Retrofit Wood Stairs

This carpet on your stairs is looking pretty rough. You know you want wood stairs. You may have even looked up the cost to have someone come in and do it. You then looked at the price and thought “hmm…I bet I can do it cheaper”. Then you watched some videos, looked at how complicated it is, and then thought “you know, carpet ain’t so bad”. Yes, it is bad. It is terrible. You should totally replace that carpet.

I will admit that this is one of those projects that made me very anxious until I got to the end and realized that I had nothing to worry about. It just seems so overwhelming at first. Cutting up the stairs in your house? Purchasing expensive retreads and having to cut them perfectly or forever suffer the wrath of imperfect craftsmanship? What if, What if, What if!

Now calm down. Breath. You can do this. You should do this! I can help.

So what are we going to do?

We are going to pull up the old carpet and put a solid wood stair tread and riser on top of the ugly underlying plywood and/or OSB. We are going to order prefinished stair treads online because you don’t want to fool with sanding, staining, sanding, and clear coating when the factory can do it much better for only a marginal cost increase. You will make your own risers because they are simple to do and you have to paint those anyway. And you will do all of this yourself.

Why should I tackle this myself?

Well, apart from the satisfaction of a job well done and impressing all of your friends, there is serious money to be saved here. I got quotes from several local flooring companys to have my stairs converted to wood. The estimates ranged between $3500- $5,000. For 14 treads. Online estimates put the price at around $200/stair ($2800 total) for a closed stair design (this goes up considerable if you have open or spiral treads). Purchasing pre-finished stair treads online (~$65, delivered) and installing them yourself (#Treads * hour spent per Tread * your hourly rate = $280) would set you back ~$100/stair. So I figure that I could save around $1,400 off of the lowest quoted price. This was enough of a carrot to get me to add “stair installer” to my skill stack.

So, what is a re-tread anyway?

This is a solid wood stair tread that is 3/4″ thick with a 1″ bull-nose. This makes it the ideal thickness to replace carpet without adding any extra height to your stair and messing with the stair/riser ratio. The 1″ bull-nose is there for looks.

Where do I buy the retreads?

From what I can tell, there are two main companies our there in the online re-tread stair market:

I used (treat treat this as information only; this is not an endorsement and I am not an affiliate). I think I caught them at a bad time because I ended up having to send back several treads due to a visible defect in the clear coat finish (I talk about it in the video). They were awesome on customer service and made it right, but it was a needless delay. They claim that the kinks have been worked out of some new equipment they bought but I have had no reason to test them. I am curious if anyone has any thoughts of one versus the other.


What steps (come on, give me that one) are involved?

1.) Pull up the carpet. Wear a dust mask when you do so. Carpet hold all kinds of filth. This is one of the reasons you are replacing it.

2.) Clean up the stairs. Remove all the staples. Look for other defects that might make a tread sit uneven (plaster droppings, significant paint over spray, etc.). Don’t be too picky.

3.) If any stairs are squeaking then now would be a great time to solve it with some screws.

4.) Cut off the existing bull-nose on the tread. This is not as bad as it sounds!

5.) Paint 1/4″ plywood to match your final trim panel. Rip it to the height of you riser. Cut an extra just in case.

6.) Use your tread measuring tool to get the right angles for the edge of the riser.

7.) Use your table and measuring tool to mark both ends of one riser. Cut it on the miter saw.

8.) Dry fit and then glue the riser into place. Use 3/4″ brad nails to secure along the top and bottom.

9.) Repeat for all of the risers.

10.) Go ahead and caulk between the risers and the neighboring trim. Fill the nails holes at the top. Paint as needed. It is easier to do it now before the treads are in place.

11.) Measure and cut the stair treads just as you did the risers.

12.) Glue the risers into place and stand on it to make sure everything is down solidly.

13.) Lay painters tape along the edges of the tread and shoot two 1.5″ brads per side. Fill the heads with matching putty and remove the tape (no cleanup required!)

14.) Repeat. You get faster with each pass.

15. ) Have a well deserved beer.

Check out this step-by-step walk through. Pretend it isn’t a PowerPoint presentation:


Tools Used

1.) Sliding Miter Saw: Stair treads are wider then most standard miter saws. You can get away without one, but your frustration level will go up exponentially. This is a good excuse to buy one if you don’t have one already.

2.) Circular Saw: Any saw will do. I used my Festool tracksaw because of its ability to plunge cut cleanly and its awesome dust collection capabilities. But, honestly, this is complete overkill for this project. You could even use handsaw if you needed to. I also made a very simple saw guide that I used to keep me from having to keep the saw steady. I highly recommend you do the same.

3.) Table Saw: For ripping the risers and treads. Cover it with painters tape to keep from scratching the finished surfaces.

4.) Stair Tread Measuring Tool: Make or buy one. I made my own from some scrap plywood and some wingnuts. It worked out well for me.

5.) Hand Saw: A nice sharp one

6.) Chisel

7.) Sander

8.) Caulk Gun

9.) Nail Gun and Compressor (or a hammer and nail set)

Materials Used

1.) Adhesive for both riser and tread

2.) Brad Nails

3.) 1/4 Birch Plywood

4.) Stair Treads (see above)

5.) Paint

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