Trade carpeted stairs for beautiful wood

When we moved to Portland in 2015, we bought a fixer-upper, with all the sad hallmarks of 1970s construction, including a world of nasty old carpet, filled with decades of dust and dander and God knows what. Let’s not even talk about what I found when I pulled up the old carpet pads.

As soon as I could, I started tearing the funky old carpet out of the house, replacing it with hardwood flooring–and with new carpet in two small rooms.

While the Home Depot carpet installers were at the house, I pulled up the last bit of old carpet in the house–on the stairs–and dumped it into their truck (with their kind permission). Then I waited till I had the time to tackle the stair remodel.

Underneath the carpet was just cheap 2×10 construction lumber, with thin boards nailed on as risers. But I had a plan and a few tricks up my sleeve. After seeing thick fir treads at a local restaurant, attached with screws and plugs, I figured out a way to do the same at our place.

My wife and I like rustic elements in home design, and I had purchased a pile of thick native fir for a song from a local sawmill, earmarking them for our new treads. The challenge was how to add thick treads without raising the level of the stairs too much and having an extra-tall step at the bottom and a problem where the top stair meets the upstairs floor. The solution was a miter technique that gives a thin board the appearance of a very thick one. I learned it from a great woodworking friend, Mark Edmundson.

The miter technique let me wrap a wide, 3/4-in.-thick board over the front of every 2×10 tread, and make that board look 1-1-/2 in. thick. I started with thick fir, but the cool thing about this trick is how it will let you start with 3/4-in. boards that are already surfaced. I only used thick timbers because I got them cheap.

The other challenge would be seamlessly fitting risers into the spaces between the treads. For that I used an old trick borrowed from the countertop and cabinet trades: a cardboard template.

By the way, we went with a simple oil finish to complete our rustic look, embracing the wear and tear as part of the character. But you could do this technique with a fine hardwood too, and top it off with a much more protective polyurethane floor finish.

I did my best to grab some shots along the way, so I could share as many tips as possible. Enjoy!

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I only used these thick slabs because I got them cheap. The easiest way to do the miter-wrapping technique below is to start with 3/4-in. stock that’s already surfaced. They key is using very wide boards, wide enough to cover your stair treads with enough left over to wrap down over the front edge.
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Luckily I have a very wide jointer and planer. You won’t need one if you buy 3/4-in.-thick boards that are already surfaced.
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After jointing one face, I made a huge resaw cut on my bandsaw, which worked great with a sharp, coarse blade (3 tpi).
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After planing both faces and cutting the parts to width, I buried the blade in an auxiliary fence on the tablesaw to make the long miter cuts. The idea here is to adjust the fence so the miter reaches almost to the edge of the stock but not quite. You need a little bit of the square edge left to ride the fence and keep the workpiece stable.
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Here’s the miter-wrapping trick. Start with the pieces face down and pull blue tape tightly across the miter joints like this. Note how these two pieces came from the same board, so there is a perfect grain match at the seam.
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Then run a piece the long way down the seam. Burnish it down with your thumb and then carefully flip the pieces over on the bench.
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Brush a thin coat of glue onto the miters, which are facing up now.
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Now all you have to do is fold the miter closed and pull more strips of blue tape across to clamp the joint tightly closed.
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Once you sand the corners a bit, you can’t see the seam at all and the board looks like a thick slab! No one can tell that the fat edge is just more of the same face grain.
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The next thing I did was used a plug cutter on the drill press to make a ton of plugs. The trick is not to drill all the way through the board, so the plugs don’t come free and get stuck in the cutter.
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Now just make a bandsaw cut like this to cut the plugs to the length you need and free them from the board. The tape is there to keep the plugs from rolling away. I pulled it off here to show you the deal.
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So here are the new treads in place on the old staircase. I drilled counterbores and clearance holes in the treads beforehand, crosscut them to fit the spaces, applied a simple oil finish, and then screwed them down and plugged the holes. If my boards had been a little wider, I would have made the front edge taller and completely covered that old tread behind it.
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I milled some of the same boards for the landing also, using a shiplap joint between them and screwing and plugging these too.
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Then I sharpened the blades on two block planes, set one for rough cuts and the other for fine, and went to town on those plugs. The treads had finish on them and the plugs didn’t, so I just dabbed some more oil on the flush plugs when I was done.
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The big plugs go well with the rustic wood and oil finish. All that was left was fitting and nailing riser boards into the spaces between the treads. 
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Before I added the new fir riser boards, however, I had to fill the spaces under the old treads, so my new boards could reach from one new fir tread up to the other. I did that by screwing some some 3/4 in. plywood (not shown here yet) into the spaces.
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For the risers, I bought clear vertical-grain (CVG) fir, and sawed and planed it into thin boards. The trick was how to fit them seamlessly into this irregular space. The solution is this cardboard template. I just detached the taped pieces, pressed them against the ends of the space, and taped them back on. Above and below are the fir risers already fitted and nailed into place.
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Once I ripped my thin fir risers to match the height of the space, I used the cardboard template to mark the ends for crosscutting on my mitersaw, angling the blade as needed to hit the line perfectly. I attached the riser boards with thin brads from my air gun. The nail holes are almost impossible to see in the finished staircase, especially if you position the little slots for the heads horizontally, in line with the dark grain lines.
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We love the look of our new stairs.
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I added fir railings to match.
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The landing is rustic fir too, just the way we like it. I just have to add a few white base moldings and I’m done. Phew!

 

 

 

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