Homeowners needing to repair, remodel or update their look typically think of paint, flooring, hardware, fixtures and décor accessories and may never consider one of the most prominent parts of their home’s interior: the stairs. Because stairs are often within just a few steps of the front door, making them highly visible, it’s important to give them more than a second thought. Options for change abound, providing plenty of ideas for any budget.
The Purist’s Approach
In many older homes, natural wood is the preferred surface for both flooring and stairs. Sanding and staining stairs can be tedious, especially if your stairs extend beyond a banister rather than having solid edges. But if you do it yourself, it’s usually the least expensive (though most time-consuming) option and is a fairly straightforward way to freshen up your steps. If you hire a professional, it might be less expensive to opt for a runner or carpeting.
Using a steady hand and carefully applied painter’s tape, homeowners can add more interest by staining the treads one shade and the risers another.
A third option for natural wood purists are hardwood decorative stair risers. Made by One Step Beyond, these patent-pending maple panels allow you to nail a made-to-fit panel with a cut-and-grooved design to the risers for a truly custom look (see photo).
Maintenance: Sweep or vacuum stairs with the soft brush attachment. Furniture polish can be used on risers, but avoid waxing the treads.
Safety: Lack of cushioning makes hardwood a tough surface to land on should you fall. But if you avoid wax, keep dirt and debris off the steps, and wear rubber instead of leather-soled shoes, you’ll be less likely to slip. When vacuuming, work your way from the bottom to the top to avoid the vacuum becoming a tripping hazard.
With all stairways but the most narrow and enclosed, it’s important to have well-fastened handrails, lighting—and the switches—at both the top and bottom and even lighting on the stairs if possible. Consider adding an electrical outlet and plugging in a night light to add extra illumination. Also, avoid putting items that need to be returned to the upstairs floor on the bottom steps; it creates too much of a tripping hazard. Lastly, don’t use loose area rugs at the top or bottom of the stairs. If you feel you must have them, make sure they’re secured with double-sided tape, recommends Kristin Lolmaugh of the National Safety Council.
Injecting Some Color
As with walls, stairs can take on a remarkably different look with a simple coat of paint. Add a contrasting color (usually white) to the wood trim at the sides of stairs (see photo) and paint just the risers white or a color that will complement your décor. Get creative and use a different color on each riser. Stenciling risers is another option.
You can also paint the treads of stairs. Choose a paint designed for floors or porches. Latex is easier to work with and dries faster. Benjamin Moore floor paints, for example, do not require a protective finish coat. “But for added
protection, apply two coats making sure that each coat is completely dry,” says company spokesperson Lisa Jasper. “All floor paints such as enamels may become slippery when wet. We recommend adding a small amount of Industrial Maintenance Coatings aggregate for slip resistance.”
When painting, work carefully from top to bottom so you won’t need to lean down awkwardly and risk losing your footing.
Maintenance: Sweep or vacuum stairs using the brush attachment. Clean as necessary with water or any gentle cleanser to avoid rubbing away paint. Be sure surface is dry before walking on it.
Safety: Just like unpainted stairs, avoid wax, keep dirt and debris off the steps, and wear rubber instead of leather-soled shoes.
When sweeping or vacuuming, work your way from bottom to top.
Adding Some Cushioning
Stair treads are pieces of carpet that sit on the horizontal surface, covering just the middle and leaving exposed wood on either end. These are available in many price ranges; latex-backed synthetics are the least expensive. Just like scatter mats by your front door, though, these inexpensive treads often slip out of place, creating a safety hazard.
If you want to create your own stair treads to match carpet elsewhere in the house, have a professional bind or serge the edges. For a safer, more uniform look, Jim Walker, CEO of the International Certified Floorcovering Installers Association (CFI), recommends encasing all four edges of each carpeted tread with angled metal or vinyl, creating a smooth transition from wood to carpet, “otherwise, it becomes a tripping hazard,” he says.
Liza Phillips, who designs the high-end ALTO Steps treads, says none of her customers have complained of tripping problems. Her treads come with a sticky mesh material that is not an adhesive from Colonial Mills. “When you step on it, it grips,” she says. “It’s nontoxic and won’t hurt the wood.”
