In our Colonial-style home, we have one main staircase that leads right to our front door. It’s the first thing you see when you walk in the house, a big focal point, and it was in need of some repair…for the second time.
When we moved in to our little fixer upper, the stairs were dirty. And I mean, gross dirty. Smelled a little like cats…okay, a lot of cats. And it had this thick, off-white plush carpeting that showed every stain and dirt mark.
We quickly ripped that out and my husband replaced the stair treads, cleaned up the risers, and added trim pieces around each of the baluster bases to make it look more custom. We finished it off with a braided rug that had beautiful white, black, and greys all along it that hid dog hair, dirt, and stains so well. It served its purpose for many years and it made for a slip-free zone for my little ones and my aging dogs.
It was great and a significant improvement, but it became one of those 95% type projects. We never caulked the stair edges, we never took paint splatter off the stained stairs, and we didn’t hide the nails on the trimwork well enough. It was great, but it was unfinished.
Then, over time, that horizonal braiding started to pull and separate as my kids scooted down the stairs and it had a lot of foot traffic that pulled it forward. What ended up happening was a massive rip across one of the stairs, and many more starting to show signs of it along with it.
I stared day after day at that stair runner and the unfinished edges of the treads and I finally had enough. It was time to fix those stairs…again…and make them exactly what I wanted. In the end, I got myself a stunning vintage-esque rug and went to town fixing those steps and installing my new runner. The results are beautiful and I’m so proud of the work I put in.
And just like with all my DIY projects, I’ll make the mistakes and share with you my advice on how you can avoid them all!
So let’s get to it! Here’s a step-by-step tutorial of how I took off the existing stair runner, repaired the stairs, and installed a new runner in just a few days!
- Needle-nosed pliers
- Stainable wood filler
- Putty knife
- 220 grit sandpaper or sanding block
- Caulk Gun
- Green painter’s tape
- Minwax Gel Stain
- Polycrylic Clear Coat Topcoat
- 1 1/2″ Wooster Angled Paint Brush
- Staple Gun/Brad Nailer ($18!!!)
- Carpet Tucking Tool
- Premium Surface Rug Pad
- Mya Machine Washable Rug Runner (See all my favorites below!)
Take Off Existing Carpeting or Runner
This can be the most fun part of the whole process if you let it! It’s time to get your hands in there and start to use the muscle to pull all that old, dingy carpeting or stair runner off the stairs. I will warn that you need to be careful at the top steps as sometimes the staples or nails used will give all at once and you’ll find yourself falling back as you pull (noted from experience!)
If you have staples stuck, grab needle nosed pliers to help pull those easily from the stair treads or risers. If they are flush in the wood, use this awesome staple remover to help keep the wood intact and limit the amount of repair you’ll need to do later.
Once your carpet or rug is removed, you’ll be able to see all the chips and gaps on your stairs much clearer. First, look for nail holes or chips along the stair and fill it with stainable wood filler (my favorite is Minwax Stainable Wood Filler). You only need to use a small amount with a putty knife to fill these small areas. When it’s dried (use the directions on the container as your guide), go over the spot with 220 grit sandpaper until it is smooth and flush.
Second, look at the areas where your stair tread meets your walls and where the treads meet the risers. These areas tend to have gaps that need to be caulked or have old caulk replaced that has started cracking. Both of these situations can make your stairs look very unfinished or worn. Spending the time to repair these spots pays off immensely in the overall look of the stairs.
To caulk, I like to use green Frog Tape to make straight, finished lines. I place two pieces of green tape around the edge, distanced how far apart I’d like the caulk line to be. I’ll run a thin bead of caulk along the crack and then smooth it with my finger. You can run your finger along the line several times to get the smoothest look across the entire edge. Immediately peel the green tape away and throw in the garbage. You won’t want to leave the tape on very long because as the caulk sets, it will cure to the tape and pull away from the edge when you attempt to remove it later. That leaves behind an obvious bump along the entire edge of your caulk line.
