Home reno #1: Oak Stairs

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Blog entry by scottb posted 06-10-2007 03:52 AM 16267 reads 0 times favorited 16 comments Add to Favorites Watch
no previous part Part 1 of Home reno series Part 2: disproving old adages »

What a week for new experiences and big projects. While my nights were spent toiling on the Thorsen Table… and trying new things, the day job had me wrapping my mind around several new things as well.

The last basement dad and I refinished (sub contracting for Owens Corning) included perhaps the pinnacle of woodworking projects – redoing the stairs. Ripping off the 2×8 treads and replacing those with oak, adding oak risers, newel post, railing and 52 spindles.

The double 2×4 railings were the first to go, followed by the treads so we could scribe a new stringer (pre-primed) to cover the warped and out of square stringers built back in the 80’s. I would have loved to rip down the stringers and put up new ones, but that wasn’t part of the job, plus the homeowner already had the floor tiled, and the tiles were cut around any and all obstacles previously in place.

I’ve done rails and spindles before. Normally we’d build a knee wall and the spindles would rise out of the diagonal top of the kneewall. Once the spacing is figured out, it’s easy (though meticulous) to plot out where the spindles go, and all things being equal, the spacing on the railing is identical (on center).

I cut my own facegrain plugs to better blend in and hide the screws to hold down the treads. The oak end grain ones on sale at the big box looked horrible by comparison. I intended to nail them down, but the 22 authors of that same book recommended screws for squeak free stairs. One described a method for using screws and glue blocks from beneath, but without enough experience, or pictures to go by, I didn’t quite follow.

The homeowner preferred that we keep the area below the stairs open, a kneewall was definately out. The spindles would have to come out of the treads. This I’ve never done before. I have done railings and spindles on both sides of a staircase, so I know how to work equal and level on both sides of a staircase, even though sometimes the floors are way out of level, though I’ve never more than 12 spindles (six steps).

The spindles on my stairs at home rise out of the treads, so I had a model to study. Would have been easy to replicate if all the stairs were equal, but after 20 years of settling, (and less than perfect install on basement stairs), some were quite off. Some of the stairs were nearly an inch off of the adjoining tread. I did my best to minimize this, and ended up with no more variation (if any) than 3/16th over the course of the spindles if at all. From what I’ve read in a Taunton press book on stairbuilding, this is an acceptable amount.

Unfortunately, there were 6 lolly columns on both sides of the stairs, these were wrapped in oak pole wraps, but they do interfere with the stairs a bit. We’d have liked to have built a wider bottom step, but that wasn’t practical in this case.

As for being instructed to not build under the stairs, we encased the underside, and existing support with drywall, (the homeowner has painted this to match the ceiling texture). The homeowner stained and poly’d the treads, (and all the oak for that matter) before we installed the spindles, which turned out to be a big help – I thought it’d be a pain having to be extra careful, but making my marks on painters tape (besides pencil erases right off poly, super easy)

As the stair sides are visible on both sides, we couldn’t use the stock treads from The Big Box with the custom mitered side pieces. The oak treads were routed on both edges by me. I got good at routing and climbcutting to avoid tearout (and having to re-rout the front bullnose.

The routertable proved invaluable for this. My first attempt going freehand (with a bearing bit) was less than perfect, I had a heck of a time holding it steady as the locking lever kept coming loose. This was my first project with my router, the one which required me to Mac it out.

Despite being a little nervous, I knew I’d be able to pull off this project. It was pretty much given to me as, oh by the way….
The homeowner was really excited to get her basement redone, and was spending good money to turn her basement into a great place to kick back and relax. She also stated repeatedly that she was so excited to see the stairs all finished. Ok, this was going to be her favorite part of the room, the central showpiece of the space. No pressure.

When all is said and done, she was very happy with how they (and the rest of the basement) came out – beyond her expectations. Personally, I’m thrilled with the stairs, and as long as she doesn’t read this, she’ll never know (neither will the project manager) that it was the first time I’ve ever attempted such a project. Because I ain’t gonna tell them and they’d never suspect!

Oh, I just got the Before pix:

-- I am always doing what I cannot do yet, in order to learn how to do it. - Van Gogh -- --

16 comments so far

View mot's profile


4926 posts in 4578 days

#1 posted 06-10-2007 03:59 AM

Well you did a great job. Working around restrictions placed on you that eliminated the way you were most comfortable with led you to adapt and overcome…improvise. You did great! This is some really nice work and made the staircase a showcase of the basement. Cool!

