Q: I would like some advice about what to do about the wood steps of our Victorian home. We have had to paint them every year, even after having them professionally prepped and painted. The paint chips and the caulking cracks.
Should we replace them with brick or stone? Or is there something we can do when painting them so that the job lasts?
Whenever I see steps with no chipped paint, I suspect they have just recently been painted. Are we the only ones with this problem? Am I being too fussy? We live in the Western Addition area of San Francisco, in case that makes a difference, weatherwise.
A: You’re not the Lone Ranger; others have this problem. And, you’re not being too fussy. The staircase is the first thing a visitor to your home sees. It sets the tone for the rest of the house.
Maintaining wood steps and porches on Victorian homes is an ongoing proposition. But, redoing them every year seems a bit excessive. Every three to five years is a bit more like it.
Victorian preservation holds a special place in our hearts because we’ve owned and restored them. So, please don’t replace the wood stairs with brick or stone. You’ll only compromise their original beauty.
Refurbishing the stairs is the way to go. This will maintain the originality of the house and will be less expensive than a brick or stone replacement.
About 12 years ago, Kevin replaced the entrance staircase on his Alameda, Calif., Italianate. It was in such bad shape that painting was no longer an option and a complete rebuild was the only way. But when it was done, it was drop-dead gorgeous.
Whenever he visits the San Francisco Bay Area, Kevin makes it a point to drive by the home. The stairs still look great.
Weather does have an effect on the longevity of a paint job on wood — especially old wood. Fluctuations in heat and humidity cause wood to expand and contract, which causes the paint to chip and the caulking to crack.
We suspect that your steps are original to the house. If they are, the boards have had a century to dry out. This dryness increases movement of the wood from changes in temperature and humidity.
Keeping wooden steps painted increases the life of the treads and risers. You’ve done this, but now, because the paint won’t hold, more than maintenance alone is needed.
It’s time to put on a new face by recycling or replacing the treads and risers. This requires a bit of intermediate-level carpentry. It’s a pretty big job but it’s well within the realm of a do-it-yourselfer.
Begin by gently removing the stair treads and risers. Start at the top tread. With a small, flat steel bar pry it away from the stringers (the stepped framing of the stairway) enough so that you can get a saw blade under the tread. With a reciprocating saw, cut the nails securing the tread to the framing.
Remove the tread in one piece. Look at the underside of the tread. It will probably be unpainted, and with any luck it will be intact and in good condition. If so, the underside of the treads and risers can become the new topside and will save you a pretty penny.
Work your way down the staircase, removing treads and risers in turn as you go. Be sure to number each one so you can replace it in the same spot. Mark an end of each board with an indelible marker, because ink will bleed through the primer.
Sometimes the boards are too brittle to remove in one piece. If that’s the case, there’s no need to be concerned about removing them intact, so tear them out. You’ll be replacing those with new material anyway.
This is a good time to inspect the stair framing and replace any fungus-infested or damaged sections. Also apply a heavy coat of wood preservative (such as copper naphthenate) to the framing to retard fungus and insect infestation.
The most important step in replacing wooden stairs is to seal them. A good paint job will increase the life of the new staircase by many years.
It’s critical to prime all six sides of each board with two coats of oil-base primer. Oil penetrates the wood, locking out moisture and reducing expansion and contraction due to weather. This is especially important if you are recycling the old treads and risers because old wood has a lower moisture content than new material. It’s easiest to prime the boards before installing them.
Once the boards are dry, install the treads and risers. Start at the bottom of the staircase. Glue each tread with construction adhesive and then nail it to the stair frame. Also apply a bead of caulk to each joint as you go along.
Once the installation is complete, apply two coats of finish porch and deck paint. We’ve always had good luck with epoxy porch and deck paint. It’s tough, long lasting and it’s not as slick as enamel.