Gaps in stringers

Q: For our stairs, carpet was replaced by new oak treads. I will paint the risers and stringers. There are large gaps in the stringers. How can I fill these areas in? Can I start by somehow wedging small pieces of wood and then using a filler?

A: I haven’t seen the gaps but sometimes you have to improvise and use your imagination. You could glue and nail wood strips and use wood filler if that would be easiest. You could mix a stiff concoction of wood glue and fine wood dust, then fill over with patching material that can be painted (and sanded / buffed easily).

Wood Stain Only? No Finish?

Q: I just finished installing new oak treads on my staircase. I love the color and sheen that they currently have, but I only stained them. I did not poly. Is that an essential step? What will happen to my beautiful stairs if I don’t finish them? Is it okay if they have wood stain only?

A: Well, there is nothing to protect the stain, unless the stain you used has polyurethane resin in it. If you want to protect the stain but have it appear as if there is little or nothing on it, then apply 1 coat of finish. There are finishes that are essentially ‘super matte’ made by companies such as Poloplaz or Bona Kemi which are so flat you can hardly detect the finish when dry. That is one option.

Foot barely fits on stair tread width

Q: Our house was built in the 60’s and the stairs to the basement are very narrow. We made the problem worse by adding a Berber carpet to them. Should I remove the carpet and add a piece of hardwood to the front edge of each step? My foot is a ladies size 8 and without shoes my foot barely fits on the stair tread width. You need put your foot sideways to go up or down.

A: Your treads do not meet code for width. You need to go buy solid slabs and install them on top. Cut the existing nosing or overhang back, flush with the riser and secure the new, wider slab. You can veneer the risers.

What might we do to blend these dark areas when restaining?

Q: We just put new maple treads on our staircase. They where walked on before staining, and with the first coat of stain they spotted real bad in the middle where walked on. We are trying to sand it off, but have not had much luck getting deep enough. What might we do to blend these dark areas when restaining?

A: Sand as much of the stain off as you possibly can. A random orbit sander may be helpful with this. I’d go 60 then 80 grit. Then wet the slab with warm water (don’t soak it) and let it dry completely. This is called water popping and helps to get better, more even stain penetration. Then stain again. Apply, let sit several minutes and wipe off excess.

Maple can and does tend to go blotchy when stained. It is the nature of the wood. If you walked up the stairs with wet shoes that would definitely create a mottled look.

Also see our recommendation to hire a pro.

Cleaning sticky wooden stair rails

Q: How do I clean sticky wooden stair rails?

A: It depends what type of finish is on the rails and what is making them sticky. If it is shellac, you want to stay away from anything containing alcohol, which would dissolve the shellac. If it is a urethane or varnish, then a polyurethane cleaner would do a good job. Otherwise you might try a weak mix of tsp or mineral spirits. Even vinegar and water is worth a try. I would start with the least drastic and work my way up.

Related Q: I recently purchased a home with wooden railings. They have a sticky feeling when you hold on to them and I don’t know how to remove the stickiness. The house is air conditioned so humidity doesn’t seem to be the problem. Any suggestions on what product I can use to make them shiny and smooth?

A: Someone has likely applied a furniture polish or oil type finish over varnish. Any approved cleaner for polyurethane should fix this up. Bona Pacific cleaner, or cleaners from MinWax, Basic Coatings, Mirage and Poloplaz to name a few. They are good for all your top coated wood items.

How does one finish stairs so that they aren’t dangerously slippery?

Q: Home Depot sells oak replacement stair kits (treads with a nose and risers). I’m working with stairs to the basement. How does one finish it so that it isn’t dangerously slippery? I think varnish or urethane might make the stairs too slippery. How do I get non slippery hardwood stairs?

A: You will probably find that a gloss or hi-gloss is a much more “sticky” finish compared to a satin, matte or semi. There are also some water borne finishes designed for sports floors that offer slip resistance in the chemical make-up.

Extra tread width/overhang from the open side of stairs

Q: I am planning to change the staircase from carpet to wood. I have one side boxed and the other side open with rails. I read in the Q&A that the extra nosing needs to be cut flush with the riser face. How about the extra tread width from the open side that extends beyond the riser width and overhangs beyond the drywall, do I need to cut stair overhand there as well? If yes, up to what surface?

