Rita and I have managed to get half of our entryway staircase close to done. We wrote a post earlier about installing the treads, but we thought we’d put together a new one that shows the whole process, including treads, risers, and trim (complete with nifty, Pinnable graphic).

Before I get too deep into how we did what we did I want to say a little bit about process and values and how it helps to define how we do things. The stairs remodel wasn’t a functional repair. The stairs worked just fine. I mean, you could walk up and down them all you wanted and they would hold you just fine. The repair was mostly cosmetic.

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

Here’s what our stairs looked like about a year ago (before we painted the exterior of the house). They presented some functional issues; the carpet showed every spec of dirt, and with 3 kids and 2 dogs, it seemed we were constantly battling the specs. But more than that, we really didn’t like the looks of it.

We’re not big on cosmetic-only repairs. Unless something is horribly ugly to the point where we absolutely can’t stand it we’re more comfortable living with it. It doesn’t feel right to tear out something that is perfectly functional to replace it with something because it’s prettier, you know? Sometimes though there is something that is too hideous to live with. That was the staircase to me.

This (sorta) Old Life: entry stairs before the tread project

After I tore out the carpet one day last spring (because I couldn’t stand it one more minute), we lived with this. Perfectly functional, but really too ugly to keep this way.

When we do think it’s OK to remodel a perfectly functional part of the house, we feel better about it if we can do it in a frugal way that uses recycled and re-purposed materials wherever possible. If we can take something that is already sitting out there in the world and make something useful out of it we can feel good about that. What I can’t feel good about is spending a fortune on brand new stair parts cut from a shrinking supply of American hardwood simply because I didn’t like the way ours looked.

The other driving force behind our design decisions for our entry stairway was that we needed to do something that was within our skill sets. As we shared in our recent lessons learned in 2012 post, on one of our many trips to the Rebuilding Center last spring, Rita and I found a section of the store that had tons of old tongue and groove boards salvaged from old houses. One reason we decided to use these on our stair risers is that I had never done stairs before, and this seemed like a material that would be OK with my skill set.

I knew that if I was using expensive hardwood stair parts that the measurements and tolerances would have to be exact. Maybe beyond my skill level. I knew that something a bit funky with re-purposed wood would be much easier. Old wood has lots of natural gaps and spaces when fit together, so any unintended gaps or not quite right cuts made by me would blend right in.

This (sorta) Old Life:  reclaimed lumber at The ReBuilding Center

Here’s some of the reclaimed tongue and groove stuff from the Rebuilding Center. It’s a bit hit and miss so you have to be a bit flexible when you go there. Thankfully this was perfect for our stair project since almost anything would do and the more different and unique each piece was the better.

And we liked them for cosmetic reasons, too. We were both drawn to them because they all had such character. They were painted, and stained, and varnished, and all sorts of finishes and colors. There was an age patina to the boards that was just gorgeous. We really wanted to use them for something.

We bought enough to do one section (half) of our entry stairway.

This (sorta) Old Life: Reclaimed wood

These are the boards we came home with. We went for a mixture of colors and finishes

Figuring out the treads, stringers, and trim

Once we decided that we’d definitely use the reclaimed wood for the risers, our next thing to solve was treads. We had a few things in mind. One option was to simply glue down cork on the existing treads and put a new edge on the front of the treads. The cork would be soft under foot and easy to install, and we’d already used cork on the floor the stairs lead up to. We had quite a few cork tiles left from our bathroom remodel so the cost would be minimal.

This (sorta) Old LIfe: Dark master bath renovation floor

This shot from our bathroom renovation shows the square cork tiles we put on the floor and considered using on our stairs.

Another option was to get new treads to replace the framing lumber treads. Home Depot had both oak and pine treads. The pine was around 10 bucks a tread and the oak nearly 3 times as much. I was really drawn to the pine. Oak seemed too formal (and expensive). I have never liked the grain pattern of oak and Rita isn’t too fond of it either. The problem with pine is that it’s a soft wood. It’s not ideal for stair treads because it’s easier to scratch and dent. We decided that scuffed-up treads would be fine with our salvaged wood risers.

I bought one pine tread and made a mock up of a pine tread stair and a cork stair with a trim piece on the edge. We both liked the pine tread better so there it was. (Unfortunately, we didn’t get pictures of these.)

