Your staircase is a time-tested solution to get from one floor of the home to another. Simple devices, theyre made up of treads, risers, balusters, and newel posts. In most cases, elevators arent a realistically economical solution in the typical home scenario.
Dumbwaiters as well as laundry chutes were very common in larger homes in the past, but only the trusty staircase has really stood the test of time. Plain or fancy, they can be so complexly constructed that theyre bound to have maintenance issues at some point.
Understand the Components of the Residential Staircase
Depending on how old it is, the carpenter who built it, and whether architectural software was used during the design phase, your staircase components will vary to some extent. But, the following are some of the common terms you need to understand.
Treads. These are the horizontal planks that you step on as you go up or down. The rear of it fits under your upper riser. The leading edge is usually rounded and overhangs the next lower riser.
The leading edge is usually terminated with a protective nosing. Treads may be hardwood, carpeted, or perhaps natural stone in McMansions.
Risers. These are your vertical components (as the name implies). They are set on the tread underneath and then support the forward edge of the upper tread, right behind the nosing where the most strength is needed.
Balusters. These are also often referred to as spindles when they have a round shape, having been turned on a wood lathe, but many other shapes are available and metal is often used in custom jobs.
No matter how fancy they are, they are simply the posts that support the handrail. They are usually secured into a grooved handrail at the top. In the variant known as closed-stringer systems, they are fitted into a grooved stringer located at the bottom.
On the other hand, with open-stringer staircases, the bottom fits into the tread and is locked into place using molding.
Newel Posts. The newel post is the vertical terminating member located at the bottom of your handrail. Because it anchors the railing it must be strong and secure, its usually larger and with more decoration than the balusters.
If you ever slid down the railing as a kid, this is the thing that stopped you. Painfully.
Finally, Reinforcing Blocks and Wedges. These are key components that are installed on the underside of your staircase. Their job is to to keep your treads and risers tightened up, sturdy, and safe.
Repairing Creaky Treads from Underneath
Many things can cause creaky stairs. For example, humidity levels change causing the components to expand and contract. Everyday wear and tear will cause the wood to shift, move, and settle. And of course heavy traffic just exacerbates this. The result is often squeaking, but not necessarily a hazardous situation.
In the best case scenario, your repairs may be completed from the underside of your staircase. Often this space is a powder room, half-bath, closet, or where poor Harry Potter had to stay.
If you feel comfortable making these DIY repairs yourself, go for it. Otherwise, I highly recommend finding the best local carpenter by checking out a service such as Angies List.
First, check for loosened wedges found between the ends of your risers and treads. A wooden mallet is usually sufficient to tap them back in so that they are snugged up again. Youll usually find that your blocks are not located on the edge of the treads but in the field.
Look at both the center and equally-distanced from the center. You can glue and screw blocks back to secure the treads and risers. When driving screws, always drill a pilot hole to avoid splitting and weakening the wood.
Repairing Noisy Treads from Above
Unfortunately, there will be times when the underside of your stairs are simply not accessible. If you find yourself in this situation, your only recourse is to work from above. If you find that the leading edge of a tread has separated from the lower riser, you can usually screw it back down. (Dont forget the pilot holes.)
But if your problem is located at the rear of a tread, try using angle brackets. These may be used to draw the riser and tread tight. The problem with this approach is that it doesnt, look very professional, but you can cover up your work with carpeting or molding.
Replacing Stair Balusters
As mentioned above, with closed-stringer stairs, balusters fit securely into a grooved stringer at the bottom and are separated equidistantly with spacers.
Being careful not to damage the spacer, simply remove the bottom spacer behind the damaged baluster to remove and replace it. Unfortunately, these are usually jammed in tightly and its hard to get a purchase.
If you cant remove spacers without destroying them during the removal process, you can just make a new one. A table saw makes this an easy project.
If you are working with an open-stringer staircase, begin by removing your restraining molding located at the bottom, at the tread. Then, just remove the handrail spacer in front of your baluster and tap the top of the baluster out. Note that it may be nailed through the handrail. Now you can repair creaking stairs and other staircase issues.
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About the Author:
Kelly R. Smith was a commercial carpenter for 20 years before returning to night school at the University of Houston where he earned a Bachelors Degree in Computer Science. After working at NASA for a few years, he went on to develop software for the transportation and financial and energy trading industries. He has been writing, in one capacity or another, since he could hold a pencil. As a freelance writer now, he specializes in producing articles and blog content for a variety of clients. His personal blog is at I Can Fix Up My Home Blog where he muses on many different topics.