Look at the difference from just fixing the gaps in the seams of the stairs. Already a major improvement!
Repaint, Sand and Stain Using Stain Gel
Once you’ve pulled the carpet and repaired the stairs, it’s time to brighten your stair risers, treads, and trimwork with a fresh coat of paint and stain. This is when I repainted nicks and marks on the stair risers and stair trimwork with Sherwin Williams Snowbound.
Then, I began working on the stair treads by lightly hand sanding with 220 grit sandpaper to roughen up the treads ever so slightly to allow for the gel stain to adhere fully. Then, I used Minwax Gel Stain in Walnut to cover my stained stairs with a fresh coat. The great part about using a gel stain, you don’t have to sand your stairs down to their original grain! You can lightly sand your already stained stairs and then apply. THAT’S IT! No sore arms, no sandy mess. Just a light sand and apply. Whew! What an incredible time saver!!
Now if you’re DRASTICALLY changing the color of your treads, you may need to try the gel stain on a small portion first to determine if the color is going to match your vision before doing many more.
The trick with gel stain is to apply with a paint brush (my favorite is a 1 1/2″ angled Wooster), wait three minutes, and then gently wipe away with an old t-shirt or cloth. If you’re looking for a darker, richer color, you can reapply after a few hours and follow the same three steps. When you’re satisfied, allow your stairs to cure a full 24 hours before stepping directly on the stair and moving on to the next step in the process, coating with Polycrylic topcoat.
This clear coat topcoat is great to keep your wood intact, in good condition. and protect it from stains and water spots. I always love using Minwax Polycrylic to coat my wood projects because it covers well, blends in your brush strokes, and doesn’t have a smell so you can do this step without having to worry about fumes. The directions tell you to lightly sand in between coats; however, I’ve done it both ways and I haven’t been able to tell the difference. Some swear you have to lightly sand. I’m here to tell you that I did NOT sand in between coats on these stairs and they look fabulous.
I used the Matte finish on the stairs and it gave a great sheen without being an overpowering shine. If you would skip the polycrylic step, you would have a dullness to the wood and the Matte gives it a perfect subtle shine.
Measure and Attach Rug Pad
Our rug pad we selected was a major game changer. Not only does it have a great cushion to it making it so soft to walk on, but it also has stopped some of the creaking and cracking from our wooden stairs. You could hear every step coming down before, and now we have minimal sound as you walk. The bottom of this rug pad has the non-slip grip to it while the top has a rough texture to it to grab ahold of your runner and prevent slipping on both sides. And truly, for the price, I found a gem in this rug pad.
Since it is slightly larger than the runner itself that I purchased, I was able to cut it down with a pair of sharp sewing scissors. My big advice on cutting your rug pad is to make it about 1.5″ shorter than your rug pad ON EACH SIDE. So if you need to cut yours down, you’ll want it to be a total of 3″ shorter width-wise than your runner. This will prevent being able to see your rug pad sticking out of your runner when you lay them down, but will also allow your rug pad to sufficiently cover the majority of your runner and will feel soft and cushioned the entire way across.
To attach, you will need to measure the full length of your stair tread first. Take that measurement (in my case, my bottom stairs are 50″ wide), and subtract the size of the rug pad (mine was cut down to 28″. Now divide the remaining amount by 2. My equation was 50″ – 28″ = 22″ / 2 = 11″ This will tell you how far from the side of the stair tread you’ll need to place your rug pad. In my case, I had to measure in from each sides 11 inches.
To prevent me from having to measure as I was laying a bulky rug pad, I went along my stair tread and measured from both sides of the wall and marked it with green painters tape. Once I was ready to lay my rug pad, then I could just place it quickly along my painters tape edge and staple.