Our idea was to stain the tread a medium dark color and either paint or stain the stringers. Above the stringers there was a long trim piece that ran from the bottom to the top of the stair. This was painted white. We either wanted to paint this a dark color or strip it and stain it if possible.

This (sorta) Old Life: Stair parts

After putting some stain on the sample tread, we thought it was too light. We decided to try some dark brown paint that we had from another project. We decided we really liked the contrast of the dark paint with the salvaged wood.

The first step was to remove the existing treads. A hammer and a prybar made it easy enough work. Took about 20 minutes or so and they were all off. Of course once we took them off, it presented a problem: How to actually get in and out of the house?

My solution was to cut the old treads in half so that we could have either the left or right half of the stairs usable while we worked on the other half.


Once the treads were off we were able to look at what to do with the trim on top of the stringers. We decided to take it off, to have a simpler, more casual look to the stairs. We used a putty knife, a pry bar, and a small hammer to carefully remove it without damaging the wall (mostly).

We think all the molding in the house was replaced sometime in the last 10 years or so. We didn’t feel too bad about removing it since it wasn’t original to the house. As I started to remove it, I found out it was actually made of a foam material, which made me feel even better about getting rid of it. It might be kind of snobby but I didn’t want foam molding in our house.

Then it was off to the Depot in search of a good paint stripper for the stringers.

This (sorta) Old Life: citrus paint stripper

We decided to strip the stringers because we liked the contrast between the dark paint and natural wood. We opted for a citrus-based stripper. I had used the heavy toxic smelly stripper before and it was awful to work with. It burned if it got on your skin and the fumes were intoxicating. The citrus one smelled like oranges.

The bit of Googling we did seemed to suggest that it worked well too. Our process was to paint it on thickly, let it sit for a half hour or so, then scrape it off with a putty knife. It took about 3 coats of stripper with scraping in between to get most of the paint off. A final go over with a sander and a medium grit paper did the rest of the job. It was quite a bit of work but I feel like the end result was worth it in the end.

This was a horrible messy job. I think it was worth it in the end. We really like the stained wood much better than if we had painted it.

This was a horrible messy job. I think it was worth it in the end. We really like the stained wood much better than if we had painted over it.

With the stringers all sanded down and stripped of paint, it was time to start some actual construction. I did the construction backwards of the conventional way. You are supposed to start with the risers first and then butt the treads up against them. Instead I put down all the treads first and then sandwiched the risers between.

My thinking was that the tongue and groove wood for the risers was pretty rough and not very flat or straight and if I butted the back of the tread up against it I’d likely not get a good straight line. So, I used the stair tread measure tool to measure each tread individually and cut them to length on my compound mitre saw.

This (sorta) Old Life: using DIY stair tread gauge

Here I am using the stair measure tool to get an accurate distance for the stair treads.

This (sorta) Old Life: using compound mitre saw to cut stair treads

The right tool for the job is important. I upgraded my mitre saw to this compound mitre saw just for this job. It really made cutting the treads easy.

You can see in the photo above that the treads were already painted when I cut them. We let the paint cure for a day before we started working with them. In retrospect, I think we should’ve given them a few more days. (We ended up having to do some touch-up on the paint.)

 To attach each tread I laid down a bead of construction adhesive on the stair frame (support structure) and nailed the treads down to them. (6 nails in each tread.) I know there is some controversy about whether or not you should glue down stair treads. Some say this will prevent the wood from doing it’s natural expansion and contraction. I opted to go ahead and glue it down. I guess time will tell if it was the right call.

This (sorta) Old Life: building stairs

After we had all the treads installed, the stairs looked like this:

This (sorta) Old Life: stairs with new treads

Not too bad if you’re looking down on the stairs.

This (sorta) Old Life: stairs with new treads

But looking up you could see this. The next step was putting a new face on the risers.

Putting in the risers

Before we put the risers in, we laid out the boards and determined an order to them on the stairs.

This (sorta) Old Life: laying out the riser wood

We decided to pair a painted piece with a wood piece on each stair.

Since I left the original risers in place I only needed to face nail the tongue and groove material to the existing risers. I cut the boards so that I had a clean cut edge where the risers touch the treads’ top and bottom and pre drilled holes for nails. I didn’t glue the risers in place because they won’t get as much force applied to them as the treads.

