I have a super exciting DIY to share with you today!!! We finally updated our 1970s stairs with modern stair treads and risers! When I say this project has been a long time in the making, that is no lie. I wanted to makeover our stairs back in 2015 when I ripped out the nasty carpet but I wanted a more modern option than the traditional bull nose steps. As luck would have it, I dreamt up something that was not available to purchase. Shocker, I know! So when we decided to renovate the upstairs hallway, I knew it was time to find a solution. You wanna see what I came up with?
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Our house is a tri-level with a small set of stairs that lead to our bedrooms and another set of stairs that lead from our kitchen to our family room. When we replaced the flooring in our family room I ripped the carpet off the stairs and painted the treads and risers. This was a temporary solution that lasted six years! Last year when we made over the living room, we did the same thing to the steps going upstairs. This is what they looked like in the carpet phase.
And this is what they looked like after I painted them.
Painting them was a great temporary fix that looked ok from a distance, but up close you could see they were rough, and had many imperfections.
I always envisioned something modern with a square tread not a bull nose. I had almost convinced Barry we could build our own, when I found these!!!! I think these could definitely be built, but with the rising costs of lumber, I wasn’t sure we could do it for much less not to mention the time savings.
DIY Modern Stair Treads & Risers Supplies
Modern Square Stair Treads
Left Return Square Stair Treads
Water-based Clear Coat
Order the new stair treads. These come in different lengths so you will want to measure your steps. We used five of the 36 inch treads and two of the left return 42 inch treads. If you do not have any larger steps at the bottom like we do, yours will likely all be the same size. These are unfinished Oak.
Decide on risers. Risers are the back part of the steps and if you are starting with stairs like ours, these will need to be addressed. Originally, I was planning to do plain white risers but I totally fell in love with these patterned risers that are double sided! I loved the chevron side, but the bead board would be so cute too!
Remove all the carpet, tack strips, carpet pad and staples. This is what our stairs looked like when we removed the carpet. Definitely not pretty.
Determine if you need to cut the existing stair treads down. Before you make any cuts, check your local building codes to make sure you are in compliance. International building code says the stair treads cannot be less than 10 inches deep. Our original treads are literally built into the sides or the stringers and cannot be removed without ripping out the entire staircase. The existing treads are also bull nose. In newer homes, this is generally not the case. In order to install the new treads, we needed to “square off” the existing treads otherwise the new treads would hang off the front edge too far.
I did a lot of mathing to figure out what we needed to cut off. NOTE your stairs are likely not exactly the same as mine and you should take all of your own measurements to make sure your new stair treads are the right size. Our original stair treads were 10.5 inches deep. We did not change the depth of our treads. In order to accommodate the new risers which are 3/8 inches deep and maintain the 10.5 inch stair treads, we cut 1 inch off the front of each stair tread with our saw max and our multi tool. If your stairs are already square and flush, you can skip this step.
This was VERY messy!
Cut your risers to size. The risers we used were 7.5 inches tall out of the package but our stair risers are only 6.25 inches tall. So I rip cut 1.25 inches off each riser with our table saw. NOTE: You want to make sure you are cutting this amount off the same side of each riser if you choose to use the chevron pattern or your pattern will look different from stair to stair.
You will likely also need to cut down the length of the risers. Ours are 33 inches long. NOTE: Again, you will want to make sure to cut equal amounts off each side so the pattern lines up. I measured 16.5 inches from the center line of the pattern, cutting 4.5 inches off each end. I made these cuts with our miter saw.
NOTE: If you have stairs that are larger than the rest, make sure you line the pattern up first and then determine what side or sides need to be cut down. I learned this the hard way on our bottom two steps when I realized my pattern did not line up. Our bottom step is 39.5 inches long and the riser is 42 inches. In order for the pattern to line up, I cut 4.5 inches off the right side. and 0.75 inches off the left side. If you are dong the math you know this is still too short. I cut down a scrap piece for the remaining 3 inches lining up the pattern so it would look like a continuous piece.
Cut your treads to size. For the top five treads, we cut them to 33 inches in length. Before we cut them, I checked how square they were with a speed square. Most of ours were pretty close but we still adjusted the angle just a hair on our miter saw when we made the cuts on the ends. Our miter saw is a 12 inch sliding saw. If yours doesn’t slide or is smaller, you probably will not be able to make these cuts in one pass. You could also use a table saw or a circular saw but this was the easiest method for us.
We also had to rip cut the treads. For this, I used the table saw. I cut 1 inch off the back of all the treads.
The bottom treads were a bit trickier. For these we used two left return treads that we cut down to size. First we cut 0.50 inches off the right side. Again, we used the miter saw for this cut.
We also needed to cut an inch off the back side of both treads without cutting off the left return. Since the returns needed to be different, this process was not quite the same on each of them. We started with the bottom tread and cut the back part of the return flush with the back of the tread. Then I sent it through the table saw and stopped about 6 inches from the end. I then used the jigsaw to cut as far as I could before ran into the end with the fence.
Barry then used the multi tool to cut off the small amount that was left and sanded it clean.
The second to last tread was even trickier since we only needed to keep a portion of the return and we needed to cut around the stringer. We cut the return flush and ripped 1 inch off the back the same as we did above. Then we used this tool to determine the curve of the cut around the stringer.
To get this cut started we used the miter saw without sliding it from the back and the side so we were left with this.
Then I used the jigsaw to cut around the curve.
We dry fit ALL of our pieces before installing anything. This will also help you determine the pattern you want from your risers. I thought the pattern they made if alternated looked really cool but since we have all the board and batten going up the stairs, we chose to make all of ours point up.
Number your pieces. Once the risers and treads have been dry fit, flip them over and number them on the back side and put a corresponding number on the existing risers and treads so you know where they go.
Paint the risers. These do come primed, but I highly recommend painting them so they do not scuff as easily. I used a foam roller to ensure a smooth finish. Do NOT use too much paint or the grooves will fill with paint and the design will become muted. I had a toothpick on hand to clear out any grooves that accumulated paint.
Stain, paint or clear coat the treads. The treads we used came unfinished which I prefer. While I enjoyed my painted steps over the years, I was really into the natural finish of these treads. And I have been on a mission to mix wood tones throughout the house. As such, I chose to simply clear coat them. This is what I used.
After one coat, the wood just wasn’t as smooth as I was hoping. I did do a light sanding before I applied the clear coat, but it just wasn’t quite there. So I steel wooled them all after the first coat of poly. This a trick I learned a long time ago, but it totally works! You simply use steel wool as though it were sand paper and it gives the wood a nice smooth finish. You will definitely want to wear gloves for this. After they are smooth, wipe them down with a damp rag and do a second coat of poly.
Install the risers. We installed the risers first with Gorilla construction adhesive.
I also added a nail in each corner with the nail gun, careful to make sure they were on the edges that would be covered by the new treads. We also caulked all the risers in before we installed the treads to prevent getting caulk all over the new treads.
Install the treads. For the stair treads, we also used Gorilla construction adhesive. I imagined I was painting a Jackson Pollock and went to town.
After each tread was in, we added some weight and left the weights in place for 24 hours. We did use the stairs during this time, just very carefully 😉
We also caulked in the treads with this caulk. I did tape the treads off to give a nice clean line. Just make sure you pull the tape off right away.
Enjoy! Marvin was pretty skeptical at first, but he is definitely a fan now 🙂
I cannot believe we waited so long to do this! But at least we didn’t have to build the treads from scratch. If you want to see more video and all my behind the scenes, check out my Instagram stories stair highlight.
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