A stair skirtboard is an elegant and practical feature found in most modern homes.
While there are alternatives to having a skirtboard, it remains highly popular due to its ease of construction and appearance.
There are several important things you need to consider before you have a skirt board for your stairs.
In this article, we take a deep dive into everything you need to know about stair skirt boards.
What is a Stair Skirtboard?
A stair skirtboard is a continuous piece of trim or molding for the sides of your stairs to give them a finished look.
There are two kinds of skirt boards for stairs.
The first type is the one between the stairs and the wall adjoining the stairs.
The second type is one that runs on the outside of the stairs along the stairs stringer.
Skirt boards of the first kind are the most common.
Skirt boards are mostly installed after the stringers are constructed.
Treads and rises are most often fixed after the stair skirtboard is fixed in place.
You need an accurately measured uniform gap between the drywall and the stairs for installing a skirt board.
This gap is usually either 3/4" or 1/2" in width.
Do you need a Stair Skirtboard?
The most common reason why skirt boards are installed is simply aesthetics.
Skirt boards give a finished neat appearance to stairs.
It also hides unsightly gaps and imperfections in the stair finishing.
When installed on the inside, i.e. as a separator between the drywall and the stairs, it acts as a protective layer.
Without the skirt board, the drywall adjoining the stairs could suffer damage from shoes especially if there's a lot of traffic on the stairs.
Even if skirt boards get damaged, they are much easier to correct and repair compared to patching a hole in a drywall.
The alternative to a skirt board is often baseboards that run along each tread and rise according to the shape of the stairs.
Baseboards like these are much more labor-intensive and can be tricky to get right due to the large number of miter cuts involved.
Skirt boards also tie in really well with baseboards in the lower and upper floors that the stairs connect.
While trimming the ends of skirt boards at the top and bottom, the cuts are done such that it merges with the bottom baseboard and the top subfloor.
Retrofitting Stair Skirtboard on Existing Stairs?
In some situations, skirt boards are required to be retrofitted on a finished set of stairs.
The issue here is that there wouldn't be a gap between the wall and the stairs to install a skirt board.
While it's much more difficult to install a skirt board in this case, it's certainly possible to achieve this with some careful planning.
You'll need to measure and mark the height of each riser and tread onto the skirt board and cut the triangles out accurately.
If you have nosings on the stairs it gets a bit more complicated as you'll need to trace out the shape of the nosing as well to perfectly accommodate the skirt board.
When should you not have a Stair Skirtboard?
There are a few situations wherein you need not or should not have a skirt board.
Floating stairs or Open riser stairs
This is one situation where your stairs will look cleaner without a skirt board.
Also if there's a large gap between the floating stairs and the wall, a skirt board cannot be installed there.
No baseboard anywhere else in the house
Stair Skirt boards are supposed to tie into existing baseboards that run on the lower and upper floors of your house.
If you don't have baseboards anywhere else, then having skirt boards only on the stairs will look odd.
Avoid a formal look
Some people simply prefer not having a skirt board to avoid giving a formal look to the house.
Curved or Spiral stairs
There are situations where a stair is curved or spirals.
Making skirt boards for such a situation is possible but is much harder than when you have a straight set of stairs.
A good solution in such a case is to use a flexible material like vinyl or PVC as the skirt board.
Stair Skirtboard Materials to choose from
There are a host of options to choose from including MDF, hardwood, softwood (pine or fir), and plastic.
MDF for Skirtboard
MDF is an affordable and popular choice for making a skirt board.
The advantages of MDF are that it is treated to not be affected by mold or fungus. This means it's perfect for use even in damp conditions such as in basements.
It's also easy to work with and most professionals are familiar with using it.
Unlike raw wood, MDF rarely warps or twists which can be a problem when you need perfect skirt boards.
The negatives of MDF for skirt board are that it can sometimes emit gases like formaldehyde pollution the air indoors.
MDF is also difficult to repair in case of damage, as it cannot be sanded or refinished.
Another issue is that stores often do not have MDF boards of the width you need for a skirt board so they are usually pre-ordered.
Hardwood for Skirtboard
Hardwoods are the premium option when it comes to building a skirtboard.
Choosing a hardwood that matches the one that you use for your treads and rises gives a classic, elegant look.
The most popular hardwoods used for skirtboards are oak, cherry and walnut but you need to match the wood of your stairs to that of the skirt board.
In case of damage, hardwood skirting can easily be fixed by sanding or replacing at the damaged location.
The biggest negative to hardwood skirt board is that its quite expensive.
While hardwood skirt boards can last decades without much maintenance, the upfront investment can be a tall order for many.
They are also much harder to cut making them difficult to work with especially if you are a DIYer and not a professional.
Mistakes when using hardwood for skirting can be quite costly thus you should take the help of a professional in this case unless you're one.
Softwood for Skirtboard
Softwoods such as pine or fir are also used for skirt boards.
This choice gives you the benefits of using wood without being as expensive as hardwoods.
