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Scribing Skirt Boards

I love to hear old-timers tell stories. At a JLC Live stair building seminar taught by Jed Dixon, I talked with Jed and Don Jackson (editor of JLC) about installing skirt boards and how I was taught to install the treads and risers first, and then scribe the skirts over the top of them.

Don told me that they had a guy who taught that method in one of their Live events. Pre-built stairs were set up on stage with the treads and risers butting against the drywall on the closed side. The instructor told the audience that he was going to scribe the skirt over the in-place stairs.

During one of the sessions, an audience member raised his hand and said: “I’m sure it can be done, but for the time it’s going to take, and with the fit you’re going to end up with, it’s much better to install the skirt first!”

The instructor then asked the fellow if he had a $20 bill. The guy pulled one out of his wallet and the instructor pulled one out of his wallet. The instructor then asked the skeptic if he was willing to risk his $20 bill. The deal was that if, after the skirt board was installed, the skeptic could slip the $20 bill into any of the joints, he’d win the $20. If he couldn’t, he’d lose it. Game on!

In approximately 30 minutes, the skirt board was cut and installed while the step-by-step method was explained. The instructor left the event $20 richer.

This story fascinated me, and I asked Don Jackson what the instructor’s name was. “Don Zepp,” he replied. It brought back nostalgic memories. Don Zepp (who passed away recently) taught me the same method 30 years before, at the Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades in Media, PA, 15 miles west of Philadelphia. At the time Don (“Boss” to his students) was 36 years old and, after graduating from Williamson himself in 1953, went to work for a large millwork company. Shortly thereafter he started Reliable Stair Company. In the following years, prior to teaching at Williamson beginning in 1964 (which he did for 27 years), his company site-built and installed over 7,000 flights of stairs, most of which had scribed skirt boards. I’ve had many good teachers over the years, some in the classroom and some on the job. Don Zepp was the best.

I moved to South Carolina fourteen years ago from Pennsylvania. In Southeast PA., I lived and worked for 25 years building new homes and renovating old ones. The standard in PA was to pre-order the stairs once the total rise from finish floor to finish floor was known. Typically, within a week, a great looking set of finished stairs would arrive on the job. They could have open risers on one or both sides, with bullnosed bottom treads, could accommodate any wall thickness, and be any width and species of wood that you specified. I literally installed hundreds of these stairs.

The job required four guys (minimum) with strong backs, one of whom could swing a 20-oz. framing hammer. The width of the opening that the stairs fits into is the width of the stairs plus the thickness of the finished wall material on both sides of the opening. In SC, the standard, by-and-large, has been: site-built stairs with strings installed by the framer, and the finish stairs installed by the trim carpenter or stair builder who comes in after the fact. I’m sure there are variations of these methods and procedures across the country.

A finished skirt board on a flight of stairs is one of those tasks in finish carpentry that remains in prominent view, always open to critique. It’s critical that the workmanship is of the highest caliber. There are several ways to accomplish the task when pre-fabrication in a shop is not an option. Given the choice, the tools, and the right situation, I would prefer to rout the risers and treads into the finished skirt, then glue, wedge, and fasten them from the underside. However, that’s not always an option.

Most often, in new construction, the site-built stairs I’ve seen have skirt boards installed with the treads and risers butting into the skirt. It is most efficient (and cost effective) to assemble the components by gluing and fastening the ends of the treads and risers from the back side of the skirt (when possible).

In years gone by, the finish stairs were often one of the last tasks to be performed, after the finish wall materials were already in place, making it impossible to get to the back side of the skirt. At Williamson Free School in PA, I learned how to install the finish treads and risers and then scribe the skirt over them. Over the years, this has been a great technique to know!

A few years back, I had to completely rebuild six half-flights of stairs in some high-end condos that had riser differences of up to one inch! The rough stringers were cut and installed from sub-floor to landing, and, after the fact, over an inch of Gyp-Crete was installed on the first floor, with a thin laminate on the landings. The carpets, cabinets, appliances, and all finish walls were installed before the problem was discovered. It wasn’t an option to tear out the finish walls to get to the closed end of the risers and treads where they butted the wall. I opted to re-frame the lower set of stringers, install the treads and risers, and scribe the skirts over the top. The stairs were stain-grade yellow pine, so putty and paint wasn’t an option.

Although I spend most of my time running jobs, and hadn’t built a finish set of steps in years, I believe I would have kept my $20 on all six sets.

Scribing the skirt board

To scribe skirt board over installed risers and treads, start with a straight skirt board laid on top of the points of the treads with the bottom corner against the finish or sub-floor, and the top corner above and beyond the top tread nosing. Finish nail this piece to the wall (leave the nail heads and part of the nail shank exposed for easy removal) and mark two registration lines on the wall, on the top of the skirt—one above the bottom tread and one above the top tread.

(Click any image to enlarge. Hit your browser's "back" button to return to this article.)

Using an oak stick for a scriber (with a slightly rounded bottom, so it contacts the treads and risers like the point of a standard scriber)…

…mark the height of the rise, or slightly more (use the highest riser if there’s a variance) and put a sharpened nail or brad through the stick with the point protruding slightly.

Next, scribe the level line of each tread (it’s important that you hold the scribe stick plumb), starting at the bottom and finishing at the upper landing tread.

Now, take the skirt board off the wall, cut the bottom scribe mark, and slide the skirt board down the wall until it rests on the floor. Make sure the top of the skirt is lined up with the registration marks you put on the wall. Finish nail the skirt to the wall again, leaving the nails proud for easy removal.

Next, change the brad point from the riser to the unit run dimension (or a little more).

Scribe from each riser face moving up the stair from the bottom. Again, it’s important to hold the scriber level as you work your way up the flight.

While using the same scribe setup, mark the projection of each stair nosing.

Next, remove the skirt from the wall and, using a sample tread block and a sharp pencil, draw the nosing, using the slight arc you previously scribed from the tip of the nosing as your reference point.

It’s time to start cutting. Start on the first riser line and cut every riser on the plumb line, working up the flight. Next, cut the treads on the level lines, starting at the top and working your way down. Remove the triangular piece as you go. Use a coping saw or jig saw to cut out the nosings.

TIP: When cutting, hold the saw at a slight angle to achieve an undercut, except for the top and bottom plumb cuts that the base will die into.

Once you’re finished cutting out for the treads and risers, slide the skirt into place and check for the “$20 fit” (a $1 bill will do, in a pinch). I like to have just enough material left above the nosing to allow some flexibility in the skirt, and also enough to receive a carpeted edge, if it’s not a finish set of stairs. Usually 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 in. is good. Depending on the rise/run and size of the original board, you may have to rip some material off the top edge.

Next, use a level to mark a plumb line on the skirt board at the top and bottom that matches the height of the flat portion of your baseboard. These lines will mark the vertical cuts for the skirt-to-baseboard transitions.

After cutting the base transitions, it’s time to nail the skirt in place. Nailing through the skirt at the nosing will draw it up tight. I also pre-drill each section of the skirt where it fits against the tread, close to the riser, and install a 4d finish nail.

Finish up by adding the base, base cap, and cove moldings. You’re done!

One advantage that I’ve found in scribing the skirt over the treads and risers is that the joint between the skirt and the finish stairs is not staring you in the face as you walk up the steps. It’s the same principle as starting the base or crown at the far end of the room and fitting to it.

The installation time is reduced with this method, since only the skirt board will need to be cut accurately. The time-consuming process of scribing and fitting each individual tread and riser is eliminated.

If it’s your first time, it might be a good idea to start with a set that will get carpeted, or with a painted skirt. It will give you the opportunity to practice before you try this method on a stained skirt board. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll get quick and accurate.

It’s not the perfect method for every installation, but for some jobs, it’s efficient and workmanlike!

(Drawings by Wm. Todd Murdock)

• • •

AUTHOR BIO

After graduating as a carpentry major from Williamson Free School in 1969, Norm spent 13 years working as an architectural draftsman, framer, finish carpenter, framing foreman, and superintendent for a production homebuilder.

For the next 13 years he was self-employed in residential and light commercial construction, building additions, homes and whatever came along. They did everything from the footings to the roof, excluding the utilities. Norm had a great partner, and they worked together for 25 years.

In 1996 Norm moved to SC to teach drafting and carpentry for 3 years at Bob Jones University.

In 1999 he started working part-time as a construction inspector, and full-time as a commercial superintendent for a contractor building churches, retail spaces, multi-family dwellings, and schools.

Looking for a change of pace, in August 2010 Norm went into business at age 61. The first project of the new business was to completely finish his present house. It’s the 8th house he’s built and lived in, not including the 3 renovations before the first house. He has the ambition and energy to do one more, but Sherry, his wife of 38 years, has given him a choice of another house or another wife—facetiously, he hopes!

For enjoyment, Norm works on his home, does smaller construction jobs, serves in his local church, reads, and works on the homes of his three daughters.

Norm is pictured here with Sophie, one of his 7 grandchildren.

Comments/Discussion

130 Responses to “Scribing Skirt Boards”

  1. Josh

    Unbelievable! This couldn’t be more timely! I’ve never had to do this but it just got added into a job we’re doing in 2 weeks! Thanks a million for the pointers Norm!

