Installation Tips for Stair Treads, Risers, and Banisters

A skilled, experienced finish, cabinet and furniture man is looking at his first-ever staircase ó and it's already framed. His questions set off a long discussion on stair construction techniques. November 19, 2005

I need help from experienced stair makers. We are all apprentices for life, as a friend of mine once said, but that being said, I have put in the time and paid my dues and fairly well mastered cabinet making, furniture making and finish carpentry. I just received an opportunity to lay some treads and risers on a stairway in a newly constructed house. The carpenters left the traditional space at the sides for skirt boards and the rough stair is in place. I believe there is OSB nailed to the top of the two by treads.

I live near Portland Oregon and the stock for the finished treads and risers is Oregon Myrtle Wood. The Myrtle stock is on site and acclimating to the house. I have never laid treads and risers but I have the experience listed above and a fully equipped wood shop. I will also need to install hand rail with goosenecks if I land the work. The stair has two flights and a landing.

I am wondering if a stair maker would take me under wing and assist me in pricing this work and also offer advice in methods that are unique to stair making, as opposed to general finish work.

Forum Responses
(Cabinet and Millwork Installation Forum)
From contributor A:
One main thing to consider is the fact that even though you most certainly have the skills to tackle such a job, you don't have the everyday familiarity with the task at hand. Stairways take an incredible beating as you know, so the treads have to be glued with polyurethane glue. Goosenecks are tricky the first time but with your joinery experience they will go together smoothly. Break it down to every conceivable task at hand. Put a time frame on it, multiply your hourly wage, add 25% and pray.

From contributor B:
I only work for homeowners because this eliminates the third hand (the builder) and it is a better deal for me and also for the homeowner. Knowing carpentry and cabinetwork has absolutely nothing to do with stair building. I had been working in those fields and when I got into staircases I realized that I would have to learn everything all over again to succeed in that business. I also offer to finish the work, so I have everything under my control. It works out very well with the high-end customers, and it appears that people are beginning to realize that they get a better deal and better quality all around if they coordinate the entire operation.

From contributor C:

My first suggestion would be to not use the existing stairway at all. If possible, remove it and have a set made at a stair shop using the clients Myrtle wood and then install the stairs and rail yourself.

I have a few questions: What type of stairway is it? Open on one side or both sides? Or boxed closed? What will the landings surface be covered with - Myrtle flooring? As far as railings, are there no balusters? Goosenecks and easements can be risky, especially the first time.

There are really only three things to know in basic stair building. Everything else is a variation of those three things. They are rise, run, and rake. I believe that major manufacturers like Coffman put out some basic installation guides. The old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words fits well here.

Let the client know that you have never done this before but with your skill and ability you can do a good job. They will be more forgiving about minor things if you are up front with them.

From the original questioner:
Hereís the situation: The client has hired a friend of mine to remodel the house and also oversee all the subcontracting. The friend picked me because he knows my abilities as a finish carpenter, being able to handle processes such as installing curved and elliptical casing and jambs. He also knows my abilities as a furniture and cabinet maker. He also knows that if I donít know exactly how to do a task, I will figure it out and not waste time and material.

The stairway is already built by the carpenters, and I donít see any reason to remove it. The stair is one flight down to a landing, with another flight of equal length at 180 degrees to the first. The stair is closed on both sides by sheet rock wall. A space was left between the rough treads and risers and the walls on both sides for skirt boards. The landing will be covered by Myrtle wood flooring laid by the floor man. There will be no balusters or newel posts.

The contractor (my friend) wants hand railing with goosenecks, continuous around the corner at the landing. The handrail and skirt boards will be purchased at a millwork supply and made of Hemlock. The tread and riser stock is .9375" thick and I can flatten it in my shop if necessary and re-run the bullnose.

I know rise and run - is rake the pitch or angle (hypotenuse)? I am also not familiar with the term easement in this sense.

From contributor D:
This sounds like a fairly easy stairway to finish since it is enclosed on both sides by sheetrock. Hopefully the sheetrock has been plastered already since there is a good chance they will destroy your work if they try to finish the sheetrock or drywall later.

Step 1: Skirt boards:
First, snap a line that will be used to line up the top of the skirt board, measuring from the inside corner where the tread will meet the riser. Your measurement should be the exact width of the skirt board. Make a mark at the top and bottom of the steps and snap a line.
Since they have left you space (probably 1-1/2" inches) you should only need to cut the two ends of the skirt board so you can slide it in place. I always rip a piece of 1/8" plywood to the exact width of my skirt board and then use this as a template for my work. I like a template to be about 4' long so it is easy to handle. You can figure out the angles you need by using the rise and run of the treads and a nice framing square. Trim template until it fits exactly. Note - the cut at the bottom of the steps will have a different angle than the cut at the top of the steps. Likewise, my template has a different cut on each end that I mark with the words top and bottom.

