Recently I noticed a set of stairs at a friend’s house that looked busy – he used his regular baseboard trim to trim the entire staircase. I wondered if there was a better option and realized that while completing a set of stairs on your own is challenging, dressing them up and making them look finished with a stair skirt board is much easier.
A skirt board on your stairs is a long, unbroken piece of trim just for your stairs. It either stands alone against the wall along the closed-end of your stairs, or you can run your regular baseboard along the top of it to create an unbroken line of trim from floor to floor. Either way, a stair skirt board negates the need for individually trimming around each step.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the variety of ways you can use a stair skirt on your stairs. There are myriad methods for skirting a set of stairs, which means there are also a ton of different looks you can achieve with a stair skirt. We’ll also investigate alternatives to stair skirts for those looking for a non-traditional finished stair appearance.
Contents (Jump to Topic)
What is a Stair Skirt Board?
A stair skirt board is an unbroken piece of trim for your stairs. If you have stairs with a closed-end – against a wall – then you more than likely have a stair skirt board. Stairs with two closed ends will have a stair skirt board on both walls.
The reason stair skirts exist is to simplify the finished look of a set of stairs. Rather than using your regular baseboard trim around each stair, it is easier to run a single piece of material diagonal along the length of the stairs. By doing so, you can connect the trim at the top of your stairs to the bottom.
Stair skirt boards are used wherever a set of stairs has a side abutting a wall. They are used to create a finished look in a home that features baseboards, unifying the different levels of a house.
Finally, a stair skirt board shouldn’t be confused with a stair apron – they are not the same. An apron is the trim piece beneath a balustrade and is horizontal to the flooring. A skirt board is specifically for stairs.
Do I Need a Skirt Board on Stairs?
You do not need a skirt board on stairs. If you don’t have baseboards in your house, then you don’t need skirting for your stairs. You might want stair skirting if you have baseboards in your house, as skirting will serve to connect, esthetically, baseboards on either ends of the step.
An instance when you would want a skirt board will be if your home has the same baseboard trim throughout the house. It would stand to reason that you’d want that same trim along the length of your stairs, too.
In that case, you would have a skirt board terminating at the top landing and allow your trim to run on top of the skirt board, down to the bottom of the stairs. You could also make your skirt board higher and use the skirt as the trim, connecting to the trim at the top and bottom of your stairs.
If you don’t have baseboard trim in your house, but want a finished look on the closed end of your stairs, then you’ll still want a skirt board. Trimming out each stair is time-consuming and will look extremely busy. One long, unbroken board is much more visually appealing.
When Not to Use Stair Skirt Boards
There are several instances when stair skirt boards just don’t make sense.
- Floating steps. Skirt boards only work when there is a wall to attach them to, so a set of floating steps is not able to accommodate a skirting board unless they are attached to the closed end of a wall.
- Your house doesn’t have trim. If you don’t use baseboard trim in your house, then it might look strange to skirt your stairs. A nice finished hardwood stair tread can also look nice against finished drywall, so it is possible to keep the aesthetics of a set of stairs without a skirt board.
- If your stairs cannot be removed, then consider avoiding installing a skirting board yourself unless you are very confident in your carpentry skills. Fitting a skirt board over an existing set of stairs requires decent craftsmanship. Not sure? Hire a contractor who specializes in stairs – they’ll have one done for you in less than an hour.
Stair Skirt Board Size
If you are ready to embark on a stair skirt board, your next question will be what size lumber to use.
Typical stair skirtboard size is 9-1/2” wide and a minimum of 5/8″ thick. The dimensions should be no less than 9-1/2” wide because the skirt must sit at least 1-1/2” above the nosing of the stairs. The length depends on how long the staircase is, and the thickness also depends on your existing baseboard thickness – but never less than 5/8”.
You can also run your baseboard trim over the skirt, which will create a nice, finished look if both the trim and skirt are the same thickness.
Most large home reno stores will have MDF, hardwood, and other types of softwood with thicknesses of ⅝” and greater in stock of common lengths – i.e.8, 10, or 12’. If you need an extra-long piece, then you’ll have to contact a lumberyard.
If opting for softwood lumber as your stair skirting, it will likely be pine or another softwood species that is commonly found in the framing lumber that is local to your area.
Stair Skirt Board Material
Stair skirt board material should be ½” to ¾” MDF, hardwood, or softwood. MDF and softwood are ideal for painting, while hardwood can be finished to match hardwood stair treads. Other pressed board, such as plywood, also works when the veneer is used on the exposed edge.
If you do not plan to paint your board and want it to match your hardwood treads, then you’ll have to contact a local lumberyard. Some home reno stores offer oak project pieces, but it’s doubtful you’ll find a piece of hardwood skirting that will be long enough for your stairs. And once you do find one, expect to pay a pretty penny for it.
