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Scribing Stair Skirt Boards Revisited

When I first read Norm’s article on skirt scribing, four thoughts immediately came to mind:

1) He and I both learned the technique from the same instructor, Don Zepp.
2) Norm’s explanation of the process was spot on.
3) I had a bunch of photos of a skirt board I had installed that I should share with others.
4) I felt exactly like Norm did: Don Zepp was absolutely the best instructor I’ve ever had the good fortune of learning from.

Most carpenters never even consider scribing a skirt board to a finished set of stairs. I mean, after all, it’d be foolish to think that you could make so many intricate cuts and expect to end up with a flawless fit.

The truth is that the process is quite simple, and it can be done without ever touching a tape measure…really.

As you’ll see, the photos I took 20 years ago match up almost perfectly with the illustrations in Norm’s article. I’ve included my comments and observations on the nuances involved with this scribing process below.

After tacking the rough skirt board on top of the treads…

0100-1

(Note: Click any image to enlarge)

0200-1 …you’ll notice that the lower edge of the skirt doesn’t touch the edge of each tread.

It’s been my observation that no matter how fussy you are with the riser/tread layout and installation, there will always be some minor discrepancies along the flight. That’s why this scribing technique works so well—it accommodates any irregularities found in the final positioning of the treads and risers.

I start by transferring the top height of the tread onto a 3/8 x 3/4 oak scribe stick that’s a couple of inches longer than the tread depth. 0300-1
Then I carefully drill a pilot hole slightly smaller than the diameter of the brad, and drive a brad through the stick. I like to sharpen the brad point for a near razor-like scribe line. 0400-1

Next, I scribe the level lines onto the skirt board, starting on the finish floor, and working my way up the flight of stairs. It’s important to keep the stick plumb. I typically make one light pass to “set” the initial line, and then follow up with a couple more passes to really engrave the line in the skirt board.

Making a thin, deep scribe line goes a long way towards preventing tear out when you start making the cuts. I darkened the scribes lines using a pencil to make them more visible in the photos. 0501-1
0502-1 The line in the photo extending from the top of the tread onto the skirt board is referencing the tread below the line. The scribe line has no relationship to the tread it extends from. In this photo, the scribe line I’m working on is referencing the finish floor—not the first tread.
When I’ve marked all the level (tread) scribe lines, I mark a reference line along the top edge of the skirt so I can reposition the skirt accurately—at precisely the same angle—when it’s time to scribe the risers. 0504-1
0505-1 After pulling the skirt off the wall, I cut the bottom of the skirt at the lowest scribe line, and tack it back up on the wall, using the reference line to position the skirt at the original angle.
Next, I remove the brad from my scribe stick, and I transfer the nosing length of the tread onto the scribe stick. 0600-1
0601-1 Then I drill another pilot hole at the mark, drive the brad through the stick at the new location, and start scribing the nosing edge and the riser faces onto the skirt board.
0602-1 0603-1

After I’ve scribed the risers and nosings, I pull the skirt off the wall and I set it on some horses. Using a scrap piece of tread material, I connect the dots between the riser, nosing, and tread for the entire flight of stairs. When all the steps are marked out, I break out the saw…

0700-1 0710-1
…and I carefully cut just to the scribe line. 0720-1

When the scribe lines are cut sharp and deep, and you’re careful not to cross the scribe line with the saw, there’s virtually no tear-out. I use a slight back-cut angle of about 4 to 5 degrees—this helps ensure a really tight fit when the skirt is driven into place. While the skirt is on the horses, I also cut the ends to match the baseboard at top and bottom.

0801-1 I set the skirt in place a few inches shy of its final position, and slide the skirt as far as I can into its final position to confirm all looks right.
Once I’m satisfied that it’s a good fit, I use a block to drive the skirt home for the final fit. 0802-1

0803-2

If you’re attempting to scribe a skirt for the first time, here’s my best advice: get a piece of scrap that will cover two or three steps, run through the process I describe, and confirm you get a good fit. You’ll only need to practice it once—it really is that simple.

A word about craftsmanship…

Learning your craft in the world of trades is a unique proposition. Most of the learning takes place on the job site, with veteran tradespeople parsing out nuggets of wisdom and dazzling co-workers with an elegant approach that includes quality, ease, and speed.

Reference resources abound (TiC, the Journal of Light Construction, WOODWEB.com—the list goes on and on) and are also great ways to learn.