Once the template is fit, mark out the bottom end of your skirt board on the back of the board (pick the worst side). I then make my cuts with a clamped straight edge, a skill saw, and a finish blade. You must cut with the saw on the bad side so that the cut is clean on the good side. Test the bottom cut before measuring and cutting the top cut.

Once both ends are cut, you should be able to slide the skirt board into place using your chalk line as a guide. I like to cover the chalk line so that you don't need to touch up with paint. Find the studs and fasten with 15 or 16 gauge finish nails. Repeat steps for other side.

Step 2; Install treads and risers
First you will need to tear out the temporary treads. Then, starting at the bottom, install the first riser. I put a slight back angle on each end so there is no gap between the riser and the skirt board. I use PL1 framing glue and my 15 gauge finish nailer. You want the riser to be about a 1/16" higher than the stringer board. This way, there will not be a gap between the riser and tread. Again, a slight back angle when ripping your risers helps. You then need to install the 2nd riser. Follow the same steps with this one.

Once the second riser is in, you can install your first tread. I rip each tread ahead of time by adding 1" to the run of your steps. That gives you a 1" overhang which looks nice. Use a lot of glue to avoid squeaks. I put a very slight back angle on the back and each end of the tread so that there is no visible gap between the tread and the riser, and the tread and the skirt board. I nail the tread with a few 15 gauge nails and then use screws to screw the 2nd riser into the back of the tread. Keep working your way up the steps always putting your riser in first, followed by the tread.

There are many more tips and tricks that you will find as you go through this exercise. There are also other ways of getting this job done, such as using a dado on the riser. I have been using this technique for eight years now and it always looks very nice.

From the original questioner:
To contributor D: I have no knowledge of PL-1 framing glue. Also, whenever you mention glue, is this the adhesive used? You said you nail the tread with a few 15 gauges - where exactly do you nail? Just down into the risers top?

From contributor D:
All references to glue are the PL-1. PL-1 is just a brand of adhesive that comes in a big tube that is used in a caulk gun. It is designed to be used for decking a house (you apply to each I-Joist before you nail down the 3/4" OSB sheets). It forms a great bond and is designed to be walked on. Basically, it has a little give built into it so that the bond doesn't break when the stairway moves. You should be able to find PL-1 or equivalent at Home Depot or Lowes.

As far as nailing is concerned, I nail directly into the stringers. When I refer to stringers, I am referring to the 2 x 12's that have the rise and run cut out of them. It sounds like your carpenter already has your stringers cut properly and has temporary treads nailed to them. I put a thick bead of the PL/I on each stinger where the tread will be installed, lay my tread down, and then put two 15 gauge nails into each stringer board (there are probably three of them). The nails drive the tread tight and hold the tread in place while the adhesive dries. I want to stress that you should use a lot of adhesive. This will prevent any squeaks.

Always dry fit each riser and tread before applying adhesive. You don't want to have to make a cut once there is adhesive all over the place. You could nail an 18 gauge brad through your tread and into the riser. I typically don't. Also, I sometimes install a small base cap molding (5/8" x 3/4") underneath the 1" lip of each tread. It really gives it a nice look and you donít need to be quite so precise with the fit underneath the tread since the molding will cover it.

From the original questioner:
As a furniture maker and finish carpenter I always practice the check the fit before you glue routine- excellent point! Iíd appreciate any good tips you have about the joinery and the mitering and installing of the handrail and goosenecks.

From contributor D:
As far as handrail installation goes, the first thing you need to do is find out what the codes are in your area. I always use 36" for the height of the handrail. You are going to need a bracket to secure the railing every 8 feet or so, but it may be less depending on the size and strength of your hand railing. First, find the studs that you want to install your brackets on. Once that is done, use a level to draw a perfectly vertical line from the tips of the tread directly below the stud and tread directly above the stud. On each of these lines, measure out 36", or whatever your code dictates. You should now have two crosses, one on each side of your stud.

Now, use a straight edge to draw a line where the straight edge crosses the stud that you want to install your bracket on. Now remember, this is where the top of your hand rail should go. Your bracket will have to be installed below this line. How much depends on the thickness of your hand rail and the height of your brackets. I install the brackets first and then rest the hand rail on the brackets while installing the bracket fasteners to the hand rail.

There are many methods to join a handrail to a gooseneck or other stairway parts. In the past, I have use a Kreg pocket screw jig to drill two holes in the railing. I then use two 3" finish screws and wood glue (not PL-1). You must clamp the two pieces together with quite a bit of pressure so that the angled screw doesn't force the two pieces to become off. I would then glue in Kreg plugs so that you don't see the pocket holes from underneath the railing.

