Q. I have installed baseboards and molding before, but now I am having a problem cutting and installing solid wood stair trim molding. I don’t want to waste more wood. How should I do it?
Stair trim molding is very attractive, particularly when the walls of the stairwell are wallpapered or painted a dark color for contrast. Also, if you have young children running up and down the stairs, the solid wood stair trim can protect the lower portion of the walls. The hard, solid wood is much more resistant to dents than soft drywall.
Installing stair trim molding can be a bit tricky because of the all the angles that must be cut precisely. Just looking at the stairs, wall and trim lumber, it is not always intuitively obvious how to cut and fit it. When using expensive solid wood trim stock, you want to keep your cutting mistakes and waste to a minimum.
Instead of using solid wood molding and trim stock, consider using finger-jointed material if the trim is going to be painted. Using this material instead of solid wood will reduce the material costs considerably. Other than the cost savings, I recommend using painted finger-jointed materials instead of natural solid wood because it is easy to repair the painted surface.
Even when using a good-quality miter saw, the fitting can be difficult because you will not be cutting standard 45-degree miter angles. Since you have already tried and failed, you should have several pieces of scrap molding you can use for the fitting measurements. Just several short pieces will be adequate.
The simplest method to determine the proper angles is to just use a projector or carpenter’s angle finder to measure the angle of the stairwell. Divide this angle in half and cut the mating ends on two test pieces at this angle on the miter saw.
Place the two pieces on the landing and the stairs to see how they fit. Make any needed minor adjustments to the cut angles, and try again until they fit perfectly. Keep in mind, you can always use a little wood filler in the gap if you are planning to paint the finished trim.
If you do not have a protractor or angle finder, place a short scrap piece on the landing and draw a line along the top of it on the wall. Place the scrap piece on the sloping stringer and draw a line along it until it intersects the first line.
Now that you have the proper intersection point, place a piece of the scrap trim piece on the sloped stringer and slide until the tip meets the intersection point of the lines. Mark the bottom of the trim piece where it meets the landing. This will be an approximate angle for the miter cut. Cut some additional test pieces to get a perfect fit.
Once you have the determined the proper miter angles, instead of trying to determine the exact length of the trim piece(s) needed, purposely cut them slightly on the long side. Fit them in place as well as possible to determine how much has to be trimmed off. If it does require two pieces of trim down the stairs, make the cut on the square ends, not on the mitered ends.
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