You can also use plywood as stair skirting. This is useful if you need a narrower width for your skirting, such as 5/8” or 1/2″. Plywood resembles a pine board after a few coats of paint and is easy to cut and manipulate. Even very rough plywood can be sanded lightly and painted for a finished look.
One of the benefits of plywood for stair skirting is that you can purchase birch, oak, or maple plywood and stain it instead of painting. In that way, you can match the finish of certain stair treads to achieve a different look.
Last, consider using an MDF board for stair skirting. It is a type of fiberboard that is already white and comes in a variety of dimensions. It has finished edges, making it better suited for stair skirting than plywood since it is already white and doesn’t need a piece of trim on top of it to hide the unfinished thickness of the skirt.
MDF is easy to cut and is widely available at most big box home reno stores. However, it may be difficult to find a wide piece of MDF board for stair skirting, so you may have to order it and wait.
Where Do I Attach a Stair Skirt Board?
Attach the stair skirt board before the stairs are fully installed. This is by far the easiest and most accurate way to install a stair skirt board. Why? Because you don’t have to cut a piece of skirting around stair nosing and multiple rises and runs. Rather, you simply measure, cut each end, and nail to the finished wall.
Since a skirt is a finish piece, once you measure and cut your stair skirt, you use a finishing nailer or finish nails to attach the skirting board into the studs behind the drywall or paneling behind the skirt. Then you can fully install your stairs.
You can install your stairs first, then put the skirt board on after. This is more difficult for several reasons. First, you’ll have to precisely measure the rise, run and stair nosing cuts for each stair. Then, you’ll have to make the cuts – and a simple skill saw won’t be enough. You’ll need a router or have a steady hand with a coping saw to make it look nice.
While a skilled carpenter can install a skirt board after stairs have been installed with relative ease, it is far easier to install the skirt board first, and then the stairs. If the stairs are unfinished, see if you can detach them from the wall far enough to slide a skirt board behind. Otherwise, you’ll have to fit the skirt board around the stairs, which is harder.
Many people will find that removing their existing stairs to install a skirting board isn’t an option, in which case you’ll have to attach it over the existing stairs. If you are not comfortable doing this job yourself, hire a carpenter who will do it for you in the morning.
How Do I Attach a Stair Skirt Board
Installing a stair skirt board before the stairs are installed is the recommended method for installation. It is the easiest and you avoid making a ton of rise/run cuts to fit over the stairs. It also ensures that your stairs will fit flush up against the skirt without any gaps, resulting in a perfect finish every time.
To install a skirt board before the stairs, follow these steps:
- Having your stairs already assembled helps when installing a skirt board. This will allow for more accurate measurement when installing the skirting board. You can even install your stairs fully as long as you leave a 3/4” gap between the stairs and wall, which makes for an even easier install.
However, that isn’t always an option for stairs with two closed ends. At the very least, you can measure and outline the stair risers and treads against your wall, which will allow you to install skirt boards accurately.
- Once you’ve outlined your steps along your wall – which will be covered up by the skirt board – you can go ahead and attach your 1x material to the wall.
Place the skirtboard against the wall so that the bottom is against the outer edge of each stair tread. Ensure that you have at least 4” protruding on either end. Fasten lightly with two finish nails – don’t nail them all the way in, as you’ll be removing them later.
- Make a horizontal line from the top of the bottom tread across your skirt then remove the skirt from the wall.
- Cut the bottom line using a circular saw.
- Place the skirt against the wall, with the cut end flush against the floor. Re-attach it lightly with two finish nails just as before. The skirt board should be about 1 ½” above the tip of each stair nosing, vertically.
- The last two cuts depend on the height of your baseboard trim. The skirt projecting above your top step should be cut vertically to match the height of your existing trim if that is the look you’d like.
If you want your trim to go over the top of the skirting board, then you’ll cut the top of your skirt board to be flush with the top of the top tread or landing.
- Cut the bottom of your skirt board to achieve the desired look and height, depending on how you want to transition your trim from the skirting board to the landing.
Stair Skirt Board Alternative
If you don’t prefer the look of a stair skirt, or you have a non-traditional stairway, then you have a handful of other options.
You can go with no skirting at all. If you have nice, finished hardwood treads, for example, you may be able to get away with no trim if there isn’t a discernible gap between the stairs and the wall.
If you opt for no skirting, you run the risk of an awkward transition between your existing home baseboard trim on either end of the stairs.
Quarter round trim is an option instead of using trim or a skirt to finish your stairs. It has a far less busy look than using trim to frame around each step and is easy to work with.
Placing the quarter round around the entire profile of the stairs is difficult as you’d have to make awkward cuts around the tread nosing. Instead, place the quarter round under the tread lip down the riser and on the tread.
