What Is the Best Wood to Use for Stairs?

A new timber staircase can transform your hallway and give the whole property a boost. Even just replacing the banister rail will make an enormous difference to the look and feel of your home, and of course is much quicker and cheaper than installing an entire set of stairs.

Choosing which materials to use, however, is not always straightforward. We take a look at some of the different types of wood available for stair construction.

Scandinavian Pine

Also known as European redwood, this pale yellow softwood is produced in renewable plantations, making it a sound environmental choice. Attractive and affordable, with a knotty appearance adding character, pine is ideal for anyone on a budget. And of course if you’re intending to carpet or paint the staircase, you may feel there’s little point in splashing out on expensive materials that will only be covered up.

Southern Yellow Pine

This is the largest, hardest and strongest type of pine – tougher, in fact, than many hardwoods. Southern yellow pine is a durable, sustainable and cost-effective timber, with an appealing golden colour and distinctive large grain pattern. Grown abundantly in southern parts of the USA, it is ideal for staircases, floors and furniture.

Hemlock

An attractive and versatile softwood with a soft sheen, hemlock has a straight, light-coloured grain that can be varnished to a rich golden colour. Moreover, it is practically knot-free and easy to work with. This makes it a great substitute for more expensive timbers such as oak or ash, so is worth considering if your budget is limited. Hemlock can also be stained, varnished or painted.

Oak

There are various types of oak, with white oak considered the best option for stairs. Prized for its strength and durability, it has a beautiful knot-free grain that never seems to go out of fashion. In fact, so dense is white oak that it is almost water-tight, which is why it is used to make, among other things, boats, wine barrels and outdoor furniture.

Another advantage of white oak is that the grain is very stable, with few variations in pattern and shade. This makes it easier to match up new stairs with existing oak fittings such as skirting boards, floors and doors. It also takes wood treatments very easily.

There are two main sources of white oak: the USA and Europe. American white oak is more widely available, and therefore less expensive, with a straight grain and pale biscuit colour. European oak is a slightly darker, golden honey shade with a distinctive wavy grain pattern.

Ash

This premium hardwood is even tougher than oak, with a largely straight grain and attractive colours ranging from cream to pale brown. The most abundant type is American white ash. Heavy, hard and highly shock-resistant, it makes excellent stair treads. Because it has an open grain, ash is very flexible, so can be shaped to produce a variety of curved stair parts.

Sapele

This reddish-brown hardwood looks similar to mahogany, and indeed belongs to the same family. With a distinctive tight, interlocking grain, it provides a strong and cost-effective alternative for use in furniture, flooring and cabinets as well as stairs. Sapele is harder and more stable than mahogany, with a dense structure that is highly resistant to rot and almost completely water-tight. This makes it ideal for outdoor as well as indoor use.

Idigbo

Native to West Africa, idigbo is a pale yellow-brown hardwood with a variable grain that can be straight, slightly irregular or interlocking. It is often chosen as an economical alternative to oak, and can be stained, varnished or painted. Although idigbo is not quite as durable as oak, it offers a good level of strength with little shrinkage, and can be shaped to produce attractive curved stair parts.

Walnut

There are several types of walnut tree, but the one most often used in staircase construction is American black walnut. Strong and stable, this premium hardwood has a mostly straight grain and ranges in colour from dark chocolate to a pale brown. Black walnut is expensive but versatile and extremely hard-wearing. It can be carved into elaborate shapes, making it ideal for intricate stair components such as balusters, volutes and newel caps.

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