    Reply
    • Gerry

      I have a door at the top of my stairs. Any ideas on how to mount the uncut skirt board for scribing? I was considering temporarily mounting some small lengths of 2×6 on the wall that the uncut skirt board can be attached. That would allow the uncut skirt board to project though the door opening.

      Reply
      • Norm Yeager

        Gerry,
        The 1×6 idea is probably as good as anything else I can think of. An additional thought would be to scribe a cardboard or Luan template for the top section of the skirt where it butts the door trim and then overlay it on the section of skirt you can scribe

        Reply
  2. Norm Yeager

    Josh,
    I look forward to hearing how you do on your first skirt scribing job. When Gary called me to ask if I’d write the article he started by asking “is this Norm Yeager the stairbuilder?”. My response was “this is Norm Yeager and I’ve built many stairs but I consider the Stan Foster’s, Jed Dixons’ and Keith Mathewson’s of the carpentry world – the stairbuilders”. There are many others as well who do it full time with great expertise. I’m a long time carpenter that has built stairs as the need has arisen. This method of scribing skirts can be done by any skilled carpenter with consistently good results.

    Reply
  3. Josh

    Well Norm… thanks for taking the time to answer the call from Gary and write the article! I’m only 27 and while I have all the tools I need and enough knowledge to be dangerous and think I know it all, I lack about 20-40 years of experience that most guys around me all possess! I can’t tell you how thankful I am for all the JLC articles and books, thisiscarpentry.com, Gary’s website and other resources that allow me to learn new concepts that increase my profit and allow me to take on jobs I wouldn’t be able to do without the things I continue to learn. This makes a huge difference with the builders that we work for, as they continue to entrust us with more of their trim and mill work allowing us to stay busy all year. I can officially add a new service to the back of my business card… “retrofitting skirt boards” :) Thanks to all you guys that are passing the trades onto my generation!

    Reply
  4. Charles

    Great Article! I work primarily on older houses (many pre-civil war) and have had to retrofit skirt boards on several occasions using this device-
    http://www.amazon.com/Wheaton-Tools-PL600-Stringer-Layout/dp/B0000224Q0
    (though without the issues one reviewer on amazon brought up) which actually works fairly well even on old and uneven stair cases. Many of these projects involve complete disassembly repair/rework/restructure and reassembly of a stair case.
    I appreciate the elegant simplicity and common sense involved in your method and I will use it on my next project that requires it.
    Thanks Again.

    Reply
    • Norm Yeager

      Thank you Charles,
      I never saw the stair Genie tool until today. It looks like it would do a fine job. One difficulty in scribing skirts occurs when the treads are cupped. That’s one of the reasons to leave only an inch to an inch and a half above the nosings so the skirt can “flex” into final position. The scribing does effectively deal with the vatiances in heights,plumb, level, etc.

      Reply
  5. Kent Brobeck

    Norm, I remember talking with you about this very thing last year on the JLC forum. Really an awesome article! It was very clear and well written. I’ve though about this from time to time….thanks for finally shedding light on it for me. Keep on keepen on!

    Reply
    • Norm Yeager

      Thank you Kent,
      I’ve seen many of the pictures of your jobs on JLC Forums. Your work is second to none, making your commendation even more meaningful.

      Reply
  6. David Kalin

    I have done it the same way, but with a Multimaster (or a japanese trim saw), I cut off the end of each nosing using a scrap of skirt board (with 1/16 ripped off it for the blade width) against the drywall and slid the skirt board in from the front. It’s easy to get a good cut of only an inch or so long then chisel it off. This avoids the time consuming round cuts which is where your greatest chance for error lies. And it allows for the expansion and contraction of the solid skirt board. But GOOD JOB! Whatever works! If it looks good, it IS good!


    Reply
    • Norm Yeager

      Thank you David, very nice looking work. I agree, it’s the final product that counts. There isn’t always one way to get to the finish line.

      Reply
    • Matt Follett

      I’m with you David. My margin for error is always in the nosing. A good razor saw & a scrap piece of wood to save you a lot of time. Not to say this doesn’t look like a great technique; will have to try it next time.

      Good article Norm :)

      Reply
      • Norm Yeager

        Matt,
        When I cut the tread I cut past the intersecting point of the riser to where the nosing starts it’s radius. After the triangle is removed I cut the straight portion of the bottom of the nosing overhang with my handsaw, or jigsaw. That leaves only the radius portion of the nosing to deal with. I usually make one straight cut to the middle of the farterest point of the nosing as well. The radius can then be cut easily with a coping saw, or “nibbled away” with the jig saw. I think the coping saw is ror accurate. For me I believe it’s quicker than cutting off each nosing. Thanks for the kind words.

        Reply
  7. Jim Sear UK

    Excellent article Norm.
    I loved the background history and simple step by step explanation of the methodology. The graphics make it so easy for anyone to follow. When I’ve done this type of work (a couple of times a year) I do the same as David Kallin’s method of notching out the nosing because I reckon it makes for fewer potential cock ups. But I do get your point of reducing joint sight lines. Once again, an excellent article.
    Regards Jim Sear UK

    Reply
    • Norm Yeager

      Jim,
      Thank you. I’ve always felt that there’s three ways to do things. Right, wrong and different. That was one of the short speeches I always gave to the tradesmen that would show up on my jobs. “I’ll let you do it right or I’ll learn when you do it different but I won’t let you do it wrong” I’ve seen the nosings notched many times with excellent results.

      Reply
  8. David Collins

    Norm, The quality of the writing and graphics of this article is of the highest standard. Beautifully communicated! It seems that excellence in one area of a man’s life results in excellence in other areas as well. I must comment that there is no magazine that can compete with this sort of instruction and I hope TIC continues to attract writing of this caliber.
    If you are a subscriber to TIC, tell every carpenter you bump into to sign up.

    Reply
    • Norm Yeager

      David,
      Thank you for the kind words. Gary and his staff made this article enjoyable. I can’t claim any credit for the drawings. Don Zepp showed them to me . I sent Gary simple pencil line sketches and Todd made them look great. I do tell every carpenter I bump into about JLC and TiC. I used to tell the students I had that if they get to be 50 and still loved what they do for a living they would be blessed. I’m 62 now and still feel the same way. My next tool purchase is a coping foot !

      Reply
    • Norm Yeager

      Kreg,
      The kind words and endorsements from many men I’ve been reading for years are humbling. Thank you for your years of informative and inciteful carpentry knowledge. As good and maybe even better is your positive spirit and sense of humor. I love your posts and videos.

      Reply
  9. Richie Poor

    Excellent and extremely useful article. Another one of those ‘tricks of the trade’ you think about but don’t fully comprehend until it’s demonstrated properly. Thanks, Norm!

    Reply
    • Norm Yeager

      Richie Poor,
      Thanks for the kind words. I still remember the sign over the carpentry shop at Williamson. It read “don’t teach the tricks of the trade, teach the trade”. Sorry, I couldn’t resist that old memory. I understand what you’re saying. Had it not been for many men along the way who were willing to teach me some of their techniques and tricks this learning process would have been much more difficult. I’ve met many along the way who’s spirit was “I learned it the hard way and that’s the way the next guys going to learn it” We can be thankful for men such as Gary and the numbers of JLC contributers and posters who are willing, proficient and anxious to help the next man.

      Reply
  10. LocalHero

    Great article Norm. Funny, I grew up in Springfield, Pa…next door to Media. And now I live in SC too. I’m in Charleston area; where are you?

    Reply
    • Norm Yeager

      Local Hero,
      I’m in Greenville, aboiut as far away from Charleston as you can get and still be in SC. I know the Springfield area very well. Thanks for your kind words.

      Reply
  11. Alex

    Norm,
    Great article, this is the kind of article I live for. The description and pictures were so easy to follow. This is the kind of thing that makes me excited to be a carpenter again. I’m gonna try this just for fun!

    Reply
    • Norm Yeager

      Alex,
      Thanks. You can try it “on the cheap”. Rip down some corrugated cardboard to 11&1/4″ and use that for your skirt. I did that all the time when I taught. Lumber was expensive, cardboard was cheap. We would lay out rafters, stringers, skirtboards, wall plates, etc.in a shop setting. The students could make all the mistakes they were inevitably going to make without the pressure of costly material expense. It works great on one dimensional cuts. On jack rafters, etc. I’d use either foam or salvaged lumber. Each exercise would find the problems to be solved becoming a little bit shorter so each piece of material got used repeatedly until it was too small to use for that purpose. When that time came the piece would have a lock or hinge installed into it.

      Reply
  12. Tom Bainbridge

    20 american dollars? worth every single penny thanks so much.
    I have the exact same job in 6 weeks time.
    The savings I make will be sent to the RNLI
    The RNLI are similar but different to the American coastguard,
    they are funded entirely by charitable donations.
    The rnli guys go out in ANY weather and are not paid a penny.
    Their boats have no insurance and no body or the govt will insure them.

    Norm… you have made it possible for me to support these guys more than I normally do.