And there are hands-on demonstrations, like the Katz Roadshow and JLC LIVE.

I was fortunate to have attended a three-year, post-high school trade/tech school, the Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades. My three-year trade degree was in masonry, but while I was there, I was always keeping an eye on the carpentry shop. With Don Zepp at the helm, the building trade students at the school considered it the place to be.

After I graduated, I asked Don Zepp if I could sit in on his theory classes. Thankfully, he welcomed me. So in some ways, I double dipped my trade education. I’ve been fortunate to have spent time around some of the best tradespeople and craftsmen in the business.

The key to learning, regardless of the venue, is to always pay attention.

And keep in mind: while it’s true that you learn from your mistakes, in my experience, it’s way more productive to learn by observing the other guy’s mistakes.

• • •

AUTHOR BIO

IMG_0115_2Carl Hagstrom graduated from Williamson Trade School in 1974, and he has been involved in residential construction-related activities ever since.

In 1982, he and his wife, Bev, moved to Montrose, PA, where he continued to run his own construction business.

Carl started writing for the Journal of Light Construction in the late 80s, and is now a contributing editor at the magazine. In 1994, he became certified as a professional building designer member of the American Institute of Building Design, and in the same year he started WOODWEB.com with his business partner, Michael Poster.

Acknowledgements:

Carl would like to give a tip of the hat to Todd Murdock for putting together the illustrations for Norm Yeager’s article—it’s uncanny how Todd’s illustrations mirror the photos Carl took 20 years ago.

Comments/Discussion

42 Responses to “Scribing Stair Skirt Boards Revisited”

  1. Mike Hawkins

    Very nice and simple process. Who would think it could be so simple. Nice article,
    Mike Hawkins

    Reply
  2. Kirby Dolak

    Carl,

    Great article. Don Zepp would have been proud of you – passing the baton to future generations of craftsmen!

    For renovation work on ‘older’ homes with many inconsistencies in rise and run, how have you modified your technique? After making the first bottom cut do you go back and modify/adjust the tread layout to match, then the risers? Or are there other tricks, lessons learned for dealing with not so perfectly layed out stairs?

    Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  3. harlan

    @ Kirby, re “inconsistencies:”

    The important thing to realize is that each possibly-irregular surface is used as the scribe reference for its own cut.

    Looking at the last picture before the saw comes into play, it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that you could make the horizontal scribe lines by tracing the underside of a straightedge laid on the treads.

    THAT would get you into the kind of trouble you refer to. But with Carl’s technique, each surface is the pattern for its own cutline:

    The horizontal lines are all scribed with the stock directly ABOVE its finished position, and all of the vertical lines are scribed with the stock down to finished level, and directly to the LEFT of finished position.

    The only thing that could go wrong would be if the existing floor sloped up and away to the left, holding the stringer a bit too high for the vertical scribe process.

    But Carl has left a little gap there for shoe, so he has removed that risk.

    I love my old pencil-compass scriber by Starrett, with an old Lady Cross (no pocket clip) mechanical pencil for extra stiffness and a line that stays in exactly the same place, even if I break the lead, and have to “sharpen” it.

    But a Veritas log scribe would probably be the best tool, with its level bubbles to help guard against tipping the scribes.

    Reply
  4. Fred West

    Carl,

    Thank you, Norm and Don Zepp for a wonderful method of installing the skirt board. I believe that Don would be very pleased to see you passing on his knowledge. Whether you are teaching, as Don did, or through a platform like this, the propagation of this information continues. No one can ask for more.

    Thank you,

    Fred

    Reply
  5. Joe Novack

    I was a custom home builder for 25 years before ‘retiring’. I started teaching HS Carpentry 10 years ago. (Now, Woodworking, as budget cuts made the resources needed for Carpentry too expensive.) This article touches both my contractor and teacher hearts. Well written article that offers an easy, yet elegant, solution to the problem and opens the door to solving so many other ‘like’ issues.
    Makes me want to strap on my belt again and start scribing stairs just for the pure self-indulgent enjoyment of doing good work.
    Thanks for that…
    Joe

    Reply
  6. Keith Petersen

    Great article. Do you think this would work on carpeted stairs?

    Reply
    • Ray Habenicht

      Hi. Nice work! Looks great.

      Dave said:
      “The timing of this learning lesson is uncanny, thank you.”

      Yeah. I was just doing this two weeks ago for a stair that they forgot to space the carriage away from the wall on.