I chose to staple along the backside of the stair tread along the riser and then made my pad long enough to go under the stair cap and stapled on the underside. Many tutorials and blog posts will only cut their rug pad to fit the TOP of their stair treads, but I felt as though I wanted it to run the entire stair tread, including the underside, so the rug on top lays smoothly and you don’t see or feel a small step down where the rug pad stops underneath.
Attach Stair Runner
I found this beautiful runner rug on Wayfair and immediately knew it was meant to be in our house. The reddish-pink and blue, flanked by the black accent design was stunning and fit the overall look and feel of our home. Plus, the reviews are fabulous. It’s substantial, soft, and high-quality for a great price. Oh, and did I mention it’s called the Mya Rug?
This was meant to be in our home.
I kept my eye on it as I prepared for this project and I finally snagged a 22′ rug and a 7′ rug to complete our stairs.
Remember how you measured to lay your rug pad? Take the size of the stair tread – the size of the rug and divide that number by 2. Now you have the measurement to center your runner rug along the treads. I used the same tactic of painters tape to mark the locations down the stairs FIRST so I didn’t have to do it one step at a time later.
Again, many blogs and tutorials will say to start at the top of your stairs and work your way down to the bottom. I knew I didn’t have enough of a runner to make it all the way from top to bottom of my stairs and I’d have to mix two runners to complete it. I didn’t want that connection happening where EVERYONE could see it at the base of my stairs. I wanted it to flow flawlessly at the bottom and have a possible disconnect at the top where it isn’t obvious. There isn’t a right or wrong answer here and it’s personal preference. The only issue I ran into, or more like an inconvenience, is that when you start at the bottom, you have a lot of runner you’re moving around and situating as you work your way up. If you start at the top, you don’t have to move it around as much. This didn’t make my job any harder, but possibly a little more inconvenient. You’ll just have to weigh your options on this decision.
As I said, I started at the bottom of my stairs. I didn’t, however, choose to put my runner along my front riser. This was a personal preference. I didn’t like how the end of my runner had obvious stitching (as it is the style of the rug) at the base of it. I didn’t want that part to show and rather wanted to hide it under the base of the first stair tread. I flanked that at the top of the stairs by not going all the way to match the upstairs carpet. I instead stopped it at the top stair tread and left the last stair riser blank.
To attach, I centered my runner along the painters tape that I had marked and used my stapler/brad nailer to shoot staples in the underside of each stair tread and brads along the back of the stair treads. I don’t like the staples when doing the top of the stairs because quite frankly, staples show up. I have never had a stapler powerful enough to shoot the staples directly through the rug and flush into the stair tread to the point that you can’t see it. There are some great air compressor staplers that would do the trick, but hundreds of dollars for this equipment just takes the DIY budget out of this project. I needed something that was efficient, worthwhile, and hid the evidence. That’s why I used a brad nailer instead.
As I mentioned, my stapler has an option to use brad nails, as well as staples. So, for the underside of the treads where I began, I shot staples all along the underside because it’s fully hidden and I felt like they are a stronger hold. When you think you’ve used enough staples, add 10 more. You want it to hold strong.
Then I used a carpet tucking tool to really pull the runner up over the stair tread and into the connection of the tread and the riser. You really want to use your strength to push the runner into that joint between the two before attaching with brad nails. I was also able to push and push into that joint and then take a step back to be sure it still looked even across the tread and the pattern appeared straight across the stair. Then I used the brad nailer portion of the stapler to attach as far back as I could on the stair treads with nails. If any didn’t fully go into the tread, I used a small tack hammer to pound them in fully.
How to Join Separate Runners on the Stairs
I didn’t have a runner quite long enough to make it the full length of my stairs. I was about 3′ short so I purchased a 7′ runner that did the trick for me. To hide the evidence of the connection, I chose to cut my runner at the top of the stair riser and fold any fray over before stapling it to the top of the riser/underside of the next tread. I then found a matching point on the second runner and cut and stapled it to fit underneath my stair tread to match the two together.
