Custom Made, Hand-Scraped Hickory Steps
A customer I previously made a fireplace mantle for ask me if there were stair treads to match his hand scraped Hickory hardwood flooring. I knew I could make hickory steps but wasn’t sure if I could get the hand scraped look. Festool and Makita have planer blades for hand planers to give the “look,” but for one set of stairs I can figure something else out. I will also be opening up a portion of one wall of the stairwell so the steps run past the wall and have a capped end.
If you do hardwood flooring, you may see this as a great way to add custom business and more profit. I’ve done many sets of steps in my career, so this is not new to me, but the “hand scraping” part of it is a first.
The picture below left is the flooring selected by the customer. It is hand scraped and each board is signed on the back by the Amish craftsman that hand scraped it. On the right is the flooring with a test board to the right of it that I did to get a match.
The steps I took to create matching Hickory steps were as follows. I ran Hickory stock through the planer and straight edged it on the table saw. These were no wider than 4½” and then run through the shaper to put a glue joint on. Everything was glued and clamped and left to dry.
I then ran the boards through the surface planer to smooth the back (a flat back is necessary for secure mounting on the stair stringers). Then I sharpened my bench plane and hand planed the face down. I also set the plane blade out so it would take chunks out of the wood and add some unevenness. It only took about 15-20 minutes per step to hand plane it. Next is block planing to take out saw marks on the edge and take out a few chunks on the edge also. I finished this first phase using a ¼” round-over bit to ease the face edges of each step (just your basic carpentry).
The challenge is getting the hand-scraped look without having to hand scrape! I used a cove making bit that I got from Sears about a hundred years ago, mark a squiggly line all the way down the board with a pencil and rout until the pencil line was gone. I put the bit in a router and lowered it so it removed only about a sixteenth or less of material. Then I ran the router freehand back and forth making sure that my lines were sort of straight but a little wobbly. I added marks with a brick hammer, using the breaking side to dent and chunk the step to distress it even more. Once I finished routing, I took a jitterbug sander and 120 grit paper to smooth everything down a little.
The staining process comes next. I am using gel stain in a dark mahogany. It seems to match the floor pretty well and after 24 hours, I will start on the polyurethane finish with 3 coats.
Once the staining and finish was completed on the individual steps, it was time to prepare the stairwell and support structure. The old treads were cut out, pried up and the wall was opened at the lower portion of the stairwell. The stringers were too far apart so I had to add 2×6 lumber to firm up the steps. One in the middle, one in the front, then glued and screwed in. Where the wall was removed, additional support was added for those treads. The Stair Wizard was used to measure the 6 upper steps to size and cut to fit.
Now the treads can be installed with the risers, which are made from Poplar hardwood. Cove trim moldings are added to the two skirt boards. The newel post, hand rail and spindles were installed next.
I made the newel posts in the shop. Just basic rail and stile construction. The bottom of the newel posts are Poplar, the top is Hickory, all wrapped around a solid core. The spindles are steel and epoxied in. The trim, risers and newel post bottoms were painted on site.
I want to add that, from glue up to routing, I only have about 2 hours into each step. Materials include about 5 board feet of 5/4 hickory for each step. I considered buying unfinished steps, but they are about $80.00 each, and I would still have to hand scrape and finish them. There’s less control over the quality and appearance of the wood. Honestly, I charged more than 80.00 per step, up to that point. This is not about saving money, but about giving the customer a quality product and increasing business opportunity.
I wanted to tell this story because I know there are a lot of talented flooring professionals and I wanted to give you another idea to increase your business. Thank you to my lovely wife for taking these pictures and putting up with me.
This article was originally published March 2011. Discussion on this article can be found in the Article Discussion Forum. Your comments are also welcome below.
Chris Flynn has been involved in the home interiors business for 39 years. He is focused on custom area rugs, but also builds cabinets, furniture and creates rock-n-roll music. Married to his high school sweetheart, Chris and Elaine have 2 children and 3 grandchildren. Chris figures he’s about the luckiest guy on the planet.