Currently, of the several design projects I have on the go, they couldn’t all be more different than one another, yet two of the clients are grappling with the same issue: what to do with the stairs.
The first home is very typical of the style built all over Toronto in the 1920’s and 30’s and is detatched, red brick, two storey with a shared drive. I did the basement in this house a couple of years ago, and now we’re continuing on with the main and second floor.
Another house I’m working on concurrently is called Sea Cove Cottage, located in coastal Maine, the home of Emmy-Award winning TV host Steve Thomas and his wife Evy Blum. You can follow the project on Steve’s Facebook page. Sea Cove Cottage was built close to the turn of the 20th century in the Dutch Colonial Gambrel style.
The question that the owners of both these homes have, is should the stairs be carpeted or not? This isn’t the first time I’ve had this discussion with clients, so I know other people wrestle with this same issue.
First, let me break down the parts of the stairs so you know what the heck I’m talking about. The diagram below has all the “bits and bobs” of a staircase, well labelled.
There are a few way to treat stairs. The first, which I see on a lot of blogs and decor websites, is to stain the treads dark and leave them bare, with no carpet of any kind like this one from My Uncommon Slice of Suburbia
Another bare tread treatment I see frequently is the builder basic, where the treads, risers, spindles, handrail and newel post (if there is one), is all the same stained oak. This is the hallmark look of a development home because it’s relatively inexpensive, and no one has to think too hard about finishing options and it’s a one stop labor step. The staircase below is a classic example of this and one that I would never do in a client’s home. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with it, but as a designer, I stay clear of anything that looks like it’s available on the mass-market.
Bare stair treads are a risky option for a few reasons:
- Wearability. A dark tread will show wear and tear, with scratches and worn stain very quickly, and a glossy finish will also show wear very quickly as the abrasion of frequent foot traffic wears a dull patch on the surface.
- High Maintenance. Every bit of dust and blonde hair will show and scream at you as you go up and down the stairs on a dark, bear tread.
- Noisy. If you’re trying to sneak in late at night, you’d better take your shoes off or the sound will reverberate throughout the whole house.
- Slippery. If you or your kids are the types who like to walk around the house in your socks, bare stair treads are an accident waiting to happen. They are particularly difficult for aging pets and aging people might have a difficult time with depth perception with very dark treads.
Aesthetic choices are very subjective, and even if you ask 5 different designers, you’ll get 7 different opinions. So in MY opinion, bare stair treads look unfinished and impractical.
While painted treads look really cool, they have the same disadvantages of stained treads. The paint will show signs of wear very quickly, particularly if street shoes are worn in the house, unless a clear protective coating is regularly applied. But even if shoes aren’t worn in the home, stair treads will get heavier wear than painted floors, since the footfall on a tread on the way upstairs, tends to have more friction than either walking on a floor (unless there’s a lot of foot-dragging…or maybe knuckle-dragging, but that’s another conversation). The staircase below from Painted Therapy is a particularly handsome example, but particularly with this color, the treads will start to look worn very soon.
A Wrong Way to Install Carpet on the Stairs
In many homes, the pickets of a balluster will not be attached to a base plate that is elevated off the treads, but they’ll each go right down and be attached to the treads. In the 1970’s & 80’s, when wall-to-wall carpet was all the rage, to install it on a stair case where the pickets went right down to the treads, the carpet would have to be sliced to fit it around each picket. This frequently made for a nasty looking installation if the carpet was a cut pile. A deeper pile would more easily hide this cut, like the installation below. But this kind of carpet installation on stairs looks quite dowdy by today’s interior style trends.
The other way to treat this kind of picket if one wants carpet on the stairs, is to have a runner or a half runner. A runner will show bare tread and riser on both sides of a carpet strip that runs up the center of the stair case. A classic style is a dark tread, white riser, white pickets, dark handrail and white stringer like the staircase below.
When preparing the stairs for this kind of runner, it’s unecessary to stain the entire tread and paint the entire riser, since they won’t be seen under the carpet. So many contractors will only finish the part that will be seen, like the stairs below.
A partial runner is when the carpet is installed tight to the stringer on the inside of the stairs and part of the tread and stringer are exposed on the outside of the staircase like this below.
In the case above, I would recommend that less of the tread is covered by carpet, or it may seem that the installation was a mistake.
So in both cases of the projects I’m working on, I’ll be looking for a carpet runner. But since one home is very traditional Canadian, and one is coastal Maine, the colors and style of the runners themselves will likely be very different to tie into the overall scheme of the rest of the home. Stay tuned and in a future post I’ll revisit both of those projects when they’re done and show you how the stairs turned out!
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