      Reply
      • Ray Habenicht

        Didn’t mean to reply to Keith with that.

        However, I did want to say to Keith that it could definitely work on carpeted stairs. Before the carpet goes on would be best though (if that is the case I wouldn’t cut the nosing on the skirt but rather a square notch from the nosing of the stair).

        Reply
  7. chaim gottesman

    Thanks,
    I don’t do much of this kind of work but it’s a trick worth knowing and holding onto.
    Chaim

    Reply
  8. Paul Chek

    Very nice. Several years ago I had to install a skirt board on existing steps. I sure wish I had know about this great trick. The pictures are worth 10,000 words!

    Thanks

    Reply
  9. harlan

    I first scribed a skirt like this back in the 70s. I had scribed boards before that needed to be slid in on a 45º angle or so — irregular wall meets irregular ceiling, and things like that. For those situations, you had to hold the scribers at a 45º angle, and scribe both edges in the same process.

    But when I took on that skirt job, it was clear that a one-step process would not work. Some other technique was needed, and I muddled my way into a two-stage process very similar to the one described here.

    One thing that always helps those of us in the trades is a common language. Are there folks out there who have a term for this process? If not, what do you guys think works best:

    Compound scribe?

    Two-stage scribe?

    Two-plane scribe?

    X/Y scribe?

    If there isn’t already a term for it, I guess I’d lean towards that last descriptor. Or perhaps better still, to communicate a bit more clearly what is needed,

    Two-stage, X/Y scribe.

    Reply
  10. Neal Schwabauer

    Great, just great.
    Next, could someone do a blind dado for stairs in a skirt board?

    Reply
  11. george jackson

    After pulling the skirt the first time and cutting the bottom of the skirt to rest on the floor, it seems to me that you just moved each of your scoring marks down one stair. If the risers happened not to all be exactly the same height, wouldn’t that throw your measurements and ultimately, your cuts off?

    Reply
    • harlan

      In photos #5 and #6, the author is shown scribing the bottom of the skirt to the floor, and in the very end, it will drop straight down from there, on the Y axis. Likewise with every tread — any hollow or hump in each tread is transferred vertically to the skirt board.

      But in order to scribe the risers and nosings, the skirt has to be on the correct X axis, which the author can do once he has made the bottom cut on the skirt.

      You are correct that the author slides the skirt off to the left, and out of position vertically. After all of the cuts have been made, though, he will slide it back along the X axis, until it has returned to the original Y axis.

      It is impossible to scribe both axes cleanly in one operation.

      Reply
  12. David Tuttle

    I’m going to have to read the first article but I just got it, along with the comment from Kirby that it’s scribed to each relative part. Thanks so much.

    Reply
  13. Jonathan Sell

    Carl. I just read the article and saw that you graduated from Williamson. I also went there – 9W8 I was a “bricky” as well. Construction Technology – Masonry. We should connect sometime. I have had my own business for a little over three years now. Jon

    Reply
  14. Tim

    Carl,

    I have been educated. Job well done. Thanks so much for the great article, which I am sure will be utilized someday soon in a future customers home. Would anyone build a set of stairs in a new home with the plan of installing a skirt board with this scribe method rather than doing the typical 2×4 space between studs and stringers and “dropping in” the skirt board before risers and treads are installed? Perhaps some think the scribed skirt board is less work than scribing each tread to the skirt? Any comments would be appreciated. Thanks. Tim

    Reply
    • j watson

      I completed eight flights just this week using this technique. I don’t think there was a plan in place that the stringers would be scribed-in, but I would plan to do this from the beginning. It has the benefit of hiding the cuts when viewed from above and also locks-in the treads and risers (from the front and top, anyway),like a housed stringer.

      JW

      Reply
  15. Steve in NC

    What’s the bevel setting of the jigsaw ?

    5 deg too much ?

    Reply
  16. Drumkid1

    If the treads differed in height slightly wouldn’t that affect the accuracy? Would you than have to change the height of the brad for each tread? Great article !! I really appreciate it. Thank you

    Reply
    • harlan

      “If the treads differed in height… Would you than (sic) have to change the height of the brad for each tread?”

      No, the basic principle for any kind of scribe is that the entire finished piece has to move over (or up, or down) a set amount, dictated by a single setting of the scribing device. This amount should be equal to, or slightly greater than, the largest gap.