    Reply
    • Norm Yeager

      Tom,
      What a great honor it is to have a small part in your support of the RNLI. It’s great to hear of an organization of people willing to sacrifice to do the rifght thing. Thanks for all your inciteful knowledge on the JLC Forums. It still amazes ne that we can learn from one another almost instantaneously, although separated by borders and 1000′s of miles. I guess that’s is just a sign of my age.

      Reply
    • Bob Scott

      Tom,
      What a great guy you are!
      I hope your good deed inspires others to “pay it forward” as too few people do these days.

      Next time I’m on England I’ll have to look you up and buy you a pint. I’ll be te Yankee drinking the bitter with a top.

      Bob

      Reply
  13. Joe Stoddard

    Great article Norm -I’m sold. I think this is the way to go. I also like David K’s idea of nipping the tread overhang with multimaster- that does avoid the worst part of it.

    I never met him, but I learned about some of Don Zepp’s techniques from another Williamson School grad, and even had a chance to put a couple of them to work on projects years ago. Amazing how much impact one man who is devoted to teaching can have. I’m sorry to hear he passed away – RIP Don.

    Reply
    • Norm Yeager

      Thank you Joe,
      Don Zepp was an incredible teacher who never had a formal days instruction (to my knowledge) of how to teach. He had the heart and the ability to look into your eye and know whether you were comprehnding what he was saying. I’m not sure that can be taught. It may be something that some can pickup after years of experience.
      Don took over teaching at Williamson from Mr. Heckler who taught there for over 35 years and was himself a Williamson graduate. That was quite a heritage for a young man like me who had no background building whatsoever to be exposed to. More than anything Don taught me that it was an honorable thing to know the trade and practice it to the best of your ability.

      Reply
  14. Norm Miller

    Nice to see another “Norm” doing good work! Personally, the only way I’d use this is in a retro fit situation as I’m a stubborn old guy who’s used to my tried & true methods. You didn’t say what type of saw you use to make your final cuts, though I’m guessing a nice sharp handsaw. All that said however, years ago I was hired to run a large crew of carpenters & helpers to trim over 120 units at Disney’s new town in Kissimmee, FL called Celebration. Apparently, the framers never heard of spacing the stringer away from the wall with a 2×4 allowing room for the sheetrock and skirt. I spent several hours coming up with essentially the same method as yours, then another few hours teaching it to one of my trim guys. Your article would have been handy! Great job!

    Reply
    • Norm Yeager

      Norm,
      Years ago I only cut skirts with a sharp 10 pt. handsaw. The last few I’ve done I used my Bosch jigsaw with a reversed tooth blade that cuts on the downstroke. If you go slow and keep pressure down on the saw it does a good job. ” Different strokes for different folks” If the stairs get carpeted and a few minor splinters wouldn’t matter a regular blade would work fine also. I don’t believe scribing skirts can consistently duplicate the quality or integrity of a routed stringer, but that’s not always an option. After Williamson I went to work for a production homebuilder and prefabbed stairs were what we used for the main stairs with site built stairs to the many basements which were the standard in the SE Pa. area in the 70′s and 80′s. When I went on my own in the early 80′s we did many basement renovations where we had to make the existing stairs look good. Scribing the skirts was an effective way to do a workmanlike job.

      Reply
  15. Gary Katz

    Norm,
    I would have responded sooner—and wish I’d been the first to say this: Thank YOU for an astounding article. The technique is superb, but the simplicity of your description makes this article a true gem. Todd Murdock did an excellent job on the illustrations, too, and the drawings make this whole story sparkle.

    And THANK YOU DAVID COLLINS! Yes, all of us at TiC—in fact the whole community of authors, editors, and readers—hope that more carpenters will join our effort to save techniques like this one so they aren’t lost to the next generation of carpenters.
    Gary

    Reply
    • Norm Yeager

      Thank you Gary,
      It was a pleasure to work with you and your staff. Todd desrves all the credit for the outstanding graphics he created out of chicken scratch. We went back and forth a few times and his spirit was one of wanting to get it perfect. Robert Walker makes it all readable. I’m excited to think of what the future will bring for you and TiC.

      Reply
  16. Keith Mathewson

    Norm,

    Great article and a new approach for me. I’ve cut the nosing off in the past like David described. Your method for hiding any connection gap makes more sense to me, I’ll certainly try it the next time.

    Reply
    • Norm Yeager

      Thank you Keith,
      I am not a “stairbuilder” in a league with yourself and the many others who write, post and comment in JLC and the forums. Scribing skirts will be a piece of cake for you. It’s something that any finish carpenter, with a little practice can become proficient at. It’s been a valuable thing to know and use over the years.

      Reply
  17. Jay Lefkowitz

    Norm,
    Thank you for a well written and illustrated tequnique, always appreciated.
    I wonder what the technique would or could be if instead of a skirt board, a finished panel against the side walls. I did one of those last year. I measured all the aspects of the rise and run, nose but I was not as tight as I would have liked or expected. The sheets were standard 4×8 and the height restrictions did not help in fitting the panels. I had to work with three panels for each side and butt the panels together along with the stair tread rise, runs, and nosings
    Being a stair to the basement there was the usual amount of objects to cut around and clear. I wish I had a better plan for tackling the problem. In the end the client was pleased with the job, however I was not.
    I have scribed before and have had good luck, in this case I couldn’t manuever the panel boards in position due to the height and space restrictions. This is why I opted to measure each rise, run, and nose projection. There was gaps to this procedure that eluded me and I just kind of wonder why. Just a thought, I’m not losing sleep over it.

    Reply
    • Norm Yeager

      Jay,
      Thank you for the kind words. Just thinking out loud I believe I would have scribed a cardboard or Luan template and after I had a tight fit then overlaid it over the panels, possibly with them laying on the floor. It seems as though the rest of the fits would be easier to deal with than the stairs.

      Reply
  18. albert

    I want to thank Norm for his article,knew that it could be done have never taken the time to do it. If you know only two things in carpentry level and plumb all else will go smoothly..

    Reply
  19. Bob Scott

    Norm,

    Great article! Thanks to you, Todd, Gary and everyone else that made this happen. TIC really is the best magazine out there!

    Have you ever been to Woodruff? It’ about 30 miles from you I think rt.103 or 301 something like that.
    I used to go there once a year for the week after Mothers day to an event called Joe Nall. It’s the premier Model airplane show in the world. Think oshkosh only RC models instead. Todd would love it.

    Bob

    Reply
    • Norm Yeager

      Bob,
      Thank you for the kind words. I have been through Woodruff but not to the airplane show. I was visiting Tyger River Prison to see their Carpentry program. I hope to spend a few days there this year and do some short classes on roof framing and stairbuillding.

      Reply
  20. Greg Gibbons

    Norm

    Well done Norm, very insightful and as mentioned the illusrations are great. Very time sensitive, as I was just looking at our stairs which lead to the rec room and wondering how best to tackle it. This would be it.
    Carpet has already been installed, would you recommend adding a 1/4″ or lift the carpet?.

    Much Thanks, If it wasn’t 11:00 pm, I might have started this minute, lol

    Reply
    • Norm Yeager

      Greg,
      I’m sorry I missed responding to your question. I would definitely remove the carpet if it’s an option without ruining it. For three reasons #1. It will be difficult to scribe with accuracy with the carpet in place #2. For the first time scribing a skirt if everything isn’t perfect, it will be when you reinstall the carpet. #3 I wouldn’t want carpet between the skirt and the treads and risers, it will make fastening the skirt more problematic and removing the carpet at some later date more difficult.
      Thank you for the kind words.

      Reply
  21. Evan

    Mr. Yeager,
    As all the others have said, thanks for a great article that is really priceless when it comes to be used. I just wish I had more time to work with more experienced people so I could learn it from someone instead of trying to figure it all out myself. I have built several staircases over the years and when I look back at how much I did not know on the first couple, it kind of surprises me sometimes. I also appreciate the work that goes into these articles as they are worth more than we pay for them and that is for sure. Every time I read one of these articles or an issue from JLC I learn something that can help me to manage the small construction business we have. Thanks to Gary Katz for telling me I should subscribe to JLC, and without attending one of his roadshows I would not have been introduced to TIC either.
    Thanks to all who put so much work into this TIC.
    Evan

    Reply
  22. Norm Yeager

    Evan,
    Thank you for the kind words. The thing I learned at Williamson probably more than any other was the importance of understanding the “why” of what you were doing and not just the “how”. Experience is a good teacher but I don’t think it measures up to understanding the theory behind the technique, whatever it is. An example: Each year when I taught we had a day when prospective students would visit class for a day. Typically their idea of learning carpentry was to learn by doing. While that’s one way of learning I never thought it was the best way.
    I had a small classroom (appx. 20′ long) and would ask for a volunteer to take a tape measure and find the center of the room. It usually went something like this. The “newbie” would measure the length of the whole room and divide by two and then measure that distance out from one side to find the center. The clock was stopped when he chalked a center line. It usually averaged about 90 seconds.
    I’d take a second volunteer and ask him to also find the center of the room. Before he would try to beat the first guiy, using the same method I would stop him. I directed him to stand where he THOUGHT the center of the room was and without moving push the tape to one side wall and mark 10′, then do the same in the opposite direction and mark 10′. Now without moving he had two marks on the floor, usually about 12″ apart. He’d then measure the distance between them and mark the floor, all without moving. The clock usually stopped at around 40 seconds.
    Lastly I would use the second technique and could typically stop the clock at 30 seconds.
    Experience works but it’s time consuming and not very efficient. Theory alone is more efficient than experiential trial and error. When you combine the right theory plus the experience you get the most efficiency. Most of the time you could see in their eyes that they got the principle.

