How to Fix Creaky Stairs

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Feb 07, 2017 | Mel Sherman

I grew up in a house with creaky stairs. The stairs creaked when my parents bought the house in 1984 and they're still creaking today. My parents never had them fixed and we all got used to the creaking - much like someone who lives near a train station gets used to the racket of the trains. It wasn't until I was a teenager sneaking in at night that I became alarmingly aware of the creaky cacophony my cautious creeping caused. 

Perhaps my parents never fixed the creaky stairs so that they'd always have a free and everlasting motion detector. And it worked for them too. After a while, staying out too late meant I'd be spending the night on the couch downstairs.

But for everyone else on this planet who finds creaky stairs really annoying and wants to repair them, here's how.

Find the Creaks

The first thing you'll need to do is find exactly where each step is creaking. It helps to know how wooden staircases are built. There are three main components:

  1. Treads are the horizontal planks that make up the top of the step. They're what we actually step on as we climb a flight of stairs.
  2. Risers are the vertical planks that make up the front of each step.
  3. Stringers are what frames the staircase on both sides, supporting the treads and risers.

Now we're familiar with the general structure of a wooden staircase, it's time to find the creaks. Walk up and down the stairs. On any creaky step, run your foot over the surface of the tread to figure out exactly where the creakiness is coming from. Creakiness usually results from loosened planks, nails, and screws grinding against each other, so the areas where the treads, risers, and stringers meet are the most susceptible. As you stand on a tread, feel for give where there isn't supposed to be and look closely at those areas. Even a tiny gap between a tread and a riser is enough to make that step creaky. If the step creaks but the tread and riser are flush, then the tread or riser may have loosened from the stringer.  

Locating loosened stringer connections can be a little more tricky. It's easier if you have access to the underside of the staircase. Have someone walk up and down the stairs while you stand underneath looking for issues with each step as they stand on it. If you don't have access to the underside of the stairs (most are finished with drywall or plaster) you'll need to locate the stringers from above. Tap on the tread - the tapping will sound less hollow if it's above a stringer. You might even be able to locate the stringers based on the position of existing nails or screws as well.

Fix the Creaks

Now that you've located the creaks, it's time to silence them.

If you have access to the underside of the stairs, there are a few things you can do. You can insert wedges or shims into the gaps between treads, risers, and stringers and secure them with carpenter glue. You can nail or screw blocks of wood or L-shaped brackets at the loosened areas to tighten things up. As a third option, you can apply carpenter glue or construction adhesive to the gaps, but you'll need to make sure the wood remains firmly in place until the glue dries.

If the underside of the stairs is finished with drywall or plaster, you'll need to fix the creakiness from above. If the tread has loosened from the riser or stringer, you can screw them back together, but you'll need to drill starter holes first. This will prevent the wood from splitting. Once the screws are in, you can cover the screw heads with a dab of wood putty. If the back part of the tread has loosened from the bottom of the riser, insert a wedge into the gap and use your carpenter glue to secure it.

If your stairs are carpeted, there's a great tool that's designed to send a screw right through the carpet without damaging the fabric. It's relatively inexpensive ($20-$30) and it's worth looking into before you start tearing up your carpet.

Silent Stairs

Hopefully, those irritating creaky stairs will soon be a thing of the past. Your family members will thank you...especially your teenager.

Updated June 25, 2018.

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