Recently, our supplier has been sending these parts with a routered notch on the end of each part. A bolt and washer is inserted into one end. You simply glue up the joint, slide the part over the bolt, and tighten a nut. The nut pulls the two pieces together nicely. It is very easy to get the two pieces lined up perfectly with this method. Unfortunately, it is more difficult to cover up the holes underneath the railing. I have filled the hole with some plugs I fitted myself if they are visible from below. These methods have worked for me. I would be very interested to hear if anybody else has a better way.

From contributor C:
Rail has been joined for well over 100 years with the bolt and nut system. It seems to be one of those things that can't be improved upon. It is the strongest way to connect rail. It does not rely on glue for its strength and does not require clamping. It is a clamp in itself.

An easement is an upwardly curved piece of rail. It is used to go from horizontal to rake angle. A gooseneck is its counterpart. It goes from rake angle to vertical. Goosenecks are cut to varying lengths depending on the number of risers needed to climb. The combination of easement and gooseneck equals 90 degrees. Cutting these joints at their correct tangents will require care. If you cut too little, no problem - just cut again. But if you cut too much, you must buy another fitting.

When cutting your skirt boards, they need not be super precise. You have the thickness of your tread (1") and the thickness of you riser (3/4") as a safety zone. Rail height is measured vertically from the riser line, not the front of the tread. Any overhang does not count in the run or calculation of the stair.

Another nice touch is wherever the rail terminates, we return it to the wall with a 1/4 turn or a double 22.5*. We also place our rail bracket no more that 4 feet apart and we also mount then to rosettes. The rail bracket can be pulled into the sheetrock by screws and power tools. They also come loose over time as the sheetrock collapses under them with heavy use.

We also never attach from the top if at all possible. Screw the back of the risers in to the rear of the tread. Glue blocks where the riser and treads meet from behind. PL or any other flexible construction adhesive is always a good idea under the treads at the stringers.

From contributor B:
I always buy only the easement for that particular rail stile and build the gooseneck myself. For fasteners I use the bolts and then make my own plugs (one inch radius), to make sure that the plugs are matching in grain, especially you fasten the posts against the riser. When fitting the tread against the skirts between two walls, I always sacrifice one tread to use as a template. You use it on every tread to make sure the cuts on each side match against the wall. It's going to be a little hard to take it out and fit it before gluing it in place. Also I only use staples in the back of the riser so you can get to it a little more comfortably. Iím sure you know that when you fasten staples it goes side ways as it goes in. For glue, I always use heavy duty Liquid Nails.

I should mention that when you cut the volute and the easement to match to the rail you use the rake, which is the triangle made from the length of the tread and height of the riser, facing the riser.

From contributor E:
Look for a website for LJ Smith. In that site will be all kinds of info, diagrams, calculators, etc.

From contributor F:
I am really surprised that no one screws the riser to the skirt board using pocket screws.

From contributor G:
As a cabinet guy looking at stairs, I have a lot to learn. You mention pocket screws in attaching riser to skirt. Would this be only in the case of boxed stairs? And if so, are the screws attached through the riser face, or back? If it's the back, isnít the 2x12 stringer in the way?

From contributor E:
To contributor G: If I understand the setup, we have a pair of stringers or maybe a third centerline. You then will face these with skirts and fit your treads and risers between those skirts. You can then fit each pair, screw thru the bottom of your riser into the back of the tread, then, pocket screw from the back of that riser into the skirt. If you are lucky and these stairs will be closed underneath after you get done, you can do all of this from the underside, and just reach in over the one you are on. If there is a center stringer, I would pocket the stringer and screw from it into the riser. This way you can shim to perfection.

From the original questioner:
Here is an update of my stair making opportunity. I went to the jobsite and learned that the expectation is that the new solid wood treads be fastened directly to the .625" (5/8") plywood treads that we all thought were temporary. If I remove the plywood treads and install the new Myrtle wood ones directly to the stringer it will throw the rise of the stair off by .625" due to the fact that the flooring is already installed on the main floors and the landing, and the cut of the stringers.

My solution is to go ahead and remove the plywood treads and install solid wood .625" shims with a grain orientation to match the treads between the treads and stringer. The carpenter objects to this because he is unsure if three stringers (horses) are enough to carry the .9375"(15/16") thick treads on a 40" wide stair width.

Also, the plywood treads have been fastened with ring shank nails and will be harder to remove. I am leery of installing solid wood with an adhesive to a dimensionally stable material like plywood.

