Stair Treads and Transitions: Basic Tips for Installation
Stair treads and transitions are common features found in almost every building and every home. They not only offer a unified look to a home or commercial business, but provide safety features as well. When working with stair treads and transitions—just like with flooring—the job can go bad quickly if time isn’t taken to plan out the project and prep the substrate.
According to Don Styka, director of field services for Tarkett, installers should always plan ahead before installing even a single stair tread. “It is important to plan the work to make sure all the necessary materials and tools are available at the start of the installation. The majority of step profiles in North America are the angled ‘z-step’; however, additional planning is required when one of the more complicated profiles is present.”
He added, “Some step profiles require the use of epoxy caulking compound or contact adhesive to adhere the tread nose to the angled step riser. Not identifying this prior to installation could lead to delays waiting for the additional supplies to arrive on the jobsite or claims if the installer proceeds without the proper installation materials.”
After planning out the installation and prepping the stairs to receive the new treads and risers, the installation can begin. “The installation techniques really haven’t changed much over time,” Styka noted. “Many resilient stair treads can be installed using the overlap method and don’t require the use of caulking compound or adhering the tread nose to the riser, unless there is damage to the step edge or a step profile with a severe angle.
“Stair tread materials can differ in composition, size, thickness and shape; rubber treads for example often have the riser attached—creating a tread-riser combo—while vinyl and wooden treads require the use of a separate riser. While various tread types can be measured and marked for cutting in similar manners, resilient treads are normally cut with a utility knife, while hardwood or more rigid stair treads require the use of a power saw.”
One common mistake an installer can make is to measure one or two steps and then cut all the stair treads the same size. According to Styka, “this can lead to gaps at the stringer or the tread to be cut too tight to the stringer, which could cause the installation to be rejected or a claim to develop.”
He recommends measuring and marking each step individually, and allowing 1/16 in. on both ends of the tread for expansion. “We also recommend trimming the visually impaired inserts or grit tape back 1/16 in. from the edge of the stair tread to allow for expansion of the insert. Cutting the stair tread too tight to the stringer can cause the tread nose and insert to buckle, compromising the adhesion between the insert and tread nose—which can lead to maintenance challenges and create a trip hazard.”
For small gaps and minor installation mistakes, installers can purchase matching acrylic caulk. “The caulk is not designed to fix all problems,” Styka cautioned. “It won’t help when the stair treads and risers are cut extremely short of the stringer material, or large gaps exist because the treads were not measured or cut properly. Use the caulk sparingly.”
Bill Treiber, Artistic Finishes’ technical sales and education manager, noted that time-consuming mistakes can be avoided with proper preparation of the stairs. “Any time a component doesn’t fit right, a lack of preparation is generally the culprit. Slow down and check the surfaces coming in contact with the riser or tread. Ask yourself, is it level or flat?
“Any nail or impression in the sub-layer must be removed. When pre-drilling during installation, be certain to maintain the exact position of the component’s location. If possible, secure all risers evenly and consistently with mechanical fasteners and adhesive to stringers or sub-materials. Lastly, and only if approved, should cove or base shoe be used as a gap cover. The one most common location for such molding is on a starter step or first step; here it may be desirable.”
Treiber offered this advice: “An installer of stair treads should be a skilled craftsperson who knows the local building codes. Techniques change with every material change; limitations of surface integrity and accessory components will dictate the practical applications for each material. Know when a full tread and riser installation is preferred and available over stair nosing. Have a clear expectation of the function and look that you are trying to achieve. Know the substructure material and prep likely to be involved with your project. Finally, discuss the budget for the project; it may change your approach completely. In the end it’s your name on the final look, so do it right or walk away.”
Sean Gerolimatos, director of research and development for Schluter Systems, said the setting—whether residential or commercial—will help determine the proper materials for the job. “The expected traffic will determine if the stair nosing profile’s material and finish are suitable for the application. Selecting the correct size according to the thickness and format of the adjacent covering is important to the planning process also. If the profile is too small the covering edges will be exposed, producing unsightly results and risk of damage; if the profile is too tall it can create a trip hazard.”
