When I got involved in the retail side of the business in the 1970s, our resilient business was primarily 6’ wide inlaid sheet vinyl, the stiff and inflexible successors to natural linoleum that took some skills to install. Seams had to be recess scribed and adhered with epoxy adhesive, walls often had to be scribed in and some jobs required pattern scribing.
Today, residential sheet vinyl is 12’ wide, often loose laid, very flexible and easily cut, so skills like pattern scribing and using epoxy adhesive may be unfamiliar. That might make stair tread installation even more intimidating, but it is not that hard to learn if you take your time.
I saw a great seminar on Stair Treads at a recent FCICA (The Flooring Contractors Association) event. I grabbed one of my stair tread gurus from that session: Brent Fike, General Manager of Technical & Installation for Roppe Holding Company. Brent is very involved on the technical side of the Flexco and Roppe stair tread brands. He took the time to answer some of my questions and give me some great photographs.
The Importance of a Site Visit
“The key to a good stair tread installation is to remember that not all steps are created equal, ” Fike said. There are two types (rubber and vinyl), two shapes (round nose or square nose), two constructions (one piece tread and riser or separate tread and riser), and a variety of surface textures (diamond, ribbed, circular, smooth, etc.).
Don’t just work off of a set of plans – have a look at the stairs. Newer stairwells are designed with the riser at a slight angle back, for less of a tripping hazard. You may hear this referred to as an “ADA Step,” for the Americans with Disabilities Act. Many stair treads for this type of step are either manufactured with a slight angle to the nose, or they have a notch at the nose so the tread will bend, almost like a hinge.
If neither of these is the case, the installer will have to cut a notch so that the nose will bend, which adds time to the job. It pays to order the treads to fit the actual steps, so go look! At the same time, a site visit can help you plan for substrate preparation – even on new construction there may be prep involved, and that can add up to a lot of time.
Preparation is Critical
You’ve heard me say it many times before: It all starts with substrate preparation, and steps are no different than floors. Fike reports that stair treads are most often installed over steps in whatever condition they are in, after removal of the previous coverings. There is a lot more stress on a step than a floor, so preparation needs to be done right.
“If the existing treads are in bad shape, methods used to repair flooring substrates can be used to repair concrete or wood steps,” Fike stated. Paint, old adhesive, dirt or other foreign material must be cleaned off and high spots sanded or ground down. To fill low spots, use high-quality cement-based patching compound and don’t add too much water to the mix. Overwatering makes a patching compound weaker and more porous so use a stiff mix, per the manufacturer’s instructions.
“The only exception to this would be a flexing metal step,” Fike noted. “These should not be covered with patching compound as these could become damaged due to the flexing of the metal.”
“One other mistake,” Fike added, “is failing to perform simple procedures such as cleaning the back of the stair treads with denatured alcohol or some other material to ensure a successful bond.” Think of a waffle iron getting sprayed with a cooking spray. Stair treads are made in a mold from a dough-like mix of rubber and other ingredients and before that mix goes in the mold, the Mold Release Agent is sprayed so the rubber doesn’t stick. That might affect the adhesive bond, so most manufacturers will recommend the cleaning to ensure the removal of any mold release agent used during the production process, according to Fike.
Fitting Each Tread
Once the existing steps are prepared, it’s time to fit each tread individually to the step. Fike warns, “Don’t make the mistake of assuming all of the steps are the same size. Installers often do, and they cut the treads off site or in a repetitive process, and then some of the treads do not fit the step properly.”
Each step has to be fit individually so when you’re done the treads fit exactly with no gaps. “The easiest way is to scribe fit the tread to the step, which allows for the tightest fit and best looking installation,” Fike explained. (Photos 1 and 2 show this process in action.)
“Once you master the scribing methods for treads,” he continued, “installation becomes easier. Over the past few years, there have been a couple of new tools that have shown up on the market for installation of stair treads. However, even with the introduction of these tools, most installers will tell you the best tools are a pair of scribes, a pencil and a sharp knife.”
Adhering the Treads
Once the treads are fit, they can be adhered using adhesive or tape. With adhesive, it is important to keep traffic off the steps for a good 12 hours because the amount of pressure on the treads after installation can force the leading edge to move away from the step if traffic is allowed prior to adhesive curing, Fike explained.
When I was a manufacturer’s rep for a stair tread manufacturer in the late 1990s, a tape adhesive system was starting to be used on stair treads as an alternative to traditional adhesives. According to Fike, the tape system allows for immediate foot traffic and prevents the tread from moving after installation. He added, “The number of recommendations that we are giving [for tape over adhesive] is increasing as well. On all of our installations of the one piece tread riser combinations, we are recommending the use of the tape system.”
One of the most common complaints on stair treads is cracking at the nose. This is most often caused by voids behind the resilient stair tread that allow for movement that eventually leads to cracking. For this reason, whether you use adhesive or tape, it’s important to use epoxy nose filler, also called nose caulk.
These compounds are easily applied using a special epoxy caulking gun, or can be done the old-fashioned way by mixing epoxy by hand and applying to the back of the nose with a small putty knife or spatula that the manufacturer supplied. Some manufacturers do not require the use of epoxy nose filler on their treads. I tend to be overcautious in that regard and would use it anyway.
With the popularity of raised design stair treads such as circular or square design, matching tile is often used on the landing. However, many times the top stair tread is installed incorrectly. The back section of a raised design tread is smooth. For example, you’ll have the nose, five rows of circles, and then the smooth section that meets the riser. On a landing, the smooth section needs to be cut off to match the pattern with the landing tile.
More often than not, I see the smooth section left on and it just doesn’t look right. The top tread must be trimmed correctly so as to match up with the landing. The circles on the tread may not necessarily line up perfectly, but it looks better than leaving that smooth section on. Some treads have a trim mark on the back so the installer can make this cut easily.
If the landing or corridor that the stairway leads to is a different type of material, it may not be advisable to use a stair tread there. Sometimes it is better to use a rubber nosing on that top step. For example, a nosing with 1/8” thickness will butt to a 1/8” flooring material such as VCT or rubber tile, providing a smooth transition with less of a trip hazard.
Clean up any adhesive residue right away before it has a chance to dry. This is especially important with epoxy, which cannot be removed once it cures. After installation, it is important to keep traffic off the stairwell for the recommended time period. If the job was done with adhesive, the treads can shift if someone starts walking on the steps too soon after installation.
Although stair tread installation has a lot of detail work, it is not that difficult once you get the hang of it. With more and more treads being sold for both safety and aesthetic reasons, it pays to learn how to install these products.