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Stair Skirtboard Choices and Alternatives [Pros Cons]



V Susan
Hi! I'm Susan. I am passionate about woodworking, general DIY and home improvement. If you'd like to connect with me or talk about something you like at mellowpine, drop me a mail at susan@mellowpine.com


Stair Skirtboard

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 skirtboard for your stairs.

In this article, we take a deep dive into everything you need to know about stair skirtboards.

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 skirtboards 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.

Skirtboards of the first kind are the most common.

Stair Skirtboard
Stair Skirtboard

Skirtboards are mostly installed after the stringers are constructed.

Treads and risers 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 skirtboard.

This gap is usually either 3/4″ or 1/2″ in width.

Do you need a Stair Skirtboard?

The most common reason why skirtboards are installed is simply aesthetics.

Skirtboards 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 skirtboard, 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 skirtboard 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 on 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 they merge with the bottom baseboard and the top subfloor.

Retrofitting Stair Skirtboard on Existing Stairs?

In some situations, skirtboards 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 skirtboard.

While it’s much more difficult to install a skirtboard 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 skirtboard and cut the triangles out accurately.

Skirtboard retrofitting in existing stairs
Skirtboard retrofitting in existing stairs

If you have nosings on the stairs, it gets a bit more complicated as you’ll need to trace out the shape of the nosings as well to accommodate the skirtboard perfectly.

When Should You Not Have a Stair Skirtboard?

There are a few situations wherein you need not or should not have a skirtboard.

Floating Stairs or Open Riser Stairs

This is one situation where your stairs will look cleaner without a skirtboard.

Floating stairs
Floating stairs

Also, if there’s a large gap between the floating stairs and the wall, a skirtboard cannot be installed there.

No Baseboard anywhere else in the house

Stair skirtboards 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 skirtboards only on the stairs will look odd.

Avoid a Formal Look

Some people simply prefer not to have a skirtboard 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 skirtboard.

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 skirtboard.

The advantages of MDF are that it is treated not to 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 skirtboards are that it can sometimes emit gases like formaldehyde polluting 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 skirtboard, 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.

hardwood skirtboard
hardwood skirtboard

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 skirtboard.

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 it’s quite expensive.

While hardwood skirtboards 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 skirtboard.

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 of your skirtboard.

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 vinyl trim.

The negatives of using PVC are that it’s sometimes too brittle to work with, and you need to be really careful when installing it.

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 skirtboard is a 1×10 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, skirtboards should ideally extend past the nosing by 2-½”.

Skirtboard height from nosing
Skirtboard height from nosing

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 standard thickness for a skirtboard is 3/4″, 1/2″ skirtboards are also quite common.

Going below 1/2″ thickness is not recommended as it can make the board too flimsy, especially for softwood and MDF.

A key aspect to consider when buying skirtboard material is the length of the board.

Skirtboards 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 a Stair Skirtboard When Building Stairs?

The order you need to follow here is stringers, painting of wall, fixing skirtboard, and lastly, installation of treads and rises.

Make sure baseboards on the lower and upper floors are completed before you install skirtboards, as you need to trim the ends of your skirtboard to match the baseboards.

Now, there are some professionals who prefer installing skirtboards after fixing the treads and risers.

But in general, skirt boards go first before treads and risers.

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 skirtboard to be inserted (typically 3/4″).

How to Install Stair Skirtboard?

While there are several ways to install stair skirtboards, and the exact steps depend on the conditions under which you are building.

I intend to give a general overview of stair skirtboard installation here.

The first step is to fix the height of the skirtboard.

Fix the height by measuring if the skirtboard 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.

marking skirtboard length on wall
marking skirtboard length on the wall

Mark the line on the adjoining wall using a pencil.

At the lower end, mark the point where you want the skirting board to meet the existing baseboard.

Skirtboard and baseboard meeting point
Skirtboard and baseboard meeting point

Some people prefer the skirtboard to have the same height as the baseboard where they meet, while some prefer the skirtboard to sit above the existing baseboard.

angles for cutting the skirtboard
Angles for cutting the skirtboard

Measure the two angles for making the plumb cuts using a digital level or digital protractor after marking.

The same steps apply to 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 the board is required.

The total length of the board depends on the number of steps in your stairs.

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 Trim

Baseboard trims are a reasonable alternative to having a skirtboard.

It requires less planning and can be installed after you’re done building the treads and risers.

Baseboard trim for Stairs
Baseboard trim for Stairs

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 stairs for installation.

Generally, baseboard trims for the stairs have the same style as the rest of the baseboard trims used on the lower and upper floors.

They’re also relatively cheap and easily available.

Quarter Round Molding

Quarter-round moldings are probably one of the easiest and simplest types of trim alternatives 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.

No Skirting- Stairs without Skirtboard

Avoiding the skirtboard entirely is an option as well.

In this case, you need to make sure that there are no imperfections 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

Vinyl strips are a simple and purely decorative option when you want to trim your stairs.

vinyl strips
vinyl strips

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 skirtboard.

Vinyl strips can be a great accent piece for some houses.

Frequently Asked Questions(FAQ)

What is the Ideal Size for Stair Treads?

According to the International Building Code 2021, the minimum depth (or width) of a stair tread should not be less than 11 inches.

However, per OSHA standards, when the stairs are used for equipment access, the minimum depth is 9.5 inches.

Why is the 18 Rule Important for Staircases?

18 rule states the sum of the riser’s height and tread width must be equal to 18 inches.

This ensures the stairs are comfortable to use and are less likely to cause injuries.

How Can I Make Wooden Stairs Less Slippery?

Covering wooden stairs with door mats makes them less slippery as they trap moisture.

Another cost-effective solution is to use rubber treads on the surface of each step.

V Susan
Hi! I'm Susan. I am passionate about woodworking, general DIY and home improvement. If you'd like to connect with me or talk about something you like at mellowpine, drop me a mail at susan@mellowpine.com