When patching up mistakes in the installation, first ensure that these mistakes do not compromise the structural integrity or safety of the stair tread. “All surfaces receiving tile must be remedied (such as with patching compounds) if they are not flat, level and plumb. In general, combining Schluter-TREP stair nosing profiles with Schluter-DILEX movement joints and cove-shaped profiles will give the installer flexibility to produce durable and aesthetically pleasing results in various configurations with a range of tile options. Some stair nosing profiles feature vertical legs that can hide minor defects at the top of the riser,” he stated.
According to Thilo Hessler, president of Versatrim, when working with WPC and LVT “it takes more experience to do the stairs than it does the main floor. We have a new solution called VersaTread where we use the actual floor to make a stair tread cap which the floor clicks into and creates a seamless, flush finish.”
Hessler said the most important job of transitions is to bridge two floor heights. “They also provide an expansion gap for floating floors. Without moldings [and transitions], the job would not look finished.”
Styka stated that “floor covering transitions, reducers, moldings, thresholds, t-moldings, edge guards, wheeled traffic transitions and subfloor leveler strips are critical components to almost every job and should be incorporated in the planning stages of the project. They perform two basic functions: to provide a safe transition from one floor type to another; and to protect the edge of the floor covering material from damage.”
While transitions can be incorporated into the design of the floor to provide a unique aesthetic, “fire and foremost, transitions are used to allow visitors, residents, staff and others to safely move from surface to surface safely without tripping or falling because of a change in elevation between the flooring types. Typically the finishing accessories are the least costly flooring item on the project but can bring the most risk in regard to trip hazards. It’s important to select the transitions based on the types of flooring installed, the use of the space, and the type and amount of traffic,” Styka emphasized.
He added that customers have a range of transition types from which to choose. “Our Slim Line and Metal Edge profiles are popular in corporate settings and other areas where a minimal visual of the transition is desired. For acute care, senior living, hospitality and other environments with frequent rolling traffic, wheeled traffic transitions are often utilized because they provide a longer return and a more gradual slope that easily accommodates the wheeled traffic. In multi-functional and sports areas where rubber and other types of tiles that vary in thickness are installed, subfloor leveler strips can be installed under the flooring to transition the various thicknesses of flooring without a visible transition between the flooring materials.”
Treiber agreed that safety is the most important reason for incorporating transitions into a project. He added several other reasons as well: “These include but are not limited to a way to hide expansion and contraction, help prevent dirt and debris buildup, ensure safety that conforms to ADA standards, create an aesthetic that completes the look and style of the home, and maintain the flooring manufacturer’s recommended guidelines while protecting the individual user.”
At press time, Treiber was unable to share information on upcoming products, but stated that “we have a few new products in the works that have been under extreme demand for market entry; they will revolutionize the transition world in both style and function. We hope to unveil what’s in the works later this year.”
For ceramic and stone tile, transitions help protect exposed edges that can otherwise chip and crack, Gerolimatos noted. “Transitions between floor surfaces and at thresholds are particularly vulnerable to damage. Schluter Systems offers a variety of profiles to provide edge protection and transitioning at thresholds and between adjacent surfaces, resulting in durable, maintenance-free tiled coverings.
“The profiles can be grouped into two categories: transitions between same-height surfaces and transitions between different-height surfaces. Products like Schluter-RENO-U or RENO-TK are designed to protect tile edges and provide a smooth transition between tile coverings and floor coverings at lower elevations, while RENO-T overlaps adjoining surface materials to create a seamless transition and prevent edges from becoming damaged when subjected to mechanical stress or traffic.”
He added that the new Schluter-VINPRO line will be launching this summer, and offers “a variety of finishing, transitions, stair nosing and edge-protection profiles for resilient floors and wall coverings such as LVT.”