The look of stair treads is a top priority because staircases are focal points in a home, so they should reflect a substantial, safe passage to upper floors. Treads should not creak, squeak or make cracking noises. They should be durable enough to last a lifetime, while providing an aesthetic complement to your home. Hardwood is the most common, and almost any species can be used. Options for economy are available that look nice, and perform well.
Prices for stair treads fluctuate wildly depending on your location, design and wood species. Expect to pay ballpark figures of between $100 to $200 or more per tread, with labor and materials added. Finishing may be extra. Exotic hardwood species may be more expensive.
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The majority of stair tread wood is priced mid-range, and is widely available.
Red oak is one of the most commonly use species for treads. It's used on economy, mid-range and exclusive homes alike. It's colored amber with overtones of reddish/pink, but accepts any color of stain, which enhances its bold, flame-like grain patterns. Use red oak for a traditional look.
Ash has the hardness of oak, but with crazy, complicated zig-zag or lightning patterns distinguishing it from other hardwoods. Ash is amber to white in color with contrasting black streaks. Use ash to catch the eye.
Maple is one of the hardest mid-range species. It lacks the grain patterns of ash or oak, but it's creamy, glassy finish provides consistency. Use maple to reflect strength and uniformity.
Hickory is harder than oak, but has the rustic look of pine, with contrasting black streaks. Use hickory for stability, with a country ambiance.
Economy treads are often made with softwood, or hardwoods with less aesthetic appeal than other hardwoods.
Pine and Fir
Pine is one of the softest of the stair tread woods, it's also the most affordable. Pine is amber to white in color with broad swaths of brown. Pine will dent and scratch easier than most other woods. Fir is harder than pine, with more resiliency. It's more durable, and with more pronounced, straighter grain patterns. Use pine and fir for a rustic, country appearance suitable for lodges and cabins.
Poplar is technically a hardwood, because it has leaves instead of needles. But poplar is softer than most hardwoods. Poplar is prized for it's resilient quality and has straight, uniform grain. It's whitish color is somewhat characterless, but poplar sands smooth and even. Poplar is a good choice if you plan on painting the treads.
Beech is harder than oak or maple, but much less expensive. It's somewhat bland in appearance, with a light-brown color, and lacks pronounced grain patterns. Use beech when you want the durability of hardwood at an economical price.
Luxury treads are not cheap, but provide the focus for a staircase that shows craftsmanship, and the fact that you want only the best.
Teak might be considered the queen of the exotic hardwoods. Teak has a tradition of durability, with a built-in insect, rot, moisture and decay resistance. With contrasting swirls of red and brown, teak darkens over time when exposed to light. Plan on paying a premium price for teak. Use it to reflect opulent taste in hardwoods.
Walnut is perhaps the most sought out domestic hardwood. It's dark chocolate color adds warmth and character to treads. Walnut is not as durable as teak, as it's softer, but is also more affordable. Use it to reflect the dark nature of teak, without paying the premium price of teak.
Mahogany is a traditional imported hardwood. Straight-grained and consistent, the pinkish-red-to-orange color is easily identified. Because of it's prevalence in the market, mahogany is one of the more affordable exotic hardwoods. Use it for a high-end look, without going over budget.
Cherry is another sought-after domestic hardwood. It's rich in character with a complex, intricate grain pattern containing flecks of black, which originate from pitch pockets. The deep red color of cherry is warm and inviting. Even though it's domestic, expect to pay more for cherry than mahogany. Don't confuse domestic cherry with Brazilian cherry, which is even more expensive. Use cherry for elegance, and opulence.
Tread stock is a ready-made product. It typically has the traditional round or bullnose end. It's already been sanded, and ready to cut to length and install. Use tread stock for convenience. Supplies of tread stock may be limited to common species such as oak, maple or economy species, such as fir, pine or medium-density-fiberboard.
Codes can vary per jurisdiction, but most of them have a minimum tread thickness of 1 inch. It's not uncommon to see treads as thin as 3/4 inch, but treads thinner than 1 inch can flex. Stair tread stock should be at least 1 1/16 to 1 1/4 inch or thicker.
The Rough Option
Rough lumber can save you money, by surfacing it yourself. Rough lumber thickness is expressed as a fraction. For example, if you purchase four-quarter or "4/4" for a stair tread, it requires planing or sanding, and you might wind up with only 13/16 inch, which is acceptable by the National Hardwood Lumber Association. If you have the choice, purchase six-quarter "6/4" and surface it down until it's smooth, or about 1 3/16 to 1 1/8-inch.
Engineered wood is also used for stair treads. MDF, or medium-density-fibercore. MDF is the most affordable stair tread material available. It's manufactured as 1-to-1 1/4-inch-thick tread stock, with a bullnose on one side. Use MDF if you plan on painting your treads.