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Remodelling Stairs and Replacing Pine Floorboards With Oak

My aim with DIY projects around the home is to look for innovative space-saving ideas and save costs on materials by recycling.


Renovating Hallway, Stairs and Upper Landing in a 1930s House

Stripping back the paint and replacing boards to renovate 1930s stairs and upper landing taking them back to a more modern and pleasing wood finish. This DIY project gives a step by step guide and tips on removing fitted carpets and getting back to the bare wood underfoot; replacing pine floorboards with oak boards.

During the build we were more accurately able to date the build of the house to c1928 from an archaeological find under the floorboards (details at bottom of this article), no doubt once the mortgage has been paid and we get the deeds we'll be able to confirm this date.

Background and Objective

Labour saving flooring

The background to this DIY project can be summed up in one word "CATS". Yes cats moult and long haired cats moult a lot, which is not conducive to carpet, especially on the stairs and landing where the cats may spend a lot of their time; resulting forever the need to vacuum.

Therefore the decision was taken to pull-up the carpet, renovate the stairs and floorboards on the upper landing to create a more contemporary, visually pleasing and practical finish that's less maintenance and easier to clean; a quick sweep with the brush rather than getting out the vacuum.

Achieving a good finish in an old build is not a simple task of taking up the carpet to reveal the wooden stairs and floorboards. In old houses once you start peeling back the decades revealing what may lay beneath a multitude of remedial works pops out of the woodwork, as in this DIY project on a 1930s house. Also, once the stairs are taken back to bare wood and the wooden floor on the upper landing made good the rest of the hallway and landing will need re-decorating with a fresh lick of paint; once any necessary minor repairs and preparations are made.

Below are the main issues in renovating and remodelling the stairs and landing in this DIY project and how these issues were tackled; leaving tips and ideas which may be adapted to help others.

Remodelled wooden stairs

Remodelled wooden stairs

One Step at a Time

The stair treads are pine with an 18mm (3/4 inch) nosing over the risers, the risers are probably box wood, the stringers (the side wooden planks that hold the treads and risers in position) are embedded into the walls either side, with a handrail securely fixed to the wall on one side.

The house was built at a time when it was fashionable to fix a stair carpet down the middle third of the stairs with painted steps on both sides, either a dark colour like brown or a light colour such as yellow or more typically white; and until the 1960s the use of lead oil based paint was common. The stringers and handrails were also painted, often white or brown.

Many years ago, the first time we decorated the hall and stairways, we stripped the handrail back to wood and wood stained it so this time round little needs doing other than a quick clean and varnish; adding varnish as an extra protective layer to provide additional durability and to make cleaning easier. Wood staining doors, window sills and shelves with a gloss or silk finish wood stain gives a good durable finish that is easy to wipe clean, but for areas of heavy traffic and constant use such as floors and handrails the stained wood should be finished with a suitable varnish to reduce the build-up of muck making cleaning easier.

Having removed the fitted carpet and on trying to remove decades of paint on the stairs the extent of the problems quickly became apparent. The top layers of paints where the more modern water based gloss paints that are quite easy to remove with sandpaper, paint and varnish strippers and or heat guns, but the original three layers of paint (over 90 years old) would prove to be extremely difficult to remove. The original layer, a green water based paint, probably a wood and knot sealant, had soaked deep into the wood grain and was impervious to both chemical removal and heat gun and ordinary sanding; only a sanding belt sander or similar that could cut deep into the wood grain would remove this first layer. Above the green were two layers of yellow and white oil based paints, an undercoat and top coat and on top of this a brown oil based paint with a heavy lead content which quickly clogs up even the sanding belt; and which when heated by the heat gun rather than scraping away just turns into a thick oily goo that sticks immediately to the wood and become even more difficult to remove.

Faced with these challenges, further down this article is in-depth description of how I tackled these issues to remove the various layers of paints on the treads (steps) in the confined areas of the stairway, remodelled the risers to give a wood finish and decorated the stringers for minimal future maintenance.

Original stairs with carpet

Original stairs with carpet

Floorboards on the Upper Landing

Removing the carpet and underlay on the upper landing revealed a combination of old warped and cracked floorboards and new floorboards that had typically dried and shrunk (a common problem with modern central heating) leaving large unsightly gaps between the boards.

