by George Taniwaki

As part of the kitchen remodel we replaced the fire-rated steel door between the kitchen and garage. Once the new door is installed, I need to repair the broken drywall, add casing, weather-stripping, and a threshold.

But of course, I also want to make a few other changes. (This is destined to become yet another side project that will take up too much time while adding only a little value to the house. )

The garage is about two feet lower than the main floor of the house. There are two concrete steps in the garage leading to the fire-rated door that opens into the kitchen. At the bottom of the stairs there is another fire-rated door from the garage to the backyard.

I forgot to take a “before” picture of the steps. A photograph showing the space after I finished demolition is shown in Figure 1a. An oblique view with dimensions of the steps  is shown in Figure 1a.

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Figure 1a and 1b. Photo of the steps after demolition; Oblique view showing dimensions of concrete steps

These steps have bothered me ever since we moved into the house. First, the top tread of the steps is not level with the doorway, it is one step down. But given the tight space, I won’t be able to add another step to fix this problem.

Second, the risers are not evenly spaced. The first step down from the kitchen into the garage is about 9 inches high, which is way too large. The next step is about 7-1/4 inches high and the final step is about 8″ high. I spend a lot of time in the workshop in the garage, and can walk up and down these steps up to 50 times a day. I’ve never tripped going down them, but it is really annoying. You feel like you are falling into the garage.

Finally, the treads are not flat or the same length. They have bulges and dips in them. The middle step is about an inch longer than the bottom step.

In addition to being uncomfortable, the risers don’t meet building code. Code requires that no step be more than 8″ high (7-1/2″ for public spaces) and that the difference in height between the tallest step and the shortest one cannot exceed 3/8″. Similar rules apply to tread lengths.

Designing a fix for these problems won’t be easy. The stairs are not square to the walls, not level, and not plumb. The drywall that acts as the top riser has been severely damaged by years of wear. What a mess.

Another problem with these steps is that they abut the concrete foundation which leaves a gap between the steps and the drywall (about 3″ wide as shown in Fig 2) that constantly gets filled with sawdust and other debris and is hard to keep clean.

I suppose I could rent a jack hammer and demolish the steps and start over by building a new set out of wood. But that would be a lot of heavy labor and take a lot of time. Instead, I will build an enclosure over the existing steps to fix all the problems.

Figure 2a shows the evolution of my ideas to cover the gap between the steps and the wall. The last version shows the solution I came up with. Figure 2b shows the dimensions of all the pieces and shims to cover the gap and the steps themselves. For simplicity, the stair treads, stair nosing, and wraparound tread are shown already assembled.

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Figures 2a and 2b. Sketches showing ideas to cover the gap between the steps and wall (top) and final drawing with dimensions (bottom)

The finished project is shown in Figure 3.

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Figure 3. The completed project

Demolition

Using a pry bar, remove the old casing around the two doors. Using a level and pencil, draw a horizontal line from the top of the kitchen floor to the left door. Using a utility knife and pry bar, remove the drywall below that line. Remove the drywall from underneath the right door and 3.7″ to the right. Use a cold chisel and hammer to remove any lumps from the concrete steps (Fig 1a).

Tile the floor

The floor around the steps will be covered with 12″ porcelain tiles. Adding tile to a garage floor sounds extravagant, but it does two things. First, it visually ties the two doors together and separates the entrance area from the rest of the garage.

Second, the tile raises the floor by a little over 1/2″. This leaves room to clad the bottom step with 3/8″ of oak without causing the rise to exceed 8″. Otherwise, you would need to chip away enough concrete to keep the rise low enough to meet code. It also reduces the total rise of the stairs to 23-1/2″. Since there are three steps, the average rise per step will be just under 8″ which is also needed to meet building code.

Since we are not covering the entire garage floor with tile you will need to add a protective edge banding. I use Schluter Shiene available from Home Depot.  Using a hacksaw, cut a 45° miter where the two edges meet. To ensure the strength at the corner, cut the edging material at a point where it will be mostly solid (Fig 4). Layout the edging to ensure it fits and mark the outside with masking tape (Fig 5).

Using a disk sander with a vacuum attachment, remove any dripped paint and adhesive from the floor and roughen the surface (Fig 6). Layout the tiles and cut the partial pieces using a wet saw (Fig 7).

Place a weighted 2×4 along the side of the edge banding so that it doesn’t move. Using latex adhesive or latex modified mortar, lay the tile. Put 1/4″ spacers between the tiles (Fig 8). After the mortar cures, apply grout mixed with latex (Fig 9).

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Figures 4 to 9. Cut the edge banding; Dry fit the edge banding and add masking tape; Clean the floor; Dry fit the tiles, Mortar into place; Apply grout

To see the process for installing a tile floor that includes use of a waterproof membrane and floor drain, see the blog post entitled Build a laundry room.

