A Silent Stair

By: TOM SILVA, This Old House magazine

Framing Staircase How To

Framing Staircase How To

There are lots of reasons why you don’t want your stairs to squeak. It announces to the entire family, for one, when you’re heading down to the kitchen in the dark for a midnight snack. Not to mention the fact that it can be a bit spooky in the dark. So unless you rely on your stairs to let you know about tardy teenagers coming home past their curfew, you probably find the squeaking a constant irritation.

It takes dozens of separate pieces to build a hardwood staircase. Stairs are made up of treads and risers — the flat steps and vertical kick plates you can see — as well as stringers, the saw-tooth pieces of wood that support the stairs from underneath.

With all the wooden parts, it’s pretty much inevitable that stairs will eventually start to squeak. Unlike our own ever-tightening joints, age tends to bring looseness in stairs. This causes the wooden treads to rub against the risers and stringers, and all of it to grind against the nails and screws that hold it all together. In addition to simply being walked on, seasonal contractions and expansions of the wood further contribute to the loosening of the joints. It can all add up to a heck of a racket. Stairs that were constructed with glue in addition to nails and screws — less common the older your house is — generally are less prone to squeaking, but wear and time do tend to take their toll.

So what do you doto beat the squeak? Most of the time it really isn’t a difficult problem to fix. The noise doesn’t mean your stairs are necessarily about to fall down; they just need tightening up.
There are some repairs that involve fastening wood blocks or brackets from underneath, which is good on the one hand because your fix will be invisible. But not everyone has access to the underside of their stairs, and in most cases, tightening on the topside will do the trick.

First you need to identify where exactly within the step the noise is coming from. Most likely, either the tread is knocking or rubbing against the riser board, the tread has come loose from one or more of its stringers, or both. You’ll need to test each step that squeaks and repair it individually by refastening the tread to its underlying structure at the source ofthe squeak.

f the stair squeaks when you step anywhere along the front of the tread, then you can often solve the problem by re-attaching the tread to its riser where they come together. On the other hand, if you find that the stair squeaks in another place, such as along the back or to one side or the other, you probably need to get at the stringers. Typically, there are three stringers, one on each side and at least one running down the middle — sometimes more, depending on how wide the stairs are. Each of the stringers is usually an inch and a half to two inches thick.

Whether you’re refastening your tread to the riser or to one or more of the stringers, you go about it essentially the same way. Since re-attaching to a stringer is slightly more complicated, given the fact that you can’t actually see the stringer, I’ll describe that process in detail. Keep in mind that this project will be much easier if you have someone to assist you.

Doing the Tighten-Up

You should be able to tell where your stairs’ stringers are by the position of the existing fasteners, or by looking underneath if you happen to have access to the underside of the stairs. So you’ve determined the layout of the stringers and found the one in particular that needs repairing — say it is the center one. You want to have your helper stand on the stair with one foot on either side of the stringer, compressing them together. You then drill two starter holes into the tread at opposite 45-degree angles. Remember they’re only starter holes, so you don’t want to drill all the way into the structure below. I would use 8- or 10-penny finish nails for this project, and your holes should be slightly smaller than the diameter of the nails. You then drive the nails through your holes into the stringer, setting them a little bit below the surface of the tread. You can then cover the holes with some wood putty.

A nail that’s been driven straight down has a tendency to work itself loose and right back out over a period of time because it’s constantly being bounced on and moved around. The opposite 45-degree angles of the nails create a clamp that will hold the step down.

If your stairs are carpeted, you’ll obviously need to remove it before you can fix the stairs. The carpet does provide cover for your work, however, so before laying it back down you might want to take the opportunity to screw your riser boards into the stringers, which will really tighten everything up.

I hope by following these relatively simple steps you’ll finally be able to sneak down for that late-night sandwich without waking the whole family. A perfectly quiet staircase will be your only surprise!

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