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How to Update Stair Treads and Risers

Ask This Old House general contractor Tom Silva teaches a homeowner how to replace split-level stair treads in his mid-century modern home.

Steps for Updating Wood Stair Treads and Risers

1. Start by checking underneath the tread to see if there’s a scotia molding bridging the tread with the riser. If there is, remove them all using the prybar.

2. Use the prybar to pry the tread slightly away from the riser. Once there’s a sizable gap between the two, slide the reciprocating saw with a metal cutting blade on top of the stringer but underneath the tread. Cut any nails securing the tread to the stringer using the saw.

3. Slide the prybar further underneath the tread and carefully pry it off the stairs. (Be prepared to damage the skirt board while doing this. A quick sanding and some touch-up paint should fix it after the treads have all been replaced.)

4. Check to see how the risers fit against the skirt board, as this is a good opportunity to tighten them up. If they’ve settled, hammer them back into place and fill the gap between the stringer and the riser with shims. Secure the shims with wood glue and cut them to size using a utility knife.

5. Now it’s time to cut the stair treads to size. Start by making a template with all the required measurements, angles, etc. so that it fits perfectly between the skirt boards.

  • Start by cutting one of the old stair treads short so it fits easier in the stairs. This will give you something to write on.
  • Next, make a reference mark on the riser above the tread with a pencil.
  • Take a piece of temporary floor protection or some other semi-rigid writable surface and hold it on top of the stair tread and against one of the skirt boards.
  • Hold the combination square against the skirt board and trace its opposite edge on the cardboard. This should outline any imperfections in the skirt board to ensure the riser fits perfectly against it, rather than being perfectly square and leaving a gap where the imperfections in the skirt board are.
  • Before moving the template, mark where the reference point on the riser meets the template.
  • Slide the template against the other skirt board and mark where the reference point lands now. Then, trace the other edge the same way as before.

6. Transfer the template marks to the tread.

  • With the template even on the back of the tread and with enough space on the edge for tracing, hold the combination square against the line on the template and transfer the marks to the edge of the tread.
  • Before sliding the template, transfer the reference line from the template to the back of the tread.
  • Slide the template over so that the second reference line is now aligned with the transferred line on the back of the tread. Then, repeat the edge tracing process on the other side of the tread.

7. Cut the tread to size based on the marks from the template using the circular saw.

8. If the back of the risers have dados for the treads, be sure to cut a rabbet into the back of the tread using a router.

9. Sand the cut edges of the treads and all of the risers smooth.

10. Before installing each tread, apply the veneers to the risers immediately below them. The order should be: riser, tread, riser, tread all the way up the stairs.

11. To apply the veneers, simply cut them to size using a pair of scissors. They just peel and stick, so carefully peel away the paper backing and roll them out across the tread. A roller will ensure a smooth application with no bubbles or bumps.

12. Apply a layer of construction adhesive to the top of the stringer using the caulking gun.

13. Slide the tread into place, ensuring the rabbet on the tread slides into the dado on the riser. A rubber mallet will help get the treads into place. More damage is likely to come to the skirt board during this process.

14. Nail the treads to the stringer using the brad nailer.

15. Repeat this process until all the treads have been replaced and the risers have the veneer.

16. To finish the stairs, Tom recommends applying the desired stain/urethane for a few days just before going to bed. That way, they will be dry in the morning and safe to walk on in between coats.


Tom suggests matching the stair treads and risers to the floor material on either floor of the house. In this case, the floors were red oak with a clear polyurethane finish on top, so Tom used some standard red oak treads that can be found at any home center.

While the risers could have also been replaced, Tom thought it would be easier and just as effective to apply a veneer over them to give them a cleaner look that matched the new treads. Tom applied a pressure-backed 20 PSA red oak veneer, which is manufactured by Veneer Technologies. He ordered one 4’x8’ sheet for the whole set of stairs.

For the template, Tom used an extra piece of Ram Board temporary floor protection, though any semi-rigid markable material would work.

To secure the treads in place, Tom used 8d finish nails and construction adhesive, which is manufactured by Gorilla Glue.

All of the tools Tom used to replace the treads and apply the veneer to the risers, including the brad nailer, circular saw, combination square, and reciprocating saw, can be found at home centers.

Expert assistance with this segment was provided by Atlantic Plywood.

Tools and Materials