7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

If you've been following along here for a while, you will already know that we are currently DIYing our way through the biggest project we have ever taken on in the house. It's slow going, mainly because we are having to right a lot of wrongs before we can make forward progress. There's no major problems with the house, but it was built during the boom and the workmanship overall is substandard. I mean, it's fine ... but I want better.  

While the work we did on the staircase is mostly particular to our own situation, the reason I want to share about it is to inspire some ideas and to show what's possible. You might think it's not feasible to make changes to such a major architectural feature in your home, but it's actually very doable. You don't have to live with something you don't like - it is always possible to make improvements.

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The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

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1. Taking It Apart - And Putting It Back Together Again

You may remember that we had dismantled the top flight of stairs in order to build a new wall in the loft. Before we did, we numbered each piece so we knew exactly where to put them back. 

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

So that just proves that it's possible to actually completely remove a staircase and start again if you want. Or, like us, you can just change the parts you don't like.

2. Reconfiguring the Handrail and Newel Post

When we moved in, it bugged me that the handrail on the first floor met one of the newel posts at a very awkward point.

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

To resolve this, we dropped the newel post a little so that it would meet the handrail where it should.

In order to disconnect the handrail from the newel post, we drilled out the wooden plugs covering the screws and then removed the screws themselves.

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

The newel post had been erected in sections, so next we pried the top part off its base.

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

To cut a straight line through the base, we screwed a couple of boards to the newel post to use as guide rails. Since we planned on painting the staircase afterwards, it would be easy to fill those screwholes and paint over them later.

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly StaircaseQuick note: We used a circular saw for our first cut, but for subsequent cuts we found it easier to use a hand saw as you will see below. 

The next step was to reshape the base of the newel post like it had been originally. To do this, we used a belt sander to round off each corner.

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

In order to reassemble the newel post, we had to deepen the hole for the dowel as it had been made shallower when we cut through it. We used a drill and a spade bit for that job.

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

After that, we just reassembled the newel post again, adding lots of glue where the parts join.

For a perfect finish, we used a plug cutter attached to the drill to make new plugs to hide the screws.

 The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

It looks so much better now with the handrail meeting the newel post where it should.

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

3. Realigining the Balustrade

On the first floor, where the staircase rises from the ground floor, the balustrades were asymmetrical. On the left side, the balustrade came in front of the newel post; on the right side, the balustrade ran into the side of the newel post.

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

The imbalance made me nuts! So that was next to be tackled. Because the balustrade on the right was shorter, that was the one we chose to change. We started by dismantling the balustrade.

Next, we needed to make a channel in the floor for the shoe rail. This is the part of the stairs that the balusters sit into at floor level. 

At one side of the newel post, Hubby was able to use the circular saw to cut into the solid wood floor. However, in front of the newel post, the shoe rail needed to be closer to the post, so there wasn't space to run the circular saw. For that part, Hubby chiseled out the required section of floor. 

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

You can buy stair parts in any builders' providers, but we were able to recycle the balustrade we had removed from the loft when we built the new wall up there.

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

As you can see, not all of the salvaged stair parts were in perfect condition. However, we were able to clean out the remnants of glue and splintered wood to reuse the shoe rail. 

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

By cutting up some scrap wood, Hubby was able to make a new set of fillets, the thin strips of wood that fill the gaps in the shoe rail between the balusters.

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

He then rebuilt that side of the staircase using leftover pieces from the ballustrade we removed from the loft.

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

4. Replacing the Newel Caps

The original round newel caps would have been perfectly fine had it not been for the fact that some of them were not in great condition (the tops were misshapen and rough). Since we were doing so much other work on the staircase anyway, I thought it was a good opportunity to replace them with something more elaborate, and I chose these acorn newel caps.

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

In the cases where we had already removed the newel posts to do other work, we used the chop saw to cut the ball newel caps off the tops. 

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

For the ones that weren't being taken out, we again attached guide rails to the newel posts and cut the ball finials off the tops using a hand saw. 

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

We needed to make holes in the tops of the newel posts to accommodate the dowels of the replacement newel caps. For this, we again used a drill and spade bit. A drill press helped to ensure that the drill was held perfectly vertically while we drilled.

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

To make the join between the newel post and the newel cap extra secure, we used wood-to-wood dowel screws. These are basically double-headed screws that screwed down into the newel post and up into the newel cap. We also used plenty of wood glue to ensure that the caps were securely joined onto the posts. 

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

I really love the look of these acorn newel caps! 

