Fixing my Scary Basement Stairs

Fixing my Scary Basement Stairs

So, this was an interesting project! The only thing I’ve ever done with stairs before was paint the risers on my main stairs in the living room (I’ll show that soon!). But, these basement stairs were in pretty rough shape. I approached this project knowing that I’d be figuring it out as I went. In the end, they look SO much better already. 

Basement Project Recap:

The Basement Stairs (Before)


I know, yikes, right!? Not only do these basement stairs not look very pretty, but they aren’t in great shape. The treads had a TON of dings and grain in them so they would collect dust like crazy. They were impossible to keep clean.

The stairs also didn’t have any risers, which isn’t necessary for basement stairs, but I knew I wanted to add them for a couple of reasons. First, I just think they look better! I think you’ll see with the rest of my basement projects that just because it’s an unfinished basement, doesn’t mean it can’t look good, right? 

The other big reason is that we keep our cats’ litter box in the basement. They are terrible about tracking cat litter on the stairs, and a lot of that falls under/behind the stairs. Having to clean underneath the staircase is really uncomfortable. With the addition of the risers, I can easily take my dust vacuum and just quickly vacuum up the stairs without having to fit into a tight spot!

Finally, I need to fix the railing. I had thought about keeping the same railing and just adding more posts, but ultimately I decided to completely replace it. Next week, you’ll see that post!

Cleats vs. Stringers

The vast majority of staircases are constructed using stair stringers. Go figure, mine wasn’t. Haha. Instead, they used what is called cleats. If you are constructing a new staircase, I would highly recommend installing stringers, but I decided not to completely rip this out so I’m keeping the cleats. 

Aside from the fact that this isn’t a great construction technique, the main difficulty with this is going to be installing the risers. I will be able to secure the risers to the cleats on the outside edges, but they won’t have anything to hold onto in the middle. But, I finally figured out a plan!

Material & Tool List



The New Basement Treads

The Original Plan

Originally, to save a little money, I had intended on purchasing 2×10’s for the treads. I would need 3 of these, which would cost me around $65 (they were  roughly $21 at the time). Then, I was going to sand them down really well and route the edges to give them a bullnose.

Well, when I got to Home Depot, I found that it was going to be very difficult to get a smooth surface based on what they had in stock. So, I walked a couple of aisles over to the stair section and found these treads. They were extremely smooth, and already ready to go, so I did some quick math and determined that the extra $25 was going to be worth it. As much as it would’ve been cool to say that I made these treads from complete scratch, I’m trying to work smarter, not harder here😆.

Step 1: Cutting the Basement Stair Treads

The treads I bought are 48” long, but I only needed about 30-31” for each of the treads, so I had to do some cutting down. I measured each tread separately since none of them were exactly the same (ranged from just over 31” to right around 30”). Then I transferred these measurements to the tread itself.

I measured at the top, middle and bottom of each tread, then connected the lines using a straight edge. Then, to help prevent any kind of tear-out, I also added some painter’s tape along the edge, on the side that I was keeping. I started by using my miter saw, but since the treads are wider than my blade (7”), I had to keep turning them over and matching up the line. This is manageable, but it can be a lot. I ended up switching to the circular saw which went quicker and created a smoother line. Because of the tape, it was also easier to keep the circular saw straight. After each piece, I dry-fitted just to be sure it was going to fit properly before I continued to the next one.

PS: I was also left with 7 18” stair treads, which I’m not really sure what to do with haha. Maybe I can make a few cutting boards with them. Let me know in the comments if you have other ideas!

Step 2: Sanding

Because the treads I bought were so smooth, I didn’t need to do a ton of standing. I just used my Ryobi sander to smooth the outside edges, focusing on the edge that I had just cut. I used 120 grit sandpaper which worked perfectly.

Step 3: Staining and Sealing

For this, I like to use what I call the dream team of stains 😊

First, I used my shop vac to pick up any lingering dust. Then, I used a tack cloth to wipe down the tread to really ensure it was perfectly clean. After that, it’s time to apply the whitewash.

This is totally up to you, but I absolutely love this stuff. It tones down some of the wood grain to make it softer, and it helps remove a lot of the yellow from the pine. Putting this down first will make whatever stain you put on top of it much more subdued and pretty. Highly recommend.

I applied this with a foam brush, covering all areas. It goes on pretty opaque, but don’t panic. After it’s been on for a minute or so, I take a rag or old t-shirt and wipe it off. You’ll see a relatively subtle difference, but definitely enough.

See the difference?

