Stair Repair

A handyman project to fix a broken staircase in an old house with pictures and advice



In a house built in 1860, the fifth stair bent forwards at a weird angle. On closer inspection, there were cracks on the support boards on the right side supporting other stairs. This project details a step-by-step (!) handyman project to fix the flaw — to repair the stair — complete with pictures and advice and pointers. Hiring a professional carpenter might cost several thousand dollars so it’s worth it to do it ourselves. I’ll share handyman tips and ideas.

Note: This handyman project uses mid-level carpentry skills in which a staircase section is opened, examined, reinforced, and re-assembled. Surprises lurk inside. It is a public domain document. Feel free to copy text and pictures without attribution.

This is the first part. To skip to the second section, click Stair repair — part two. To skip to the third section, click Stair Repair — part three

The candle on the fifth stair warns
 walkers about the weird angle.

See the candle on the fifth stair? That stair tilts forward. It’s broken. Why?

Close inspection reveals cracks in the wooden beam to the right.

The steps seem shaky, like a mini-trampoline. Will the stairs collapse? Possibly.

So I remove the carpet. Since it’s one continuous roll, I cut the carpet between the fifth stair and the riser of the sixth. When reassembled, the tear in the carpet will be hidden. In the picture there is the tacking strip (lower left to middle right) and the worn carpet padding.

I remove the carpet from stairs #5, #4, #3 and #2.

The padding is pulled up. I remove tiny staples with a pliers. The tacking strips are removed with a screwdriver and hammer. But stairs are attached to risers with nails with tiny heads. How can I get these up?

Time for the Sawsall. You guessed it. It SAWS ALL, including nails.

A general handyman rule is this: do only ONE thing at a time. If you’re cutting something, that’s what you focus exclusively on. Only that! If you’re putting something down, that’s what you do. Only that! Don’t grab for the next screw before finishing with the first one.

Simple, right? But many people don’t know this.

I cut nails with the Sawsall. Use both hands. Take it slow. The blade might kick back.

How am I taking the picture? One hand is on the camera. The other is on the saw. But the saw is off.

It’s worth repeating: ONE thing at a time!

The stair still won’t come up. Balusters hold it in. I disconnect balusters between the underside of the handrail. They slip out. I remove the edge with a screwdriver then a hammer.

The stair comes off. Here’s what it looks like. From this angle, it’s easier to see how stair #5 (with the pieces of wood on it) tilts at a weird angle. Stair #4 is off.

One brief note: keep organized. Have a separate box for each type of tool. Here is my toolbox for drills.

Here’s the cavity beneath #4. There’s no middle beam. The stairs are supported only on the left and right.

What’s inside the cavity? Nineteenth century construction garbage. A huge heap of it. Pieces of wall boards called “lath”. Hunks of plaster. Dust. Debris. Workmen in 1860 were too lazy to throw this stuff out. So they HID it in the stairs. It’s been there for 140 years. I need to remove it. I’ve become a nineteenth century garbageman!

A brief comment. This garbage was under the staircase when ABRAHAM LINCOLN WAS PRESIDENT. It sat through two world wars. Tens of thousands of human footfalls happened above it, even during the McCarthy hearings, the Vietnam War. When the movie “Star Wars” first appeared, it sat there under the stair. The Twin Towers fell. It sat. Only now, in 2010, does it see the light of day!


An internal support beam is weak. It moves.

This is the end of the first part. To continue with the second part, click Stair Repair — part two

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