Staircases are generally formed from timber, stone or metal and sometimes a combination of all three. This can make them challenging to maintain and repair. As a result, problems may go undetected, especially as the underside of a staircase is often difficult to access.

In period houses original staircases reflect the status of a building and its owner, and the detailing and complexity of the construction often changes as it ascends through the different levels. The grandest section will be in the hallways, where visitors see it.

Georgian open string staircase from 1740; Wood shows signs of wear and tear

A Georgian open string staircase of about 1740 with turned balusters and carved brackets below each tread. The wood shows signs of wear and tear and layers of gloss paint have blunted the detail

Staircase structure

Most staircases are formed of a basic set of components.

  • At the end of each flight of stairs a newel post supports the handrail and the ‘string’ (a sloping timber board forming the side of the staircase) transfers the weight of the structure to the floor.
  • Balusters or spindles stand vertically in the space between the handrail and the string or tread.
  • The treads (horizontal) and risers (vertical) that form the steps are fixed to the strings, which may be ‘open’ or ‘closed’.
  • Open strings are the simplest as their upper side is cut in the shape of the steps. Closed strings have parallel edges with the treads and risers jointed into them.
  • The front part of each tread is usually curved with a ‘nosing’ projecting over the riser.
Bare timber staircase

The timber surfaces of the staircase in a period townhouse have been left bare to enjoy them all the more

Wooden staircases

One of the most common problems with wooden staircases is creaking treads, but rot, beetle infestation and simple wear and tear all take their toll. When deciding what work must be done there is always a balance between conserving the original structure and ensuring it is safe. Where the stability of a staircase is in doubt, it may be sensible to seek professional advice.

  • Repairs should be carried out in situ as removing sections from a staircase is usually disruptive and damaging
  • A good joiner should be able to make suitable repairs
  • Where parts have to be replaced due to decay, any new work should be done on a like-for-like basis using matching materials, traditional construction techniques and well-seasoned timber
  • Always deal with the cause rather than the symptoms of any damp problems near or under staircases before making repairs and allow hidden areas to dry out thoroughly
Period barley twist spindles on an open string staircase; Original late Georgian balusters

Period barley twist spindles fixed to an open string staircase; Original late Georgian balusters inspired by the Neoclassical taste for Ionic capitals

Staircase maintenance checklist

  • Powdery deposits may be a sign of beetle infestation.
  • Creaking is often due to loose joints.
  • Damaged spindles or balusters can be dangerous, so don’t put off fixing them.
  • Worn or damaged nosings on the front of treads could be a hazard.
  • Cracks in stone stairs may indicate structural movement.
  • If there is rust staining or cracking to external stone stairs, check the metal fixings.

Fixing staircase treads

Creaking treads can often be cured by screwing through the tread into the riser. Where access from underneath is possible without causing unnecessary damage, check that the blocks that hold the treads and risers together are secure and, if necessary, replace or re-glue.

Where the joints between the treads and string are loose, glue and drive new wedges into the joints from below. Badly worn treads may have to be replaced. Where only the nosings are damaged, the front edge of the tread can sometimes be cut off and replaced with a new length of suitably shaped timber screwed and glued into place.

Fixing staircase spindles

Where spindles or balusters are split or broken, it may be possible to glue and temporarily ‘splint’ them. The other option is to reinforce a broken spindle by using a dowel drilled into the end of the two halves. Where they are missing, a near match might be found at a salvage yard; alternatively, a woodturner can sometimes make copies.

Late 19th century open string staircase

A late 19th century open string staircase with mahogany handrail, made in several sections. As the stairs go upwards, the decorative cast iron balusters are replaced by wooden ones in an area not normally seen by visitors

Stone staircase maintenance

Stone stairs can be subject to structural movement that may cause cracking. While this will not necessarily pose a danger to the stability of the staircase, it is advisable to have it investigated by a surveyor or structural engineer.

Worn steps are another problem and repairs are best undertaken by a craftsman. In some cases, sections can be ‘stitched’ back together with pins and resin or new stone cut in so always keep broken pieces. Where this is done it’s vital to match the type and colour. A stonemason should be able to replicate balusters.

Simple staircase in a 200 year old cottage; Ornate Victorian wrought iron baluster; Well-worn oak stairs

A simple staircase blends in with the style of this 200 year old cottage that was originally built as two dwellings; An ornate Victorian wrought iron baluster; Pleasingly well-worn oak stairs leading to the attic in a timber framed house

Staircase ironwork

Iron balusters were used with both wooden and stone stairs. In the case of stone, they were secured using molten lead poured into holes cut in the treads. Wooden handrails were sometimes added, often of polished mahogany and these were secured from below using screws.

  • Repairs to ironwork can often be made by a blacksmith or specialist metalworker
  • Moulds for cast iron balusters can sometimes be created from existing elements and new ones cast to match
  • External metalwork needs regular maintenance
  • When set into stone, damage to the stone may occur through the expansion of corroding metal

Painted staircases

If painting staircases, remember that only expensive hardwoods were left bare — pine and other softwoods were always painted and are often disappointing when stripped. In some cases detail is lost due to a build up of coats and it may be necessary to strip these layers to reveal the true beauty of the work. Bear in mind that, in doing so, the historic paint layers and colours will be lost.

Building regulations for staircases

New staircases require building regulation approval. As a result, it is not always possible to ‘slot’ a new staircase into an available space in an old building. Particular care needs to be taken if buying an original staircase from a salvage yard to ensure that it will comply.

PHOTOGRAPHS ROGER HUNT; BRENT DARBY; MARK SCOTT

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