DIY your own stair tread gauge How to cut stair treads without measuring. Not even once!

A few posts back we wrote about our first big push on renovating our entry stairs.

Back when we moved in, they looked like this:

This (sorta) Old Life: Entry stairs before (with carpet)

Some of you may remember my stairway tantrum. I came home one day last spring and decided I’d had enough. The carpet on our stairway had to go right that moment. I proceeded to rip it all out while nobody was home.

This (sorta) Old Life: Cane tearing up carpet

Rita caught me with the camera when she came in.

Thankfully Rita has a good sense of humor and is fairly flexible. She gave me a bit of a smile and understood completely where I was coming from. The carpet was light gray and looked horrible. The kids would track mud all over it coming in during the rainy season. Even though it was just banged up construction grade wood under the carpet I liked it way better than the horrible carpet.

This (sorta) Old Life: entry stairs with brown paint

Rita tried to fix them up with some paint. It didn’t look great, but I still liked this better than the carpet.

Since then we’ve had quite a few conversations about how we were going to tackle the stairs. We experimented with some materials and got far enough along in our thinking to begin the project. I’m fairly certain they will turn out a bit like our bathroom–way different than we had first imagined, but in the end better and more interesting.

We’ll put up a post soon on our thinking process and how we got to this starting point. Just like our bathroom remodel it involved lots of coffee shops, neighborhood walks, glasses of wine, and nice dinners to get to this point. Really tough work but worth it in the end. :)

Today, though, I just want to quickly share something that made the first part of this project really easy.

This (sorta) Old Life: DIY stair tread gauge


In case it’s not obvious what this is, it’s a stair measure tool created to make cutting new treads foolproof. I can’t take credit for the idea because I saw it on the internets somewhere. (Can’t quite remember where?) The nice thing about the tool is that it takes away all need to measure lengths and angles.

A big problem with cutting stair treads is that every one is slightly different in length. If you are anything like me, remembering which lines are 8ths and which are 16ths never seems to stick. I end up remembering it like “3 lines past the half way mark” or something like that. The other issue is that when you take a tape measure to get the distance between two verticals like stair walls you have to bend the tape measure at the end and I can never quite tell the exact distance. (I’m sure there’s a trick to it but I don’t know what it is.)

Add to that the fact that the edges are rarely perfectly square and you have a tough situation. Imagine having to measure each tread’s length and the angles on both sides? Then try to transcribe that to the treads and cut them right. I could never get that done, and treads are expensive so making mistakes on this would be very costly. The stair measure tool fixed all that for me.

Looking for solutions to this problem, I found this:

Here’s a commercial version of the stair measure tool. No reason to buy one though. It took me about 20 minutes and about a dollars worth of hardware to make one that works just as well.

With a bit of research I found a home made stair tread measure tool that gives you the length and angles in one easy step. No need to use a tape measure or figure out those pesky fractions.

So how does it work? Basically, it’s a couple of triangles attached to a center piece. The triangles are movable. They can go in and out and they can angle. You simply place the tool in place, loosen the wing nuts, slide it out and make it touch the outward edges of your stair well, and lock down the nuts. Once you do that you carefully remove the tool and place it on one of your treads and trace your lines where you need to cut.

Here I am using the tool to measure for a stair tread. Just loosen the wing nuts and slide the triangles out until they flush with the wall. Then tighten down the wing nuts and remove the tool.

How to make your own stair tread gauge

First, you’ll need to assemble/create a few parts:

Here are the parts:

  1. 2 wing nuts, 4 washers, and 2 bolts.
  2. 2 triangle shapes. I made mine from scrap wood. The side of the triangle that faces the wall is the same depth as the stair tread.
  3. 1 center section. Length will vary depending on the width of your stairwell. To figure out how long it should be, place your two triangles on the step at the stair edges. Measure the approximate length from the center of one triangle to the other and cut your board to this length.
  4. 2 spacer pieces that will go under the triangle to keep the bolt up off of the tread. This makes it easier to trace the line. The spacers should be about the same length as the widest side of the triangles. They need to be thick enough to keep the bolt off the stair.
This (sorta) Old Life: tread gauge parts

Here’s how to assemble it:

1. Use a drill or jigsaw to wallow out a hole in each triangle. I made my hole about an inch long. This will allow the triangles to pivot and move in and out. It doesn’t need to be a big hole because there won’t be that much difference in tread lengths. (There was only about a 1/4 inch difference in our stairs.)

This is an important part. You can see how the hole where the bolt runs through is wallowed out. This allows for the movement and adjustment of the triangle piece.

2. Lay everything out on your stairs (center piece and two triangles) and dry-fit your tool. Use a pencil to make a mark through your hold (in step 1) that you’ll use to know where to drill your holes in the center piece. (See parts photo above.) Drill those holes.

3. Attach the triangles to the center piece, using a bolt, two washers (one on each side of the triangle), and a wing nut. The wing nut needs to go on the top so you can easily tighten and loosen it while you’re using the tool.

4. Nail the spacers to the ends of the triangles.

Here’s another important detail. I found that I needed to put a spacer under the edges of the triangle pieced so that the bottom of the bolt didn’t touch when I was measuring and drawing my lines on the treads. This raised the center part of the tool up enough to keep it flat.

As I said above, you simply place the tool on the tread, loosen the wing nuts, slide the triangles out and fit the ends snugly against the sides of the stairwell, and then tighten the wingnuts down.

Then, you put the gauge on your tread, and mark your cut lines.

This (sorta) Old Life: using tread gauge to mark cut lines

I cut all my treads with a compound miter saw. The advantage of this saw is that it allows you to make angle cuts easily if the walls aren’t exactly straight. These saws can be expensive, but Harbor Freight has one for less than 200 bucks. It’s been a good buy so far. I’ve used it quite a bit and like the way it works.

Here’s a photo of me cutting a tread with the Harbor Freight miter saw. It worked great and made quick work of the cutting. Yes, that is my cool yellow scooter in the background. And, no you can’t borrow it. :)

Our first tread fit nice and snug. I had to bang it into place with the palm of my hand. No gaps at all. Once I finished the first step, it took less than an hour to measure and cut the remaining ones.

This (sorta) Old Life: First stair tread in

Why is the first tread in the middle of the stairs? Not sure…

This tool really was what made the difference in me thinking I could tackle cutting and installing stair treads. Without it I don’t think I’d have been comfortable doing it at all. Sometimes the right tool is important.

We’ll be doing another short post soon on how we installed the treads and risers. In the meantime, here’s a sneak peek of where we’re at in this project:

This (sorta) Old Life: Reclaimed wood stair risers

Yes, we love these. Still have more to do on this project, but we’re really happy with how it’s turning out.

Way back in college I worked in a woodworking shop for a couple of years. I didn’t get to use the power tools much. I was mostly the guy who did the final assembly and finish. I did learn some valuable things from the guys though.

Often when they had a woodworking task that was repetitive they’d create what they called a jig. It’s a tool designed for a specific job used to reduce repetitive tasks. This tool is an example of that. The idea of the jig is that it keeps you from having to repeat the same measurements over and over again. The jig reduces the chances of mistakes and it is more efficient in the end. Plus I never had to deal with all those pesky lines on the tape measure.

How about you?

Have you created any tools or jigs that save you time in the long run? Any great tips on how to make a stairwell look great? You know we always like hearing your tips and ideas.