-- You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation. (Plato)

View Dick, & Barb Cain's profile

Dick, & Barb Cain

8693 posts in 4841 days

#2 posted 06-10-2007 05:53 AM

No wonder the owner was so happy. Beautiful job Scott.

-- -** You are never to old to set another goal or to dream a new dream ****************** Dick, & Barb Cain, Hibbing, MN.

View WayneC's profile


14358 posts in 4638 days

#3 posted 06-10-2007 06:42 AM

They came out wonderful.

-- We must guard our enthusiasm as we would our life - James Krenov

View oscorner's profile


4563 posts in 4852 days

#4 posted 06-10-2007 09:50 AM

Your father and you did a fine job.

-- Jesus is Lord!

View MsDebbieP's profile


18619 posts in 4702 days

#5 posted 06-10-2007 01:09 PM

You not only did a great job on the stairs but on the photo progress and blog as well!!

If I ever wanted to build some stairs I ‘d be reading your blog again for tips and tricks.

Very well done. Very well done. Bravo

(oh and your secret is safe with me. I won’t tell anyone that you weren’t experienced)

-- ~ Debbie, Canada (, Young Living Wellness )

View dennis mitchell's profile

dennis mitchell

3994 posts in 4856 days

#6 posted 06-10-2007 03:28 PM

The pinnacle of carpentry must be stair building. Thanks for the blog!

View miles125's profile


2180 posts in 4547 days

#7 posted 06-10-2007 03:32 PM

Handsome set of stairs!

-- "The way to make a small fortune in woodworking- start with a large one"

View Karson's profile


35207 posts in 4942 days

#8 posted 06-10-2007 08:14 PM

Congratulations on this project Scott. They look great.

-- I've been blessed with a father who liked to tinker in wood, and a wife who lets me tinker in wood. Appomattox Virginia [email protected]

View scottb's profile


3648 posts in 4868 days

#9 posted 06-12-2007 02:47 AM

Thanks for all the positive comments!

I sure had a trying week, still elated, and relieved from coming out on top of it…

to give you a glimpse of my mental state beforehand – to paraphrase from my reference material:

”Like gunslingers sizing each other up in a Hollywood western, newly acquanted carpenters always want to know how good the other is. Inevitabley, one poses the defining questiong: ‘Can you build stairs?’...
Even in a simple home, a staircase is a complex thing…. Along with framing a roof, building a staircase is one of the most challenging geometrical tasks in building a house… Nowhere in the framing of a house is the possibility for accumulated error greater than in framing stairs.”

... but no pressure for a novice, right?..You bet I’ve sure been virtually stress free this past week. Living virtually stress free!

-- I am always doing what I cannot do yet, in order to learn how to do it. - Van Gogh -- --

View Karson's profile


35207 posts in 4942 days

#10 posted 06-12-2007 03:34 AM

Then just be glad that it was not a spiral staircase.

-- I've been blessed with a father who liked to tinker in wood, and a wife who lets me tinker in wood. Appomattox Virginia [email protected]

View schroeder's profile


702 posts in 4667 days

#11 posted 06-12-2007 03:54 AM

That’s some great looking stairs Scott! – very nice craftsmanship!

-- The Gnarly Wood Shoppe

View Jeff's profile


1010 posts in 4635 days

#12 posted 06-12-2007 05:49 AM

Great blog Scott! I found it very informative. I know who to hassle with questions now when I do a project of this type. ;)

-- Jeff, St. Paul, MN

View Steffen's profile


326 posts in 4577 days

#13 posted 06-12-2007 10:17 PM

Very nice work.

-- Steffen - Kirkland, WA

View woodspar's profile


710 posts in 4641 days

#14 posted 07-11-2007 04:00 AM

Great job Scott!

-- John

View EDoT's profile


1 post in 3174 days

#15 posted 03-11-2011 10:45 PM

Awesome job Scott!.. I have been searching for days on some inspiration for how to replace/refinish a wobbley set of basement stairs and you just gave it to me!

A couple of questions for you if you dont mind:
1. It looks like the endgrain of the risers is exposed, did you just sand this down and let the HO finish them?
2. For the nosing on the side of the treads, did you just route the ends of the tread itself or did you cap them? I am looking to just route the ends/sides of the treads but have not seen this done before.
3. Do you have any photos of the top of the stairs?

I know this post is from a while ago so any info would be greatly appreciated.

-- Overkill is an art.

showing 1 through 15 of 16 comments

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