It was obvious that belt sanding these boards down to the bare wood would be a waste of time; they would need to be pulled up and replaced. The issues with doing this are:-

  • One floorboard running parallel with the bathroom wall is partly embedded under the wall for its full length; so the skirting board will need to be removed and the floorboard be cut out. Not a great problem as the skirting board is ropy and needs replacing and the SoniCrafter saw is ideal for cutting the floorboard along its full length; and once replaced new skirting will hide any gaps.
  • Although the support beams change direction from the main bedroom to the hallway at the other end of the landing the floorboards goes under the door into the office which is already floored with a laminate floor and there's no support beam under that doorway. With no intention of pulling up the laminate floor in the office to gain access to support beams an alternative bespoke system is devised to support the new flooring where necessary, in this case by fixing battens to the support beams to support a suitably strong piece of plywood the top of which will be flush with the top of the support beams.
  • The bare wood, when laid will finish at the doors leading off the upper landing leaving gaps at these points which may need to be concealed with door sills. Door sills I've purchased in the past to accommodate change in floor levels between carpets and laminate or oak floors (even hardwood sills) have never proved durable; therefore as part of this DIY remodelling exercise I shall where necessary make my own bespoke door sills to do the job properly.

Having looked at the problems the next decision was whether to replace the old floorboards with new pine floorboards or oak floorboards. After careful consideration, and family discussion, we decided to opt for oak. Although a little more expensive than pine the advantages of opting for oak is that oak floors look nicer, are more durable and unlike pine flooring the oak boards are interlocking; reducing the risk of unsightly gaps appearing due to shrinkage, although a gap will be required around the edges to allow for expansion, these gaps being concealed when the new skirting boards are fitted. The only other minor issue is that oak boards are 18mm thick whereas pine floorboards are 21mm thick, so for the two bedroom doorways where the new oak boards will meet with old pine boards the outer edge of the pine boards will need to be rounded down to account for this 3mm drop.

The other benefit of using oak on the upper landing is the downstairs hall is already boarded with oak so there will be some symmetry; and although the stairs between upper landing and downstairs hall are pine they will be finished with a light oak varnish to blend them with the downstairs hall and upper landing to create a common decorative theme.

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Old Pine Floorboards

Old Pine Floorboards

Sequence of Work

From the most to least messy

The dustiest and most messy DIY jobs will be tackled first, the stairs, the upper landing floorboards, minor restorations and finally the painting and decorating.

Taking the stairway back to bare wood ready for varnishing is tackled first because this will require lots of sanding and creating most of the dust. Once the stairs are ready for varnishing removing and replacing the floorboards on the upper landing is the next messy job creating some dust. The painting and decorating will of course being left to last.

The downside of this is that normally you would work from the top down due to gravity in that any paint and heavy dust fall towards the floor, so if the floor is already complete e.g. the stairs ready for varnishing and upper landing boarded with oak they will need some protection against paint drips and will need additional cleaning at the end. However, as the messiest work is at floor level the golden rule of working from the top down will have to be turned on its head for this DIY remodelling project; until all the remodelling work is complete and everything has been prepared for decorating when the paining and varnishing in the final phase can be done from top to bottom, leaving the varnishing of the stairs to last.

The first task is remodelling the stairs, taking the treads (steps) back to bare wood ready for varnishing. The four areas to be tackled separately are the steps, risers, stringer and handrail. The various stages are described below.

Removing Stair Carpet

Removing Stair Carpet

Makita Belt Sanders

The great thing I’ve found with these belt sanders since we’ve bought one is the durability and power of the sanding belt. When I was sanding-down the stairs, as demonstrated in this how-to review article, the old lead paint not surprisingly did clog up the sanding belts although they did do their job and get me back to the bare wood.

However since the completion of this project, on my frequent use of the sanding belt on numerous other DIY projects, including most recently sanding down an old front door we bought cheaply at a reclamation yard to replace our porch door, I’ve used the same sanding belt and it shows hardly any wear.

Therefore, for normal woodworking projects, unlike other sanders where the sanding paper wears out quickly the sanding belts on these sanding power tools lasts a long time before they need replacing; and the replacements are not that expensive making this a very good value for money product that will save hours of work in the workshop or your shed, and worth every penny.

Rockwell SoniCrafter

Dremel Tool Kit

As shown above these Dremels are very versatile little tools; a great tool for getting into places where no other tool can reach. In this article I use the Demel primarily for sanding although I often use it for cutting wood, metal and plastics when no other tool will do. It is very useful for cutting the heads off of nails and screws when the thread has gone and corroded bolts. It’s also ideal for crafting delicate work and great for engraving on a variety of materials including wood, metal, plastics and glass. I've had my Dremel for years and I'm always finding new uses for it; most recently I've had a go at engraving and holding it just like a pen it's great. With the accessories being so inexpensive it's always worthwhile restocking them from time to time so you’re ready to put this great little tool to good use when next needed.