Frame the knee wall

While the mortar is curing, build the knee wall on the side of the steps (Fig 8).

Since the wood framing will be in direct contact with concrete, it should be built from pressure treated 2×4 lumber. Normally, you use galvanized or stainless steel fasteners with pressure treated lumber. However, since this is interior framing that should never get wet, I use standard steel framing nails in my nail gun.

Use 1-5/8″ drywall screws to attach the loose drywall above the knee wall to the studs.

Make panels for staircase enclosure

The staircase enclosure and stair risers are built in a manner similar to a cabinet. Start with a sheet of 1/2″x4’x8′ plywood. Cut out all the pieces using a table saw or a handheld circular saw with a shooting board. To get a straight, clean edge on inside corners, cut as far as possible with the saw with a circular blade. Then finish the cut using a handheld scroll saw or a hand saw.

Any edges where two pieces meet are mitered at 45°. Cut these on a table saw using a crosscut sled or on a miter saw.

Dry fit all the pieces and glue shims as needed (Figs 10 and 11). Sand the pieces smooth and finish with three coats of gloss enamel latex paint.

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Figures 10 and 11. Glue shims to the panels; View of assembled enclosure and shims

Make stair treads

Standard stair treads are 1″ x 11-1/2″. The bottom tread in this project will need a tread that are 3/8″ x 15-1/2″. Thus, we will make custom treads using hardwood flooring and stair nosing.

The front edge of the stair tread is made with 3/4″ x 5-1/2″ stair nosing, the return edge is made from 3/4″ x 3″ stair nosing. They meet at a 45° miter joint. The rest of the tread is made from three pieces of 3/4″x4″ hardwood flooring. Using a table saw with a cross-cut sled (or miter gauge), cut a tongue on the end of each piece of hardwood flooring to fit into the groove on the return. A layout of all the pieces is shown in Figure 12.

To make the 3/8″ thick tread, rip each piece of hardwood flooring on the table saw. This will take four passes. Make one pass at 1″ deep, flip the piece over and run it again. Raise the saw to 2.1″ and repeat. The table saw leaves rough saw marks. Clean the bottom of the flooring by running the boards through the planer.

The rabbet on the 5-1/2″ stair nosing is 3-3/4″ wide, which is too wide to rip it to the 3/8″ thickness on the table saw. To make this rabbet, run it through the table saw in multiple passes to make a groove as deep as possible. Then knock out the rest of the rabbet using a chisel. Clean up the underside of the nosing using a jack plane or hand sander.

Glue up the boards in three steps. First, glue the three pieces of hardwood flooring together. Since the tongue and grooves in hardwood floors have lots of play, you will want to use polyurethane glue rather than normal PVA wood glue. You may need to add clamps or weights to keep the boards flat.

Then glue the flooring and the front edge stair nosing together. Finally, glue up the long boards with the return nosing. This last glue up will require clamps and weights in all three directions. (Fig 13).

(I’m a bit concerned about the effect of cross-grain movement between the return and the glued up boards. Time will tell if either the miter joint or the bread board end joint opens up.)

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Figures 12 and 13. Cut the tread pieces and glue them up

The glued up stair tread will need to be flattened. Coat the tread with trowel-type wood filler to identify the low spots. The tread is over 15″ wide and thus will not fit in a 12″ power planer. Plane it by hand using a smoothing plane. (I had never done this before. It’s actually quite fast and seeing the board become smooth before your eyes is an enjoyable experience. The absence of the roar from the power planer is nice too. Note, your hand planes must have a very sharp blade and be correctly tuned for this to work. Otherwise it will be a slow hard slog and you will gouge your wood.)

When planed correctly,there is no need to sand the stair treads. Finish with wood stain (I used 1 part MinWax red oak and 8 parts MinWax natural) followed by three coats of varnish (I used MinWax quick drying oil based polyurethane).

Make stair nosing and wraparound tread

The top stair nosing is custom fitted. Start with a piece of 5-1/2″ stair nosing. Cut it to be a few inches longer than needed. On the table saw, rip the stair nosing to the widest required width. Cut a groove in the back to accept the tongues of the boards from the hardwood floor. You can use either the table saw or router. Ease the bottom half of the groove and bevel it to allow for expansion of the wood.

Make cut outs in the stair nosing to fit around the door jamb.

Add a return on the open end. To do this, cut a 45° miter. Cut a triangular piece of stair nosing at 45° and join the two pieces using one or more biscuits and wood glue.

Use a piece of stair nosing to make the wraparound tread that will cover the knee wall. Rip it to width on the table saw. Add a return on the end in the same manner described above. You may need to chisel out the rabbet so that the return will not interfere with the left door closing.