A: Yes, you need to cut the overhang on the open side also, up to the outside edge of the stringer. You can buy new tread slabs that are finished on one or both sides or that are just meant to be encased with a stringer on both sides. You would have to glue veneer, or use some sort of cove mold on the outside of the stringer to cover the tread edge you cut off. Not bad if the stringers are painted. This could be difficult if they are not.

Staircase with gouges, gaps

Q: Firstly, thank you so much for such an informative website. I’ve learned more in the last 20 minutes here than the rest of the 3 hours of research combined! I have a question about staircase gaps and gouges.

I own a home in the Chicagoland area, built in 1926. All of the flooring is wood, some hard and some soft. We had someone estimate the cost to refinish, and in that process he determined that our carpet-covered stairs are also hardwood. However, I cannot tell what species. I have now removed the carpet, and am horrified to find a set of treads and risers that seem to have been badly mistreated. There are a lot of gouges on the edges, some gaps between the risers/treads and the wall, and some gaps in the carpentry itself between the risers and treads in some places. I’m curious what you would recommend here other than a complete rebuild. We do not wish to veneer/cover the existing wood; we’d prefer to remain original if it all possible. I was thinking that I would putty the sections that are damaged and see how they turn out, but the gaps are my biggest concern. There are sections that have used shoe trim to cover the gaps, but I wonder if you have a better idea.

A: If you can gain access to the back of the stairs (even if it means pulling down that section of plaster/drywall) you would be in a better position to tighten up the stairs. Perhaps some of the wedges that are used under the treads have come loose. Some of the risers also have likely moved over years of being kicked. You could hammer them back into place too. I know it’s all a pain but a couple of sheets of drywall isn’t that expensive to replace the ceiling behind the stairway. As for gouges, well, you can only sand so much wood off to remove those without creating new issues. You could sand the treads to clean wood and use a random orbit sander to gently smooth out as much of the damage possible. There are some wood fillers that will help you hide what damage is left.

What is the easiest way to remove white primer off of stair railing?

Q: What is the easiest way to remove white primer off of stair railing? Removing primer from wood? Everyone said to paint them white, but it looks horrible. We want to stain them Red Oak; however, we’re having a problem because the stain looks too dark and doesn’t match the rest of stairs. That’s why we went to white, but we hate it, and want to try staining again.

A: I would think chemical stripping followed by a lot of hand sanding and scraping.

Related Q: I had carpet on my stairs since I bought my home. I pulled off the carpet. I want to stain the treads. For some reason stairs are covered with white primer. Please tell me the best way to clean off the white primer in order to stain the stairs.

A: If this is a latex or acrylic primer it should be fairly easy to remove with an orbital or random orbit sander. Start with a 40, 50 or 60 grit and then go 80 and 100. You will likely also need a hand scraper and fine tooth file (to sharpen the blade) to scrape in the corners down to clean wood.

Can we put oak veneer on our stairs?

Q: We just removed the carpet from our stairs and are in the process of staining the pine treads to try to match the oak railing and spindles. It doesn’t match. Can we put oak veneer on our stairs? Will it be hard to curve the veneer around the tread? We are also installing a carpet runner once we are done.

A: It doesn’t surprise me that the colour doesn’t match when you are dealing with 2 different species of wood. Oak veneer is not the way to go on steps. If you really want to match the hand rail you could always have oak slabs installed on top of the pine treads. All the existing tread overhang would have to be cut back flush with the riser below it. You could put a veneer on the risers. If you have spindles installed on one or both sides of the existing treads, the entire assembly would have to be taken apart, cut down and re-fitted afterward.

Can I use flooring on the stairs, with matching stair nose pieces?

Q: I want to replace the carpeted areas in my house with hardwood floors to include the stairs. I would prefer not replacing the stairs at what I estimate would be around $100+ per tread/riser. Can I install hardwood flooring on stairs, with matching stair nose pieces?

A: Yes, you would need to cut off the overhang or lip on each existing tread so that it is cut back flush with each riser. You would then start at the bottom riser and work your way up. Install either hardwood or veneer on the bottom riser up to the top of the existing tread. Then glue and nail a nosing in place on the first step and fill in with hardwood to the next riser and so on.

Large gaps between the wall molding and steps/risers

Q: We took rugs off our stairs. There are large gaps between the wall molding and steps/risers. Also, the risers aren’t wood, so we will probably paint them the color of the off-white trim. Evidently, the steps never slid into the wall molding like most steps and now my husband wants to put trim on each step to fill in the gap. The gaps are all uneven. We are disagreeing about this because I think it will look too tacky. I told him to leave it alone and that’s the beauty of an old home, but he doesn’t want to.