Steps to Take the Treads Back to Bare Wood

Preparing the steps for varnishing

  • The fitted stair carpet, underlay, carpet grippers and all nails are removed and the stairs given a good sweep.
  • The first step to taking the stairs back to bare wood is to apply liberal coats of paint and varnish stripper, in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions, to remove as much paint as possible. Four treatments were given to the steps and risers which removed all but the original three layers which being 1930s oiled based and heavily laden with lead wouldn't shift using the chemical approach.
  • The heat gun proved just as ineffective on these original layers as the chemical approach (paint stripper) and because of the lead content of the paint an ordinary sander (orbital sander) had no effect. Therefore, I spent some time researching the web to learn how other people tackle taking stairs back to the bare wood and what tips they offered. What I learnt was there is no single or simple answer. The exact approach is largely dependent on the age and type of stairs, and in all cases hard laborious work is required. So my best advice is assess the state of the stairs to determine what needs to be done, what you wish to achieve and how much hard work you are prepared to put into achieving your desired end result.

If the stairs are modern e.g. post 1960 then the paint should be fairly easy to remove, although with more modern stairs it's imperative to follow recommended guidance on sanding and paint removal e.g. sand and scrap in the same direction as the wood grain and not across the grain otherwise unsightly scratches will be visible even when the wood is varnished or wood stained. However, with older (pre 1960s) stairs that are most likely poked marked and scratched from decades of use (aging effect) a few more scratches and marks are not going to be out of place and as long as there are not lots of regularly lines symptomatic of cross sanding then a few additional marks will add to the rustic look and feel typical of older stairs in older houses.

After researching the web the best bet for this DIY remodelling project seemed to be a belt sander; which I could easily hire from a local tool hire company. However on checking on hire costs, which just a few years ago was quite a cheap option for temporary use of tools, I discovered that hire prices have gone up considerably, so much so that purchasing a belt sander (for just five times the cost of hiring one for two days) seemed to be a good long term investment.

The reason for going for a belt sander is that the ordinary electric sander I have just oscillates back and forth (like an orbital sander) and gets clogged up with lead paint without removing an paint; whereas the belt sander continually rotates and should bite through anything in its path including nails. And yes the newly acquired belt sander did work a treat, it cut through any nails I missed like butter but even that quickly clogged with lead paint to the extent that I had to replace the belt after every other tread (step). Nevertheless it cut through the paint and into the grain making short work of the task; the only problem being its inability to reach into the corners and edges.

When stripping back any pre 1960s paint it's imperative to wear a face mask because of the lead in the paint.

  • Having cleared the main areas of the treads with the belt sander the ordinary electric sander came into play for working through the layers of paints around the edges, albeit having to change the sandpaper every other step for the same reason that it quickly clogs with lead paint.
  • To get right into the corners and almost to the very edge of the steps the SoniCrafter was ideal, again like the ordinary sander it oscillates so on the lead paint it is hard going and the sanding pads quickly clog and had to be replaced every other step; but it did the job of getting into places where few power tools can reach.
  • Then for the last thin strip of paint at the edges the Dremel came into its own. This proved extremely effective because unlike the sanders that oscillate the sanding drum rotates like a belt sander and cuts through the paint and wood just like butter. And surprisingly the sanding drum didn't clog with paint like the other sanders; so just four of the small sanding drums were needed to do all the corners and edges of the whole stairs; only having to replace the sanding drums occasionally due to eventual wear. The only slight drawback with the Dremel for this task is that the tiny sanding drum at the tip of the tool is smaller than the handle so you have to hold the Dremel at a slight angle which means only about an eighth of an inch is in contact with the wood and as the Dremel (small as it is) is a powerful device you can't keep the sanding drum in one location for more than a fraction of a second and you can't put any pressure on it otherwise it will just cut deep into the wood. The trick was in letting the sanding drum hover lightly over the paint moving the tip of the Dremel in a fairly quick small circular motion; and as you do so you see the paint magically disappear, then quickly move onto the next section of paint to be removed. And because of its power and speed clearing the corner and edges of paint on each step just took minutes of light work.
  • And as a final clean-up quickly running the heat gun and corner scrapper along the edges and in the corner to get the last residue of paint out before giving the whole stairs a good sweep and moving onto the next phase of this DIY remodelling exercise.
  • The Nosing (the edge of the treads) was easy to take back to the bare wood using just an ordinary sander; required little effort and didn't take long to do.

Stringers and Handrail

Cleaning, Staining and Varnishing

The Stringers are the two side pieces of wood that holds the treads and risers in place; why it's called a stringer I don't know. However, taking this back to bare wood was on a realistic option considering the oil based lead laden paint (that proved difficult to remove from the treads), that the space is too confined to use a belt sander and that as the stringer runs as a 45 degree angle any sander used would cut across the wood grain.

