Visual Story: Installing Retrofit Treads on a Staircase
Updated: Aug 22, 2022
We've been working on gradually replacing the carpet in our house with bamboo flooring. Our steep, narrow staircase was also carpeted and the tiny treads combined with the increasingly worn carpet was becoming as dangerous as it was unsightly. We had originally planned on just painting whatever wood we found underneath the carpet, but the treads were in terrible shape. They were dented, gouged, and scratched to the point of almost being worn away in places.
We changed plans, deciding to order a set of red oak retrofit treads from the Hardwood Lumber Company. While they were being prepared and shipped, I worked on removing the bullnoses of the original treads, a necessary step before installing the retrofit treads.
I tried using several tools for this job. I ended up doing most of it with a jigsaw. I had watched videos where people had removed the treads completely to trim them with a table saw but I thought this might be more trouble than it was worth. As it was, I struggled to remove the small bits of bullnose close to the stringer on the railing side. The space was so narrow that I had to use an oscillating multi-tool. This was slow work. I ended up having to go back with a rasp attachment and an electric planer to get the wood worn away enough to accommodate the new treads.
Our house was built in 1900 and the paint on the stairs seemed old with many visible layers. I did two different lead tests which both seemed negative but with some confusing coloration that didn't inspire confidence. Before sanding the risers and further prepping the wood, we decided to close off the stairway with plastic and use a giant fan (leant to us by our neighbor) to direct dust and particulates out our front door. I also wore a respirator and goggles.
After everything had been wiped down, we primed the risers and the stringer. In retrospect, it may have been a better plan to install retrofit risers as well as treads, but we had decided to paint the risers early on and ended up staying the course. We chose a dark, semi-gloss paint to hide some of the scratches and dents on the risers.
When the oak treads arrived, I used a plastic tread template to measure each old tread. I marked each new tread, labeled it with a number, and cut it to size using a circular saw. The tread nearest the first floor required a cutout for a post which I did with a jigsaw. I dry-fitted each tread to make sure it was a good fit. Finally, I applied two coats of polyurethane (a formula designed for wood flooring and stairs).
Installing the new treads was one of the simplest steps of the project. I drilled screws into some of the old treads to try to silence their squeakiness. Then each new tread got a bead of construction adhesive and finishing nails in the corners. After this, a few rounds of touch-up painting was necessary to clean up the stinger fascia where the treads had scratched it during installation.
The final product is a great improvement over the carpet. The red oak looks great with just the polyurethane on it and the painted risers look pretty good too. Dents and scratches on the risers are definitely visible, but ours is an old house and in some sense these defects add to the character of space. If we eventually wanted a cleaner look, it would be easy enough to install some retrofit risers later.
Overall, this project was a satisfying upgrade that was not especially expensive. Some parts of it were more time-consuming than expected, especially removing the old bullnoses and prepping the risers. But as with most house projects, I learned many lessons the hard way and I believe that if I had to do it again, I could be much more efficient!