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Fitting a Stair Runner with Stair Rods

Nice Stairs

If you have an old house, then what better than to reinstate an elegant period feature and fit a stair runner with stair rods? Great idea, but unfortunately since the whole carpeting industry is geared up to sell fitted carpets, you can find yourself paying a small fortune. And if your stairs turn a corner, as many do, then many carpet fitters will flatly refuse to touch it. For them it's just not worth the effort.

To compound the problem I have discovered that good instructions for laying a stair runner are very hard to come by, and others gloss over the problems or are just plain wrong, which is a pity considering that the results can be very good. Fitting a runner with stair rods can be done safely, neatly and cost-effectively with few tools, and in many ways is much more suited to the DIYer. The rods actually make it much easier.

Disclaimer: Please note that I am not a carpet fitter by trade, and although I have taken great care to make these instructions as comprehensive as possible, and the end result as safe as possible, I do not know what current best practice is when fitting stair carpets. Therefore if you think these instructions are wrong or just plain dangerous, please let me know about it.


Buying the Runner

Runner

Traditionally stair runners are produced on special narrow looms where the weft threads (those that go across the carpet from side to side) are not cut at the edges, but double back, so this type of carpet cannot fray. These days this type of carpet is quite specialist and therefore expensive, with prices starting from £40 per linear meter. However, they can look gorgeous.

The cheaper modern alternative is to have a regular piece of carpet corded, and any carpet shop will do this for you. However, this can still be pricey since they will charge a hefty markup. The cheapest option I have found is to search for rugs of the right width. These are often produced cheaply and in bulk and are designed for use in hallways (a 'hallway runner') and will therefore be sufficiently hard-wearing. More to the point, it's the rods that catch the eye, and thus they can make an ordinary bit of carpet look far more expensive than it really is.

The industry standard width for a runner is 70cm (27 inch) and it can be difficult to find much choice at sizes smaller or greater than this. If your stairs are so narrow or so wide that 70cm will look silly, then either hunt around for something narrower, or go online and find a deal that says 'sold in any width'. In our case our stairs were 71cm at their widest, so we had no choice but to hunt around. Remember that if you buy rods with finials, then you will need to leave room for these. I eventually bought two 60cm-wide rugs from eBay for £77.50 delivered.

Traditionally stair runners could be very narrow indeed (less than 50cm) but it can feel like walking a tightrope if you have big feet. It is also quite feasible to buy the carpet slightly longer than you need, and to fit it in such a way that you leave a little excess folded underneath at one end. Then after a few years you can slide it down a few inches to get more wear out of it.


Buying the Rods

Stair Rod

There is a huge variety of rods in your local carpet shop or on-line, but prices vary widely between about £7 per rod (including finials) to £20 or more, so do your research. Considering you will probably need at least 12 of them, you should budget to spend at least £90.

They come in standard lengths, but are easily cut down using a saw, and the bracket hides the cut end, so you don't need to be neat. You will not know precisely what length they will need to be until you start fitting the carpet, so I would not recommend accepting any offers to have them cut to length before delivery. The finial is bolted on separately, so you can leave one missing if short of space.

You could also opt to buy original, antique rods, for that authentic touch, but the prices can be awe inspiring. I saw one set of 16 rods go for £450. However, bear in mind that the rods remain an asset even after the carpet is worn out, and you can use them again and again.


Tools

Stair Rod

The list of tools is optional, but I used:

You do not need a Knee Kicker, and although some might prefer to cut carpet using a knife, I found scissors much more suitable. The stapler on the other hand is absolutely indispensible, and you should not try to do the job using just nails, tacks or anything else. If your stairs turn a corner then you should consider getting some additional extra long staples to go through two thicknesses of carpet, although in my case I just used a few nails. I bought the Stanley 0-TR150HL Heavy Duty Staple Gun (pictured) for £16 and I fully recommend it. It doesn't say that it is suitable for stapling carpet, just underlay, but in my experience it coped with a pretty heavy rug just fine.


Step 1 - Prepare the Stairs

Prepare the Stairs

Remove the old carpet, pull out all the nails, uproot all the old staples and carpet tacks, and do all the painting. The paint will need several days to dry otherwise you will still find soft patches to which new carpet will stick very nicely. You do not need to paint right under the runner, and doing so will only make it slide more, so don't do it.

Deciding where to paint on the corners is tricky because it's quite non-obvious, so read ahead in these instructions and try to get an idea of where the runner will go on the corners, then paint a good 10cm inside of that.


Step 2 - Fit the underlay and rods

Fit the underlay and rods

Since the positions of everything on the straights is pretty well fixed, you can fit the gripper rods, underlay and stairs rods before doing anything else. Do not fit anything on the corner treads, because you don't really know where anything will go yet, and things have to be done by eye, literally one step at a time. By rights carpet should always be fitted from the bottom of the stairs upwards, but in my opinion you should do the straights first, even if it's just to get in some practice.

