Staircases are often under-appreciated in contemporary architecture, which is perhaps why finding a period home with an original staircase feels so magical. Historically designed to reflect the wealth and status of a property and its owner, the intricate spindles, carved handrails and sweeping bullnose starting steps still add an inimitable charm and grandeur to the ambience of a home.
When repairing and restoring a period staircase, the most important part is to ensure structural safety, rather than salvaging every scrap of original material. If at any stage you are unsure about the stability of your staircase, or would like a second opinion about the extent of required work, it’s always best to obtain professional advice. Historic England provides guidance for owners of listed buildings all over the UK, and specialist building investigators like Hutton & Rostron are available to offer restoration assistance that is sensitive to the needs of historic property.
The parts of your staircase
Once you’re ready to work on your staircase, you should familiarize yourself with its various parts.
The steps themselves consist of horizontal ‘treads’ and vertical ‘risers’, supported underneath by a ‘stringer’ that is usually cut into the shape of the steps. The front of each tread usually features ‘nosing’ that protrudes over the top of the riser.
Moving upwards, the handrail is supported by many vertical ‘balusters’ or spindles, and typically concluded with a ‘newel’ post that may be plain or curved into a ‘volute’.
Depending on the extravagance of your staircase you may find many other features that need identifying, however for the purpose of basic maintenance, this is all you will need to know for now.
Typical problems with period staircases
Natural wear and tear
Staircases are high-traffic areas of the home, and are susceptible to extensive wear and tear, no matter how careful we are. Look out for worn nosings as the front of steps get smoothed over time (causing a serious slip hazard). Depending on the level of wear, the front part of a tread can be cut away and replaced with a similar piece of timber. However, make sure this is appropriately glued, screwed or nailed into place. If the whole tread is worn and warped, replace it.
Noticeably damaged sections of your staircase, like spindles, treads or balusters are a serious hazard and should be dealt with as soon as possible.
Broken spindles may be glued back together or reinforced with a dowel between them. If they are not reparable or are missing altogether, it may be best to look for a near match at a local salvage yard or find a traditional wood turner to make a copy.
Creaking steps can usually be attributed to loose joints between the tread and riser. The easiest way to fix this is to nail through the top of the tread into the riser below. If you can access the underside of the steps, you should be able to see blocks along the join of the riser and tread. Check that these are secure (re-gluing if necessary), and replace any that are missing.
If parts of your staircase have become weak due to rot, they will need to be replaced. A specialist joiner will be able to cut out small affected sections and “splice” in complementary wood to repair the gaps, although it’s best to remove larger pieces completely and replace them with a like-for-like part.
When rot is discovered in any part of a building, it’s important that the cause of damp is identified and eliminated to prevent a recurring issue. It’s best to repair the source and allow all timber to dry out before making changes to areas affected by damp.
Wood-boring beetles, also known as woodworm, are a very real threat to a hardwood staircase. The good news is that these insects are only attracted to certain kinds of wood in very specific conditions, so if you notice tell-tale holes in your staircase (or anywhere else for that matter), it doesn’t necessarily mean that the timber is currently infested.
Typically, these beetles will only lay eggs in hardwoods with a moisture content of at least 28% (far above that of the average home). They are also drawn to the softer outer layers of a tree, known as sapwood, so handrails or treads made from solid heartwood should be safe.
To check for woodworm, look for tiny piles of dust next to the exit holes, which should be at least a few shades paler than the surrounding timber (wood that is exposed to sunlight will gradually darken over time, but the inner layers will remain lighter).
Chipped or flaking paintwork
Historically only the most expensive woods would be left exposed, while softer woods like pine would be painted. Over the generations this paintwork has typically been added to (rather than stripped back and painted fresh), which causes fine details to become lost.
If your staircase needs repainting, strip and sand away all its existing paint to start from scratch. Don’t expect a hidden treasure to be revealed underneath though; if it’s been covered in paint then it’s more than likely to be constructed from an inexpensive wood.
While it may be satisfying to renovate one of the most central features in your home, keep in mind that your period staircase may be hundreds of years old. There’s no shame in consulting with a professional to make sure that it can be enjoyed for many more years to come!