A: The best way to fix gaps in molding along stairs is to open the wall/ceiling behind the steps and knock the risers back into place. It is likely that the risers have moved over years of being kicked. This would also afford opportunity to tighten up the treads or steps. It wouldn’t cost much to close the wall back in after. A couple of sheets of drywall and a bucket of compound.

Related Q: I’m pulling up the carpet on my steps, and I’m planning to stain the steps. It turns out there are big gaps in between each of the steps. What can I do to cover the gaps?

A: It sounds like over time the risers have been kicked and kicked until they loosened and got pushed back along the bottom edge. Hence the gap.

The best way to fix it is to open up the wall behind the stair case and bang them back against the treads. Otherwise you will have to use some type of trim, 1/4 round or cove mold for example. You could try driving a screw part way into the riser and see if you could pull the riser forward and then fill the small hole.

Landing of the stairs is making a creaking sound

Q: I moved into a resale house and noticed that the landing of the stairs (leading to the upper level) is making a creaking sound every time we step on it. I tried pushing talcum powder through the wood strips, but that did not help. How can this be corrected?

A: Gain access to the back of the stairway and secure the surface supporting the landing. You may have to apply shims.

Stair tread bleached too light

Q: I recently had a new addition with hardwood stairs going to the second floor. The stairs are oak. We had people come in and sand the stairs and then put poly on them. Then 1/2 of the first step turned black after it was stained. My contractor then sanded it back down to the wood and then put a wood bleach on it. After the wood bleach he sanded again then put 2 coats of poly on it. My problem now is 1/2 the stair is too light. Is there something else that can be done to make the stair tread bleached too light match the rest of the stairs? Should he sand off the poly and try putting the stain down on the bleached wood? Or will it go back to black again?

A: It sounds like a large mineral streak in that one oak slab. The stairs weren’t stained though. Just sanded and finished. I don’t think there is a thing you can do with this one except change the tread if it bothers you. I have had at least 2 stair cases I’ve stained and finished in the past and in both cases 2 of the treads were lighter than all the others. There wasn’t a thing I could do to change it. It was just the nature of those particular slabs. You never know if you are getting heart wood or sap wood, both of which are different coloration and density.

Matching stair nosing perfectly with floor

Q: I have natural maple floors and need to finish some unfinished nosing. My question’s about matching stair nosing to my floor. Some paint stores are unsure if the finish on the floor is water-based or oil-based. One place tried water-based and oil-based Sico natural polyurethane on a piece of wood to try and determine which it was and to me it’s neither one. How can I tell if the finish on my floor is a water-based or oil-based polyurethane? How can I match the finish for my nosing perfectly with my floor? Which is a better finish water or oil? Can you recommend a finish made by a particular company?

A: Water borne finishes tend to stay very light with little to know ambering. You may have a difficult time matching your maple nosing ‘perfectly’ regardless. You can have such a wide range of colours in maple as it is. I’m an old timer so still prefer oil modified finishes both for their ease of use and appearance. Which is better? It depends on the situation. In some cases, water borne will be the better choice. I love Poloplaz finishes and the company too. Their Primero omu is excellent and I’ve heard nothing but good things about their 202 commercial grade waterborne.

Hallway carpet transition to wood step

Q: What is the best way to do a carpet transition to wood step, from oak top step to carpet? We are replacing the plywood treads with oak treads and repainting the risers. The top of our stairs ends in a hallway covered in carpet. Thanks.

A: I would install an oak stair nosing. You can get either 3/4 thick or 3/8′. Butt the carpet up to it.

Hiding cuts beside top of banister with molding

Q: We’re installing laminate flooring upstairs. How do we hide the cuts that are beside the top of the banister (the flat part that is about 5 inches wide and holds the spindles). We started putting the floor down at the wall and are finishing beside the banister. What should we use for banister molding? Do we use a shoe molding? Thanks you for your help.

A: You will no doubt have to improvise to find a solution to this. Perhaps some sort of very tiny shoe mold or flat cap of some sort.

Filling nail holes on staircase

Q: The steps on my staircase are maple. I have already sanded them and I need to fill some holes and polyurethane them. What should I use?

A: I would suggest visiting your local hardwood retailer who should carry several different types of wood filler, colour matched to your maple steps. You likely don’t need much. Perhaps just a small jar.