Hopefully one side or other of your stairs will be a nice straight line, so you can measure from that. The idea is to get the stair rods to have nice equal gaps at both ends, and to keep the brackets square to the rod. The runner is only made of carpet, so it will be able to accommodate some misalignment, but as always you are going for the best aesthetic result. Take your time and get it right.

Do not attempt to do the job without gripper strip. The stairs rods really aren't very strong, and they will bend easily, with potentially lethal results. It is literally only the gripper strip that will be holding the carpet in place as you walk down the stairs. However, the rod is strong enough to hold the carpet onto the gripper strip nicely, especially at the edges, so it is not merely decorative. Unfortunately there is a possibility that if you sell the house the next owners might be silly enough to remove the rods. I would advise them not to.

  1. Cut the gripper strip 5cm narrower than your runner, and position it so that the rod will hold the carpet on to it, leaving a gap between it and the next riser. What size gap you choose is down to you - I don't think it's critical. Hammer the strips into place.
  2. Cut the underlay to the same width, and long enough so that it will run about 5cm down the next riser, snipping off the bottom corners to avoid them being seen. Make sure to align the underlay so that the stronger threads run up and down the stairs. The underlay will take a lot of abuse over the years, so you don't want it falling to pieces.
  3. Staple it securely in place at the top end by the gripper strip, and again onto the face of the riser. Make sure you have most of your weight on the stapler before pulling the trigger so that the staple goes as deeply as possible. You will quickly realise why the stapler is so much more preferable to nailing. I used about 8 staples at the top of each piece of underlay and 5 at the bottom.
  4. Cut the stairs rods to length, then screw them in place. I find it easier to get it central using just my fingers to feel the gap at each end. The hard part is to get the brackets properly square, which is why a bradawl is so useful. If you are like me you will probably cut one rod the wrong length, thereby rendering it junk, but that's life.

Step 3 - Fit the runner on the straights

Fit the runner on the straight
  1. Cut your runner so that you have a nice square edge, and apply some kind of glue to the back edges of it so that it will not fray over the years. I used PVA Construction Adhesive, because I had some lying about, and the results were pretty good since it dries clear. Almost anything will do, or you could even use a needle and thread. If your carpet doesn't look like it will fray, or you don't look after a small army of cats like we do, then forget about it.
  2. Staple the bottom of your runner to the bottom of the riser where you are beginning your straight section. This might be the bottom of the stairs, in which case do it securely, or it might be just above a corner, in which case bear in mind that you will have to unpick it later when you come to do the corner. Staples are very easy to unpick, but do it carefully so as not to mark the carpet. Whether you fit a stair rod at the bottom of your stairs, at ground level, is a matter of choice. We chose not to, and we think it looks fine.
  3. Undo the first two stair rods and slide the carpet underneath the second, replacing the second rod loosely. This will keep the carpet straight and out of the way whilst you work on the first.
  4. Flatten the carpet out but don't go beserk about getting the carpet as taut as possible. Take up any slack by pulling the carpet through the second rod until it starts to look about right. If anything you are aiming to get equal tension across the carpet, so that it doesn't look like it's pulling anywhere, and there are no bumps.
  5. Hold the stapler vertically with the stapling end down and prepare to staple the carpet into the bottom of the second riser, roughly in the middle. This is why the first stair rod has been removed, i.e. so that you can get the staple right into the corner.
  6. Push the stapler forward and use it to tension the carpet as you do so, such that by the time you are ready to fire the staple, the carpet has just the right amount of tension in it. A knee kicker is absolutely overkill to do this, which is why I don't recommend you use one, but if you have one, feel free.
  7. Once the stapler has reached the corner of the second riser, get all your weight onto it and fire the staple right into the corner. You should staple the carpet all the way across its width just in case someone removes the stair rods in the future. Five staples should be enough.
  8. Once the carpet is securely stapled into the corner, fit the first stair rod and check your results. If it's not tight enough, or even enough, unpick one of the staples and redo it, slightly tighter or looser as required.
  9. Repeat for each stair moving upwards until you get to the top. It should be very easy to keep the runner going right through the middle of each stair rod because it is constrained both above and below the step you are stapling.

Step 4 - Marking out the corners

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Getting a straight stair runner to go round corners is going to involve some compromises somewhere. It is easiest to see what is going on by studying a diagram of your stairs as if they were folded out flat. In the diagram on the left the treads are in light purple, the risers in blue, the rods in yellow, and the pieces of carpet are the black rectangles. The bottom of the stairs is on the left, and the first three steps each turn by 30 degrees to achieve a 90 degree left turn. In reality, because the risers are vertical, they do this within a square.

Because this diagram has been folded out flat, the pieces of stair runner remain completely straight. In reality they are folded over the nose of each tread, and go up and down each riser, but it's very difficult to work out the angles for that, which is why I produced this diagram. What we can say is that the positions of two points are fixed, which I have marked with the circles. These are the outside edges of the carpet on the adjoining straight sections (we'll regard the ground as a straight section). The runner has to be perfectly centred on the straights, and parallel.

