Q: My puppy chewed through the wood on a stair tread. My husband put in some wood filler as a temporary fix, but it’s white and looks awful. Then the puppy chewed the wood filler, so some of it is now gray. Is there a way to fix the stair so it looks like it used to?
A: You have a few options: Use faux paint on the patch, cover the tread with adhesive-backed oak veneer, paint the stairs, cover the stairs with carpet or replace the tread.
Faux paint or veneer might make sense as temporary fixes until your puppy learns to chew on something else. Otherwise, unless you want to permanently change the look of your stairway, replacing the tread is the way to go.
If you opt for using faux paint, get small cans of paint in the light yellow-brown color that’s most dominant in the wood, plus a darker brown. Luckily, the grain is not complex in the area where the puppy chewed, so it should be relatively easy — though time-consuming — to mimic the pattern.
Tidy up the patch first. With a utility knife or chisel, remove the excess filler that appears to be dripping off the bottom of the bullnose edge and bulging out from the cove molding under the tread. Whatever has made the filler turn gray probably isn’t something that makes a good base for paint, so sand that off using a medium-grit sanding sponge. You should also lightly scuff-sand the area just beyond the patch, so new finish will stick there. Wipe off all the dust.
Paint on the light-colored paint, and with a small, dry brush, feathering the edges, so the paint extends a bit beyond the patch. Let that dry. Then, with a fine-tip artist brush, add the streaks of the darker color. You can also mix the two colors for in-between shades. When the paint dries, apply a clear finish. You might want to recoat the entire tread after first scuff-sanding it.
Using veneer would cost more and probably wouldn’t work as a long-term fix, because the veneer is very thin and could wear through. That said, it would be quick and easy, and it should give you a like-new look once you stain and finish it to match the other treads. Rockler sells peel-and-stick veneer that’s 12 inches wide and 96 inches long in red oak or white oak for about $45. The grain runs in the long direction, and the veneer should bend enough to round over the bullnose edge of a stair tread, said a customer service representative who could give only his first name, Gary. Make a paper pattern first, and cut the veneer exactly to the size you need.
The big issue, Gary said, is whether the adhesive would hold for the long term around the front edge, given the relatively tight bend. But if you carefully pry up the cove molding under the tread, install the veneer, then reinstall the molding, it will help anchor that edge, he said.
For extra insurance, spread water-based contact cement with a low-nap, small roller over the whole tread and the edge before applying the veneer. Let the adhesive become tacky before proceeding. Remove the paper backing from the veneer, and set pieces of wax paper toward the front of the step to keep the veneer from prematurely sticking while you carefully align the top, back edge. Pull out the wax paper as you press the veneer in place toward the front edge and over the bullnose.
Go over the veneer several times, using a stiff board with a rounded edge or a scraper to make sure the layers are pressed tightly together. Press from the center toward edges, and from the top of the bullnose around toward the back underneath. Test stains and finish on scrap pieces of veneer. When you’re satisfied with the match, finish the tread.
In the long run, though, replacing the tread is the only way to make your staircase good as new. Before you start, measure the tread’s thickness and length, and get a replacement piece. Lumberyards and home centers carry these with a bullnose, and the pieces are usually a full inch thick, which is typical for stair treads. Don’t get a piece that’s called “1 inch” but is actually 3/4 inch thick unless that’s what was used in your staircase. Home Depot sells a red oak tread that’s 1 inch thick, 11 1/2 inches wide and 48 inches long for $38; the store also carries less-expensive, builder-grade oak treads, but they have color streaks and small knots.
To remove the old piece, first pry off the cove molding underneath the tread. Use a small pry bar with a sharp, wide blade, such as the Restorer’s Cat’s Paw. Then fit the blade into the crack that the molding covered. Lift the tread to begin freeing it from the nails that hold it to the stair risers. These are the framing pieces that support the stairs; there’s always a riser under each end of a tread and often one or more mid-span. If you have access to a reciprocating saw, slip the blade into the gap you opened and cut the nails on the back. Or, from the top, hammer in the claw end of the cat’s paw until the claws grip the nails enough so you can pry them up. Because you’ll be replacing the tread, it doesn’t matter if you mar the finish.
Once the tread is out, use it as a template for cutting a new tread. Then spread a bead of construction adhesive on the top edges of the risers, press the tread into place and nail it down. Reinstall the cove molding. Test the stain and finish on scrap pieces of tread to get a good match, then stain and finish the tread.
Or, if you’re worried about keeping that puppy off the stairs while the finish dries, pre-finish the tread before you install it.