    Reply
    • Hartley Edmonds

      A recent addition to my collection of “old saws”seems apt. “A smart person learns from his mistakes. A really smart person learns from other peoples’ mistakes”. I’d have used large dividers, but the bored stick and pins yield more consistent and accurate results. Thanks for a great article. This old dog still loves a new trick!

      Hartley

      Reply
      • Norm Yeager

        Hartley,
        Sorry I missed replying to you until now. I have several handsaws that I keep sharp & available. It is surprising how few handsaws you see on jobs anymore. On production jobs, a hammer is even becoming rare.
        My first two weeks in trade school 43 years ago were spent filing 8&10pt. crosscut saws and 5 or 6 pt. rip saws. While I see the necessity and inevitability of change I think the “specialization” we see in the trades today minmizes the opportunity for learning the trade. We can be thankful for JLC & TiC, and similar resources that seek to educate the next generation of craftsmen.

        Reply
  23. Tim Schrock

    My 1st comment/question on TIC. Norm, when you cut the skirt board what type of saw are you using? ie miter saw, circular saw? Particularly when you mention the back beveled cut on tread and riser lines. My experience has been marginal at best when using a circular for these finish cuts. Great website and very helpful articles – keep’im comin’ Thanks Tim

    Reply
    • Norm Yeager

      Tim,
      I’ve cut many skirtboards with a SHARP 10 pt. handsaw. I don’t think you can beat a handsaw for accuracy. However I’ve also used a jig saw set at a 5 degree or so angle. Depending on the material you’re cutting a fine blade works well with minimal or no splintering. If I am concerned about the splintering possibility I’ll use a reverse tooth blade that cuts on the downward stroke. You have to put some pressure down on the saw that’s not necessary with an up cut blade. With a fine tooth blade the saw will have only minimal tendency to jump on you. On my Bosch saw I keep the orbital setting to the minmum. That slows the cutting but increases the accuracy.

      Reply
      • Ray Menard

        My hand saw of choice these days -actually I have a few versions – are the Japanese made Silky. What a joy to use, and yes in just such an application. Quiet & efficient & accurate. My Silkies have changed the way I work just as has my Festool collection (which is still quite modest).

        Thanks Norm for a good lesson in the craft & a nod to you for being a trooper at responding to every new post. Thought you were finished huh :) ?

        Reply
        • Norm Yeager

          Ray,
          I almost missed this reply. I’m not familiar with a Japanese “silky” I have a couple pull saws which I find to be very accurate. Does the silky cut on the pull stroke ? If it does my concern would be it the skirt is stain grade that there might be some minor splintering on the finished side of the skirt. I guess if they were “minor” enough they could be sanded out and would be a good trade off for the improved accuracy. Thanks for the kind words.

          Reply
  24. James Olsen

    Norm,
    Good article, my grandfather taught me this method 12 years ago but he called it the two stick method and had separate sticks for rise and run. It was taught to him by his father. I’m a fifth generation carpenter but no longer do it for a career. I hold the teachings from those who went before me close to the chest.
    Thank you!
    Jim

    Reply
    • Norm Yeager

      James, Thank You,
      What a great heritage! You have been able to glean from multiple years of experience passed down through your family. If I’m not careful that could make me envious ! I assume that when you say you “hold the teachings of those who went before close to your chest” that you revere the knowledge and talents of master tradesmen. So do I. One of my main goals in life is to die broke ! By that I mean I hope I can give away as much of the knowledge and all of the money I’ve been able to accumulate. Timing of that is problematic because we seldom get to choose our last day on earth, but it’s still my goal and I try to work toward it each day.

      Reply
  25. David Kalin

    WOW!
    Great feedback!

    Random thoughts: Norm, large, flat cardboard is hard to come by unless you buy a lot of refrigerators haha.

    With a slap on the forehead, I recently discovered 1/8″ MDF. 8 bucks a sheet here in Hawaii, probably less where you are. You can even make 3-D full size models of stuff!

    With stain-grade, I recommend always using a practice piece first, then you have a fail proof template. Better safe than sorry. Always fear failure. Always.

    Incidentally, instead of scribing, try this method I gleaned from stone installers:
    1. Rip down the 1/8″ MDF or plywood into 1.5″wide strips.
    2. Plug in the hot melt glue gun
    3. Score and snap off and lay the strips against the treads and risers. Overlap and hot melt them together on the flat to make a full size template along the wall. You can even scribe them for cupped or bowed treads, and make little ‘notes to self’ right on the template. Tack the long straight top edge to the drywall along a chalk line @ the width of the board, butt join and overlay a scab for long lengths. Strengthen the whole thing with truss like triangles, then lift it off as one piece, take it back to the shop, lay it on your stock, trace the outline and start cutting. While at the shop, shoot it twice with Magnamax satin, take lunch, deliver it back to the jobsite DONE!

    4. For supreme exact precision, use an exacto knife on blue tape instead of a pencil, saw cut 1/16 from the line, then mini-grind or beltsand to the line, always backcutting.

    If you use a pencil, use a #3. It keeps it’s point all day.

    Somebody stop me.

    Re:“…close to your chest” to me implies a good poker hand selfishly kept secret. I disagree. I may have read it wrong, (I think Jim meant “close to the heart”), but sharing of knowledge is your one sure ticket to immortality. I always remember fondly the old guys who generously shared their tricks and techniques with me. I see their faces each time I’m tasked to cope crown or lay out a hip roof, or make sure to remember to subtract that last tread height from the first riser height (or is it the other way around??lol).
    I can still clearly see the guy’s face that taught me how to lay out a stud wall for drywall 50 years ago. Oh yeah, that was my dad.

    I’m also in my sixties, and when I was forty, I was turned down at a high end jobsite because I was too young. “Ya gotta be fifty to work here” the foreman informed me. With my twenty plus years experience at the time, I was pissed, but now I hold by the same standards for my high end jobs. The first 20 years is boot camp, grasshoppers.

    Sorry, kids, but this is one profession where reverse age discrimination is prevalent.

    It’s GOOD to be old!

    Reply
    • Norm Yeager

      David,
      Where I taught was close to a major appliance outlet so I didn’t have to buy the refrrigerator boxes, they set them aside for me and I picked them up on a regular basis.
      It’s also pretty surprising how much material you can get free if you’re willing to scrounge through a lumber yards dumpster.Often once or twice a year when they do inventory they throw away all kinds of stuff that you wouldn’t be able to afford to let students practice on if you had to pay for it.
      Each year the college would completely renovate a dorm. In that process they would replace appx. 100 3′ solid core doors. Instead of letting them get tossed into a dumpster they came to the warehouse I used as a shop. The uses for those doors were multitudinous. We planed off the hinge sides and rehung them on 2×6 frames, some which were purposely out of plumb & square. I’d screw them together at the edges standing vertically and have the fellows run baseboard, chair rail and even crown around all types of corners. We’d install cylinder & mortise locks.
      I am familiar with the MDF and have used it from time to time for templates. I used to teach them ticksticking and fitting all sorts of panels to a brick , stone, and siding walls.
      It has always been my conviction that you can replicate real life situations in a shop and give more more variety and conditions than you get on any one job, particularly when you have time constraints , budget & weather concerns. If a mistake is made, the world doesn’t end, nor the job for that matter. You start over again with the material that didn’t cost anything but time to begin with.
      I’ve never tried templating a skirtboard prior to installing one. I understand the principle. If you scribe the skirt carefully and cut accurately in my opinion there’s no need. All the irregularities are accounted for. Each time you template something I see the potential for accumulating error when transferring the template marks. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve templated many things. I just haven’t found it necessary to do it for skirtboards. Frankly, it’s been several years sinc I’ve done it. The last 10 or 12 were on my last two houses. Maybe if I were to get a job requiring a scribed skirt of stain grade material I’d think carefully aboout doing templating it.
      Lastly, I too think Jim meant close to the heart. I’ve worked with men who held information “close to their chest” – it wasn’t enjoyable. One foreman would roll up the prints each time you’d get close. It taught me something. I know how it made me feel and I vowed I’d do my best never to make someone else who wanted to learn feel that way.

      Reply
  26. Shawn

    Norm,

    Great article and very helpful. I am a GC specializing in remodeling and I have a great trim sub that handles all this (and he was the first to comment…Josh) so I am glad we are “learning” the same thing.

    Maybe I can practice on my own stairs…might might my wife happy…or not.

    Thanks again for a great article.

    Reply
    • Norm Yeager

      Shawn,
      Thanks for the kind words. I’m glad to hear that Josh was enthusiatic. He seems anxious to learn. I know all about keeping your wife happy. I’m in the same position. I really do enjoy working on my own projects, at my own pace, which has slowed down somewhat over the years. I’d be interested to know how you or Josh do on your foirst skirtboard scribe job.

