Custom Wood Stair Treads to Match Your Flooring

Villa Collection by Signature Hardwoods  Elk Grove Village IL
Twenty years ago if you wanted hardwood flooring, it was pretty much limited to "red oak 2-1/4" strips".  Today we can choose from imported tropical hardwoods, and engineered flooring from laminates to bamboo, in a variety of widths.  Our old favorite, red oak is now readily available knotty and rustically scraped. Typically stair treads are matched to the flooring.  In many cases stair treads are not  available in these custom species, and treads will need to be custom made.   This does not present a problem for a custom stair company, however it will increase the cost of your stair. Stair treads are typically 1" to 1-1/16" thick, while flooring is 3/4", therefore flooring material is not used for treads.  Lumber in the same species is used to make the treads.   In flooring, edges are not exposed, however treads have a front nose that exposes the full edge of the material.  Engineered or laminated materials are not used for treads, as their layers would be visible on the front edge.  It is best to use solid materials for treads. In cases of the most premium species like Tuscan Olive Wood or Golden Acacia, the lumber is limited, and often not available in the thicker cuts needed for stair treads.  In these cases, the thinner cuts must be face glued on another wood to get the tread thick enough.  A custom nose is made and attached to the tread front.  This adds quite a bit of labor and therefore cost to the treads. The price of custom species stair treads has no relation to the price of the same species of flooring.  It is not uncommon for customers to have their flooring purchased or even installed, when they price out their stair (treads).  Matching custom species can cost more than than they expect. To manage to your budget, prior to purchasing your flooring, contact your stair company and cost out the treads in that species to verify that the treads can be made within your budget.      
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Choosing a Hardwood for your Staircase; Understanding Grain for your Design

There are two main design features to consider as you select a wood for your trim: color and grain.  Color can be adjusted through stain, while grain gives the wood its style and character.  Grain is the more important consideration when choosing your wood.
If you are leaning towards a modern or even elegant feel, a closed grain may wood be the way you want to go. Examples of wood with very little graining:  Hard Maple, Poplar, Beach, and Birch.

Straight Grain Oak

Straight Grain became popular in the Arts and Crafts period in styles such as Prairie and Mission, in the early 1900’s.  Today, you see it in contemporary designs too.  Straight grain is achieved by using full grain woods, but cutting of the log at different angle.   We most often see straight grain as  “quarter sawn”  or "rift sawn" oak.

Full grain oak

Full grain is referred to as "plain sawn"
is often thought to be “hardy” in its appearance, and at times even rustic with a natural elegance.  Oak has a hardy solid feel, while walnut blends the solid feel with a bit more elegance.
There are so many beautiful woods available today, it can be hard to select just one for your project.  By making initial decisions based on grain, you will select the right wood species for the style you are designing.
Here is a link to the 27 most poplar hardwoods we build custom stairs in.
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Choosing a Hardwood for your Staircase; Wood Color

Stair in Walnut
There are several species of hardwoods that have very bold natural color, such as cherry, walnut, and mahogany.  Historically these were the most desirable woods, due to the  natural beauty and no need to stain or color them.  These woods have long demanded premium prices.
Other species of hardwoods, may have more subtle color, but they still do have an underlying color that will be more apparent  when the finish is applied.   For example, red oak has a naturally pinkish hue; white oak is more neutral or slightly brownish.  The same can be said of birch, maple and many other species.  There are slight variations in their natural color.  These woods tend to cost less than those species with a bold natural color.
If budget constrains you, do not hesitate to buy a more affordable hardwood and stain it to look like a premium naturally colored hardwood.  It's no wonder most of the stain colors we buy at the paint shop have these naturally colored woods as their names.  It allows us to mask other species to have their color.  With all the stain choices we have today that are easy to use, wood color should not be your first design concern when selecting the wood for your stair.
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Hardwood Stairs in Cherry; Key Items to Consider