Cut a 45° miter on both pieces to form the inside corner. Cut biscuit slots, but do not glue the pieces together. Do not finish the pieces.

Make door casing

Make traditional Craftsman style casing for both doors. Start with 1″x4″x8′ nominal (.75″x3.5″x96″ actual) S4S primed pine lumber. Cut them to length to leave a 3/16″ reveal around the door jambs. The design includes a 1/2″ bullnose accent as shown in Figure 3 of an Oct 2012 blog post.

Finish with three coats of gloss enamel latex paint.

Assemble the stairs

The stairs will be assembled in layers. At each step, dry fit the parts first to ensure they are snug and check the edges are level, plumb, and square. Any errors early in the assembly will make the following step harder to complete.

Use wood glue to attach the panel on the knee wall and tack in place with brads. Glue the back panel to the wall and tack in place with brads. Glue the bottom step riser to the stair side at 90° and tack in place with brads. Use a liberal amount of construction adhesive to attach this assembly to the concrete steps (Fig 14).

Cut a 3/8″ notch in the miter edge of the stair side to receive the bottom stair tread (Fig 15). Apply a liberal amount of construction adhesive to the bottom stair tread and on the concrete step. Slide the tread into place. Stack 50 kg (100 lb) of weight on the step. (I used boxes of tile.) Apply a liberal amount of construction adhesive to the back of the middle step riser and on the concrete steps. Push the riser into position. Slide the weights against the riser and let the glue cure (Fig 16).

After the glue cures, remove the weights. Use the same technique to assemble the middle step and the top riser (Fig 17).

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Figures 14 to 17. Assemble the stairs. Glue the bottom riser, sides and back; Cut a notch for the bottom tread; Glue the bottom tread and middle riser; Glue the middle tread and top riser

After the glue cures, remove the weights. Use construction adhesive to attach the top stair nosing to the hardwood floor and the wraparound tread to the knee wall. Insert the biscuit and use wood glue to join the two pieces. Clamp the miter joint between the two pieces to ensure a tight fit (Fig 18).

After the glue cures, remove the clamp. Use trowel-type wood filler and coat the top stair nosing, hardwood floor, and wraparound tread. Use a disc sander and a detail sander to flatten surfaces.

Use construction adhesive to glue a threshold under the right door.

Finish all the wood surfaces with wood stain followed by three coats of varnish (Fig 19).

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Figures 18 and 19. Glue the top stair nosing and wraparound tread; Sand, fill, stain and varnish stair treads

Finish carpentry

Remove both doors from the hinges. Carefully remove the weather-stripping. Inspect the door jambs, hinge mortises, lock mortises, and threshold of left door. (The right threshold is brand new so should be fine.) Fill any defects with polyester resin (Bondo), sand them smooth, and apply three coats of enamel paint. Using a chisel and drywall plane, flatten the walls to be flush with the door jambs (Fig 20). Attach the casing to the walls using 16ga nails. Apply touch up paint to the casing and the staircase.

Fill any screw holes or blemishes in the drywall with mud, sand smooth, and touch up paint (Fig 21). Fill, sand, and paint the two doors. Reinstall the locks, hinges, weather-stripping, and rehang the doors  (Fig 22).

To protect the stairs and floor, add non-slip stair runners and entry mat (Fig 23).

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Figures 20 to 23. Fill, sand, paint door jambs; Nail casings to frame and fill, sand, paint walls; Fill, sand, paint doors; Add rugs to protect the new floor

In total, this project took me about 100 hours to complete and cost about $350. The costs are itemized below.

Tile, aluminum border, mortar or adhesive, grout $150
Lumber, hardwood flooring, outdoor carpet, paint, 2 thresholds, and misc. materials $200*
Carpentry, painting, and tiling labor $     0
TOTAL $350

*It may be difficult to buy small quantities of hardwood flooring or carpet like that used in this project (about 10 sq. ft. each). I already had these items left over from previous projects. The costs shown here are pro rata based on the original purchase.

Now that the steps are even, they are much easier to walk up and down on. Now that the crevasse is gone, they are easier to keep clean. And they have to be some of the nicest looking garage steps you’ll ever see.

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Since many of the images in this blog post are taken from the same position, I combined them into a single animated gif file to create a crude stop motion video of the project(Fig 24). I used makeagif.com, a free online service to make the file.

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Figure 24. A gratuitous animated gif of the project

For more ideas on home remodeling projects see the Home Remodeling Guide.

All photos and drawings by George Taniwaki

[Update: WordPress does not allow animated gifs to display in the blog body. Click on Figure 24 to open the gif file and view the animation.]

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