Then, you’ll go in with your stain. I chose Early American because I think it’s a nice neutral color that I’ve used in other places. But, I do recommend experimenting if you can to find your favorite finish. I applied this exactly the same, using a brush, then wiping it clean after about a minute.

To be honest, the color isn’t THAT different than the original pine, but for me, it’s about the undertones, and I just like the look of this much better. You can also play around with how long the stains sit, or how heavy you apply them to get your perfect finish. However, I do recommend finding a system and sticking to it for the entire project, otherwise, you could end up with varying shades!

Finally, you can start to apply your topcoat (polyurethane). I prefer water-based topcoats, which require 24 hours of dry time after staining, so I did this the next day. First, you’ll take your sanding block and lightly sand the tread to get rid of any potential texture left from the stain. Then, wipe it down with your tack cloth and you’re ready to apply the poly. I like using a chip brush, just because it’s affordable and easy. I just dip it right into the can and start coating the wood. Again, it might look like it’s leaving a white haze, but this will disappear.

After your first coat dries for at least 2 hours, you’re ready to apply your second coat. Three coats are usually recommended. You’ll notice that the wood feels a little gritty to the touch after it dries. You’ll take your sanding block again, and lightly sand it down. You’ll immediately start to feel a difference, and the more coats you apply, the smoother it’ll feel as you start sanding.

Once it feels smooth, take your tack cloth and wipe it down. If it’s not completely smooth, you’ll notice your tack cloth start to catch on rough edges, just keep going back and forth until it’s good to go. This shouldn’t take more than a minute per tread. Then, you’re ready for your next coat!

 Staining and Sealing Quick Guide:

  1. Remove dust with shop vacuum & tack cloth.
  2. Apply White Wash with a foam brush.
  3. Wipe down after a minute or so.
  4. Apply stain of choice with a foam brush.
  5. Wipe down after a minute or so.
  6. Wait 24 hours.
  7. Lightly sand with a sanding block.
  8. Remove dust with a tack cloth.
  9. Apply poly with a chip brush.
  10. Wait 2 hours.
  11. Repeat steps 7-10 until 3 coats have been applied.
  12. Sand and wipe down one final time.

Adding Risers to the Basement Stairs

You can buy pre-cut risers for relatively affordable, but it was much more affordable and pretty simple to make my own with some ½” plywood, which is what I did!

Step 1: Priming and Painting

While my 4’x4’ sheet of plywood was still intact, I figured this would be a good time to get some primer and the first coat of paint on. It’s easier to paint one sheet vs multiple small sheets. I used some leftover primer that I had on hand and the remaining paint from when I painted my basement walls.

I had debated for quite a while on doing black paint instead of white. Because of the fact that this is a basement, I thought that white might show too much damage over time. But, no matter how much I looked at black risers, I just didn’t love the look of it for this space. They can absolutely be done right, but it just wasn’t the look I wanted, so ultimately I decided to go with white.

First, I laid the sheet down, and just poured some primer directly on the sheet! Yes, you can do this in some cases😉. Then, I took my foam roller to cover the entire sheet! Pretty easy. After about an hour or so, you can do the first coat of paint. First, you’ll want to use a sanding sponge to knock down any texture from the primer, and use your tack cloth to help with any dust or leftover product. Then, I applied the paint in exactly the same way. I decided to hold off on the second coat for now, because cutting down the plywood could damage some of the paint, so I could potentially need to touch it up anyways.

Step 2: Measurements

To determine the height of the risers, I set down two of the new treads directly on top of two of the old treads and measured the distance between them! I tried this on a few steps and measured on the left, middle and right sides to make sure I had the same measurements each time, which I did (7 ⅜”).

Then, I used the optiCutter tool to determine the most efficient way to make my cuts. You just enter in the size of your plywood, and the size of each cut, then it tells you how to make the most of your materials. Very easy, and highly recommended! 

Step 3: Cutting the Plywood

To cut down the plywood, I used my Kreg Jig Rip-Cut. This is optional, but it does make this process a bit smoother and makes my lines more precise. If you don’t have one, you can use any straight edge, or just make sure you’re being very careful if free-handing it!

Since I needed boards that are 30” wide, I started with these cuts, then decided to go to the 7 ⅜” after that. However, the rip cut only goes to 24”. But, since the sheet is 48”, I was able to subtract 48-30=18”, so that’s what I set my rip-cut to! 