Elegant Cherry Curved Stair

For hundreds of years cherry has a been a desirable wood species due to its beautiful natural color; it’s subtle grain lends itself to elegant applications.  Cherry is an excellent wood for furniture, cabinets and stairs. Cherry is easy to work with, however it does present a few challenges to be aware for use in stairs. Bleaching from light Cherry is a hardwood by classification, however within that category woods have a broad range of density and hardness. Cherry dents easily. It is not advisable to use cherry on stair treads due to the heavy use, unless you plan to carpet over the treads.  Historically, oak or maple was often used for treads, due to their hard character.  Today, we have tropical  species that do a great job of blending with cherrys natural color.  Sapele Mahogany is a tropical species that blends well and has great density for use on treads.
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Finishing Maple Stairs

Maple is popular wood for interior trim, flooring and stairs.
Maple Stair Clear Coat
Maple has natural beauty with a smooth surface due to its closed grain properties of the wood. The hardness of maple makes it a great choice for stairs and any place that gets a lot of abuse from heavy use.  Maple is usually clear coated which highlights its natural tones. In recent years cabinet and flooring companies started a trend of staining of maple. While these products are typically factory finished with systematic and tested processes, staining maple trim and stairs yourself is tricky. Maple tends to absorb stain unevenly which leads to a blotchy look. The darker the stain the more blotches will be appearant.   What you can do:
Maple Stair Stained
Maple Stair Stained
Applying a wood conditioner or a shellac seal coat prior to staining provides a barrier between the wood and the stain. This will help minimize the blotchy effect. Also, try a gel stain verses a penetrating stain. A penetrating stain is designed to absorb into the wood, and this does not work well with maple.
As with all finishing projects, test the desired finish on a piece of scrap wood before you begin to stain. Try different conditioners and stains to produce the desired effect. Investing a few dollars and a little time on products to get the best quality will pay a big return when staining an entire stair. Staining your maple stairs takes patience.  But the time invested to do it right will reward you with years of enjoyment and beauty.  
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How to Fix a Squeaking Stair

How to Fix a Squeaking Stair A squeak in a stair is generally caused as the lumber dries out over time.  Hardwoods are regulated by industry standards for a moisture content of 6 – 8%.  This matches the moisture content inside the average home and allows the wood to remain stable under normal conditions.  Pine (grades used for basement stairs and stairs to be fully covered with carpet) has a typical high moisture content of 12-16 %. Over time as pine shrinks built stairs will begin to squeak. If your stair is squeaking, check the humidity level in your home as first step. Verify where the squeak is coming from. You may hear a squeak walking up the stair, but it could be coming from the framing material rubbing against the stair, and not the stair itself. How to fix You can typically fix the squeak, as simply as “toe nailing”* a long nail or two in the area that is squeaking.  That is not to say more squeaks may develop over time, as the lumber continues to dry out to equal the humidity level of your home. *Toenailing. Driving a nail at an angle into a board. It makes a strong joint while it also pulls joining boards into position. .
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Staircases for Small Spaces

There are a number of stairs that will get you from one level to next while using very little floor space.   Here are the options along with the space needs, cost and ease of use. A spiral stair is a stair that typically rotates off a center post.   These stairs are available in diameters as small as 4’.  A spiral that is reasonable for the average size adult to walk, should be at least a 5’ diameter (requiring a 5’ x 5’ floor space).  Spiral prices have a huge range, from $500 to over $100,000.  The low end is a poor quality production spiral.  The high end spiral is a work of art.  For a good quality custom spiral stair you should plan on a ball park of ten thousand dollars. Alternating Step Stairs blend a ladder and stair together.  Their walking comfort is similar to a ships ladder, but they take a bit more effort to use.  You need to start off with the correct foot and coming down can take a bit of concentration too.  These are generally custom made, and cost a few thousand dollars.  The floor space required is slightly less than 3’ x 3’.ships A ships ladder is the most walkable ladder. It has railings on both sides.  If you remember the old movies that took place on ships – the captain nearly ran down the ships ladder with ease.  The railing is what makes the ship’s ladder so easy to use.  The floor space required is about 2’ x 3’.   The cost of a ships ladder will be similar to that of an alternating step stair. Loft or Library Ladders are generally used without a handrail; as you climb, you hold  onto the sides of the ladder.  Some ladders are almost vertical (harder to walk), while others project out onto the floor a foot or more.  Custom made library ladders are around a thousand dollars, and can take as little floor space as 1’ x 2’. By determining your space and your budget, you loftcan figure which one is right for you. See photos of stairs for small spaces:
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Controlling Stair Costs

