Stairs are usually just seen as a way to move between levels, not as a decorative element of their own. But stairs comprise enough interior space that they deserve to be decorated, too. You can inexpensively improve the appearance of your stairs and help them function as design elements with covers, runners, paint, or tile.
Treads and Risers
The stair tread is the horizontal surface that your walk on when you go up or down the stairs. The stair riser is the vertical portion between the treads. Not all staircases have risers.
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Install Tiles on Stair Risers
It's common to see tiles on exterior stairs, especially with Spanish-style houses. But what about installing tiles on your inside stairways?
You can install tiles on the risers of your interior stairs quite easily. If the size of the tile matches the height of the riser, you just need to attach the tiles to the risers—no cutting required.
If you do need to cut tiles, you can cut tiles cleanly with a wet tile saw. If you don't happen to have a tile saw, you can still cut the tiles with a rail-style tile cutter (sometimes called a snap tile cutter). Simply draw the tool's wheel across the face of the tile, then press down on the lever to break the tile cleanly across the line.
Whatever you end up doing with your stairs, just make sure that the stairs remain compliant with the building code in terms of riser height, stair nose projection, and tread dimensions.
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Paint Stair Risers
When you approach the stairs from the bottom, the perspective gives you a view of the risers only: no treads. Depending on the length of your staircase, you could be looking at a vertical surface of roughly 3 feet wide by 8 feet high. This is a large amount of interior real estate; it's almost like a narrow wall.
Take advantage of those stair risers and their design potential by painting them. You can go bold by painting each riser a different color or alternating colors. Such busy color schemes might not be for everyone, so you can always paint the risers a solid color that complements or blends in with the wall colors.
If you're especially artistic, you can even paint the stairs an optical illusion: a picture that assembles itself when you stand at a certain point in front of the stairs.
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Install Stair Tread and Riser Covers
The ultimate way to revamp your stairs is to remove the stair treads and risers and completely replace them. But that's more work and more cost than you need to take on—especially when there is a far easier solution.
Instead, install covers over the stair treads and risers. With these decorative covers, all parts of your stairs remain in place. Once installed, the stair tread and riser covers look exactly like the real thing.
The advantage is that you don't need to take on the task of ripping out the entire treads/risers in order to install new treads and risers. Not only that but the heavier premium hardwood used for stair treads is very expensive.
Stair refacing kits come with thin solid hardwood or engineered wood treads and risers. The pieces might be wider than your stairs but you can cut them down to size. Then, attach to your existing stairs with a nailgun or with finish nails.
Stair refacing kits do raise the level of your stairs. It's something you will notice at the first and last steps, but not in the middle part of the run.
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Apply Stair Tread Runners
Staircases can be noisy. Since they are hollow underneath, staircases amplify the sound of feet as the walker goes up or down. If you have children, you can multiply that sound several times over since kids are drawn to stairs.
Running wall-to-wall carpeting up the stairs is usually a solution. Another solution is to lay a continuous carpet runner.
One easier and less expensive alternative is to apply sisal or seagrass tread covers to the tread surfaces. Tread runners don't cut down on sound as much as a continuous carpet runner might, but they are far easier to install. Tread runners also protect your stairs against wear and tear.
Stair tread runners also help with slippery stair treads. Just make sure that the runners are securely installed so that they don't present a slip-and-fall hazard.