      Reply
  27. Sam Marsico

    Norm,
    Thanks for writing this article.
    Simple and clever, the way carpentry should always be.
    What is the font you used in your sketchup drawings?

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      Sam,
      Todd Murdock did all the Sketchup Drawings and the font he uses is: ArchiTxt. It’s a great one, huh?
      Gary

      Reply
    • Norm Yeager

      Thank you Sam. As Gary said, Todd did all the sketches. I sent him single line pencil sketches and he took it from there

      Reply
  28. gary hugo

    Awesome tip on skirt boards. Iam always looking for new or forgotten tips that helps me do a better job. I will never forget this one.

    Reply
  29. Brian Moloney

    I’m reading this, starting a stair project this week and this is info is really helpful, my last comment was not posted, but thanks again!

    Reply
  30. Michaela

    Thank you for these instructions. Every time I go up my stairs, I cringe at the broken drywall along my stairs and wonder how I can install skirt boards. Now I know!

    Reply
    • Norm Yeager

      Michaela,
      If it’s your first time scribing something like this I’d start carefully. By that I mean, rip down some cardboard to 11&1/4″ and make a trial run. Any appliance store should be able to get you a refrigerator box. You can lay it ou, cut it with a utility knife and see how it goes. It’s an inexpensive way to get a start prior to committing big $ to a finish piece of material. Even if it’s not long enough you can do a section of the stairs. Instead of two marks lay the cardboard at the top of the stairs and make one mark and the bottom for the second mark. Then snap a line that touches both marks and use the line to “reregister” when you move the shortened skirtboard. Best of luck.

      Reply
  31. Laurie McDougall

    WOW! what a great technique!!!! I did a stair case last summer for a client, the stairs were covered with tile and she couldn’t get anyone to do this project.

    I used some popsicle sticks and super glue to make a template. It worked pretty good, but it was not dead on. (template flex) The client was happy though!

    I can see where the method in the article will be faster and more accurate. I’ve got a job starting on Saturday that requires this to be done.

    Three long stair cases, both sides on carpet. Thanks for that advice on taking the carpet out! My client is having the carpet replaced.

    Not sure about how I would price this one, I figured 2 hours per stair “side” plus materials.(400 per stair case)

    Sooooo I’ll know soon if I’m workin for a buck an hour! LOL client is happy with my bid I guess, I got the job!

    Thanks!!

    Laurie.

    Reply
  32. Brian Moloney

    What if the bottom riser and the top riser heights are different but the other risers are the same, will this method still work?

    Reply
    • Norm Yeager

      Brian,
      Set the sharpened nail point to the height of the highest riser. This principle is common to all scribing tasks, not just skirt boards.
      For example, if you are scribing a trim board to a stone wall, tack the trim board plumb, adjacent to the stone wall your fitting to, touching the fartherest projection of the stone. Then set the scriber width from the i/s edge of the trim board to the deepest indentation of the stone. When you scribe it’s important to hold the scriber level.
      In the stairs you reference the stairs were not built correctly. A common code requirement is that individual riser heights cannot vary by more that 3/8″. When riser heights vary they usually occur at the top or bottom riser for one or more of the following reasons.
      1). The unit rise was not determined by equally dividing the TOTAL RISE from FINISH FLOOR to FINISH FLOOR.
      2).The thicknesses of the finish floors (whether top or bottom) was not accounted for when the stringer was set at the top, or cut at the bottom.
      If you are working with an existing set of stairs your options are limited without rebuilding the stairs. If they are in a house under construction I would point out the mistake to the contractor and have the stairs fixed before you become a part of the problem.

      Reply
  33. Chris

    Wondering if you have ever tried drilling a 1″ hole with a paddle bit or a Forstner tomdealmwith that problem area?

    Reply
    • Norm Yeager

      Chris,
      I’ve never drilled out the nosing primarily because I’ve always been able to cut them accurately with a coping saw. I understand that there may be different ways to achieve a good result. If you drill it you have to center the hole precisely, hope the nosing is a perfect radius and risk tearout with the drill bit. I believe cutting with a coping saw is more controllable.Just my opinion.

      Reply
  34. Benjamin Berk

    Another home run from TiC!

    I used this technique today to install skirt boards on both sides of an exterior concrete stair on the entryway of an old victorian in San Francisco. We are replacing the newels, curbs and balustrades, and the first step was to install the skirts.

    Thanks to this website and Norm Yeager I set to the task in an “efficient and workman-like manner,” with zero head scratching, no wasted material, and was done in less than half the time my boss had budgeted. Thanks Norm.

    Gary et al, I offer you my deep gratitude and appreciation. I’ve built two sets of deck stairs since I found this site, and I used story poles to nail the riser heights to near an eighth inch of variance. I avoided error with the calculator and cut 1x templates on the chop saw. (Those templates are a god-send when dealing with 12′ + pressure treated 3x12s.)

    Thank you for sharing these techniques of the trade, so a newbie like me can learn to be efficient, orderly and workman-like and achieve higher quality results and greater satisfaction in a job well done.

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      Benjamin,
      I’m glad you ‘got it’ and used that skirt board method! That’s the purpose of the magazine! Thanks for your encouragement.
      Mike Sloggatt told me recently that he doesn’t think framers would use that template method–they’d just cut one of the stringers and not waste the time. But these days, when you’re installing stringers on 12″ centers for some decking products, getting them all within 1/8 in. is important and makes the whole job easier. That’s tough to do if you use a piece of 2x as a template, and draw lines with a 1/4 in. pencil! :) JUST JOKING!!!
      Gary

      Reply
  35. Laurie McDougall

    Ok, a while back I posted here about having a stair skirt job to do, and was going to try the scribing method as described by Norm Yeager.

    I did everything described, but it didn’t fit so well. I discovered that the bottom of the board where it comes to a point – the intersection between the riser and the tread, was “nipped off” or it had that appearance.

    I fiddled with it and got it to fit- sort of. I couldn’t figure out what I did wrong, so on the next several pieces I was really careful about my scribing. It was closer but still no screamin heck.

    I put the skirt board in place, then used a 3/4 stick as a spacer, and scribed from that. I got closer, but it did not address the variance in the individual treads, ie: cup and waves.

    It wasn’t so critical on that job as the stairs were going to receive carpet, however I know that when clients see work they expect it to be really neat. Or at least I do!

    I re-checked my rise, and run, then checked my stick with the pencil – yup dead on. Or as close as one can get, the riser height varied by close to 5/8″. What to do?

    Well I had budgeted 3 days for this project, it took me 5 1/2 (Doh!) fortunately the next job got delayed so I had the time, and the client wasn’t living in the place yet. This was a firm quote job, not by the hour.

    I still made money but I gotta figure that those extra few days were a learning curve! so no education is free :D

    Ok time moves on…. last week another stair skirt job came up, ok, this time it’s on hardwood flooring that the owner had installed on the stairs. I went down to Lee Valley and bought a $99 scriber (I love toys)

    Set it up, scribed, did it all very carefully. SAME PROBLEM!!!!! holy cr*(! the scribes themselves were really close, but I had that 45 deg problem again. What’s going on?? dunno.

    I had to pull a few other tricks out of my bag to get this to fit. I placed the almost fitted pieces in place, then used my little brass wheels/scribers (again Lee Valley) they are meant for this type of thing, with a small hole exactly in the middle for your pencil.

    You put your pencil in, then roll the scriber along. I have a kit, cost about $11 bucks, and it has several sizes. So, re-scribe, vertical, horizontal, nose projection, but NOT the underside of the nosing.

    Re-cut, and it fits. Ok, I had to get this done so I couldn’t fiddle around all week figuring out what went wrong.

    However I remain convinced that Norm’s method is quicker, one scribe, one cut – move on.

    Attempting a link here, I hope this works
    :https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/-wSI_0XFTWWI/TgdwZcCpyfI/AAAAAAAAADc/e3DRxj13lJ4/s128/IMG_0676.JPG

    https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/-cDtT0Pz7qCU/Tgdw3NpyMbI/AAAAAAAAAFQ/spoZ2ORN0oU/scribe3.JPG

    https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/-vNnR6d3y2I0/Tgdw8g3sGcI/AAAAAAAAAFk/MhsauZSepLY/s512/IMG_0703.JPG

    https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/-37WiQ_a4KtA/Tgdw_8deGhI/AAAAAAAAAGE/l02SDSUBS6c/s128/IMG_0708.JPG

    I don’t know if I need all of these links or just one!

    Subsequently I “think” I now know what is wrong, but I haven’t had a chance to prove it to myself. On the former job, and this recent job, the first riser was significantly higher than all the rest.

    Most of the risers were 7 5/8″ to 7 11/16″, except the first one, that was dead on 8″. I am wondering now if I should have used 8″ for my tread scribe? would that solve the issue?
    There were some variances in the runs as well, approx. 3/8″ – 10 1/16″ to 9 5/8″ approx.

    What’s the solution? should I have used 8″ instead of 7 11/16″? or something else that I don’t see.

    Thanks!

    Laurie (John)

    Moderator: please let me know if the links are correct, this is a shot in the dark for me :D thanks.

