Trim Carpentry on Stairs


Staircases are made up of different components. Treads or steps, risers and stringers are common to most of them. The design and placement of all of the above can make stair trim carpentry varied. There are options for creativity and function. Anyone with a miter saw can trim stairs successfully with a few tips.

Tread on Me

  • Treads are steps; they serve as the platform for your feet. Trimming out a tread depends on the design. If it's square on the front, you can add stair-nose trim. Stair nose is a rounded piece of molding specifically designed for treads. Nail it directly to the front edge of the step for aesthetics, and to relieve the square edge that might hook the toe of a shoe. If you can't find stair-nose, choose almost any round trim that's the same width as the tread; standard bullnose molding is routinely used for this purpose. If you can't find the right bullnose, rip some hardwood lumber the same width and use a router to cut a round edge on it. Stair-nose or bullnose is simple, but adds the finishing touch to the front of the step.

I'm So Exposed

  • Some treads are exposed on one or both sides. This is where the ends of the treads overhang the stringers, or diagonal boards that support the steps. It's usually on the exterior side of the staircase facing the living space. Trim out the ends with a simple piece of 1/2-by-1/2 inch profiled molding nailed underneath the tread. The profile doesn't matter, as long as the molding is flat on the back. Take it one step further and miter the molding around the end of the step, and up the vertical side of the riser to the next step where the pattern continues unbroken. This adds a finished look to the steps that can't be ignored; it shows craftsmanship. It might be a bit labor intensive, but the molding cost is minimal considering the aesthetic benefits.

Covert Operations

  • One routine trim job is the addition of corner molding where the tread meets the riser on the back edge of the tread. When ascending the steps, the joint is at eye level and very visible. If the installation of the treads isn't quite up to par, there could be a small gap where the two pieces meet in the corner. Even if there is no gap, some trim carpenters routinely place cove or quarter-round molding at the base to give the steps continuity, making them appear joined together. Cove molding is typically 3/4-by-3/4 inch, with a pleasing inward curve. It has a square, 90-degree back that fits tightly into the corner. When nailed in place, the face of the cove adds a curved look that reflects light. Quarter-round molding of the same size has the reverse profile, with has a convex curve. It provides the same function as cove molding, but with a protruding curve. The choice is yours.

The Stringer Theory

  • Stringers run diagonally up the stairs. They are part of the support system with a square, straight line or edge on top and sometimes on the bottom -- if the stringer is exposed as part of the aesthetic design. They are typically boring. Spice them up with a piece of profiled molding. Almost any type will do. In this instance, wider molding up to 2-1/4 inches is common. Use chair rail molding, picture frame or any type of custom molding as long as it has a flat bottom that fits tightly to the top edge of the stringer. Cut long pieces and nail them to the wall on top or underneath the stringer to give it a finished look. It makes the stringers look wider, blends the stringer into the woodworking and shows craftsmanship. The best part is that it's easy to accomplish.

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