There are few things that more add character to a period home than an original staircase and it should therefore come as no surprise that many period home owners go out their way to accommodate even the most archaic of models. If you’re thinking of replacing an old staircase because it’s rather steep and a bit difficult to negotiate, consider that decent handrails and good lighting will usually make the world of difference.
Old staircases have usually seen years of wear and tear and tend to show their age. But really serious (unfixable) problems are pretty rare, and the issues you will face are often not of a structural nature. Most restoration work can be carried out on the top face.
However, a lot of the time you’ll see restoring the staircase as a big job and it’s understandable that replacement can look like a more attractive option. Before you get to this stage, keep in mind that many old staircases do not conform to building standards and a much greater effort will be involved in replacing them than you may anticipate.
Period staircases tend to be made using fairly simple joinery construction and they are easily repairable if you’re willing to have a little patience and use a bit of ingenuity – and skill. The biggest obstacle is always getting access to behind the stairs if the underside forms the sloping ceiling of a lower flight, but this isn’t an issue in every case.
Building regulations are always the biggest consideration when it comes to making the decision to repair or replace. They require all new staircases to have:
- a maximum pitch of 42°
- a minimum 2,000mm of clear headroom above the pitch line
- a minimum going (tread width) of 220mm
- a maximum rise (vertical aspect of each stair) of 220mm
As well as these requirements, no opening, either in the stair construction or between balusters, can be greater than 100mm.
Consequently it may be difficult to fit a staircase of modern construction into the space occupied by your current period staircase. That’s when restoration is your only option!
Many old staircases have layer upon layer of paint to tackle and owners are tempted to get out the belt sander and start stripping it away. If the staircase has been painted before the 1960s, there’s a good chance that old paint will contain lead and so stripping it off by hand is not safe unless it is done by a professional (see the advice on the British Coatings Federation website – do not try to do this yourself). Lead is extremely hazardous and continued exposure can lead to kidney damage, nerve and brain damage, and infertility. You can get lead testing kits from most DIY stores but they shouldn’t be completely relied on – the safest approach is to assume pre-1960s paint will contain lead and treat it as such.
If the surface is smooth, repainting over the old paint is a safer option. If there’s a lot of wear in the centre of the staircase, consider adding a runner and carpet rods for a safer overall approach and a beautiful look.
Repairing Worn Treads
One of the most common issues with period staircases is worn out treads. Fortunately, repair work on these is pretty straightforward and can be carried out from the top.
First the over-worn area will have to be carefully cut away, and then a new piece of decent quality softwood needs to be spliced in, usually with little bearers that are introduced underneath the patched areas, thereby providing additional support.
Before you put your new piece is in place, the surface of the new tread will likely need a bit of shaping to ensure that there are no unnecessary or unsightly ridges. The perfect tool to get this job done is a sharp spokeshave. Although these aren’t needed much, they are very efficient and worth the investment. With careful working you should get a close perimeter fit that will enable you to glue the piece in effectively.
Should you choose to use screws to fit the new piece in place, these will need to be countersunk below the surface so as to allow for filling and painting afterwards. Alternatively, you could choose to use short connecting timber dowels in order to add strength.
Sometimes you’ll find that it’s the front edge of the treads that gets worn down, damaged or split (sometimes called the ‘nosing’). The front edge can be renewed, even if the problem goes right across the width of the stair – you’ll need to saw and chisel off the old projection and then fashion a new nosing. This requires a little bit of patience with a smoothing plane and then with sand paper to get the perfect profile that is ready for glueing and screwing in place. A lot of modern glues will make this joint even stronger than the adjacent timbers, provided that you get close contact between the pieces.
Creaks and Squeaks
Creaky treads are common in old period properties and part of the charm of the building! These creaks and squeaks are caused by timbers rubbing together and they can be fixed. The first job you have is to figure out the exact spot – and it can be handy to get help from someone else to tread the boards in order to find the problem spot.
Sometimes fixing the squeaks is as simple as using screws to close up any obvious gaps. However, other areas, such as the junction between the tread and the riser, sometimes require a different approach. Thin strips of wood that are planed across their width to slight tapers can be used to good effect. Just spread the strips with glue (foaming glue is my favourite) and then hammer them into the gaps. Once you have done the repair, you should make sure nobody uses the staircase until the glue has fully dried.
You’ll find making repairs to the balusters that support the handrail straightforward enough, even if you have to commission a bespoke baluster from a wood turner. The construction of these usually involves the heads or feet fitting into a rebate, and these are fixed by nails and by spacing pieces that are inserted to flush the rebate.
By scraping away a little of the paintwork, you will be able to tell if this method has been adopted and it will make replacement an easy job. Double-morticed constructions do require a bit more ingenuity and subsequent adjacent patching.
Missing or Damaged Brackets
Many period staircases, especially those of Victorian and Edwardian origin, are decorated with attractive brackets. These were usually pinned to the timbers of the outer string and replacement of any that are damaged or missing is therefore usually quite an easy job. If you have a steady hand and can use a jigsaw, a little well-seasoned timber and a pattern of the existing bracket (which you can make using a pencil rubbing), you should be able to carry out a repair without too much skill being needed. Of course, more decorative and complicated designs might call for the skills of a joiner.
On geometric staircases you may see elegant wreath handrails and although these can present a few issues, they are certainly the highlight of any period staircase lucky enough to benefit from them. Unfortunately their complex profile means any significant repairs or renewals have to be undertaken by joiners that are experienced in this field (which is practically a separate field of joinery in itself). Finding a suitable joiner can be a bit tricky – your local council conservation officer may be able to assist, or the SPAB (Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings – 020 7377 1644) may also have contacts for you.
Uncredited image source: http://victorianhouserenovationuk.blogspot.co.uk/2010/08/stripping-victorian-staircase-of-paint.html