    Reply
    • David Dunn

      I just tried this on a piece of MDF. The first time something similar happened to me. But I noticed before the cut.

      On my staircase, the scribers need to be set longer than the longest rise and longer than the longest run. Otherwise the little triangle shows up.

      Reply
  36. Norm Yeager

    Laurie,
    Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond. I mention in the article that when you set the nail in the oak stick for the rise and the run to set it just a little bit bigger. I should have explained it more thoroughly. It’s critical that you use the highest riser and the longest tread when there’s a variance, and there always is. If you don’t use the largest dimension in each case there will be a triangular void on your scribed skirt in the corner where the tread meets riser. It’s the same principle when you scribe a piece of stock to an irregular surface. You must set the scriber to the farthest distance from the edge of the stock to the deepest indentation of the wall/top or whatever you’re scribing. Otherwise the piece you’re scribing and the surface you are scribing to won’t touch along the entire length. It will be short of making contact by the distance that you should have set the scriber to.

    Reply
  37. Mark

    I am working on my first skirt board retro-fit and found this and thought it was a life saver.

    However, it quickly dawned on me that it will not work as my job has a door at the top of the stairway. There is no room to have the uncut skirt board extend beyond the top of the stair. (same problem on the bottom if you are doing an inside corner with pie shaped stairs). No room to slide the board up or down when switching from scribing the run to scribing the rise.

    What if the skirt board was first cut to length and the first and last riser also cut? Then raise the skirt board twice the height above the stair before scribing? Would that work? Not sure I am visualizing it correctly.

    Maybe I cannot scribe it after all and will just have to measure and layout everything after all. Or use a partial template that covers everything but the last stair or two and measure and layout the last two stairs without scribing them.

    Any hints?
    thanks

    Reply
    • Norm Yeager

      Mark,
      Sorry it’s taken this long to respond. I can understand that you have a difficult problem here. I don’t have a ready answer, but, here is what I would do. I’d make a template out of cardboard with the longest pice I could get that met the door at the top. I’d scribe that and get it fitting good and then I’d scribe the top step separately on another template and piece them together. You’ll be using the technique in the article for all but the top tread and riser. Granted, there’s always more room for error when you’re transferring marks from a template to your final skirt. You’ll probably have to fiddle with it a little to get a tight fit. One other possibility is to just let the board run past the door opening if it’s only a couple inches from the wall the skirt will be fastened to. You won’t be scribing exactly where the skirt will end up but it will probably be close enough that with a little work it will fit. If you have carpeted steps I believe both methods will get it done on the first try. Hopefully someone with more experience/know how will comment and teach us both a better way.
      Norm

      Reply
  38. Nate Metcalf

    Mr. Yeager,
    Hey, this is Nate Metcalf one of your students from BJU. I have been asked to help start and possibly direct a carpentry program and I need your help and advice. I would love to have a conversation with via phone or e-mail. you can reach me at nthnmetcalf@yahoo.com.
    Thanks!
    Nate

    Reply
    • Norm Yeager

      Nate,
      Good to hear from you. I’ll help you in any way I can. Call me anytime.
      Norm

      Reply
  39. John

    Mr. Yeager.
    This is the best explanation I’ve seen after poring through dozens of dicey links :-).

    I’m going to be attempting this task on my townhouse stairs soon (which include a ‘switchback’) — I’ll be sure to do some practice runs with a bunch of old mdf I’ve got lying around (thank goodness), but could you clarify something for me?

    I’m not grasping yet (maybe will when I start cutting) the use of the scribe. You say to set it to the largest rise and run (okay, I understand that). But in the figures you show, it looks like you use that rise marker (and run marker later) on each step. If the steps have rise variation (say 1/4″), *how* does the skirt end up fitting properly? [As I said, I'm sure I'm missing something totally obvious, but.... HELP?]

    Reply
    • Norm Yeager

      John,
      Scribing a skirt board is no different than scribing anything else, just a little more daunting when you first look at it. Imagine your scribing a vertical board to a stone fireplace. You align the board vertically parallel to where you want the edge to land after you’ve cut out the scribed section. Now, set the width of your scriber from the edge closest to the stone into the deepest indentation of the stone. The distance you’ve just set the scriber at represents the highest riser on a skirt board. If you account for the deepest (and highest) distances you want your finished boards to move the lesser distances will be cut away when you cut on the scribed line. If you follow the instructions as written ,being careful to keep the skirt on the registration marks you’ll end up with a good fit. If you dont’t set the scribe stick to the highest rise and the deepest tread you’ll end up with a missing triangle where tread meets rise when you install the skirt. Hope this helps

      Reply
  40. Pat G

    Norm: thank you very much for such a clear explanation and great diagrams. I am attempting this (out of $ necessity) on my townhouse and from terror in ignorance I have, having read this article, come round to cautious confidence in the procedure (if still somewhat shaky on the skill level). Wish me luck! Re: sharing; just read that some high-powered scientists are starting to use public/free sharing sites to publish their results. It seems the world is finally re-learning the benefits of sharing. I’m glad that some people, like you, never forgot.

    Reply
    • Norm Yeager

      Pat,
      I’d appreciate hearing how you make out. If you have problems post it and we’ll figure it out. The skill level will come with practice.

      Reply
  41. Freddy

    About 18 months ago I came across this issue of absolutely needing to skirt a long flight of stairs. I had never even seen one up close to be completely honest with you. It turns out after much thinking and brainstorming (somehow I didn’t come across your article as I always research my options before proceeding with something I’ve never done before, but I digress) I ended up doing something very similar to what you describe and it turned out quite well. I’m glad that it turns out I wasn’t a nut after all for doing it that way. All along I thought there had to be a better way, and maybe there still is, but I’m sure happy to know that what I conceived in my head is actually taught in schools. The hardest part for me was cutting around the stair nosing. Fortunately, I get to do it again. I have a client whose stairs have been butchered so here we go again, I trust better armed now… Thanks for the post!

    Reply
    • Norm Yeager

      Freddy,
      The nosings are challenging. I would cut the skirt with a handsaw or saber saw along the scribed line until I came to the start of the nosing’s radius. At that point I would typically cut the radius with a coping saw. It’s a little slower than a saber saw, but it’s pretty hard to let a coping saw “get away” from you

      Reply
  42. Gary

    Hi Norm. I echo the comments above about the excellence of the article and the graphics.
    I am now covering two sets of carpenter built stairs (treads and risers) with oak and want to do the skirt board as well.
    I purchased 3/4″ oak and oak nosing for the treads and 1/2″ oak ply for the risers.
    The skirt is slopped up with old paint and looks bad. Also I do not want to narrow up the stairs by adding 3/4″ riser on each side. I just want to re-face the existing skirt and not add too much to its thickness.
    Therefore, can I use 1/4″ oak ply to cover the skirt using your method? I am thinking about scribing and installing the skirt first, and then capping the treads and risers, being careful to scribe each tread and riser, so that I get them close.

    On the treads (and risers) my intention is to make a simple jig out of 3 pieces of one by. The first will be about a half inch less than the stair width. Then I will take 2 short 1×4 and butt them them against each side of the tread against the stringer and run two short screws into the long board. I will then transfer that onto the new tread.

    I would like it of you could add to your presentation, walking us through the entire process of converting carpenter built stairs to finished stairs by refacing them.

    Reply
    • Norm Yeager

      Gary,
      No reason you can’t scribe skirtboards out of 1/4″ material. When I taught carpentry we did it all the time. On an existing set of stairs I woould still install the treads and risers first and scribe the skirts over top of them. It makes the line of sight into the joints more forgiving then staring straight at you when you walk up the stairs. Same principle as starting baseboard or crown at the far end of the room. If you opt to cut the skirts first I think your idea for the template is fine. Personally I always woul cut the treads/risers a half inch + or – larger than needed and then scribe them in place. Same principle as fitting a large inset widowsill.

      Reply
  43. Lindsey

    I’m sure it works well when the run and the rise are consistent and the treads are flat & level. The stairs in my older house were built from plywood (very approximately done) and covered in tiles. Due to the poor job of building in the first place and the slight variation in thickness of the mortar under the tiles, each step is different, none are level or plumb. When I lay the straight board on the edges of the steps it contacts the first 5 steps then slowly gaps until there is a 1/2 inch gap between the board and the top step which means there is a slight arch to my stairs. This affects the positioning of the board when I cut off the bottom and slide it down. I can’t make it line up with my marks on the wall. I get it as close as I can and scribe the stair rise but the line I scribe doesn’t connect with the back of the run line. Aaaaaarrgghh. Probably best if you are the one who built the stairs in the first place and did it right.