If you intend to paint or stain, then softwood can be a perfect choice for a skirt board.
A negative of using softwoods is that they are often twisted or warped.
The solution is to use pre-primed and jointed pine boards instead of common pine boards.
PVC for Skirtboard
PVC is a good choice when you want extreme resistance to the elements for your skirt board.
It's impossible for a PVC skirtboard to be damaged by fungus/mold/moisture as it doesn't contain any organic constituents.
They are also generally pre-finished quite well with a white color avoiding the need to paint over them.
This type of skirting is also called as vinyl trim.
Negatives of using PVC are that it's sometimes too brittle to work with and you need to be really careful when installing.
There's also no way to repair PVC skirtboards if they break.
You'll need to replace it entirely.
Stair Skirtboard Size to use
The most popular size for a skirt board is a 1x10 board.
Which means it will have an actual thickness of ¾" and a width of 9-¼".
For the best look and for tying well into other baseboards at the bottom and top of the stairs, skirt boards should ideally extend past the nosing by 2-½".
If you can't meet this exact value try to keep it between 1" and 2-½".
Anything less than 1 inch will make it difficult to merge with the other baseboards.
While the most standard thickness for a skirt board is 3/4", 1/2" skirt boards are also quite common.
Going below 1/2" thickness is not recommended as it can make the board too flimsy, especially for sofwood and MDF.
A key aspect to consider when buying skirt board material is the length of the board.
Skirt boards look best when they are in one single piece, unspliced.
This means you'll often need a very long board, which can be difficult to find in home renovation stores if you are going with wood.
The solution is to get it from your local lumber yard where they'll most likely be able to get very long boards for you.
When to attach stair skirtboard when building stairs
The order you need to follow here is stringers, painting of wall, fixing skirt board and lastly installation of treads and rises.
Make sure baseboards on the lower and upper floors are completed before you install skirt boards as you need to trim the ends of your skirt board to match the baseboards.
Now, there are some professionals who prefer installing skirt boards after fixing the treads and risers.
But in general skirt boards go first before treads and rises.
This is primarily because tread and riser fixing is the most critical step that could possibly go wrong when building wooden stairs.
Having skirtboards installed first makes cuts and measurements for treads and rise much easier.
Treads and rises can also butt into the skirtboards tightly when they are installed after skirt boards.
If you install treads and rises first, make sure you leave enough gap for the skirt board to be inserted (typically 3/4").
How to install Stair Skirtboard
While there are several ways to install stair skirt boards and the exact steps depend on the conditions under which you are building, I intend to give a general overview of stair skirt board installation here.
The first step is to fix the height of the skirt board.
Fix the height by measuring if the skirt board extends past the nosing by 2-1/2" ( or a value you prefer).
Once the height has been fixed, draw a straight line parallel to the stair using a straight level or a straight piece of board.
Mark the line on the adjoining wall using pencil.
At the lower end mark the point where you want the skirting board to meet the existing baseboard.
Some people prefer the skirt board to have the same height as the baseboard where they meet, while some prefer the skirtboard to sit above the existing baseboard.
Measure the two angles for making the plumb cuts using a digital level or digital protractor after marking.
The same steps apply for shaping the skirt board at the top as well.
Once the angles have been determined, take the longest distance you need as the length of board required.
Make the cuts using a circular saw and guide.
once both ends of the skirt board have been shaped, nail it to the wall at each tread using a brad nailer.
Make sure to nail into the studs behind the drywall.
Stair Skirtboard Alternatives and their Pros and Cons
baseboard trims are a reasonable alternative to having a skirt board.
It requires less planning and can be installed after you're done building the treads and risers.
If you're retrofitting the trim for existing stairs in your house, then baseboard trims make a lot of sense as they don't need a gap between the wall and the stair for installation.
Generally, baseboard trims for the stairs have the same style as the rest of the baseboard trims used in the lower and upper floors.
They're also relatively cheap and easily available.
Qaurter Round Molding
Quarter round mouldings are probably one of the easiest and simplest type of trim alternative for skirt boards.
They're extremely cheap, and are easy on the eyes.
While it hides the imperfections in the joints of your stairs, it also fits well in tight spaces.
Ornamental Molding or Trim
Ornamental or decorative trims are preferred when you want to add an artistic touch or give a sophisticated look to your stairs.
They are pre-made and available at most home improvement stores.
Avoiding the skirt board entirely is an option as well.
In this case, you need to make sure that there are no imperfects at the joints between the stairs and the walls.
You also need to make sure the paint job is perfectly done.
I do not recommend this option if you expect a lot of walking on your stairs as there's every chance that your drywall gets knocked in by accident.
Vinyl strips are a simple and a purely decorative option when you want to trim your stairs.
They are available as peel and stick products and are sold by length.
While they don't offer any protection to your wall, they come in a variety of designs.
This is probably the fastest way to trim your stairs if you don't want a skirt board.
Vinyl strips can be a great accent piece as for some houses.