Remember when wall-to-wall carpeting was all the rage? For my ever-loving wife, “Treddie” (not her real name), that sentence needs to be reversed. Treddie rages at any and all carpeting. “See that carpet in the bedroom? It’s gotta go.” She still hasn’t gotten over the time we lived in a house with a carpeted kitchen. It had two layers of carpet, by the way, which is to say upwards of ¾” of food/dirt/goo-trapping yarn. It takes a strong stomach to cook in a room like that. We replaced the layers of carpet with engineered hardwood.
Builders like carpet because it covers a multitude of sins. When you rip it up to replace it you will bring their sins to light: sloppy joints, wavy subfloors, and loose nails and screws. So before putting down the new flooring you need to rehabilitate that sinful subfloor to make it fit for society by hammering down the nails, screwing the loose screws, chiseling and planing the high spots, and filling big depressions.
The upstairs bedroom and sitting room in our beach house was carpeted (for the first year or so) but Treddie said it should go and it did. We put down ¾” tigerwood, which is very hard and heavy and interesting to look at with all of its swirls and color variations.
The only place that was still carpeted was the stairway and Treddie had an opinion or two about the desirability of carpeted steps. Let’s just say she made it clear that it was the last barrier to eradicating the house of its carpet infestation.
Replacing the carpet on steps with hardwood is not quite as straightforward as replacing the carpet of, say, a bedroom floor. Much of the challenge is dealing with the difference in thickness.
Several websites sell hardwood treads (the flat part you step on), sometimes called “retreads,” made specifically for replacing the carpet over the plywood underlayment. Retreads are thinner (⅜”, which is about the thickness of carpet, vs. the usual ¾”) so you can leave the plywood underlayment in place and they have a built-in bullnose, which is the little overhang part that is about 1” thick and sticks out about an inch. By ordering the treads from a local manufacturer (www.stair-treads.com, I highly recommend them) I saved shipping costs by picking them up. They easily fit in the trunk of the car.
When you have carpet, the underlayment forms the bullnose and that has to be cut off to make room for the bullnose on the new treads. Rather than using a Sawzall, which wants to cut things it shouldn’t (like the wall trim), I numbered each underlayment board with my trusty Sharpie. Then I unscrewed them and ripped off the bullnoses on a table saw. Using the numbers to put the boards back in their original order ensured that the screw holes all matched up perfectly.
Treads come in standard sizes for length and width. For example, they might be available in widths of 10 ½” and 11 ½”. The lengths might be 36”, 42”, and 48”. Our stairs were about 10 ¾” by about 44”. Back at the table saw I ripped off ¾” from the width.
Up to now this was a 3-hammer project. Here’s where the fourth hammer came in.
Getting the length right has two complications. The first is that a typical miter saw won’t cut a board that wide. There is no way a 10” saw blade is going to cut all the way through a 11” board. I needed a sliding compound miter saw. Fortunately, Treddie lets me buy the tools I need to finish the projects she has assigned me so I got a new saw out of the deal. (It is a nice one too.)
The second difficulty with getting the length right is a little-known feature of stairways with sidewalls: every little sidewall is a little crooked and each step is slightly different in length. So not only did I have to measure each step for length but I also had to figure out the angle of each side instead of the usual 90 degrees, and I had to saw both ends.
I made a jig out of aluminum for measuring both the length of the tread and setting the angles of the ends. I stretched the jig between the side walls so that the end pieces matched the angles of the side walls and tightened the wing nuts to hold it in place. Then I carefully removed the jig from the stairway and set it on a new tread and drew a pencil mark along the end pieces. After adjusting the angle on the miter saw to match the pencil mark, I took a deep breath and cut one end of the tread and exhaled. Then I cut the other end. They are a little on the expensive side so I didn’t want to make any mistakes.
After cutting a tread I wrote the same step number on the back that I had used for the pieces of underlayment so I would know where it went.
For the risers, which are the vertical pieces, I cut strips about 8″ wide from 4′ x 8′ sheets of white bead board that matched the walls.
I glued down the treads using a polyurethane adhesive the tread manufacturer said to use. That was the right thing to do because no one wants the treads to squeak or wobble and saving a buck on a couple of tubes of adhesive would be exhibit A in “penny wise and pound foolish.”
To hold the treads in place while the adhesive dried, I used a pin nailer, which drives an almost invisible pin into the wood. I put two pins near the left edge and two near the right edge of each tread. The glue takes a day or two to really set up and the pins keep the treads from crawling around or moving if they get bumped.
The new steps are rock solid and Treddie is thrilled. The house is officially a carpet-free zone and every time she walks up the stairs she marvels at how nice they look and feel.
They are so much easier to keep clean than grunge-grabbing, allergy-triggering, dirt-trapping carpet. But that is just my opinion.
Still like your carpet?