As a finishing touch we cut some quarter round and placed it on top of the treads where they tucked under the riser for a bit more finished look.

This (sorta) Old Life: laying out the riser wood

We took this shot when we were testing the idea of the quarter-round trim.

We managed to get some salvage quarter round at the Rebuilding center when we bought the other salvage wood. We mixed and matched the quarter round as well. Each piece is a bit different than every other piece. We think makes for a pretty cool look.

You can see here how we mixed and matched the wood for the risers.

You can see here how we mixed and matched the wood for the risers and added trim at the bottom of each one.

After adding quarter-round trim to the top of the stringers, the final step was to put a coat of stain and a few coats of clear poly on the sides. The stain makes the stringers look a bit old and like it’s been there a long time. (It has.) The quarter-round on top of the stringer was the last piece that seems to have tied everything together.

This (sorta) Old Life: reclaimed wood stairs

Here you can see how the side pieces look after being stripped of old paint. They are stained and got a couple of coats of polly.

We still have some work left to do. We are thinking about the railings and how much work we want to do on them. We are somewhere between tear them out and replace them with something awesome and simply paint them a dark color so that they better match the aesthetics of the stairs. (We’re most likely going to go with paint, for the reasons we began this post with.)

This (sorta) Old Life: Stairs with white railings

In the meantime we are really enjoying our new stairs. We were a bit worried at first that they may be a bit too eclectic or, as our kids would say, “weird.” We also know that this isn’t in keeping with our idea of restoring the house to its roots. We don’t think anyone was doing this kind of stairway in the 70s. We also worried that it was a trendy sort of thing and that we’d dislike it later.

This (sorta) Old Life: reclaimed wood stairs

(That green wall has since been painted. With the holidays we’re a little behind on sharing our progress.)

We’ve decided we’re happy with them in spite of any of those things. They are a bit unusual, but they don’t dominate the space. They become more of an interesting accent when you first step into the house from outside. As we showed you above, from the top of the stairs you don’t see the risers at all. All you see is the top of the treads which are painted a very safe and not-so-weird brown. We think it works.

This (sorta) Old Life: reclaimed wood stairs

If someone at some point thinks these stairs are just horribly 2012 (in a bad way), we figure the risers and stringers can always be painted to match the treads, or the stairs can be covered with carpet again.

We get mixed reviews from the kids. One of them would much prefer the carpet we had. Another is kind of “meh” on the whole thing. The third actually likes them. It’s not often that we actually do something that one of our children likes so we are taking it as a victory.

This is Grace making the face our kids make when we do interesting things to the house.

This is Grace making the face our kids make when we do “interesting” things to the house. (Rita would like you to ignore the Christmas mess in the back of this picture.)

The total cost was not too bad. The treads were just under 10 dollars each. I think we must have paid less than 20 dollars for all the reclaimed wood at the Rebuilding Center. The paint stripper was around 12 dollars. The rest of the materials we had on hand already.

All in all it was a low cost with big results kind of project.

This (sorta) Old Life: How to give your stairs a makeover with salvaged wood

We’ve got a second run of stairs to do leading down to the lower level. They present a few challenges that the upper row of stairs didn’t so we’ll have to do some things differently for them. Not exactly sure yet how we’ll solve those challenges yet, but we look forward to getting started on it.


(A note from Rita:  Thanks to all of you who commented on my last post. It was definitely one of those ones I felt nervous about publishing. I so appreciate the thinking that your comments prompted in me. I for sure know we don’t have everything all figured out. That’s why we do the projects we do and write about them in this space. Really thankful for those of you who join us here.

Also:  We’re back at school, and I’ve got a crazy week coming up. We probably won’t be posting again until next next Tuesday.)

As we often do on Thursdays, we’re linking to the William Morris Project at Pancakes and French Fries.


Always appreciate your thoughts/comments. Let us know if you’ve got any great ideas for those railings we’re on the fence about. We’d also like to know about any projects you might have done using reclaimed lumber. Comments always make us happy.

This (sorta) Old Life: Daisy photobomb on the stairs

Daisy loves to photobomb whenever she can. :-)