Baseboard trim around each step is another common alternative to a stair skirt. Some may disapprove of the busy look it creates, although if you have plain baseboard trim, it may not stand out as much as a decorative trim.
Decorative Molding or Trim
If stairs already in place, use a 1/2” decorative molding or trim several inches above steps and then apply a different paint over the molding and space below it. This allows you to avoid cutting around existing stairs while giving the appearance of a skirt, but without an actual skirtboard.
In that way, you are using the paint and narrow molding piece to fool the viewer into the appearance of a stair skirt.
A stair skirt is a finish piece of carpentry. That means you don’t want to mess it up because you’ll be seeing the flaws in your work for many years to come, along with anyone else who spends time in your house.
Therefore, if you aren’t able to remove your existing stairs and aren’t confident in your ability to cut a skirt around your stairs, then hire a carpenter. If you can remove the existing stairs or are doing a new build, then put the skirt on before the stairs. You’ll achieve a fantastic, gap-free look for your stairs.
If you have any other stair skirting alternatives or differing versions about how to install a stair skirt, then I’d love to hear them. Drop me a line or comment below!
When I first read Norm’s article on skirt scribing, four thoughts immediately came to mind:
1) He and I both learned the technique from the same instructor, Don Zepp.
2) Norm’s explanation of the process was spot on.
3) I had a bunch of photos of a skirt board I had installed that I should share with others.
4) I felt exactly like Norm did: Don Zepp was absolutely the best instructor I’ve ever had the good fortune of learning from.
Most carpenters never even consider scribing a skirt board to a finished set of stairs. I mean, after all, it’d be foolish to think that you could make so many intricate cuts and expect to end up with a flawless fit.
The truth is that the process is quite simple, and it can be done without ever touching a tape measure…really.
As you’ll see, the photos I took 20 years ago match up almost perfectly with the illustrations in Norm’s article. I’ve included my comments and observations on the nuances involved with this scribing process below.
|After tacking the rough skirt board on top of the treads…|
(Note: Click any image to enlarge)
|…you’ll notice that the lower edge of the skirt doesn’t touch the edge of each tread.|
It’s been my observation that no matter how fussy you are with the riser/tread layout and installation, there will always be some minor discrepancies along the flight. That’s why this scribing technique works so well—it accommodates any irregularities found in the final positioning of the treads and risers.
|I start by transferring the top height of the tread onto a 3/8 x 3/4 oak scribe stick that’s a couple of inches longer than the tread depth.|
|Then I carefully drill a pilot hole slightly smaller than the diameter of the brad, and drive a brad through the stick. I like to sharpen the brad point for a near razor-like scribe line.|
Next, I scribe the level lines onto the skirt board, starting on the finish floor, and working my way up the flight of stairs. It’s important to keep the stick plumb. I typically make one light pass to “set” the initial line, and then follow up with a couple more passes to really engrave the line in the skirt board.
|Making a thin, deep scribe line goes a long way towards preventing tear out when you start making the cuts. I darkened the scribes lines using a pencil to make them more visible in the photos.|
|The line in the photo extending from the top of the tread onto the skirt board is referencing the tread below the line. The scribe line has no relationship to the tread it extends from. In this photo, the scribe line I’m working on is referencing the finish floor—not the first tread.|
|When I’ve marked all the level (tread) scribe lines, I mark a reference line along the top edge of the skirt so I can reposition the skirt accurately—at precisely the same angle—when it’s time to scribe the risers.|
|After pulling the skirt off the wall, I cut the bottom of the skirt at the lowest scribe line, and tack it back up on the wall, using the reference line to position the skirt at the original angle.|
|Next, I remove the brad from my scribe stick, and I transfer the nosing length of the tread onto the scribe stick.|
|Then I drill another pilot hole at the mark, drive the brad through the stick at the new location, and start scribing the nosing edge and the riser faces onto the skirt board.|
After I’ve scribed the risers and nosings, I pull the skirt off the wall and I set it on some horses. Using a scrap piece of tread material, I connect the dots between the riser, nosing, and tread for the entire flight of stairs. When all the steps are marked out, I break out the saw…
|…and I carefully cut just to the scribe line.|
When the scribe lines are cut sharp and deep, and you’re careful not to cross the scribe line with the saw, there’s virtually no tear-out. I use a slight back-cut angle of about 4 to 5 degrees—this helps ensure a really tight fit when the skirt is driven into place. While the skirt is on the horses, I also cut the ends to match the baseboard at top and bottom.
|I set the skirt in place a few inches shy of its final position, and slide the skirt as far as I can into its final position to confirm all looks right.|
|Once I’m satisfied that it’s a good fit, I use a block to drive the skirt home for the final fit.|
If you’re attempting to scribe a skirt for the first time, here’s my best advice: get a piece of scrap that will cover two or three steps, run through the process I describe, and confirm you get a good fit. You’ll only need to practice it once—it really is that simple.