Aesthetically, what seems to work best is to align the outside edges of the runner where they meet at the bottom of each riser, thus making the inside of the turn look like folded 'hospital corners'. It is not possible for the runner to go vertically up and down the risers, so some compromises have to be made as to how much of an angle to the vertical you are prepared to tolerate. Since we always look down on the stairs from an angle, it seems the eye is prepared to tolerate quite a lot.

It is also interesting to note that as you descend the stairs the runner turns first by 15 degrees, then by 30 degrees, then finally by 45 degrees. If the first piece doesn't turn by 15 degrees but goes straight, then as it goes down the third riser it will be at 30 degrees to the vertical, and in my case that means it will hit the wall. Whether it needs to turn as much as 15 degrees is debatable.

For me, the great dilemma was where to position the middle stair rod. In the end I chose to position it 10cm from the wall, worried that if I positioned it too close to the wall, then the angle to the vertical of the piece above would be too large, and if I positioned it too far, then the piece above would hit the newel post. In the end I think about 7cm to the wall would have been better, but it really doesn't seem to matter that much, so don't panic. You could even choose to make them all 5cm, which is certainly simpler.

The end result of all this hard work is that you know where to position the stair rod brackets on the outside of the turn. Everything else is measured from that. In my case those measurements were 5cm, 10cm and 5cm, as shown on the diagram. It is a good idea to check at this point that you have painted enough of the stairs.

As it turns out there was one further constraint I wasn't aware of - that being that the first rod is absolutely as long as it can get. It was my good fortune that the rods were delivered just long enough to be able to cope.


Step 5 - Fitting the corners

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Around the corner you will be working from the bottom upwards, as per usual.

The First Piece

  1. Measure the length of the first piece of runner on the outside of the turn, add 2-3cm, then cut a rectangular piece of runner to this length.
  2. Work out the rough length of this where it hits the second riser, subtract 5-6cm and cut a piece of gripper strip and underlay to this width, and fit them as before.
  3. Take the piece of runner and fire one staple on its outside edge at the top of the preceeding section, making sure to centre the carpet. In my case this was ground level.
  4. Screw in the bracket of the first stair rod at the outside edge in the position determined in step 4.
  5. Rotate the carpet so that it is flush against the bracket and reasonably taut. Proceed to staple it into place at both the bottom and the top, tensioning the carpet as you go. Again this can be an iterative process.
  6. Mark the runner on the inside edge of the turn about 5cm below the top of the second riser, and cut it in a straight line diagonally down to the outside edge. Only the inside edge of the runner will be seen, so don't worry about being neat.
  7. Fit the other bracket and the stair rod and make sure it is all neat, then remove the rod again.

The Second Piece

  1. Measure the length of the second piece of runner on the outside of the turn, add 2-3cm, and cut another rectangle to this length.
  2. Work out the rough length of this where it hits the third riser, subtract 5-6cm and cut a piece of gripper strip and underlay to this width, and fit them as before. This piece of underlay will have no right angles, so it will be difficult to get it right first time. Well done if you do.
  3. Take the second piece of runner and fire one staple on its outside edge at the top of the preceeding section, aligning the outside edges and getting it as low as possible. We want the stair rod to hide the join.
  4. Screw in the bracket of the second stair rod at the outside edge in the position determined in step 4.
  5. Rotate the carpet so that it is flush against the bracket and reasonably taut. Fire one staple in to hold it in place as close to the outside as possible.
  6. Loosely fit the first stair rod over both pieces of carpet, flatten out and fold the runner so it's about right, then use the marker pen to mark the pattern-side of the carpet below the stair rod. Remove the stair rod and cut along the line. This should be about the right length so that when you fit the rod it covers the cut the end and doesn't bend the rod too much. If it is too long, shorten it carefully.
  7. If you have long staples, staple the bottom edge of the second piece of runner to the riser through the first piece. Alternatively you can use nails because they should never be under much loading (unless people are stupid enough to fall up the stairs), and the rod will hide the nail heads. Refit the first rod.
  8. Now staple the second piece of runner as before, right in the corner where it meets the second riser, being careful not to tension it too much since that will just pull the nails out. Cut the top edge in a diagonal as before.

The picture above and left shows the situation after the second piece has been fitted. Note that the first piece of runner goes up the second riser at 30 degrees to the vertical, but there's nothing that can be done about that. At least it is quickly covered by the second piece.

The Third Piece:

The third piece is the same as the second, except that you will have to fit it under the carpet on the next straight section. You will therefore have to unpick the staples and shorten it to the right length before nailing it.


The Finished Result

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Hopefully you have now mastered all the intricacies of fitting a runner. The end result is really worth the effort.

Total cost: £200 not including underlay, which we reclaimed from another room.