Most interior stair structures are built using hardwood materials. Most homeowners would agree that installing quality hardwood flooring in a home can make it look amazing and an excellent investment. But with so many hardwood options available on the market today, how do you know which one to choose? Understanding the differences between the various types of wood species can provide you with a better direction on which type of wood may work best.
Here are 14 types of wood that you can use for your stair treads:
1. Oak 2. Hickory 3. Bamboo 4. Ebony 5. Maple 6. Walnut 7. Plywood 8. Birch 9. Ash 10. Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF) 11. Pine 12. Hickory 13. Poplar 14. Alder
Now let's take a closer look at the differences between each type of wood.
Oak is known to be one of the most beautiful and durable wood species available, which explains why it's such a popular wood for furniture-making. It's also fairly affordable and can be purchased for around $2-$3 per square foot. Oak is known to last for over a century if well kept. It's very durable and one of the more expensive wood flooring options. Oak can be difficult to install, as it is heavy and prone to splitting and breaking. When used for stair treads, it can be covered or uncovered, depending on your preference. The white and red oaks are more warp-resistant than other Oak species.
Hickory is known for its character and strength, as well as its return on investment. It's usually priced anywhere from $3 to $7 per square foot. Hickory is a very durable hardwood and is super-resistant to dents and scratches. It can last well over a hundred years and is fairly easy to maintain.
Hickory stair treads can be maintained more easily if they are covered in carpet. However, a solid varnish will also be sufficient. Hickory is exceptionally strong, hard, and even shock-resistant, making it a bit more difficult and expensive to install. However, this can be beneficial if you have a staircase that will be a high-traffic area in the household.
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Though not commonly used as a stair tread in North America, bamboo can definitely add a bit of character to your staircase. It's a durable wood species (even harder than maple and oak) and is known to last for about 20 to 25 years. This being stated, it doesn't offer the best return on investment, as it is usually priced anywhere from $5 to $7 per square foot.
Bamboo stains pretty easily and works best with oil-rich stains. However, it is fairly easy to maintain and only requires regular sweeping or vacuuming to remove dust particles and other debris. Bamboo is a bit harder than many other hardwoods, which makes it more resistant to dents and scratches.
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Ebony, a distinctive and exotic wood, is one of the most expensive woods species available, costing anywhere from $10 to $30 per square foot. It is known to be the hardest and most dense of all hardwood species. Ebony can be quite challenging to install (due to its dense nature), and as a result, more expensive.
However, its beautiful color and durability make it very desirable for many homeowners. Its dark color will require more maintenance--dust and debris will easily show up on ebony treads. It's known to last anywhere from 70 to well over 100 years and is best kept using varnish and black wood oils. It's definitely a wood species best left uncovered when used as a stair tread. After all, why would you want to hide such beautiful (and expensive) wood under carpeting?
Maple is also another popular hardwood that can be great for stair treads. It's actually the second most popular type of hardwood used for homebuilding (it's also used on basketball courts). Maple is heavy, very durable, and is on the expensive side, with pricing around $5 to $8 per square foot. It's is slightly stronger than oak and maybe a bit more challenging to install due to its hard texture. Maple treads can be covered or uncovered, depending on your preference.
If they are uncovered, it's best to use a quality varnish to protect the wood's top surface, as marks and scratches tend to be more visible due to its light hue. Maple is also fairly easy to maintain, only requiring a new coat of varnish every 10-15 years. It's important to know that Maple wood is not a friend of humidity (even less so than other woods), so it's best to maintain humidity levels 50% below if you use this as a tread.
Walnut is a very strong and moderately expensive type of hardwood that's usually priced anywhere from $4 to $9 per square foot. Though a fairly dense wood (though not so much as other hardwoods), it's surprisingly quite malleable, which makes for a fairly easy install. Walnut stair treads can be covered or uncovered, as the wood tends to take well to polishing. It also has a relatively high wear-resistance and can last anywhere from 50 to 70 years as long as it's well-kept. Maintaining Walnut typically requires regular sweeping or vacuuming to prevent dust accumulation.
Plywood can definitely be used for stair treads. It's not as strong as hardwood flooring options and is known to be a lighter-weight wood species--though this makes it easier to install. You can usually find plywood risers for about $7 to $11 (and around $1.25-$1.50 per sq ft) at any home improvement store.
Plywood stair treads can last anywhere from 30 to 40 years if well maintained-- and this would require very little if they are carpeted. Due to the nature of the wood, the treads would be best covered with either carpeting or paint to protect the surface of the wood. Plywood is probably one of the most affordable tread options.