A word about craftsmanship…
Learning your craft in the world of trades is a unique proposition. Most of the learning takes place on the job site, with veteran tradespeople parsing out nuggets of wisdom and dazzling co-workers with an elegant approach that includes quality, ease, and speed.
Reference resources abound (TiC, the Journal of Light Construction, WOODWEB.com—the list goes on and on) and are also great ways to learn.
And there are hands-on demonstrations, like the Katz Roadshow and JLC LIVE.
I was fortunate to have attended a three-year, post-high school trade/tech school, the Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades. My three-year trade degree was in masonry, but while I was there, I was always keeping an eye on the carpentry shop. With Don Zepp at the helm, the building trade students at the school considered it the place to be.
After I graduated, I asked Don Zepp if I could sit in on his theory classes. Thankfully, he welcomed me. So in some ways, I double dipped my trade education. I’ve been fortunate to have spent time around some of the best tradespeople and craftsmen in the business.
The key to learning, regardless of the venue, is to always pay attention.
And keep in mind: while it’s true that you learn from your mistakes, in my experience, it’s way more productive to learn by observing the other guy’s mistakes.
• • •
Carl Hagstrom graduated from Williamson Trade School in 1974, and he has been involved in residential construction-related activities ever since.
In 1982, he and his wife, Bev, moved to Montrose, PA, where he continued to run his own construction business.
Carl started writing for the Journal of Light Construction in the late 80s, and is now a contributing editor at the magazine. In 1994, he became certified as a professional building designer member of the American Institute of Building Design, and in the same year he started WOODWEB.com with his business partner, Michael Poster.
Carl would like to give a tip of the hat to Todd Murdock for putting together the illustrations for Norm Yeager’s article—it’s uncanny how Todd’s illustrations mirror the photos Carl took 20 years ago.
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DIY Stair Trim – How to Add a Faux Stair Skirt
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Adding your own DIY stair trim is easier than you many think. Follow this tutorial to add a “faux” stair skirt board to your steps.
DIY Stair Trim – My stairs look 100% better with this “faux” stair skirt board added, since adding traditional trim wasn’t an option.
When we first moved into our new house, I knew the first thing that needed to be addressed was the steps leading upstairs. We had the upstairs floors professionally re-finished, leaving just the stairs for me to handle. Aside from painting the stairs green, I knew this issue of baseboard trim or a “stair skirting board” needed to be addressed.
The Problem: These Stairs took a Beating
As you can see, the walls around the stairs were in pretty rough shape. We just didn’t have it in our budget to rip out these stairs and re-do everything. So, I had to get creative. For less than $50 in supplies, I was able to add my own DIY trim and fake the look of a stair skirt board.
This post contains some affiliate links for your convenience. Click here to read my full disclosure policy.
The Supplies: What I Used for this Stair Trim
**Please read the full tutorial below. I used extra supplies since I was also patching the plaster along the stairs. You may not need everything on this list!**
Tutorial: How I Rehabbed these Stairs and Added a Faux Stair Skirt
1 – Patch where needed
The key here is that you need the wall right above your stairs to be perfectly smooth. In my case, this was a tall order. This involved using drywall tape, patch (putty), and an electric sander (wear a mask!!!) to smooth out the walls. Here we are during the patching process:
2 – Cut trim and secure
Once you have a smooth wall surface and have filled any gaps between the stairs and the wall with caulk, then you can get started with the trim. I purchased this ornamental moulding from Home Depot. I used about three pieces, so this part of the project only set me back about $15.
Use a hand saw and miter box to cut the moulding at an appropriate angle to match the trim at the top/bottom of your stairs. In my case, I was working with a door frame at the bottom, so I cut a simple 45-degree angle.
Since the moulding is so light, you can just tape it right to the wall. Then go back with your brad nailer, and secure with small brads every 12-18 inches.
If any of the nails stick out, carefully set them with a nail setting tool. Then use wood filler to fill in the nail holes. Lightly sand, and you’re ready for paint.
3 – Don’t forget the details
Don’t forget to cut the moulding at the right angle to meet with whatever trim or door frame you may have at the top/bottom of the stairs.
** I also used DAP latex caulk along the edge of all of the stairs, since I had significant cracks and gaps.
4 – Prime and Paint
Tape off a line above the moulding. Then prime and paint the moulding along with the wall below the moulding. Once everything is painted the same color, if will give the effect of being a solid piece of solid wood trim.
This DIY stair trim project was part of a larger project – Re-Finishing and Painting our Stairs. It all turned out so much better than I expected with our measly $100 budget, and you can read more about that here.
Skirt alternative stair board
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