you fit the treads and risers as needed.

However, you may tape off the stairs, painting the trim instead. Use two coats of paint, generously. It may take you a couple of hours (it doesn’t matter anymore at this point), but it’s going to be the final touch that the stairs need.

Get some white caulk that is made for trim and…take a deep breath as this phase isn’t going to be clean at all. You should to cut off every small tip of the caulk, squeezing small lines into the edges. Have some paper towel (a lot) and a big damp cloth/towel for wiping off the excess. No time to complain about the manicure at the moment as you need to wipe off all the excess caulk.

Even if it’s time and nerve consuming, this final step is going to fill in the gaps and help you get rid of the squeaking too. At least for now, anyhow!

Other resources

The DIY Guide to Installing Stair Treads – Our Tennessee Home

How to Install Wood Stair Treads Without Showing Nail Holes | Home Guides | SF Gate

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