Should You Start Installing Stairs From Top or Bottom?


Once you’ve gone through the complicated and difficult process of cutting and installing stair stringers, you can begin constructing the stairs. But where should you begin? Does it make more sense to begin at the foot or top of your staircase?

Although there are times when starting a stair installation from the top makes sense, most of the time you will begin installing the stairs, which includes your risers and treads from the bottom. It’s easier, safer, and usually takes less time.

Start Installing Stairs From Top or Bottom

Installing Stairs From Bottom to Top

The bottom-to-top approach is the most popular method of completing a stair installation because it is the most convenient and safest option.

Starting from the bottom allows you to work your way up the stairs without the need for step stools or ladders. With a bottom-to-top install, you begin with the bottom step, then work your way up, using the steps you’ve constructed to support you as you make your way up the staircase.

Because there is no need for a ladder, this is also a safer method. The staircase offers a stable place from which to work versus a ladder, which can be unsteady and potentially dangerous. Given the fact that the installation process for a set of stairs involves applying adhesives, drilling screws, and operating a nailer, a steady base from which to work is a necessity.

If you are attempting to hide your fasteners by drilling screws through the backs of the risers to secure the treads, then this method is your best bet. By working from the finished stairs, you can best access the backside of the risers to drive in the fasteners.

This awkward process requires you to drill into the rear of the tread without breaking through the top of the tread itself, which is made even more difficult by the fact that stair treads are typically only an inch thick.

Having a wide solid base from which to work makes this job more doable, not to mention safer.

There are drawbacks to the bottom-to-top installation method. Installing the first couple of steps can be awkward, requiring you to crouch and bend over to fasten the risers and treads.

Even as you make your way up, you will still spend most of this install bending over the stairs to install your fasteners. This can be physically demanding, putting string on your back.

Also, consider that adhesive is a requirement when joining treads and risers. This means you will either need wood glue or some construction adhesive to attach the stairs and risers.

As anyone who has ever worked with either knows, glue and adhesive tend to drip. Working from bottom to top increases the chances that glue or adhesive will drip onto the treads you’ve completed.

While this isn’t an issue if you plan on carpeting the stairs, it makes a significant difference if you are installing hardwood treads that you plan to stain. Glue or adhesive drips left on hardwood treads will resist stain, leaving unsightly marks on your stairs. As such, any drips on the stair treads will have to be cleaned and potentially sanded out, slowing your stair installation down.

Adhesive drips aren’t the only threat to your stair treads. Consider that you’ll be working on those stair treads as you move up the staircase. This leaves them vulnerable to not only adhesive drips and spills but also damage from a host of threats, including your shoes, heavy tools, building materials, and fasteners.

With this in mind, when working from bottom to top on stairs with hardwood treads, you’ll need to protect the wood with scrap plywood to prevent damage during the installation process. While this may seem like a simple solution, it does mean the purchase of additional supplies and adds another step to the installation process.

Installing Stairs From Top to Bottom

This is by far the least conventional method. Stair installations rarely happen from top to bottom. And there is a good reason for it. If you start at the top, you’ll need to be able to reach the top step first. Depending on how high your stairs are, this means using either a step ladder or, for taller staircases, an extension ladder.

This is much less convenient than simply using the stairs themselves as a work base.

This method also has certain architectural limitations. The area beneath your stairs must be completely open to the floor below; otherwise, you won’t have anywhere to place the foot of the ladder. Depending on how your home is framed, this may or may not be the case.

The width of your staircase can also determine whether or not a top-to-bottom approach is an option. This method is generally limited to narrower staircases that require only two stringers. This is because stairs with two stringers typically offer enough space for a ladder to be positioned between them.

Wider staircases use three stringers to provide adequate support in the middle of the treads. A third stair stringer blocks that space, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to use a ladder to reach the top of the staircase.

It’s not advisable to attempt a top-to-bottom install without a ladder. Not only would installing risers and treads by standing at the top of the staircase be incredibly awkward, but it would also be very unsafe.

A ladder also presents certain challenges. Working from a ladder is less stable than working from the staircase. This is significant given that you’ll need a stable base as you position boards into place, apply adhesives, and use potentially dangerous nailers.

Keep in mind you’ll also need to get more than just you up the ladder. Treads, risers, fasteners, nailers, and power drivers all must be toted up and down until you reach the lower sections of the staircase. That can be a challenge to accomplish safely.

Despite this long list of cons, there are certainly good reasons for using this method. A top-to-bottom install allows you to work at chest height through much of the install, eliminating much of the bending over and crouching required by a bottom to top install.

You also don’t have to worry as much about protecting unfinished treads. Since you’re not working on top of the stairs you’ve installed, there’s less of a chance of damaging the treads during installation.

Adhesive spills are also less of a concern. Glue drips will fall on the floor below instead of on freshly installed treads. This is significant if you’re installing expensive hardwood treads. It also means you won’t be putting a strain on joints that have just been freshly glued by having to stand on them.

This is also a much easier plan of attack if you plan on installing all of the risers before installing the treads. It’s much easier to install each riser from chest height than it is crouched over on the staircase. With this type of install, you would employ a hybrid method, installing risers from top to bottom before moving from bottom to top to install the treads.

Bottom to Top

Pros:

  • Safe – Stairs provide a stable base to work from
  • More convenient as no ladder is required
  • Easier to use installation methods that hide fasteners

Cons:

  • Easy to damage hardwood treads if not careful
  • Requires a lot of crouching that can strain back
Top to Bottom

Pros:

  • Allows you to install treads and risers at chest height, limiting the need to crouch
  • Easier to protect vulnerable stair treads

Cons:

  • Ladder is a less stable base from which to work
  • Must haul materials and tools up and down ladder
  • May not be possible with certain types of staircases

Conclusion

Determining whether to begin your stair installation at the top or the bottom of the staircase depends on the type of installation you’re completing. For a standard set of stairs, it makes sense to begin at the bottom, working your way up while using the newly made stairs to support you.

Installing hardwood stairs that you plan to finish? If your design allows for it, you might consider starting from the top to minimize the chances of damaging those expensive hardwood treads before they are ever put into service.

Leave a Comment