    Reply
  44. Norm Yeager

    Lindsey,
    The key to scribing the skirt is to follow the instructions to the letter. In no way an I trying to be condescending. It does seem counterintuitive that it will fit in your situation, but it will!. A couple important things up front. 1). Make sure your skirtboard has a straight top edge. 2). Snap the line on the wall so that the top edge of the skirt can slide along the line and not contact a high nosing. You may slide the skirt on the tips of the risers to see how it sits on them and then set the bottom of the skirt just a hair above the nosings and get your upper and lower points to snap the line on the wall where the top of the skirt will sit. This line acts as a registration control. Once you’ve got the line on the wall the rest goes together like clockwork. Your concern about the treads and risers being uneven doesn’t make the job undoable. In fact scribing, whatever the material or situation is all about fitting material in spaces that aren’t consistent. It’s important that you check all the risers and all the treads for the one with the largest dimension (highest riser, widest tread) and set the nail in the scribe stick just a hair more than that dimension. If you don’t you’ll end up with a missing triangle section of skirt where riser and tread meet. It also helps when the stairs are particularly uneven that you leave only about 1&1/4 ” above the tips of the nosings so you can “spring” the skirt into place. You can do all your scribing with a full width board and cut the top off prior to installation. If in doubt try it with a piece of cardboard ripped to the width of a skirt, or a piece of 1/4 ” Luan. Depending how many riser you have you may have to use a couple pieces fastened together. That’s ok as long as they can remain straight. You can do it, it will work.

    Reply
  45. James Fish

    Norm,
    I’m in the middle of a large high end trim job in Northern Idaho…Stringers are 1″ superior alder, treads 2″ fir, risers 3/4″ fir. I was planning to scribe treads and risers to skirts until coming across this article…now I’m rethinking how to approach this. I would really like to learn more about the technique of routing in treads and risers. Any direction to previous articles or literature on this would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks,
    James Fish

    Reply
  46. Norm Yeager

    James,
    Fine Homebuilding and Journal of Light Construction have both published good articles on routing stringers in years past. I think you could search their archives and for a reasonable price download the information. There’s also a book by Craig Savage on Stairbuilding that shows routing stringers step by step if my memory serves me correctly. In my opinion routing is the best way to build a set of stairs. When that isn’t an option scribing the skirt is a viable alternative.

    Reply
    • James Fish

      Thanks Norm,
      I think I’m going to stick with a wall to wall scribe for this application. The biggest reason is that the 2″ fir risers are certainly going to shrink away from a scribed or housed stringer. I think I’ll have a tighter joint with the passage of time if I go wall to wall. I appreciate your prompt reply, I found some helpful articles and I will keep these new ideas ready for the next go round.
      Happy scribing!

      James

      Reply
  47. Norm Yeager

    I think you’re correct about the thick treads shrinking away from a scribed or routed stringer. I’m not a stairbuilder in the same league as many of the tradesmen who’s articles I’ve read. Scribing skirts is something any decent carpenter can do well with a little practice. If the skirts aren’t already in place I think I might try a hybrid. If you cut the last 1/2″ of the treads down on both ends to 1″ thick and they were all the same length it would make for an easy dado cut on the stringer/skirt which the tread could house into but shrinkage wouldn’t be seen. Just a thought. I’ve never done it but I enjoy building things in a different way to solve problems. It’s one of the reasons I’m still enthusiastic about being a tradesman after 45 years.

    Reply
  48. Tom Kernen

    Thanks Norm ! my stairs have been without a skirt for 6 months now and thanks to you i am diving in ! hopefully i will have a picture to send you soon ???? thanks for the great help !!! Tom

    Reply
    • Norm Yeager

      Go for it Tom. If you want to try it with a little caution before you commit to a final skirt try scribing first with cardboard or Luan as your skirt. When I taught I had the students lay out rafters, wall plates, stair stringers, story poles, etc. on “cheap” materials all the time. Mistakes were inconsequential. I could tell whether they understood what they were doing on a piece of cardboard just as easily as I could on a piece of rough or finish limber. If they made a mistake we just started over again.

      Reply
  49. Gerry

    Does the scribing jig require modification to scribe accurately over commercial carpet and pad previously installed?

    Reply
    • Norm Yeager

      I’ve never scribed over carpet. I have scribed plenty of skirts over treads that had carpet installed after the fact. I would round the edge of the scribing stick that contacts the carpet so that you can press it into the carpet without it snagging/catching as you move it. Hopefully there will be enough “play” in the carpet that when you cut the skirt it will crush down the carpet fiber and slide into place. It should be more forgiving than hardwood. I’m interested to hear how it works for you.

      Reply
  50. Norm Yeager

    Something that I’ve noted on the drawings that could look better in my opinion. It has nothing to do with the scribing process. Whenever I installed a newel as shown on the right side top of stairs I always got the newels with the longer bottom sections. I believe the newel should be notched out and extend down the wall so the skirt and return nosing dies into it, instead of the skirt dying into the wall finish and the newel dying onto the top tread

    Reply
    • Wm. Todd Murdock

      Norm,

      You bring up an excellent point! In the original illustrations I added a stock 4010 newel post to the drawings because it’s what I had on hand at the time.

      Using a newel with a wider base allows it to extend down through the skirt and definitely creates a more visually appealing transition. I’ve attached a new image that I think shows what you are talking about.

      Thanks for sharing another great tip!

      Todd

      Reply
  51. Norm Yeager

    Todd,
    That’s perfect ! It looks better in my opinion but also makes the newel post installation rock solid. Two minor thoughts. Typically I would move the newel post slightly to the right so if the stairs were carpeted the carpet would die into the newel and not stick out past. I would also run the base cap on the underside of
    the skirt and die into the newel. You have done a great job !

    Reply
  52. Norm Yeager

    One additional newel post location thought. The top & bottom newels should be located so that the handrail dies into the center of them with the ballusters plumb and the bottom o/s edge of the baluster in line with the i/s edge of the bullnose return. There’s a little bit of juggling to get it all correct. That’s why I always made a full scale drawing on anything like this. The last bib job I did had some 46′, 6000# timber trusses. Between these trusses were timber purlins that TJI’s sat on. The ceiling was all T&G. This roof line over the main part of the building had to line up with the mechanical wing of the building that had conventional trusses, with piggybacks on top and a slate roof on top of everything. There was no room for error. All the truss shop drawings were sent to the job for approval. I was told to sign and send them back immediately. I refused. I laid everything out full scale on the floor slab. The conventional trusses and the piggybacks were inches off from lining up with the timber trusses and TJI’s. It caused a week’s delay but the truss manufacturer visited the jobsite and concurred that his trusses were incorrect. It all worked out perfect in the end. Never underestimate the value of a full scale drawing.

    Reply
  53. Elizabeth Kane

    Well my problem is that the stairs came away from the skirt board and have left gaps on the riser as well as the step, any suggestions for repairing or hiding this?

    Reply
  54. Elizabeth Kane

    I am adding a picture of the gaps where the stairs have left the skirt molding. Thank you for any advice you may give me.

    Reply
  55. Norm Yeager

    Elizabeth,
    That certainly is a problem ! It appears to be a structural problem more than a fit and finish problem. Can you post a picture of the whole flight, particularly where the bottom stringer bears on the floor. This may be more that you’d want to fix by a cover up. Maybe a larger picture will give us a better clue as to what has caused what we see in your picture

    Reply
  56. Ryan sheets

    Norm,
    I’ve been following this article for some time and love this method finding it very efficient. I have a customer that believes a standard tongue and groove method creates a “better built high end stair set”. I’m pretty stuck on this method and am a finished carpenter. I’ve never taken the time to build using tongue and groove method. Do you have an opinion which way is better?

    Ryan

    Reply
  57. Norm Yeager

    Ryan,
    By “tongue and groove method” do you mean a routed stringer where the treads and risers are routed into the stringer, which also serves as the skirtboard ? Typically the dadoes are tapered on the underside of the tread and the back side of the risers then shimmed and glued into place. If that is what you are referring to then I agree with your customer. In years gone by scribing skirts was very common, but not so much anymore. With the availability of dedicated stair machines and high powered routers often its less expensive and a better job to “pre manufacture” the stairs and have them delivered to the job, or build them that way on site. As I mention in the article I’ve installed 100′s that were built that way. I don’t recall a problem with any of them. Where scribing is best in my opinion is where it’s not possible to get a large/heavy set of premade stairs into position, or you’re renovating an existing flight of stairs and to rip it out represents logistical and cost prohibitions. Just my thoughts. Let me know if I’ve misunderstood your question.

    Reply
  58. Terrie

    Hi Norm,

    I recently thought about adding skirt boards on both sides of my closed stairs. The only problem is I had new carpet laid a few months ago. Is it possible to add a skirt board on top of carpet or would it not look good?

    Thanks,

    Terrie

    Reply
  59. Norm Yeager

    Terrie,
    Typically in today’s homes skirt boards are installed first, prior to carpet installation,as part of the stair structure The treads and risers are routed into the stringer and the stringer serves as structural support as well as the finished skirt. An alternative method, what the article describes, is to install the risers and treads and then scribe the skirts over them. In both instances you’re working with hard surfaces. It’s not as difficult to fit a soft material to a hard surface as vice versa. That’s one of the reasons carpet is installed after finish carpentry and painting etc. has been completed, as well as keeping it clean/stain free until most other operations have been completed.
    That being said I think it usually looks better to have skirt boards than to not have them. If I were in your place and wanted to have skirt boards I would try a small section of the stairs first to see how the skirt will fit over the carpet. (The best, but maybe impractical/cost prohibitive thing to do would be remove the carpet, install the skirts and then reinstall carpet or one of the newer hardwood systems of treads and risers over the existing treads)
    In order to scribe the stairs with the carpet I believe it would be best to finish nail a strip of 1/4″ plywood over the carpet and into the wood below adjacent to each tread and riser that presses the carpet down and gives a hard surface to scribe to. After scribing they could be easily removed and the finished skirt pressed into the carpet. It may be necessary to use some type of “hook” to pull as many carpet fibers out from under the skirt. That would enable the skirt to fit tighter to the structure underneath and also make the fit look better.
    That’s a long answer to a short question. Hopefully it helps, or someone else has an alternative suggestion.