Maintenance: Regular vacuuming is the best way to keep treads clean. Check edges frequently to ensure a firm grip on the stairs.
Braided treads may not last long since the braid must run the width instead of the length of the stairs. Each time you walk up and down, you slowly pull at the stitching that holds the braid together.
Safety: While stair treads are a quick and easy way to dress up stairs, safety experts aren’t keen on them. According to the Home Safety Council, falls from stairs or steps are the second leading cause of fall-related deaths. So, it’s best to save any potential tripping hazard for households that don’t have children or seniors—or save them for stairs that don’t get much traffic. They do, however, provide a modicum of cushioning should you fall.
Creating Continuous Color
A runner—which appears to be one, long piece of carpet that runs up the center of the stairs, leaving the edges exposed—is a very traditional and, because they’re often seen in Oriental patterns, classic look.
Because a runner does not cover the entire width of the steps, it poses a similar risk to stair treads due to lifting at the edges.
However, runners are fully secured on the top and bottom of the staircase since the carpet goes up the risers, too. Some people use brass stair rails at the bottom of each riser for a finished look. While these once used to be the best way to hold runners down and hide tack strips, today they are purely decorative and simply a design option.
Runners should have cushioning beneath them that extends all the way around the bullnose (rounded) edge of each step. Without it, the constant back-and-forth movement of feet on the stairs will cause the pad to slowly bunch up toward the riser. The cushion should be tacked to the floor, and the runner should be glued or tacked to the cushion, Walker says. Installing a runner is not as easy as it looks, he warns. To find a professional installer in your area, check the CFI Web site.
Maintenance: Regular vacuuming keeps carpet looking its best. Sweeping carpet with an broom also works and often does a better job of scooping debris from corners and the tough-to-clean area where riser and tread merge.
Safety: Runners should be wide enough to prevent an uneven gait; that is, if you’re walking up or down stairs, you want both feet to be on the carpet—not one on the carpet and one on the wood. Both vertical and horizontal surfaces should be securely attached to the stairs.
Also be careful choosing patterns if your eyesight is waning. “If you have bifocals and are coming down the stairs, the pattern can actually start moving on you, and it becomes a tripping hazard,” Walker notes. “I had to replace patterned carpet on the steps inside a bank when they had six trip-and-falls in two days, all due to bifocals.”
Fully Cushioned Comfort
Purists may eschew it, but many homeowners prefer the feeling of plush carpeting under foot on stairs. And anyone who has slipped and fallen truly appreciates the cushioning it provides.
The best material for stair carpeting is nylon, followed by wool. The friction of a foot sliding and pressing on each step creates heat, which is not good for polyester or olefin fibers. Natural fibers tend not to recover their height well, especially with the constant traffic stairs get.
Carpeting should be applied the same as runners—with cushioning and carpet tacked to the floor or cushioning tacked to the floor and carpeting glued to that pad. Look for the lay of the carpet (the direction the fibers run) and have it run top to bottom for easier cleaning with, instead of against, the grain. Envision sweeping dirt down and out the door.
Just as with runners, the cost of carpeting varies widely, depending on the quality of carpet you choose and the type of stairs you have, whether they’re straight and simple, with turns, have decorative spindles, etc. If your stairs have exposed areas outside the spindles, your carpet will require specialized cutting and installation.
Walker recommends adding a strip of duct tape on the bullnose area of the cushion to help prevent it from breaking down. Don’t use duct tape on cushioning seams, however, as it will cause the rest of the cushioning to break down more easily. If your risers and treads form a 90-degree angle instead of having a rounded edge, consider nailing a piece of half-round molding the width of the stairs. “Tufted carpet was not meant to be bent that way and then get the abrasion of foot sliding across that,” Walker says.
Maintenance: Regular vacuuming or sweeping is the best way to lengthen the life of your carpet. Spot clean soiled areas as soon as spills occur to avoid long-lasting stains.
Safety: Avoid wearing slippers or other soft-soled shoes on carpeted stairs, as they make it too easy for you to slip. If anyone with bifocals or poor eyesight lives in the home, it’s best to avoid patterned carpet.
Credit: Renovate with Tommy Mac