Plywood Stairs Makeover

Contractors are always on the lookout for ways to reduce the cost of building homes. This is especially apparent in tract homes, which by definition are built to be low-cost housing for first-time and middle income homeowners. While savings of a dollar or two here or there may not seem like much when doing a home-improvement project, it is a great deal when that savings is repeated over and over again in the course of making hundreds of homes.

One of the first materials that contractors turned to was plywood. Plywood could replace solid wood boards for structural floor underlayment, as well as sheathing for both walls and roofs. This saved both on the cost of materials and the labor required to build a home. While not as much a concern in the 1880s, by the 1940s, when tract homes came into being, that was important. In more recent times, OSB has taken the lead over plywood as a cost-saving construction material.

While using plywood and OSB has been common in hidden areas for a long time, it has only been in much more recent times that they have been taking the place of solid wood boards in visible applications, where wood boards would previously have been used. One such application is stairs. Up until fairly recent times, stair treads and stringers were always made of solid wood, with stair treads often being made of hardwoods. Yet during the years where carpeted floors were so popular, plywood and even OSB stair treads were used.

Strength isn’t an issue when using plywood and OSB for stairs and appearance isn’t either, as long as those materials are covered with carpeting. But the tides of home décor have shifted, causing carpeting to lose its popularity and hardwood floors (or at least floors which look like hardwood floors) have regained their previous popularity.

It’s not uncommon today to start pulling up carpeting on the stairs, as part of a remodeling project, only to find that the stairs underneath that carpeting are made of plywood or OSB. Sometimes, the carpeting is even glued to the stair treads, making it all but impossible to change one’s mind and live with the carpeting a little bit longer. Once the project is started, it has to be seen through to the end, no matter how hard that is.

It’s actually not all that difficult to replace stair treads, although it can be rather expensive. A quick look at one of the big home improvement center’s websites shows hardwood step treads running at $75 and up each. With an average staircase in a home having 12 to 13 steps, we’re looking at a cost of $900 to $2,200 to put a full set of hardwood step treads in, not counting applying varnish or some other finish to the wood.

Fortunately, there are other options available to us, most of which are considerably cheaper. The one problem that might be encountered is glue stuck to the existing stair treads. Sanding off that glue can be extremely time consuming, especially trying to sand it off while the step treads are in place. Fortunately there is a simple solution, as the treads can simply be removed, flipped over and nailed back down, providing a clean surface to work with. It will still need to be covered in some way, as that plywood or OSB surface isn’t going to look good, but at least it will be relatively smooth.

Paint

The Lowest cost way of refinishing those stairs is to paint them. Contractors would typically do this on stairways going into basements and attics; areas where there wasn’t a lot of traffic. While paint is not the most durable finish around, it looks attractive enough when applied and is a good option for a house about to be sold.

However, there are a couple of problems in using paint. The first of these is that the stair treads themselves may not have a smooth finish, especially if they have been flipped over. To solve this requires covering the stairs with a skim coating of wood putty and then sanding it smooth. Some people have used drywall mud for this, which works, but is not as durable. Once the stairs are ready for paint, a durable paint, such as epoxy paint or deck paint should be used, not ordinary latex paint, which is not designed for this sort of abuse.

Carpet

While paint is the Lowest cost solution, carpeting the stairs over again is the most obvious. Carpeting stairs actually isn’t all that hard, especially if the tack strips are already in place. There’s not a lot of surface area to cover, so it’s not a high cost project, like recarpeting a whole home is.

Before starting, decide whether just the step treads or both the step treads and risers are going to be carpeted. Carpeting the treads, while painting the risers, provides for a more modern look. If that is being done, then the risers should be painted before the new carpeting is installed, eliminating the risk of getting paint on the carpeting.

To install new carpeting on the treads, start out by cutting the pieces. They will need to be the full width of the steps and long enough to go from the back of the step tread, wrap around the bullnose and butt up against the riser below. Check the dimension of several different steps, before cutting, to ensure that they are consistent. If not, each step may need to be measured and cut individually.

To install the carpet, start by placing it on the step, butted all the way up with the riser. The carpet is hooked to the tack strip by hammering it on, forcing the tacks to dig into the carpet’s backing. Use a block of wood for this, placing it over the carpet, where the tack strip is, and hitting the block with a hammer. Then stretch the carpet smoothly around the bullnose and tack it to the bottom of the bullnose with either staples or tacks.

Hardwood Overlay

Hardwood overlays are a thick veneer, attached to a new hardwood bullnose. While considerably more expensive than the previous options, they are much cheaper than installing new hardwood step treads. Just as a veneer top with a hardwood edge can make a beautiful hardtabletop, hardwood overlays give the appearance of a hardwood step tread, without having to use as much wood, thereby saving on the cost of that expensive hardwood.

These are designed to be attached directly over the existing step treads, although the bullnose will have to be cut off to allow the overlay to fit properly. The wood tread is thick enough that it will stand up under normal wear and the solid hardwood bullnose takes that majority of that wear anyway. A special adhesive is used to install the hardwood overlays.

Laminate

Laminate is much like hardwood step treads in appearance, although it is made of lower cost materials. Little of the hardwood flooring available today is actually solid hardwood; but rather, made as a laminate with a hardwood veneer surface. How thick that veneer surface is, determines the quality and cost of the laminate.

Although laminate floors are typically installed as a “floating” system, where the individual strips lock together, this doesn’t work for step treads. Rather, just as when installing hardwood overlays, special flooring adhesives must be used with laminate step treads. It is important to ensure that the adhesive purchased is compatible with the laminate system being used, as they are not all the same.

plywood stairs, staircase, laminate
Laminated plywood staircase, DenverDwight

New Step Treads

Of course, there is always the possibility of installing totally new step treads. This is the most expensive option available to us, but the one which yields the best results. Those hardwood step treads will last the life of the home and can be refinished over and over again. They are easy to install, as they are nailed in place with finish nails and then the holes from the nails are filled before applying the final coat of finish to the steps.

While hardwood step treads are the ideal choice, they aren’t the only option available. There are also pine step treads, which are much less expensive. If the home being remodeled already has pine flooring, then pine would be the perfect choice. But even if it doesn’t pine isn’t a bad choice, especially if just the stairs are to be refinished.

There are also “engineered” step treads, which combine a hardwood bullnose and veneer, with an OSB core. These are half the cost of the cheapest hardwood step treads, making them a very cost effective option. Unless the step tread stays in place so long that the veneer wears though, nobody will ever know that there’s an OSB core hiding in there, instead of the step treads being solid hardwood.

New Stair Nosings

As I mentioned a moment ago, the bullnose is the part of the step tread that receives the most wear and damage. If that’s all that’s wrong with the steps in a hardwood staircase, then a more cost-effective option, instead of replacing hardwood step treads is to just replace the stair nosings. This might be an option down the road, if the existing plywood step treads are replaced by laminate step treads and they receive excessive wear.

Runners and Rugs

One of the ways of reducing wear and tear on stairs is to install runners or step tread rugs on the staircase. Not just any runner will do, as it needs to be backed in a material that will prevent it from sliding, so as to not cause a slip hazard. But installing a staircase runner over painted stairs is a great way to save on the cost of upgrading a staircase, giving it a very classy, modern look. The cost of the runner is much less than the cost of hardwood or even laminate step treads would be.

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