Thursday, March 25, 2010

Stairs, the Over-Kill Way

Yesterday the A/C service guy came out for a spring tune up of the A/C. He's familiar with the house, he came out a few months ago when the heat pump decided to give up the ghost during a snow storm. It ended up being not the heat pump but the circuit breaker. (just an aside, if something keeps tripping a breaker, don't just keep resetting it, eventually it will melt and the whole panel will need to be replaced). The breaker panels (yes, plural) are in the basement and unfortunately, I was in the process of finishing the basement when all this happened. The half flight of stairs to the basement were scary. The only saving grace was with only 6 steps, you could jump to the bottom easily were a step to give way. I knew this was a problem when, just weeks after buying the house we had the chimney sweep come out. The helper was a big boy and I saw one of the steps flex about two inches as he came down to prep the stove insert in the basement. That's just not right. He kept going up and down the stairs and I was sure I was going to be pulling him out of the staircase with a broken leg (really, I would have just been tugging at him, he was so big there was no way his boss and I could have lifted him, even in a Lou Ferrigno moment) Suffice to say, I knew the stairs were a problem. After finishing the walls and floors of the basement, I procrastinated as usual about the steps. I had only built steps for decks, specifically the house in CA and the steps were such a pain, I was not looking forward to fixing these. Finally, while trying to avoid a different project, I demo'd the steps. I'm not sure what the codes are for steps but I'm pretty sure having two finish nails holding each end of the board horizontally with no under-structure might not make the grade. The half wall of the steps was also pulling away so there were gaps between the tread and the walls of about 1/2" on each side. You could see the nails but I didn't think that was the only thing holding the stair tread up! The weight of the board, person stepping and the force of that step were held up by just those two nails. I still can't believe it when I write it again. It took about 20 minutes with the sawsall and the steps were out. I left the risers, they seemed fine and I faced them with the laminate matching the floor.

I wasn't sure how to proceed with the structure to hold the tread so I just built it like decking. I made boxes out of 2 x 4 and secured them level with the top of the risers using 3" screws.
It was a bit of a pain to position the boxes (which were heavy) and try to screw them in and keep it level side to side and front to back. Clamping them to the risers and drawing guide lines helped. Once that was done, I could at least climb the stairs, being careful. The cats thought it was great, they could get underneath the stairs, which at some point harbored critters (like any basement in a cold climate), and that was worthy entertainment.

Since the basement floor is 'oak' laminate, I used oak stair treads. HD and Lowes both have them for about the same price. I took a sample of the laminate and matched the stain color so I could stain the boards to match. Before installing anything though, I painted the side trim on the steps so I wouldn't have to do it after the steps were installed. This saved time in the end. I also stained and sealed the treads before installing them, letting them dry for a good four days. Using a nail gun with 2" finish nails, the treads went in fast (I numbered them on the back when I cut them since they had to be fitted), filled the nail holes with putty and eventually put a final thin coat of urethane over the existing 3 coats. They are solid. The dogs will even use the steps now, before they were too freaked out by the shakiness of them.

The A/C guy, making small talk, says "I see you finished the basement,
it looks nice. The steps are much better". I laughed since ANYTHING would be better than what was there. He said he had just rebuilt the basement steps in his house too so we compared notes on what we each did. After explaining how I did ours, he said "wow, that's kinda over-kill, don't cha think?" Hmm. Maybe.

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