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August 22, 2010
Stairs: finished treads (a history)

A set of wooden stair treads occupied our Bay Area backyard for half a year while they were being refinished.

One of the biggest tasks of finishing our mountain home has been the construction of permanent stairs. We have not reported our progress since mid-May. Here’s what we’ve been up to since then.

While we’ve been able to construct the rough stairs using plywood, OSB (oriented strand board) and MDF (medium-density fibreboard), we wanted the finished stairs – especially the treads – to look as nice as possible. Unfortunately, high-quality finished wood is enormously expensive (Gail priced it at about $50 per tread).

Fortunately, Gail was able to find some inexpensive second-hand stairs at a salvage yard. She believed that we could re-use the old treads. It would require a lot of work, but our time is much more plentiful than our finances.

June 2009: Steve, Russell and Dirk unload two flights of antique stairs. The stairs ended up sitting in a corner of the mountain house for half a year before we did anything with them.

The first task was to dismantle the old stairs, which were set very solidly – and permanently – in housed stringers. Russell spent several weeks ripping the two flights apart with hammer and crowbar. In the end, he had a lot of scrap wood… and 14 viable treads of oak and Douglas fir.

February 2010: Russell dismantles the antique stair structures. While much of the wood was scrap, he recovered a set of 1” by 10” by 34” treads that could be re-used. Happily, our specifications called for 1” by 10” finished treads.

At this point, we brought the treads back down to the Bay Area to continue work. Over the next several months, our back yard would become an outdoor workshop filled with wood, tools and sawdust.

With more available time during the day, Gail took over from here. Out next challenge was that treads must legally be at least 36 inches long… but the recycled treads were only 35 inches. Gail solved the problem using a biskit joiner she borrowed from our building inspector. Russell took the least attractive tread and chopped it up. Gail then used the biskit joiner to splice an extra two inches onto each of the remaining treads.

April 2010: Gail uses a biskit joiner to splice an extra two inches onto each tread.

The next task was to use a router to create a bullnose (rounded edge) on the left side of each tread. This was going to be Russell's job, but he injured his shoulder. Gail volunteered to take over. The first thing she did was improve the process.

Normally, bullnosed sides are created by mitering and splicing an extra piece of wood onto the outside edge. This provides two advantages:

  1. The bullnose runs with the grain of the wood, instead of against it; and
  2. The finished tread has an extra leg that extends longer on the side.

Gail decided that this was too much work. She argued that we should simply bullnose the existing side, even if it ran against the grain. She didn’t need the extra “leg.” She did a test and thought the results were perfectly acceptable.

Normally, a side bullnose is achieved by splicing a mitered piece of wood onto the end, with the grain running sideways. Gail decided this was too much work.

Gail set to work. She used a 1/2” quarter-round bit to route one side of the tread, then flipped it over and routed the other side. The result was a nice edge rounded into a half-circle.

July 2010: Gail uses a 1/4”-bit router to create bullnosed edges on the treads. She used clamps and scrap wood to create a straight-line guide.


The treads, before and after bullnosing.

As she routed the treads, Gail encountered another problem: some of the recycled treads were not cut at precise right angles. Russell had to figure out how to fix this. He didn’t want to use a handheld circular saw; which would not cut precisely enough. He tried using his sister-in-law Debbie’s table saw. The problem was that it was difficult to slide a 36” long piece of wood along the blade without the board slipping.

Russell finally solved the problem using his friend Dirk’s radial arm saw. With this tool, the wood remains stationary and the blade moves. It only took a couple of trips to Dirk’s house after work for all of the treads to be trimmed.

August 2010: Dirk (our volunteer electrician and all-around handyman) trims the ends of the treads to exact right-angles. The benefit of his radial arm saw is that the blade moves, while the wood remains in place.

Gail was able to finish routing the treads. Next, after filling in all of the old nail holes, cracks and chips with stainable putty, Gail used a belt sander, running several iterations on each tread from coarse to fine. She completely eliminated any flaws from the biskit splices and router. By the end of the process, the treads felt like fine, finished wood.

The treads, before and after wood putty.

August 2010: Gail uses a belt sander to make the treads look as good as new. She sanded the boards continuously from April through August, after biskit-joining, after bullnosing and after puttying.

Gail’s final task was to stain the treads. We discussed how the ultimate color choice for the treads would cascade throughout the rest of the house. It would define the color of the landings and consequently the color of the hardwood floors. It would also make sense to repeat this motif in the ceiling beams both upstairs and downstairs. After a couple of samples, Gail decided on a dark shade of cherry.

August 2010: Gail stains the treads. After several tests, she ultimately settled on dark cherry.

With the treads now finished, sanded, stained and Varathaned, we were finally able to take them back up to our mountain home for installation.

The finished treads, all ready to be loaded into the van and taken up to our mountain home.

On the weekend of August 20, Russell began installing the finished treads over the rough stairs. He was able to install the nine short treads using wood glue, but ran out of time before he could screw them in.

August 22, 2010: Russell uses wood glue to attached the finished treads to the rough stairs.

We still have more work to do. We need to install the three longer treads on the bottom flight. We need to manufacture a fourth longer tread on the lowest step, one with rounded ends. We need to create faux steps at each of the three landings. And we need to install trimwood to hide all of our mistakes.

But what we’ve accomplished so far looks terrific – and well worth the effort so far.

The stairs: before and after


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