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How to install stair skirts.

A bonehead-proof method that will make this head-scratching carpentry task quick, easy and perfect--the first time, every time.

A stair without a skirt is like a turtle without a shell--unprotected and naked. A stair skirt (the wide trim board lining the wall along the sides of the stairs) does more than dress up the stairs; it protects delicate wall surfaces from encounters with shoes and vacuum cleaners.

Skirt boards used to be standard fare in the stairways of older homes. But in newer homes, the stairs to unfinished basements usually don't have them. Sometimes builders even leave them off finished stairs and run the stair carpeting right to the drywall to save money.

If you've ever installed trim around a window or a door, you already have the basic carpentry skills you'll need.

Be forewarned: The details can be tricky and frustrating. Sometimes asking even an experienced carpenter to cut and install a pair of stair skirts will make him break down and cry. (I know--I used to be one of them!) It's a tough chore because you have to cut both ends perfectly to the right length with the right angles the first time, and cross your fingers and hope that when you drop the skirt into place, it fits. At $25-plus for a 12-ft. skirt board, mistakes are costly. (I have to admit that I've had to buy a few extra skirts myself over the years.)

But don't be scared. The system detailed here will give you easy, quick and professional results.


Manufactured skirts are 7/16-in. thick x 11-in. high veneered hardwood over particleboard available in 8-, 10-, 14- and 16-ft. lengths. Stylistically, there aren't choices. All companies make pretty much the same detail on the tops, and it's designed to blend with all varieties of other trim shapes.

To get the right lengths, multiply the total number of treads by 1.4 and order the next-longest length. Our stair run had eight treads, so using this formula, we ended up with 11.2 and ordered 14-ft. material. (Or you can proceed through the steps up to Photo S to get an exact length before going to the lumberyard to pick up your skirts.)

The most commonly available veneers are oak and maple. The price per linear foot runs about $2.50 to $3. If you're planning on painting the skirt, buy maple, because the grain is nearly invisible behind the paint. With either veneer, stain and varnish or paint before installation.

Skirts are rarely the same thickness as standard baseboards so they probably won't match up perfectly with the top and bottom trim. You can eliminate this problem by installing homemade solid pieces of wood called transition blocks (Photo 13) to make the joint tidy. Our blocks were 2 in. wide x 3/4-in. thick x 4-in. tall maple with a little hip roof cut with a miter saw.

Check your stair construction before ordering skirt stock

Before going any further, examine your stairs from below to check how they're framed. If your house was built in the past 30 years, your stairs were probably built to receive skirts. These days, carpenters nail 2x4s to the sides of the stringers (the notched 2x12s that the stair treads and risers are nailed to), which in turn are toe-nailed to the studs of the stairwell. After the drywall is slipped tight against the 2x4s, there's a 1-in. gap left to slide in skirt boards.

If the bottom of the stairs isn't exposed below, push a screwdriver into the edge of the carpet where it meets the stairwell wall on any stair tread. If the screwdriver goes past the carpet into dead space, you can proceed with this project. If the stairs are tight against the wall, start thinking about other home improvements to tackle, because you'll need to notch every stair profile into the skirt, a task for experienced carpenters only.

Skirts are designed to fit on typical stairs with treads between 9 and 11 in. wide and risers between 7 and 8 in. high. If you have some unusual stairs, follow Photos 1-5 before buying skirt stock to make sure the skirts will completely cover the wall surface all the way to the stair treads.

Add a stair nosing if the subfloor has no overhang

If you're recarpeting and there isn't a nosing (stair overhang; see Photo 1) where the top stair meets the floor, this is the time to put one on. Rip a 1-1/4 x 1-1/4 in. board and cut it to length 3/4 in. short of each side to allow the skirt to slide past. Round the edges with a file, router or plane before installing or the carpet will wear over the sharp edge. Fasten it to the top riser flush with the subfloor using construction adhesive and 3-in. drywall screws spaced every 4 in.

You only need basic carpentry tools, a circular saw and a helper for five minutes

This is one of the few trim jobs that you can perform with just a circular saw fitted with a 40-tooth crosscutting blade, a chalk line, two tape measures, a carpenter's framing square and a pair of stair gauges ($5; Photo 7). Stair gauges, two screw buttons that clamp to a framing square, allow you to preset your square for repeatedly laying out the same angle. You can get away without them, but they do make the job easier and more accurate than hand-holding the square for marking. Use a handsaw to notch out the top stair nosing (Photo 1) in order to fit the skirt tight against the top riser (the vertical board under each step). You'll also have to sweet-talk your mate or neighbor into sparing a few minutes to help with the measuring.

Tips for easier installation

* The best time to install skirts on carpeted stairs is before carpeting is installed or when recarpeting. Otherwise you'll have to remove the carpet, install the new skirts, cut about an inch off the carpet width and reinstall the carpet.

* Mark and cut only the backsides of skirts (Photos 7 and 8) and start all cuts from the bottom edge of the skirt toward the top edge. You'll have less splintering and have a chance to straighten cuts before you get to the exposed cuts that will show beyond the carpeting.

* Sometimes carpenters aren't careful cutting or installing treads and leave the treads hanging over the sides of the stringers too close to the wall to drop in the skirts. If you have this problem, you'll need to get ahold of a reciprocating saw with a 10-in, blade and trim the protruding edges of the treads.

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Author:Larson, Travis
Publication:The Family Handyman
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Jun 1, 1999
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