Since I stapled on the underside, you aren’t able to see the division between the two rugs, nor can you spot any cut marks or fraying. And by matching the pattern between the two rugs, there is no evidence to anyone that there are two rugs present there.
The best advice I have is to staple, staple, and staple some more. The worst thing you’d want is to have carpet sagging or stretching anywhere because you didn’t secure it well enough.
Things I Learned from this DIY
I mentioned a lot of these in my tutorial but it’s worth noting again so you don’t have to go through the same issues I ran into!
- When cutting the rug pad to fit underneath your runner, you’ll want to cut it 3″ shorter than the width of the runner to allow for it to be fully hidden underneath. Also, this will allow your runner to lay flush to your stair tread. It gives the runner enough room to lay flat without having to run staples or brad nails along the edges.
- Use a brad nailer over a staple gun when attaching to the top of your stair tread. Staples are so tricky to hide within your runner. I even tried using a black Sharpie on my staples to hide the shiny metal of them within the rug and you could still very obviously see them. Unless you’re using a high-powered staple gun, the staples will not go fully into the treads and they’ll show. My $18 staple gun (linked above) has the ability to shoot staples, as well as brad nails.
- Measure, measure, and measure again. I gave the trick of measuring to find the center of your stair and then marking that on your stair treads with painters tape along both sides so you’ll be able to easily lay your rug pad or runner down along those edges and staple. Be sure you are double and triple checking your measurements before committing and moving to the next stair. There would truly be nothing worse than doing your work and realizing that your rug moved off-center as you were working because of faulty measurements. When something as obvious as a rug is off-center, every person walking in your house will notice something is off and it’ll drive you bananas in the mean time! That would be a full redo if you were off.
- Staple, staple, and staple some more. Just like measuring, you truly can’t lack on the amount of staples/brad nails that you use on this project. Stairs get so much use, so much wear and tear, and if you’re like me, you’ve got kids scooting and dogs running up and down them, as well. They’ll get used. You don’t want your lack of security to be the reason your rug starts to pull and slide over time. Reinforce it with ample staples or brad nails.
- As you’re working step by step, stop and take a look from the bottom of the stairs after each one. You want to be sure you’re happy with what you’re doing periodically through the process. There were a few times that I noticed it wasn’t tight enough under the stair tread or I needed an extra staple or two somewhere. When you’re always looking up close, you tend to miss those pieces that you’ll nit pick later. Take a moment. Take a step back and evaluate each step as you go. You’ll thank yourself later when you don’t have to go back and fix parts as you notice them over time.
- If you’ll be needing to use multiple runners, go with a pattern that is easy to match. Some patterns are not repeating or use an Ombre pattern that would be difficult to match the colors without being noticeable. Also, when you are looking between your options, think about how it would align if you needed to use more than one. I’ve got a list of my favorites on the market right now below!
Swedish Stripe Woven Cotton Rug // SAFAVIEH Handmade Boston Veda Coastal Cotton Flatweave Rug // Mya Oriental Area Rug in Terracotta/Camel/Pale Blue // Suzanne Kasler Herringbone Performance Rug // Mya Oriental Area Rug in Red/Brown/Black // Marlborough Area Rug in Light Blue // Checkers Natural Woven Wool Rug // Herringbone Swedish Blue Woven Cotton Rug // Jules – JUL-02 Area Rug
In the coming weeks, I’m tackling the stair railings and will give a full DIY tutorial of how I am sanding down the railings and painting them BLACK. I feel like it will be a slight modern touch to a very traditional home and the black will be the perfect way to add the contrasting color to so much of our white trim and features. Oh! And did you notice in some of the pictures that I added new iron balusters to the railing? You can follow along with my Instagram stories under my “Stairs” highlights to see how that came together!
I can’t wait to finish these stairs and make them such a focal point to our entryway.
Happy DIY, Everyone!