I was told that the flooring guys will install and sand the treads and risers for an amount that equals what I would have to charge for three eight hour days. There are 17 treads and 20 risers that must be cut to fit between skirt boards that will be fastened to obviously crooked walls, from what I saw at the jobsite. Does 24 hours labor sound sufficient for this tread and riser installation? I also need to mention that I was able to inspect the tread and riser material and it has fairly serious planer tear out on both faces of most of the stock. What is the stair makerís responsibility in regards to the sanding of the treads and risers?

It seems apparent to me that it would be easier to sand the riser material before installation. The riser material came in straight lined one edge and rough on the other. The tread is full bull nosed one edge. The flooring guys can apparently sand the treads after laying them even into the corners. I donít have equipment to do it that way so my solution is to bring all treads and risers to my friendís shop. He allows me to use his wide belt sander. It would cost me three hours labor to transport and sand the material.
I know a lot of you will be tempted to tell me to run from this job because of the unremovable tread situation, but I still see it as an opportunity to break into stair work.

Also, I could use a ballpark estimate of the hours needed to install the hand railing for this stair. The main section consists of 12 risers and 11 treads. They want handrail on both walls with returns (gooseneck) at the top and bottom and then the inside wall to have handrail continuous around the corner at the landing. They want hand rail on all walls of the rectangular landing as well. At the landing there is a doorway with a flight of stairs to the left as you descend the main stair with four risers and three treads, open on the left side and they want an inexpensive baluster and newel post. Around the right hand corner of the landing is the rest of the main stair (closed both sides) and it has four risers and three treads and will need returns with goosenecks at the bottom.

I know I will lose money due to my inexperience but I would sure appreciate a proís ball park amount of hours for this handrail. There are no balusters or newels except on the doorway stair which is a wall on the right and open on the left with a between-the-posts installation on a rectangular section balusters and newel. All the rest of the stair is closed on both sides and gets a skirt board.

From contributor E:
You should get your experience elsewhere and not get involved in this nightmare.

From contributor H:
I just did two flights where I laid the treads over the underlayment, but that was 3/4 glued and screwed to the stringers. I wouldn't rely on the ring shanks. I would apply a lot of screws to the treads. I laid my treads on a bed of adhesive and shot a few nails to hold them while the glue dried. The treads were let into a dado at the bottom of the risers and the risers were dadoed into the bottom of the tread nosing so the whole system is interlocked and rock solid. I don't know how you can resolve your issue with the 5/8" rise disparity, short of removing the plywood treads. I think that is the only way. If the underside of the stringers is accessible you could add more supports to your treads if you doubt their ability to span. I would think 1" Myrtle should do it. For someone of your ability I would be willing to guess it is going to take you at least 6 days when all is said and done.

From the original questioner:
There is no .625" problem with the rise as long as I either leave the plywood treads on or remove them and shim with .625" thick solid wood.

From contributor D:
I think six days might be a little bit too high. It sounds like they already have another bid on the job from the floor guys so you will have to stay within that range. I would estimate two days - four hours for your skirt boards, eight hours for your treads and risers, and another four hours for your railing work.

You mentioned sanding, etc. in some of your earlier posts. We always pre-finish our risers, treads, and skirt boards so that work isn't included in my 2 day estimate. Also, if you start dadoing, that will add some time. If you can't remove the temporary treads, it is going to be very difficult, if not impossible, to screw the riser into the back of the tread, so you might want to go the dado route.

Is the underside of the stairway accessible? If it is, then you could drive some 1-1/4" screws from underneath through your underlayment and into your treads. You wouldn't have any nail holes then. I'm guessing the underside is plastered already.

From the original questioner:
To contributor D: Did you read the number of treads and risers and that the stair is railed both sides and on all walls of the landing, plus balusters and newel on one side of a short section of stairs? I know I couldnít do it in even eight hours.

From contributor I:
I would not trust the rough framing to be stable. Iíve seen stairs come apart when built this way. The strength in stairs is the not the riser, the tread, or the joinery. It is all three of these together. I would tack a kick board to the side walls. Then I would dado the underside of the tread 1 inch from the nose. Then dado and screw the riser to the back of the tread before installing. Join the two pieces for every step. Install the first riser to the side kicks. Use pocket screws in front, or screw the side of a 1 inch bore and plug. This will draw the side kick nice and tight to the riser.

Install the next tread/riser combination the same way, but use finish screws from front of riser into back edge of the dado in tread, and continue in same fashion all the way up. This way you are relying on your joinery and not the nailed framing of the rough carpenters. You will not need to take apart their work. You should end up with a space 1/8 to 1/4" space between the side kick board and the sheet rock wall which you will have to trim. The holes in the riser will need to be filled or plugged. Remember, you only tacked the kick board so you can make small adjustments to it as you work your way up.