Installing laminate flooring is for the most part a DIY-friendly project, but when it comes to stairs, you might want to consider having the job done by a pro if you don't have confidence in your carpentry skills. Improper installation can result in a dangerous situation with the potential to cause a serious accident. Besides that, the quality of the work is crucial because stairs are highly visible and mistakes are impossible to hide.
Despite this disclaimer, you shouldn't feel that you can't do the job yourself because you can as long as you're okay with the fact that the job is going to be slightly more complicated than installing the rest of the floor. It involves proper preparation of the stairs as well as installation of the laminate flooring on the stair tread (the horizontal part), a riser (the vertical part) on each step that can support the stair nose (the front edge of the tread), and the appropriate laminate stair nosing that matches the flooring and doesn't create a tripping hazard.
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An Overview of the Process
With no structural value of its own, laminate flooring is basically just a covering for existing solid wood or plywood stairs that are in good condition and free of rot or other damage. Stair treads are typically 11 inches deep, but a laminate plank is usually only about 7 inches wide, so you need to fit two planks together, which means creating a seam in the middle of the tread. You may want to avoid this, and if so, you can buy one-piece laminate stair treads from most laminate dealers.
After cutting the treads to fit, you have to glue them down with construction adhesive, which means that you can't install an underlayment. Use a strong construction adhesive that you can dispense with a glue gun. After gluing, you can either nail the planks to the steps or you can screw them. Either way, fill the holes with a floor putty that matches the color of the laminate stair treads to hide them from plain sight.
The risers go on next. Risers typically have a maximum riser height of 7 inches, so a single laminate plank usually suffices for covering each riser, but you may prefer to use pine, poplar, or some other stainable wood instead. The riser must come flush with the surface of the tread, and the stair nose, which goes on last, curls around the top of the tread, and either fits flush against the laminate on the tread or overlaps it.
What You'll Need to Buy
The components you need to install on each step include the riser, the tread and the nosing. Unless you opt for single-piece treads, you'll need enough extra laminate flooring to cover all the steps. If your staircase is 36-inches wide, the surface area of each tread is 2.75 square feet, and if the staircase is 24-inches wide, each tread has an area of 1.83 square feet. Multiply the square footage of each tread by the number of steps and add 10 percent as a waste overage.
Stair nose comes in 72-inch lengths, so if your stairs are 36-inches wide, one length should be enough for two steps, but if the steps are another width, for example 30 inches, you might have to buy more nosing than you actually need because you can't use partial pieces. It's best to buy the nosing when you buy the flooring to be sure their colors and styles are compatible. When it comes to the risers, you'll need 1.75 square feet for each 36-inch step and 1.2 square feet for each 24-inch one, assuming the height of each step is 7 inches.
The glue you need for this project is the type of construction adhesive that comes in caulk tubes, such as Liquid Nails or a similar product — contact cement or wood glue won't do. You can also purchase flat-head screws or trim screws, or you can opt for barbed finish nails, which you should shoot with a nail gun so you don't risk damaging the treads with a hammer. Fill nail and screw holes with epoxy wood filler because it doesn't chip out as easily as conventional latex or solvent-based fillers.
Preparing for Laminate Stair Installation
You can install laminate flooring on solid wood or plywood stairs but not on concrete because you can't easily drive nails or screws into concrete. The wood must be completely clean and flat, so you may have to do some sanding to prepare it. If you removed carpeting or some other tread material, all the staples, tack strip and old adhesive must be gone before you install laminate stair treads.
If there's an overhang on the existing treads, you have two options. You can either cut off the overhang using a circular saw or jigsaw, or you can select a riser material with the same thickness as the depth of the overhang. Either way, the tread should have a clean 90-degree angle on the edge with no overhang, to accommodate the stair nose.
Remove any existing baseboard trim or molding material that's in your way. If you want this molding to be there, it's best to reinstall it after you've finished installing the laminate. At the top of the stairs, cut back the wall baseboard to allow room for the nosing.
Things You'll Need
How to Install Laminate on Stairs
Professional installers prefer to start at the bottom of the staircase and finish each step before moving on to the next one. This ensures the risers rest on top of the treads, which makes for a cleaner overall appearance.
Step 1: Measure and Cut the Bottom Riser
Use a tape measure to get accurate measurements of the existing riser. If the step is old and not quite straight, be sure to get measurements of the height at both ends because they may be slightly different. Transfer those measurements to the riser material and cut the riser with a circular saw fitted with a laminate flooring blade.
Step 2: Install the Bottom Riser
Spread a generous amount of construction adhesive on the back of the riser with a caulk gun, and set the riser in place. Drill a pilot hole for a screw at each corner of the riser as well as one or two along the top and bottom edges. Drive a 1 1/4-inch #6 wood screw into each hole. Don't drive any screws into the middle of the riser where they will be visible.
Step 3: Measure and Cut the Tread for the Step Above
When you need two planks to span the depth of the step, the one in front must be a full plank because you need both the tongue and groove sides intact to connect to the adjacent plank and the nosing. Measure the depth of the step, subtract the gap you need for the nosing, which depends on the type of nosing you're using, and rip-cut the rear plank to the proper width.
Step 4: Dry-Fit the Tread and the Nosing
Set the tread in place, snapping the planks together if you're using two of them. Cut the nosing to the proper length and set it in place on the edge of the step, either overlapping the tread or snapping onto it depending on the nosing. Make sure everything fits and then remove the tread and nosing for gluing.
Step 5: Glue and Fasten the Tread
Spread glue liberally on the back of the tread, starting with the rear one if you're using two planks. Set the treads in place and snap them together and then press down to seat the adhesive. Drill pilot holes and drive screws in the four corners of each plank and along the back edge of the rear one where they will be covered by the riser.
Step 6: Install the Stair Nose
Some types of nosing are the same width as a laminate plank so they can sit directly on the subfloor and snap into the tread. Others require installation of a strip of shim material upon which they sit so they can overlap the tread. If you're using nosing that requires a shim, glue the shim in place first and then apply glue to the back of the nosing, set it in place and drive three or four screws about an inch from the edge of the tread.
When using nosing that overlaps the tread, do not drive screws into the tread. It needs to be decoupled from the nosing so it can expand and contract independently.
Tips to Keep in Mind
If you install flooring on the landing before you do the stairs, be sure to leave a gap for nosing that is compatible with the flooring. If you haven't installed the flooring on the landing yet, go ahead and install the bullnose molding when you reach the top of the stairs so you can butt the flooring up to it.
Professionals tend to avoid using quarter-round trim to cover gaps, preferring instead to minimize the gaps by making accurate measurements and cuts. You may prefer to install quarter-round to hide mistakes, however, and sometimes the use of corner trim is inevitable, such as when the stairway is open on one side. You don't have to glue this trim — just fasten it with finish nails.
If you have to cut notches in the laminate flooring to fit around an obstruction, do the job with a jigsaw using a blade with a minimum tooth count of 14 teeth per inch. To further reduce the risk of chipping the delicate laminate surface, lay masking tape along the cut line and cut through the tape.