How To Update Carpeted Stairs Into A Wooden Staircase

5 Materials
8 Days
When we bought our house, it had carpet all in the upstairs and on the staircase. We tore out all the carpet and installed wood flooring upstairs. It didn’t make a whole lot of sense to leave the stairs carpeted, so we decided to update then into a wooden staircase instead. My mother was against it. “What if the children slip?” she agonized. Except, here’s the thing. The carpet was the first thing to go when we bought our house. So her poor grandchildren have been going up and down unfinished stairs for close to three years. And by unfinished, I mean plain old wood. People use handrails at my house. They also don’t mess around on the staircase. And they don’t run. So wooden the stairs would be. The only problem was, how exactly were we going to make them…
These are what my stairs looked like before. The stairs were carpeted when we bought the house, but we pulled out the carpet before we moved in. Imagine carpeted stairs in pretty much every house built in the 1980’s that you’ve ever entered, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what they looked like back then. I will have you know that we had been living with them unfinished like this for three years (ever since we pulled out all the carpet). It was only moderately mortifying to have guests over to my home. They are numbered so that I would know what wood went with what step. You should number yours too so you keep things straight. My four year old was super sad when we covered the numbers. He preferred them that way.
First, we had to get rid of the existing bullnoses on the stairs. A bullnose in woodworking terms is the rounded front edge of the step. The easiest way to accomplish this was with a circular saw. We measured and drew a line to make sure we were only cutting off the bullnose. Then we cut off the bullnose with the circular saw, also using a small vibrating saw to cut off the ends where the circular saw couldn’t reach.
Once the bullnoses were off, I measured and made some stair risers. Risers are the vertical part of the stair, in non-carpenter speak. My plan was to paint my risers white. The cheapest risers I could find for wood risers were in the 12-15 dollar range. Multiply that by 13 and that ain’t cheap, my friends. So instead I decided to make my own. I bought some 4×4 sheets of wood underlayment for ten bucks a piece at Home Depot and cut my stair risers to size. Sure it took me a bit longer than pre-purchasing, but not all that long. After all, I know my way around the table saw after putting in wood flooring in most of our house.
I painted the risers the same way I paint cabinets. First I primed then with Zinnser BIN Shellac. This is the best product for hiding wood grain, FYI. I used a foam roller to apply it, sanding with fine sandpaper between coats and wiping off with a tac cloth. Finally, I used Benjamin Moore Advance paint in white to paint the risers, also using a foam roller. I applied three coats of that as well, also lightly sanding between coats. I wanted to be sure that the paint would hold on a surface that would inevitably see some wear. We installed our risers with a finishing nailer and covered the nail holes with filler and painted over them.
Just to give you a visual idea, we have two-tone flooring in our upstairs (future post) with Celtic knots and cool border stuff going on. This is the flooring I used upstairs, in both the natural and the gunstock colors.
For the stair treads, I looked everywhere for wooden stair treads that I liked. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find anything that matched our existing flooring. Most of the solid hardwood stair treads I could find were oak, and that wasn’t going to work. Our floors are birch, and I wanted the stairs to flow seamlessly with the upstairs flooring.The only birch stair treads I could find were laminate. And expensive. But, I don’t give up easily. What I did have was a bunch of leftover flooring. (If you ever put in wood floors, you will too. You have to have extra to replace the “duds” that you will definitely have in your pack of wood. And you will probably over-order. Just like the rest of us). A quick online search, and I realized that the company that makes my wooden flooring make stair bullnoses (the rounded front edge of the stair tread) to match. Not cheap. But real wood. And perfect. I bought the gunstock color.
Since we have two-tone flooring upstairs, we thought it might be neat to continue that onto the stairs as well. It was a risk, but it was worth a shot, we figured. If you're going through all the trouble to do it yourself, why be normal? Why not make it your own? We cut our natural-colored birch flooring to size and installed it using Liquid Nails and flooring staples. We also put wood glue into each groove of the tongue and groove flooring to make sure that they wouldn't wiggle one bit. Since it's the stairs, you want to make sure those suckers are solid.
I cut my bullnose to size as well (I got two stair bullnoses from each bullnose I purchased) and checked the fit. We used a laser level (aka, the best home improvement tool I've ever bought) to mark our bullnoses in four places. That was where the screws were going to go. You see, you really need to screw the bullnose down to make sure it's secure. Once we marked our bullnoses, we used our drill press to drill holes into our bullnoses.  Alternately, you can drill holes with a 3/8 inch wood bit on a drill. Tape your bit at a certain height to ensure that all holes are the same depth.
My husband made a jig to make sure that the screw holes would all be even. We would be using birch plugs to cover our screws, so we had to make a deep enough hole for the screw and a plug to fit inside the hole (I found my birch plugs on Amazon) . Once that depth was determined on a piece of scrap bullnose, the rest of the holes could all be drilled to the same depth. We used a 3/8 inch bit, because that size matched our birch plugs.
I stained all the plugs with Miniwax stain in Early American, which matched our bullnoses pretty well.  Then, I put on a few coats of polyeurethane. We installed the bullnoses using Liquid Nails and screws. Then, we used wood glue to glue the birch plugs into place over the screws.
That's it. It was a lot of work, but I love how they turned out! I really like the two colors on the stairs, because when you're walking down, it helps you see where to step, which I think makes them a bit easier to use.
One more photo of the finished stairs, showing the white risers :)
Of course, you can just purchase a pre-made stair tread and save yourself some effort, but I still recommend using the wood plugs to cover your screws. They add a lot of character. I hope this post gives you some good ideas and tips for making your own wooden stairs. There's more than one way to go about it, so don't be afraid to think outside the box :)
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Kati Urbanek-Countryesque
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  • Joanna Head Joanna Head on Mar 07, 2018

    Do the steps need to be stained the same colour as the railing? The wood floor at the bottom of my staircase is a darker colour than the railing. But I can’t seem to find a stain to match neither the floor nor the railing. The railing is a light oak and the wood floor is darker with lighter and darker hues. Also, should I verathane the steps to give them that glossy look? And can I add a coat of verathane to my already stained railing to add a glossy look to it?

    Thank you for your response

    Joanna Head

  • Mary S. Duncan Mary S. Duncan on May 15, 2018

    Ilove your floor ideas. How did you get the Celtic knot? I have stained flooring in a pattern using red stain I scored the design into the wood so that the red stain did not bleed into the flooring outside the design.

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