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.
|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)
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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.