When I use my rip-cut, I always put something underneath it. Otherwise, you’ll start sawing your floor and you don’t want that! Sometimes it’s a foam board, or sometimes it’s two thicker pieces of wood. I also always protect myself with safety glasses, and a mask, because that dust is no joke!

Setting up a rip cut is pretty simple! First, you’ll set the length using the ruler at the top, and lock your setting in place. You’ll secure the circular saw to the jig using the holder and the screws it gives you. Then, you’ll check the depth of your blade and adjust as necessary. You want it to be low enough to cut all the way through, but not so low that you risk cutting your floor. Your final step should be adding the battery. I highly suggest waiting until it’s ready to use before you insert this just to prevent any potential accidents as you are handling it.

To start using it, you’ll place the blue piece against the outside of your plywood, and this will help guide you to keep everything straight! Then, you’re ready to start cutting! Turn on your saw an inch or so before where you want to start cutting, then slowly start moving it across your sheet. As you go, continuously check both your line and the outside edge to make sure you’re still going straight.

Also, make sure that the side you just painted is face down! This will help to ensure that you don’t do too much damage to the nice side.

Step 4: Sanding and Sealing

Now that your pieces are freshly cut, you’ll want to sand down the edges again, just to make sure they’re nice and smooth. Then, you can apply your last coat of paint! You’ll apply this just like before, using a foam roller. Each paint will have a different dry time requirement before applying a topcoat, so make sure to check the back of your can.

Then, you’ll apply your poly exactly the same way as you did your treads! I actually did these at the same time, which made it much simpler. This step isn’t necessary, but it’ll help quite a bit with any scuff marks that can often show on staircase risers. This is especially the case with basement stairs (and why I had debated black)!

Installing the Treads and Risers to the Basement Stairs

To Demo or Not to Demo?

My original plan here was to completely demo the old treads and just replace them with the new ones. I mean, it makes sense right? So, I started with what looked like the easiest tread, and it turns out, it was not easy! There were quite a few really large nails, so using a pry bar and hammer wasn’t working well. Next, I used my circular saw and multi-tool to cut the tread in half, so that I would have more room to maneuver them. This worked, but it was pretty hard.

About halfway through, I had the realization that I actually didn’t need to demo these at all! Instead, I could just install the new treads right on top of the old ones. Well, that of course meant that I’d have to replace this tread. But, luckily, I had a piece of scrap wood that was close to the same thickness. It wasn’t quite as deep, but it ended up working just fine.

I did have to add some additional nails in the cleats since they budged a bit when I was demoing, but this was an easy fix. Then I just cut the piece of wood to size, and set it on the existing cleats. I secured it with a few brad nails on the top, then added more sinker nails to the sides to really secure them.


I played around with a couple of different options here, including pre-attaching the risers to the basement stairs. I found that the easiest method was to attach the treads using construction adhesive, then nailing the risers in. I followed the steps below:

  1. Dry-fit all of the treads and risers. Then, I started from the top and worked my way down.
  2. Add quite a bit of your construction adhesive to the existing tread. Place the new tread on top. 
  3. Place the new riser right under the new tread. Use your square to make sure that it’s creating a 90º angle with the tread underneath. 
  4. Maneuver the tread so that the overhang is the same all the way across. This should be anywhere from ¾” to 1 ¼”. I chose exactly 1”. I used my Kreg Multi-Mark tool, but you can use any measuring tool you have, including a scrap piece of wood. The goal is to make sure it’s the same the entire way across.
  5. Once it’s in the right spot, add some weights (or anything heavy!) on top to keep them from moving.
  6. Use your brad nailer to attach the riser to the old tread and the cleats.
  7. Then, I added about six 2” brad nails under each tread. I just shot them up at various angles under the old tread so they added some extra security.
  8. If possible, keep the weights on overnight.


Finishing Touches of my Basement Stairs

Honestly, the final steps of a project are always the most difficult to get they can be a bit monotonous, but it’s so important to not skimp this. Trust me, I have plenty of times and always regret it!

First, you’ll want to fill all the nail holes in the risers using wood filler or spackle. While that is drying, start caulking all the edges. This included the tops, bottoms, and sides of each riser, and the sides of each tread. Basically where every piece meets another piece! I have my favorite caulking tips on my Spring Cleaning post, so check that out!

After the caulk and wood filler have both dried, you can start sanding the wood filler. I usually use a sanding block because I find that it’s the easiest to maneuver. You just sand until you can’t feel a bump anymore! Then, you can touch up any paint as you see necessary.

I’m going to be painting the stringers too, but you’ll have to wait for my Railing post next week to see how that goes!

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