The Risers and The Treads

By Kate Riley October 7, 2010

OK, first, let me announce that the eligibility criteria for the upcoming HomeGoods Link Party has been expanded to include how you would create your own ‘Mom Cave’ with a prize from HomeGoods.  I thank my kind readers for mentioning this obvious category.  I officially smacked myself on the head and said "Well duh!" 

So, please take note of that modification and mark your calendars for Oct 25th.  Also, you can submit your entry via email if you don’t have a blog  (Smack, "duh" again.)


Yesterday, a very good thing happened in my world.  A ten year dream of mine came true.  The hardwood risers and the treads on my entry staircase were installed. 

Glory halleluiah. 

risers and treads on staircase


A month ago we had just the top landing and the bottom step professionally installed because, long story short, we couldn’t use the standard wood treads, we needed strips of plank flooring and also a special routed curved edge. 

Exhibit A

matching step


Our good friend owns a flooring company, so he sent out the special order materials and the very helpful Felix to do the job in just a few hours.  It’s so nice to ‘know a flooring guy’, especially one who will let you DIY as much of the project as you choose to keep costs down. 

But the rest of the steps sat as plywood for nearly a month while the riser and tread material gathered dust in the living room.  Tick tick tick went the clock. 

After living with plywood steps for nearly a month, I noticed my husband preferred to spend his fall weekends watching football on the couch, not renting a table saw to cut risers.  Not that he’s ever lazy, he’s just working hard during the week, very tired, and in need of down time. 

Growing impatient, tapping my toe on said plywood, I gently suggested we enlist some help.  I swear I saw a twinkle in his eye.  Maybe it was a tear of joy. 

We called our contact and found out we would have to spend enough for about six more hours on extra labor to help us cut and install the risers. 

So we did this calculation:


In conclusion, bringing in the experienced staircase riser and tread installer for another $300 made the most financial sense, especially since we needed an absolutely professional look.  The best part of all was I played apprentice during the install yesterday. 

Here’s the step by step we followed for installing new risers and hardwood treads:

1)  First we cut the edges of the plywood steps with a jig saw.  I had planned to use my SkilSaw but the blade needs sharpened so Felix used the jig instead.  Sawdust  everywhere!

cut edges of plywood tread


2) Next it was time to install the risers, so we worked our way up from the bottom to the top, setting the riser first, then cutting and installing the tread, one by one.

The edge of the risers are measured with a carpenter’s right angle, then the first horizontal cuts are made so the riser’s edge sits just above the edge of the plywood tread, in order that the hardwood tread will set perfectly on top.  That unpainted wood you see along the sides was where the carpet used to hide the oak.   

measure and cut risers


Then came the cutting, which was thrilling and scary at the same time working with a table saw.  Especially after Felix told me some stories of careless workers he knows who have lost fingers on table saws.  There were serious heart palpitations followed up by the pride of my anxiety conquered.  And I cut me some risers!

cg table saw


Not only did the risers have to be ripped at the perfect height with the table saw, but Felix showed me how he sets the blade at a 1/16 angle when cutting the sides to create a subtle wedge shape (see below). 

The angled cut prevents gaps after installation, and guarantees a clean seam up against the tread, which avoids the need for caulking or trim.  Pretty nifty!  Another thing I never would have thought of on my own, and another reason I was grateful for an experienced installer. 

long side angles


We made the same angle cuts on the sides as well. 

angle both sides


And that’s how you get seamless risers that don’t need any trim to hide gaps or imperfections.  (The dark spots on the sides under the treads are the unpainted edges where the carpet used to cover the wood.)  

seamless risers


The risers were set with some subfloor and deck adhesive (see below) and nailed into place. 

3)  Installing treads.  After the first riser was installed, we cut the first tread.  Again, the sides of the treads are cut at a very slight angle with the compound miter saw to create a seamless fit.   Each step required a proper amount of subfloor and deck adhesive, used to eliminate squeaks and glue the steps into place. 

subfloor and deck adhesive


Then we used a mallet to wedge them into place and secured them with a nail gun. 

mallet and nail gun on stairs


And we went up, one by one, riser then tread, riser then tread, until it was done.  This was so much fun!  Honestly, I’d rather spend a day learning how to cut and install hardwood stairs than go on a wild shopping spree.  Call me construction crazy.  

There are miles to go before I sleep.  I still have to strip the bottom step (curvy side); fill holes with putty; sand; stain; poly three coats, prime and paint. 

