My wife and I spent a few days at a genteel old lakeside resort hotel. The back stairway we took every day on our way to and from the dining room was nothing short of an acoustic masterpiece. Every step we took was accompanied by at least one, often two and sometimes even all three of the universally recognized stair noises: squeak, groan and pop. No matter how lightly we trod, we managed to evoke a sonic impression of an entire NFL squad.
That kind of noise in a 19th-Century hotel is quaint, and the management is right to ignore it. In your own home, however, it can quickly become unbearable.
Before beginning any kind of repairs, however, here is a rundown of stair nomenclature: Stairs are composed of three main parts. First are the stringers, those sloping pieces of wood along the sides of the stairs. Second, are the trends, the horizontal "steps" that you actually walk on. Third are the risers, the vertical boards between the steps (these are sometimes eliminated).
Whenever possible, it's best to do your work from beneath the stairs. If you have access, get under there while a helper walks up and down the stairs, activating the noises. Your first task is to find which of the steps are making noise, then to find the exact part of the step that is responsible.
Movement is what makes noise. Once you find it, all you have to do is eliminate it and the noise will go along. To do it, watch closely for any movement, or put your hands on the stairs to see whether you can feel any movement.
Probably the most common movement point is where tread and riser meet. If the riser fits into a groove cut into the bottom of the tread, you can sometimes tighten the joint by driving thin hardwood wedges coated with glue into it. Another solution may be to glue and screw blocks of wood to the problem area.
If you don't have access to the stairs from below, you can fix the problem from above. The most effective procedure is to reinforce the joint with screws. To do this, drill down through the tread into the riser. Between three and five screws per tread should do the trick. Use three-inch No. 8 flat heads, and counter-bore so you can cover over them with dowels or plugs.
If you don't want to go to all that trouble, you can try finishing nails instead. Drive these in pairs at intersecting angles to provide the maximum possible holding power. Drill the treads for these nails first to prevent splitting.
If you are really lazy, you can try shooting powdered graphite into the loose joint. That won't stop the movement, but it may lubricate the point of friction enough to end the noise.
Another common trouble spot is at the joint between the rear of a tread and the bottom of a riser. Stopping movement there depends on how the stair is built. If the tread fits under the rise or fits into a dado cut into the riser, you can drive thin glue-coated wedges into the joint from the front of the stairs, then cover the wedges with molding. If the rear of the tread butts against the riser and you have access from below, you can reinforce the joint with screws or nails. If you don't have access from below, gluing a molding such as a cover or a quarter round along the joint may reinforce it enough to stop the noise.
Another point of movement can be the joint between the end of a tread and the riser. If you have access from below, glue blocks can make for a good repair. If not, you can try screws or nails from above. Predrill carefully for these out near the end of the tread, and angle out toward the stringer.
Wedged stairs: Most modern stairs are factory-made. These have stringers with dadoes routed into them to accept both treads and risers, which are held in place with glue and wedges. Stairs of this type are solid and rarely make noise, but should they, you can usually quiet them by tapping in the wedges at the site of the problem. A few drops of super glue applied to the joint will help keep the wedge from working loose again.