Therefore, after applications of the paint and varnish stripper, I was content to take the paint back as far as was practical using the heat gun and scrapper, and after a good clean and rub down applying two or three coats of dark wood stain; as a good contrast to the light oak varnish that would be applied to the treads. Wood stain is slightly translucent showing imperfections and variants in colours underneath so not being able to take the stringers back to the bare wood is likely to mean two or three coats are required to give a good uniform finish; with perhaps a slight rustic look befitting of an older house.

The handrail, having previously been wood stained just required a good clean and quick rubdown with fine sandpaper to key the surface ready for varnishing.

Faced Risers

Facing the risers for a clean finish

Taking advice from the web and given the oil based lead paint I decided against taking the risers back to bare wood which would have proved to be a lot more challenging than the treads as they are vertical rather than horizontal; making it a lot more difficult to hold and control the belt sander and other tools, but not impossible.

My decision was mainly swayed because unlike the treads which are pine the risers are only cheap box wood and I felt I could get a much better finish by facing them with better quality plywood; in this case 3.6mm.

Having measured up and buying sufficient 3.6mm (1/8th inch) plywood to face the risers with the wood grain in the plywood running horizontally I proceeded in carefully measuring and cutting the plywood face for the first riser to use either as a template or guide for the other risers.

As it turned out, with over 90 years of constant use the first step had dropped on one side by 6mm (1/4 inch) so it wasn't until I'd cut the second riser that I was able to use that as a template for the remaining risers where (surprisingly) the rest of the stairs had stayed good and straight.

Once cut I glued and pinned the 3.6mm plywood facings to the risers with 'no nails' and four wire pins (one in each corner), using a nail gun; except for the top and bottom steps. The top most riser because that would be fitted once the wooden floorboards on the upper landing had been replaced and the bottom step because I wanted to use thicker plywood so as to give a clean finish with the oak floor downstairs.

The hall downstairs had previously been oak floored with a suitable gap next to the bottom step (to allow for any natural expansion and movement of the oak flooring; the gap being concealed by the stair carpet. Now, with the stair carpet removed the expansion gap was visible, but could be concealed again with the use of 12mm (half inch) plywood on the bottom most riser. The wood I needed for this would be 12mm plywood just under 2 feet (600mm) by just over 1 foot (300mm); but on checking my stock in the shed I didn't have any. However, as it happened a friend of mine ask if I had a piece of 3.6mm plywood 2 foot (600mm) by 2 foot (600mm) which he could use as a backing to a picture frame; and on searching my shed I did. And in return he found an old cabinet top made from 15mm plywood of the size I was looking for so we did a swapsy. The cabinet top he gave me was just slightly bigger than I needed although heavily laden with several thick layers of white gloss paint; which the belt sander quickly made short work of to reveal a nice piece of plywood underneath.

Unlike the other steps the bottom step is shaped with two 45 degree angles and each bottom corner is met with beading that edges the oak flooring in the downstairs hall; so to fit properly a lot of fiddly and careful measurement and cutting was required. This is an example of where measure twice and cut once doesn't work e.g. if you don't cut enough off you can always trim back until it does fit but if you cut too much off you can't put the missing wood back. So I took the approach of cutting the required pieces slightly bigger than required and trimmed back as required until I got a perfect fit; and for getting the right shape and dimensions around the mouldings that met the step I found the contour gauge to be invaluable. When the three pieces to the bottom riser dry fitted perfectly I glued and pinned them in place and once the glue had fully dried I rounded off the two leading corners with the sander.

Bottom Step Riser Faced

Bottom Step Riser Faced

Laying Oak Floor on the Upper Landing

Replacing pine floorboards with oak

This is generally easier and quicker than doing the stairs, the hardest part being getting all the pine boards up and making good the area ready for fitting the oak.

The SoniCrafter saw proved invaluable in getting right to the edge of the board running along the bathroom wall and cutting it away, precision sawing that was completed in less than ten minutes, easily and quickly.

Where the home office door, set at an angle to the upper landing hallway, hid the rafter (support beam) I created support for the new oak floorboards by fixing supports between two support beams to take a piece of thick plywood, as shown in the photo below.

Although the oak flooring I bought is click and snap rather than tongue and groove, making a much stronger join that doesn't require gluing or nailing, I still endeavoured to ensure the oak boards joined over support beams where possible; even so because it's a floating floor (not nailed in position) there will be some (a little) natural movement until the new boards settle, particularly in an old house where nothing of the original build is straight, level or square.

The hardest part is cutting and fitting the final row of oak beams, some of which run under the existing bathroom doorframe; the fitting here was achieved using two sections, the first section being snapped onto the previous oak board in the middle of the doorway and then gently tapped into position to one side before the second piece is snapped into position.

Once all the boards are done the next task is adding the skirting boards and doorsteps (sills).