    Reply
  60. Allen Doolittle

    Norm,
    I’m a hobbyist and approaching my first skirt scribe job… for my own house. So although your article is 3 years old, it’s very timely! Regarding the coping vs cutting the nosing, I’ve elected to attempt the cutting due to 2 fairly new tools (in the grand scheme of things), these are the Multi Max, and the 0 clearance Dremel Saw Max. I think these should help me wack these bad-boys in a hurry.

    Now to the question: I have a 14 foot run ( 12 steps) with an inch-higher rise at the top and a 1/2 height step at the bottom. I’m not finding material handy for the task, so I thought I’d just buy oak plywood, rip them to width 10″ or so, and butt them. 2 pieces should do it. Can you offer any special suggestions for getting these butts to line up? Thanks

    Reply
    • Norm Yeaqger

      Either coping or cutting will work. Some pictures posted previously are evidence of the cutting method. I prefer coping because the joint line of site is not staring you in the face as you climb the stairs. When you trace the profile of the nosing on the skirt it really is a simple job to cut it out. I’ve been doing this a long time and I have yet to have a coping saw “get away from me”
      I think 1×12 x16′ would work for your job but not positive. The oak plywood will work as well. You probably will want to snap a line along the top of the material instead of using registration marks as shown on the drawings. You will have to scribe both pieces separately (I think) and then using registration marks, cut and join them together. Biscuits or Pocket screws should work. If it’s your 1st time why don’t you try a test piece with cardboard or 1/4″ luan to get the feel of things. The difference in riser heights will not matter if you follow the instructions. Just set your oak scriber sticks slightly more that the highest riser and slightly longer that the longest tread.

      Reply
    • Norm Yeager

      I try to maintain between 1&1/4 & 1&1/2″. That allows enough flex in the skirt to slide it into place and also enough material above the nosing to wrap carpet (if the stairs are carpeted) around the tread. I’ve often scribed a larger skirt and after everything fits right then rip the top edge off to maintain the clearance I want over the tread nosing. Another advantage in keeping the material over the tread to a minimum is that you can finish nail through the skirt into the nosing, drawing it up tight.

      Reply
  61. Vu

    Hi Norm,

    I asked this over at Carl’s article (which referenced your article) but I don’t see any replies from him so I’d like to ask here instead.

    I just took off carpet from floors and stairs. What’s left is plywood treads and risers. I intend on putting new treads on top of the plywood.

    1. Would it be better to install the skirt first and then the treads on afterward flushed to the side skirts?

    -or-

    2. Install the treads first and leave 1/8 expansion gaps on the ends and then cover that up with the skirt? Do treads expand at the ends? I’m not sure. From all I’ve seen for stair remodels, the treads look like they’re pretty flushed to the walls (or skirts) on the ends. Wood expand/contracts so I’m not understanding why wood reads would be any different? I’ve only read of a couple references where they say wood moves very little at the ends (vs. depth wise — hence expansion gaps for hardwood floors installs).

    Would appreciate your opinion on this. Thanks Norm!

    Reply
  62. Norm Yeager

    Vu,
    If I were in your situation and this is a one time event rather than learning how to scribe skirt boards I’d probably install the skirt first and then butt the treads to it. The treads will not shrink enough in the length direction to make a difference. Wood shrinks primarily in the width direction and that can be significant. I presume you’re using kiln dried material . Set the treads (with spacers between so air circulates around the entire tread) in the area of the stairs for a week or two so they can acclimate to the conditions and shrinkage will not be a problem. One other suggestion is to look on line for a tread fitting jig. You can make one yourself once you see one. It’s basically an arm with a sliding/lockable piece of plywood on both ends that you fit against skirt on both ends, lock in place and then remove it and use it as a template. It’s pretty foolproof. The skill there comes in cutting the treads. If you’re not experienced in fine cutting the best bet may be a sliding compound miter saw where you can “sneak up” on the cut line. Hope this helps.

    Reply
    • Vu

      Norm,

      Thank you for the quick reply; you’ve saved me some time with your response. You’re spot on: it’s a one time event. (I’m attaching pics of the stairs that I’m remodeling. It’s a split level house with an entry way that splits to a top and bottom set of stairs. I just removed 25year old carpeting from it). Regardless of the method I was going to use for the skirts, yours and Carl’s articles are invaluable.

      For the treads, I intend to use 3/4in kiln dried boards. I’ll use a jig for the templates, dry fit, pre-stain them, and then use PL adhesive + nail gun for installation. The boards will be flushed to the new skirts and have a nose overhang as well. Thanks for advising me to acclimate the treads as well and using a sliding compound miter saw.

      I’m attaching some pics of what the stairs and entry way looked like before and after the removal of carpet and tile. If you see anything else that you’d recommend, I’d greatly appreciate it.

      Again, thank you for your helpful tips for this DIYer.

      Reply
  63. Norm Yeager

    Vu,
    A couple thoughts. Typically treads are 1″ thick. At least the nosing that overhangs the riser. “Retro” treads are being sold that are appx. 1/2″ thick but they come with a 1″ nosing. My concern would be that the nosings are going to look skimpy. You could glue & clamp 1/4″ pieces to the over hang portion of your 3/4″ treads, or, glue a 1′ piece onto the overhang portion. Then you would rout the radius onto top & bottom of the nosing. One word of caution is that the nosing if glued on it will be vulnerable to coming loose by repeated footsteps on it. It has to be glued carefully with high quality glue and biscuits/dowels.
    etc. The 1/4″ piece glued on the bottom of the 3/4″ would be stronger in that respect. From the upper pictures on it looks like the nosings on the upper flight will be very close to hitting the existing. Most codes require appx. 1&3/8″ nosing overhangs give or take. You may have to remove a strip of plywood at your landing on the lower flight and top floor to have a nosing overhang in both places.. Nice project, it will be a big improvement.

    Reply
  64. David Perea

    Hey Norm, I found this article very helpful. I’m finishing my own basement and need to do this for both sides of the stairway down. I plan on carpeting over the steps, so don’t think I need to be perfect, but had a few questions…

    1) What type of wood do you typically buy for this? My run is about 12′, so I was just going to buy perhaps a 1×10 at the required length. In the big box stores like Menards, they have 14′ “skirtboard”, but it’s pretty thin and flimsy and not sure it’s going to give me the “wood” finish I would like.

    2) I can’t seem to find info on the finishing. All my trim is going to be white and I want this to be painted white as well. Do I paint it first and put it on or do you paint it after the fact?

    3) You mention the base cap on the top of the finished skirt, does that dictate that I use a certain kind of wood and width? I just don’t want to finish it and then have a hard edge on the top that I can’t find an easy way to finish it off.

    Thanks so much for your article, it’s been a great adventure learning all this.

    Reply
  65. Norm Yeager

    David,
    1). I’m not familiar with the Menard’s “skirtboard”. I typically use a 1×10 or 1×12 which is 3/4″ thick and not at all flimsy. Here in SC I can get 1X12 which is straight and comes preprimed. Any 1x material should be fine as long as it’s straight. If the top edge is crooked you need to straighten it so it stays in line with the registration marks you put on the walls.
    2). If your material isn’t primed, I’d prime it before scribing. It will help your scribed lines to show up better and be easier to follow when you cut. If your going to put on two finish coats I’d prime and put the first finish coat on then scribe. Finish coat goes on after skirt is fastened in place.
    3). In older homes the base often consisted of three pieces. A shoe moulding at the floor, then a 1x base followed by a cap moulding that went on top. Each of these pieces served a purpose. The shoe moulding fit tight to the floor which was typically hardwood and then tight to the base piece that was nailed to the wall. The shoe was nailed to the floor and not the base. It’s job was to follow any irregularities of the floor and account for any shrinkage of the floor assembly. The base went on the wall and could be any height the builder/owner wanted. The base cap went on top of the base and was nailed to the wall. It took care of any irregularities of the wall that a 1x couldn’t follow. In today’s world you seldom see a three piece base. With carpet in the floor there’s no reason to install at the floor. Whatever the profile is on the top of your base I would run it up the skirtboard as well. At many lumber yards you can get a cap that matches the top of the base. I like to have that cap join the base at the top and the bottom. It makes the job look like it was well thought out. I’ve seen many skirtboards terminate at a “plinth” block at the top and bottom, but, in my opinion, it doesn’t look nearly as good as the cap continuing at the top and bottom of the skirtboard. If you can’t find a separate cap you always have the option of buying enough baseboard and then ripping the top profile off for your skirtboard cap.
    If you follow the step by step method you’ll do fine and have a finished product that you’ll be proud of.

    Reply

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