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Birch is another moderately expensive wood and can be purchased at around $3 to $10 per square foot. Like pine, it's also considered a softwood and can work great as a stair tread material. Birch is known to last anywhere from 40 to 50 years. Though a softwood, it's extremely strong, durable, and tends to hold stains really well. However, because of its soft surface, carpeting would probably help this wood last longer when used for stair treads, especially in high-traffic areas.
Birch is fairly susceptible to scratch and dents, so if you install the treads without carpeting, you may need to refinish it every 3 to 4 years. The biggest downside to using Birch on flooring is that it is somewhat unstable and known to contract and expand as humidity and temperature change in its environment--even more so than other types of solid wood.
Ashwood is known for its beautiful and rich texture. You can find it priced anywhere from$6.72 to $8.15 per square foot. Ash is known for its flexibility and its similarity to Oak. Like Walnut, it also has a fairly high wear-resistance, though it's not the most weather-resistant wood. Ash treads can be covered or uncovered, as it takes well to medium and heavy stains. Due to its density, it can be pretty hard to install and polish, however.
It can last for several years (over 50) with little maintenance, other than occasional sweeping and mopping. Lighter Ash varieties are best kept if they have heavy varnish is to protect them from dents and surface stains. So to say, if your stairwell will be a high traffic area, a carpet cover may be a better option--if you don't plan on re-varnishing it every 5 to 10 years.
10. Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF)
Medium Density Fiberboards or "MDF" boards are made from engineered wood fibers, resin, and wax. You can usually find this building material priced anywhere from $2.75 to $7.70 per 4x8 inch panel. MDF can come in several grain options and variations as well as different densities. It's a common choice in home-building projects because it's very durable and has an immunity to cracking and warping. It's engineered structure makes it easy to stain and paint so that it can fare pretty well either as a covered stair tread or an uncovered.
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Years ago, MDF was way less durable than most solid wood building materials; however, technological advances have spurred the introduction of various high-end MDF materials options, many of which are as durable as real wood. It's important to note that stair treads made from MDF boards can sustain permanent damage if exposed to extreme heat.
Though often grouped with hardwoods, Pine is actually a softwood. Due to its great abundance, it can typically be purchased fairly cheaply for around $1.50 - $5 per square foot. Pine's rich color is known for easily absorbing stains, which is one of the reasons why it's so popular in home building projects. It's a lightweight wood that's also known for its ability to resist swelling and shrinking. It's not as dense as other woods, which makes it easier to install and replace.
Pine steps can last over 50 to 60 years, though they would need to be refinished every 7 to 10 years. This wood makes for a great stair tread, whether it's covered or uncovered. However, if uncovered, it's best to use a thick varnish as its soft surface is easily susceptible to dents and scratches. That being stated, maintaining Pine will require some effort, especially if your stairs will endure a considerable amount of foot traffic (particularly with children or pets).
Hickory can be a great choice for stair treads as it's one of the most durable hardwoods available. It's a moderately expensive wood that can usually be purchased for about $5 to $8 per square foot. It works extremely well if you are going for rustic or classic decor, and it's a popular choice for homeowners who have multiple children and/or lots of pets.
Hickory is a particularly "hard" hardwood, making cutting and installing the wood a bit tricky (and more expensive than other hardwoods). However, its impressive lifespan of over 90 years makes it well worth the effort. Hickory can work well either covered or uncovered as a stair tread, though if uncovered, it may take a few coats of varnish to penetrate its dense surface effectively.
Poplar wood, often mistaken for Oak, is a suitable and inexpensive option for stair treads. It can be purchased anywhere from $1.50 to $2.75 per square foot. Though a hardwood, it's actually not the hardest of hardwoods. However, its lighter weight makes it easier to use/install as a building material. If maintained, it can last anywhere from 20 to 40 years, though it will need regular maintenance such as sweeping and mopping to prevent debris and dust accumulation. When used as a stair tread, it could work great beneath carpet or covered in a heavy varnish to prevent scratches and dents.
Alder is a mid-priced wood that can typically be found for around $2.50 to $7.50 per square foot. Considered a softwood, it's often used as a less expensive alternative to Maple or Cherry wood. If well maintained, Alder can last anywhere from 60 to 70 years. And though it's a light-weight wood, it's surprisingly strong.
Alder would probably work best as a covered stair tread to prevent scratching its soft surface. Maintenance doesn't require very much, other than the occasional vacuuming and mopping, as its fine uniform texture can attract dust rather easily. It makes for a pretty easy install and is overall a very malleable wood.
Wrapping Things Up
As you can see, there are several types of wood to choose from for your stair treads. Hopefully, this post has helped you to narrow down your choices.
Interested in learning more about interior stairs? Be sure to check out our other posts before you go:
Should Stairs Match The Flooring That’s Upstairs Or Downstairs?