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

The only tricky part of this job was when it came to the half newel post against the wall. You can buy half newel caps, so that was fine. However, we needed to drill a large hole into the top of the post ... and it's not possible to drill a semicircular hole! So Hubby came up with the clever idea of using the wood we'd cut off to fill out the other side. By recycling the wood from the post itself, we were also able to ensure that both sides were of equal density so that the drill would bore evenly through the post. Once the hole was made, we removed the extra wood again to reveal the semicircular hole.

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

Then we screwed through from the back to join the two pieces before fixing it to the wall.

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

5. Adding Newel Drops

Having upgraded the tops of the newel posts, next it was time to turn our attentions to the bottom ends. In a few places, our newel posts extended longer than they needed to and even protruded through the ceiling below. It looked really strange to see the butt of a post sticking out of the plaster! Because of the way the stairs was constructed and integrated into the structure of the house, it wasn't possible to cut off these ends. So instead I decided to improve how they look by adding newel drops

Newel drops are essentially the same as newel caps except that they tend to be lower profile. For some reason, I couldn't find these available for sale anywhere in Europe, so I purchased some off Amazon.com and I had them shipped here using the An Post AddressPal service. When they arrived, I was disasppointed to find that they were very poorly finished. However, we were able to sand them to a smoother finish. 

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

Before adding the newel drops, we extended the posts a little. The main reason for this is that we wanted to add the same curved shape to the bottoms of the posts that was used at the tops. However, the posts were too close to the ceiling and the bottom of the stairs to allow us enough space to work with the belt sander. Besides, it was much easier to make the curved shape first rather than work above our heads with power tools. So we assembled the curved extensions with the newel caps first; then screwed and glued them onto the bottoms of the newel posts. 

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

We used wood filler to blend the joins between the different pieces of wood, and sanded it to a smooth finish.

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

One of the newel posts was against the wall, so we had to chop down the part we added onto that one to make it fit.

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

On the top flight of stairs, just one newel post protruded underneath. Again, I disliked the assymmetry. 

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

So as well as extending the existing newel post (as you can see in progress here) and adding a newel cap, we also added a matching fake one at the opposite side to balance it out.

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

Obviously, these will all be painted to blend in with the rest of the staircase.

6. Aligning the Misaligned

The view of our staircase as you walked down to the ground floor always bugged me. Firstly, the newel post stopped at a weird place that did not line up with any other part of the stairs.

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

Another part of the problem was that the subfloor on the first floor is off-level. Although we have addressed the crooked subfloor in other areas, this is not somewhere we're interested in changing here because that would be a massive job and you don't really notice it except from this angle looking back up. However, because of the slope, the builders had bodged the panel used to cover that part of the floor: it was badly cut to shape and the raw edges of the MDF were poorly finished. 

The first step was to remove the bodged panel. Then we cut a notch out of the base of the newel post. Finally Hubby cut a new panel to replace the one we'd removed. The new panel covers the bottom of the newel post that we notched out, so that the remaining part looks like it stops at floor level.

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

Is it perfect? No. But you choose your battles, and I am confident that if I hadn't pointed it out to you, you would never notice it in real life.  

7. Finishing Touches 

One of the biggest flaws of our staircase is the poor quality of wood used in its construction. That meant a lot of time spent filling knotholes in preparation for painting. There were also these gaps between the stringer and the steps and various other spots where parts of the staircase were poorly joined.

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase
Ignore all the plaster dust! Obviously that will be removed before we paint.

We used wood filler to fill the various knotholes, and decorator's caulk for any joints that were liable to flex. I find it helpful to prime the wood before this step because it makes such flaws more easily visible. After repairing, those spots can be touched up very quickly before proceeding to paint. 

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

Paint, of course, is the biggest single difference you can make, and is one of the easiest things to do. Once I'm finished painting these stairs, I'll post updated pictures to show the full effect.

When we get around to adding the wall panelling alongside the stairs, we will take that opportunity to improve the lines on the stair return. Currently there are too many changes of level where the stairs meets the wall. It may not be obvious in the photo, but as you walk up the stairs you can see no fewer than six different slopes! My plan is to simplify that as much as possible. 

The HOUSE that Will | 7 Ways to Improve an Ugly Staircase

As you can see from some of the photos in this post, I've already started priming the woodwork and some of it has also been painted. We're going to leave the steps until last as we'll be busy walking up and down those in the coming weeks as we construct the wall panelling and do painting and wallpapering on the upper floors. 

So there's lots more to come for this space. I hope you've enjoyed seeing the progress we've made to date and that you will come back to see more updates as we continue this mammoth project. Most of all, I hope it gives you the confidence to tackle those parts of your home that you'd like to see changed. 

norma

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