Every. Single. Step.  

stairs to do


Easier said then done when you’ve got two little munchkins running around.

monkeys on steps

But they’ve grown up around sawdust and power tools with all their limbs intact, so I’m sure I can get them to cooperate. 


I’m seriously pinching myself today because I now have this. 

risers and treads on staircase


I even experimented with some stains yesterday, and I can’t wait to show you how it all turns out in the end.  Hooray for hardwood steps! 




  1. You`ve done a great job with this stairs!
    Seems pretty perfect to me;)
    Can`t wait to see pics when all is painted and already done.
    Thank you for sharing!
    Lovely greetings…

  2. They look gorgeous! I dream of ripping the carpet off my stairs one day and having gorgeous ones like these. Can’t wait to see them stained.

  3. Would it have been easier to stain the treads before installing them? And for that matter, painting the white parts before installing the treads? Not sure how this all works, but at least that way you wouldn’t have to worry about getting paint on stain and stain on paint.

  4. Your steps look just like mine right now! I had plaster work done on my hall going upstairs and the plasterers ruined the entire staircase….so I have what looks exactly like yours. The flooring people are coming soon to sand/stain the treads and paint the risers white! All of my hardwood floors in my house are light oak..basically the floors were sanded and then clear poly went on. I love the look of the dark stain on the treads….the floors at the top of staircase will be painted white. Do you think dark treads will be ok even though my hardwoods are white and light? The tile in my house is very dark…. BIG DECISIONS TO MAKE:)!

  5. Okay, between you and Sarah I am convinced this is a project I have to add to my to do list. Maybe not tomorrow, or next week, but someday! They are fabulous, and they get even better? Looking forward to the next update…Janell

  6. Looks like your little munchkins are enjoying the new stairs too. I am currently in the process of redoing mine also. I was lucky to have very nice bullnose treads underneath the carpet. The hardest part for me is that one side of the stairs are open. That part has a bullnose edge also, but is going to require a bit more elbow grease and staining around the balusters. I am just loving them so far even thought they are not finished yet. Yours look great. Isn’t it funny what can make us happy. My husband doesn’t quite get it – how excited I am about un-carpeted steps.

    Enjoy your weekend – My best -Diane

  7. Congratulations! You are so close to the end. My husband just finished our stairs, same project. Thankfully, he is the tool man and I love that, like you, we can do it ourselves (well, him on this one) and save a bundle. When the runner is on and the wallpaper hung, I’ll post it. But until then, I’m going to enjoy yours and live vicariously (and also enviously, as mine were done with a natural finish, and I’ll bet any money you’re going dark?) Can’t wait to see more.

  8. They look pretty good! My husband and I own a hardwood company and he is a stair expert as well ;-) Needless to say, we have Brazilian Cherry Treads and paint-grade risers and we love them! I love your staircase… it was just dying for hardwoods!

  9. Hi Em, it’s funny, I thought of that too! But then with all the cutting and nailing, they were going to get scuffed, need patched and then stained or painted again, so we just decided to do it all after install. Now the trick will be keeping toes off the drying stain and poly. I’ve heard to do every other step and stain/poly in stages. Will definitely try that approach!

  10. Hi Carol ~ we are staining the steps dark (walnut) to match the handrail. I don’t have a matchy matchy tendency, so the contrast with the light hardwood floors is welcome. Plus we plan to stain the hardwood dark too, maybe next year. :-)


  11. I’m so so sooo jealous. I’m dying to get rid of the nasty carpet on our stairs but our treads are particle board and I don’t have the dough to replace them. I’m trying to figure out a way to paint the treads without it looking rediculous since the particle isn’t perfectly smooth.

  12. They look great, and I’m sure you’ll do wonders with the stain. My advice when it’s all done? Don’t wear socks! I slipped on our stairs and fell last week, and it STILL hurts!

  13. OMG! Seriously Kate, You are outstanding! I can not wait to see more! Hmmm….I wonder if I can do this too? I’ll be waiting on the next step;-)

  14. Great job Kate
    Your new stairs look so lovely and I love your step by step instructions.

  15. Oh, I am jealous!! Jealous of both your gorgeous steps & the experience you got to have helping install them. One question… how will you get up & down while you wait for the stain to dry? :)

  16. Love what I’m seeing so far! This was on our to-do list also, but we will be moving soon, so the carpet is going to stay =) Good luck with the project and I look forward to seeing the end result!

  17. They really look beautiful. I shuddered when I saw you with the table saw. When I hear my husband using his, I hold my breath and pray he doesn’t come in with blood streaming. I hate those things!