A common question I hear is “how much does a stair cost?”.
Budgeting for Stairs
Budgeting for Stairs
The price range of stairs is very large; from a pine boxed stair for a basement – a few hundred dollars, all the way up to an artistic stair for well over 100K.
Start by establishing your stair budget and determine what you want to spend. Typically, stairs cost in the range of 1.5% to 2.5% of your home price. The low end of 1.5% represents a basic trim package. The higher end of 2.5% is custom level trim. If your goal is to keep your stair costs at the lower end (1.5% of your home price), use styles that are stocked and readily available. Red Oak and Poplar are materials that are likely to be your most affordable options. Generally speaking the smaller the components the less the cost. If you are making the trim a focal point of your home, and have budgeted 2.5%, you still may need to make some hard decisions to keep within that range. Stairs in custom materials can get costly quickly, due to the high quantity of components that are required in just one stair. Making all those individual parts for one job, adds a lot of labor and cost to the job. You may need to ask yourself what is more important to you; style or material? You may need to forgo the style you want to keep the upgraded custom material, or go with the style you want in a less expensive material. Designed Stairs has styles categorized for budget by :
  • Builders Choice (stocked, more affordable styles)
  • Architect’s Choice styles (custom styles or styles that tend to be more costly for various reason).
This makes it easy to focus in a direction to help keep you on budget.
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Chicago Stair Trends

Chicago Stair Clean and Simple Lines
Chicago Stair Clean and Simple Lines
Chicago is known worldwide for its wide-ranging and remarkable architecture.  It is a little known fact, that Chicago is the stair design capital of the United States.  Chicagoland has more developed stair design and stair construction methods, than you will find anyplace else in the U.S.
The most popular trend in Chicago stair design is “clean and simple” lines in materials and finish that range from elegant to earthy. Newels are often the key focal point of the stair.  The most popular newels are square and have a bit of fine detailing through the use of simple trim, caps or panels. The handrail may be less obvious than the newel or balusters, however it plays a key role in blending styles together.   A medium sized Georgian style handrail does a great job of tying together an elegant and traditional feel with modern elements; while a simple rectangular railing gives the contemporary urban feel that many Chicago homeowners are doing. Iron balusters remain very popular.  Typically we are using straight, square balusters, but some small detailing may be added for interest.  Wood balusters are also used, and the style remains simple – either square or a turned taper. American White Oak has been a favorite with Architects and designers due to the subdued grain characteristics and subtle brown hue.  It can go from elegant to the earthy look that Chicago is famous for. travel destinations . language conversion . .
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Budgeting For Stairs

Budgeting For Stairs When you are planning your construction project, it will be good to know how much to allow for your stairs. There is a strong relationship between the total value of a house and the amount spent on the staircase.  An average custom staircase costs from 1.5% to 2. 5% of the homes selling price.

Stair Price Compared to House Price

The low end of 1.5% represents a basic trim package. The higher end of 2.5% is custom level trim. Sometimes I see large multi-million dollar homes that are focused on size and not trim quality.  In those cases, those homes can still remain at the 1.5% level for the standard trim level. It is possible to spend less than the 1.5% by doing carpenter built stairs and lessening the footage of balustrade, but realize you under valuing your stair compared to what is typical. On the other end of the spectrum a stair can be a work of art and the key feature to the entire home. In those cases may go well beyond the 2.5%.
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