As with any original feature, it is always preferable to repair rather than replace and, thankfully, in the case of staircases, issues brought on by old age are rarely structural.
There are other benefits to retaining a period staircase too, other than their original design — a replacement staircase will need to conform with Building Regulations which can throw up all sorts of complications.
The most common problems renovators will face with an original staircase include worn treads, broken or loose banisters and spindles, noisy creaks, unsympathetic ‘updates ‘and missing parts, such as stair rods and brackets.
New Staircases and Building Regulations
Building Regulations require all new staircases to have:
- a maximum pitch of 42°
- a minimum 2,000mm of clear headroom above the pitch line
- a minimum going (tread width) of 220mm
- a maximum rise (vertical aspect of each stair) of 220mm
In addition, no opening, either in the stair construction or between balusters, can be greater than 100mm. As a result, it may be difficult to accommodate a staircase of modern construction in a space occupied by the existing staircase.
Repairing Worn Treads
This is a very common problem — but also an easy one to rectify. Many old staircases were made from separate treads and risers making them fairly straightforward to disassemble. In the case of tread repairs, it is a good idea to remove the tread in question where possible to carry this work out.
The damaged area of the stair tread should be carefully cut away and a new piece of softwood spliced in. It is also a good idea to fix little timber bearers underneath the patched areas, to provide extra support.
The new tread will then need to be shaped and sanded — and any screw holes filled.
Commonly, the ‘nosing’ or front edge of the tread will become so worn over time that it splits. In this case, it can usually be easily removed by sawing or chiseling across the width of the stair. A joiner or stairpart specialist will be able to create a new section to take its place.
The surface of your new tread will probably require a little shaping – to avoid unnecessary ridges – prior to re-fitting. The ideal tool for this is a sharp spokeshave and careful working should give a close perimeter fit to enable effective glueing.
If you use screws, these should be countersunk below the surface to allow for filling and painting. Alternatively, use short connecting timber dowels to add strength.
It’s not uncommon for treads to become so worn that the front edge – known as the nosing – becomes damaged and split. These can be simply renewed, even across the complete width of the stair, by sawing and chiselling off the old projection and fashioning a new nosing. A little patience with a smoothing plane followed by sand paper will give a perfect profile ready for glueing and screwing into place.
Stairs that creak are not only annoying but can also be a sign that the timbers within are rubbing together.
You firstly need to identify the exact origins of the creak — a job for which it helps if you can access the underside of the staircase. If there is an obvious gap between the timbers then a simply screwing the gap back together may suffice.
Sometimes, creaks will originate from the junction between the tread and riser. In this case, use a thin strip of wood, shaped to taper at one end, and glue it so that it fills the gap — hammer into place and do not use the staircase until the glue has fully set.
Damaged Balusters and Spindles
Splits in timber balusters or spindles are common on old staircases. In most cases, it should not be too hard to remove individual spindles. Most were either nailed into the handrail and baserail, or else slotted firmly into fillets of wood.
Small cracks and splits are usually easily dealt with using a strong adhesive to bring the split together, clamping it until it is fully set.
In the case of very wide or severe splits or if the spindle has completely snapped and cannot be glued back together, a replacement will be necessary.
It is possible to buy a huge number of styles of spindles, either from staircase specialists or DIY warehouses. If an exact match cannot be found, a skilled joiner or woodturner will be your best option.
An off-the-shelf baluster will probably need to be trimmed to sit your staircase, but do ensure that any carved sections in the design match up to the existing spindles before trimming and setting in place.
Loose Handrails and Newel Posts
Handrails and newel posts are the part of the staircase that tend to get pulled and swung on the most and can come loose over time. If they look structurally sound, then it is usually enough to check the screws or fixings that are holding them in place before tightening or adding new fixings.
Natasha is Homebuilding & Renovating’s Associate Editor. She is at the end of the DIY renovation and extension of an Edwardian cottage.
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