  18. Dear Kate,
    All i can say is “WOW”. Bravo!! And, knowing you, the outcome will be superb.

  19. The stairs are looking great, and thanks for the tip about cutting the treads in a wedge. I’ll keep that in mind next time we’re working on stairs! Our current ones are caulked, which is actually fine because the risers are white. But I’d prefer no need for caulking at all.

  20. They look great already—I can visualize them stained and finished—beautiful. And it only took your expert 6 hours…+ 10 years of dreaming! :-)

  21. Hi! We’ve been inspired by your blog and plan to tackle this project soon! One question though…do you know of a way to make the stairs a little less slippery? My kids are 5 and 8 and I worry about them being really slick with socks on (for me too!) Is there something you can do to make them a little bit “grippier?” Thanks!

  22. That was fun following your weekend! I wish I could have been apprentice #2 -I could have held your coffee for you. :) Great idea about staining/coating every-other-step, so that they are still usable. Our stairs and risers are all wood finish. I just couldn’t face the white risers, as our boys were both under 7 when we moved in. I still think they are hard on the steps now! (9 years later.) Right now I have a muslin fabric (starched) onto the risers, because I needed the background contrast. I blogged about it, because I have a “scene” on the stairs right now. :) Going to change out the fabric next month. Thanks for sharing! I am in good company -I would rather do the stairs than go to the mall too! (As long as someone brings me a Starbucks.)

  23. Shut up! I’m totally doing this. I HATE the carpet on my stairs.

    Ahhh…inspiration. Love it.

    You rock Kate. As always.

  24. AWWWWWWWESOME!!! I’m thrilled for you! And even a superb DIY guru like you deserves the break from hiring a pro every now and then. With all of our home renovation (our last home was over 100 years old!) we did an immense amount ourselves, but the times we gave in and hired someone else really made the whole place look more professional. (I suppose that’s like wearing the great high quality name brand jacket with an inexpensive skirt–the whole ensemble looks better!)
    I swear, my husband will NEVER install carpet on his own ever again and when we hired the pros this last time I thought he might actually hug the guy and start weeping when he had finished so quickly!

    Again, FABULOUS stairs!


  25. Kate, your new wooden stairs look amazing! Sometimes bringing in a professional to help is a good idea… there are a few project around here which we should have hired a professional. Oh well.


  26. This looks like so much work Kate- but the result is fabulous. Hats off to you and your husband for even attempting such a project and for knowing when to call in some professional help. And, is it just me but is your daughter growing up before my eyes?! Is her hair lighter, longer? Such a cutie!

  27. I saw what you did to your stairs to convert from carpet to hardwood. I want to do this in my fiancée house to help bring up the value. I already have plans to to do the foyer in tile.

    Can you give me a reason why you beveled the edges? The hardwood tread looked to over lap the riser. What was the over thickness of the tread at the foot area not the bull nose? Just want to make sure I stay within building code. Thank you for you help…..

  28. My staircase looks identical to yours in every way except one thing: it is open on one side to there already is about 6 inches of wood on the edge, then carpet, then wall. How would you recommend I remove the carpet and install new risers? The options seem to be to either 1) match the riser to the 6 inch edge piece like you did on your bottom step or 2) take apart the entire staircase, refinish it and reassemble with new risers that go from wall to edge.

    What do you think?

  29. I HATED the carpet on my basement steps so I did this same project. My installer (AKA my brother) recommended prefinished treads which worked out great. They aren’t slippery at all and the project was done in one day. I also painted the risers before installation. Now I adore my new steps.

  30. Oh, my! I want to do this, but I am scared! We built a deck with angles, but stairs???
    Carpeting on the stairs is so hard to clean. Ugh. It’s a mess! I was also wondering the reason for the beveled edges. Any clues for me? Thanks for the GREAT posts and step-by-step directions! You give me confidence!

  31. I know this is an old post, but I wanted to thank you for your inspiration. A few years back I took project on at or old house. All the work you mentioned above was about the same and it killed me to move after all the work we put in, but I can honestly say it was my staircase that set us apart from other homes in the neighborhood. Our new home came with a beautiful custom oak curved staircase, but the color was all wrong (all blonde oak). I knew (thanks to you) I could make it amazing with a little (a lot) of work. After 7 months of doing it all myself, in my spare time, with my own two little munchkins running around….I’M DONE!!! Thanks so much for your inspiration. I continue to follow your blog daily…YOU ROCK!!!

  32. Did you use solid risers or those ‘retreads’ that are thinner with a thicker bullnose over the edge? Thanks!! Your stairs turned out FABULOUS!

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