Uncommonly slippery stairs are a danger
Dear Mr. HandyPerson: A few years ago, I removed the carpeting from two flights of stairs and replaced it with maple hardwood. They look beautiful, but they’re very slippery. A few months ago, I fell down the stairs and broke my tailbone. My dog has also fallen on the stairs and is now afraid to use the stairs at all.
Two weeks ago, a friend slipped down the stairs and hit his elbow. My neighbor, who just had a baby, will not carry her baby up or down the stairs unless she is wearing non-slip shoes.
I don’t want to recarpet the stairs, as I’m thinking of putting the house on the market within the year and think hardwood stairs will sell better. However, I’m wondering if there’s an inexpensive remedy that will make the stairs less slippery but will not damage the hardwood when it comes time to sell. I’ve covered some of the stairs with rug pads, but it’s not very attractive. Can you give me some advice? I’m sure there are many others with the same problem. – Kathleen, Chicago
Dear Kathleen: Actually, this is not a common problem for most wood-surfaced stairs, and it raises a significant number of questions for Mr. HandyPerson. In particular, what kind of finish was applied to the wood when the stairs were redone? Also, was the finished wood waxed or polished afterward or recently?
Most finishes that are applied to wood floors – varnishes and polyurethanes and such – are not terribly slippery by themselves, for good reason. Otherwise, people all over the country would be risking life and limb walking around their own homes.
However, the use of some kinds of wood-cleaning and polishing products (along with “sprayover” from others that might have been used to clean, dust or polish wood handrails) can create a potentially dangerous situation on the stair treads. Aerosol dusting products, such as Endust, can be extremely slippery if accidentally sprayed onto wood floors (or any smooth-surfaced flooring).
If you know that the steps were waxed at some point, a commercial wax-remover and a lot of elbow grease will remove it. Follow the directions on the container of wax-remover explicitly.
If the steps were never waxed, the next thing Mr. HP would try is a thorough scrubbing of the stair treads with fine steel wool (No. 0000) and mineral spirits. You’ll need lots of steel wool, lots of absorbent rags to wipe down the steps as you work, and very good ventilation for the fumes of the mineral spirits.
This will remove the residue of dusting sprays or wax that may have landed inadvertently on the stairs, making them unusually slippery. This may have the effect of slightly dulling a very high-gloss finish on the steps, but it should not change the overall color or appearance of the wood. It’s important to work on small areas and to work with the steel wool gently – you are trying to clean the surface, not remove the finish, which vigorous scrubbing with steel wool could do.
If the steps remain unusually slippery after one or the other of these treatments, then your best options are probably to have them refinished, to install an attractive carpet runner with a no-slip backing, or to apply strips of no-slip tape available in rolls (which can be cut to size) or individual strips at hardware, paint and home supply stores.
Refinishing will be the most expensive and complicated, and the no-slip strips will be the least attractive, if cheapest. Having a carpet runner installed may be the best middle-ground solution, since it can be good-looking without hiding the fact that there are attractive wood stairs showing on both sides.
However you proceed, Kathleen, please don’t put off doing something about this problem until someone else gets injured even more seriously. It wouldn’t hurt to put down some self-adhesive no-slip strips on the steps now (which can be removed) while you proceed with one of the other approaches.
This is a serious problem with a potential danger that you should not ignore. The appearance of the wood steps will have much less of an effect on the prospective sale price of your home than if you (or someone else) is hospitalized or if litigation is under way at sale time because of a mishap involving the slippery steps.
Mr. HandyPerson wants to hear of home repair matters that are troubling you, interesting questions, funny experiences and useful tips you might want to share with other readers. Write to: Mr. HandyPerson, c/o Universal Press Syndicate, 4520 Main Street, Kansas City, Mo. 64111.
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