      If a given tread is lower, or has a big hollow in the middle, say, then the scribing device won’t reach up as high, referencing as it does off of those low spots. The scribe’s mark will then be that much lower on the skirt:

      If one tread is 1/16” lower than all of the other treads, the scribe mark will reflect that, and tell you to remove that much less waste stock right there.

      Likewise, if one tread is 1/16” higher than the rest, the scribe mark will tell you to remove that much more waste stock, which would otherwise have kept the finished piece from settling into place on the rest of the treads.

      Reply
  17. Wayne McWilliams

    Carl,
    I was very pleased to see Don’s method described so well. I too went to Williamson 8W5 and had the privilege to learn from such a great carpenter/stair builder. One thing that you forgot to mention though is that when he used to demonstrate this method he also used to tell us that when he was done, he would tell the customer that if they could slide a new dollar bill between the skirt board and the treads or risers anywhere along the stair flight, he would do the job for free. He was that sure of this method. Oh, and by the way, he always used hand tools when he demonstrated it. He was also a very gifted master stair builder. We were all very blessed to have studied under such a great man. He may no longer be with us, but his methods will stand the test of time. Thanks for the memory.
    Wayne McWilliams 8W5

    Reply
  18. Micah Eckenfels

    I was very pleased to read the first version of this article a few months ago. I also enjoyed the clarifications in this article. I am always excited to learn new techniques. Shortly after the first article was published I was called on to do this exact thing on a completed house. I must admit I was skeptical but I am a believer now after having completed my project. Excellent article. Keep up the good work.

    Reply
  19. JLS

    Who is that young guy with the dark hair in the photos? He looks so familiar but then….. my memory is fading…

    Reply
  20. Penny

    Thank you so much for sharing this information! I can’t believe I stumbled onto your post this morning.
    Do you have a lesson in how to close in a stringer? I have two flights of stairs so I can build a wall on the upper one.
    Thank you!
    Penny in Colorado

    Reply
    • Penny

      Can’t…can’t build a wall. Could I attach a piece of plywood approximately 12″ high and run it up the side of the treads and risers?
      Thanks,
      Penny

      Reply
  21. William G

    Great article.

    Don’t builders these days typically leave a gap between the tread and the wall on purpose? In this way there is no cutting the skirt to fit “on to” the stair but rather the bottom and top of the skirt is cut and the whole piece just slides into the gap. Or is that only done by builders when they know that the stairs will only be carpeted?

    Bill

    Reply
  22. j. Watson

    I finally got a chance to put this method to work for me.
    I had a series of flights of stairs in a new house where the treads and risers were installed before the baseboard detail was decided upon.
    Had I never read this article, I might have had much anxiety about scribing in a skirt board, if that’s the way it played out. Instead, I was looking forward to it, as scribing-in is one of my favorite tasks.
    Indeed, skirts were the call. The treads are of the same distressed oak as the floors (and some are 18″!), so I’d have lost the $20 that Mr. Zepp earned with his micro-tight scribes, but my results were quick and clean.
    I missed Norm’s article the first time around with the tip to round the bottom of the scribe, but figured it out in the field. Also, I found that the little OOK nails, the black ones with the brass, knurled collars, from the picture hanging kits made great sharp and reusable scribers.

    Thanks, again, to TIC and all the contributors.

    JW

    Reply
  23. Rick Morcos

    Can I trace the completed board on to another board for the opposite side. I’m pretty sure I know the risks.

    Reply
    • j watson

      Hi Rick—

      This scribe method is such a slam-dunk. If you’re happy with the one side, you’re probably getting the technique down. With the inevitable differences from one side to the other, I bet you’d end up tossing the traced side and starting over.

      JW

      Reply
  24. Vu

    I’m glad Google pointed this article. Great info for the DIYer. I have a question for Carl or any other people here. 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. Carl’s pic of the treads look like they’re pretty flushed to the walls at the ends.

    Reply
  25. Nate

    I too am in the same situation as Vu mentioned above. It seems like installing the skirts first and then cutting the treads and risers with a 5* back-cut would give a very tight and clean fit with less effort. Any insight from a professional would be appreciated though as I am just a DIY’er

    Reply
  26. Jane Blacksmith

    I sure would love this made into an instructive Youtube video. Any hope of that?

    Reply
  27. digger dan

    thanks for taking the time to put this article together, it has helped me no end, ive been worrying about doing this job at home and now i have the technique i feel confident. thanks again.

    Reply

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