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I want to install prefinished hardwood on my stairs and I have no difficulty with the process. Every diagram I find online installs the riser first and then butts the tread to the riser.

It seems to me that I could hide the cut edges by installing the tread first, riser covers it (mill finished edge on the riser down) and then the nose lips over the riser (thus covering its cut edge). In this way I'm always showing the mill finished edges.

Is there a reason to install the riser before the tread or am I fine to install the tread first (riser lips over)?

  • I don't have time to write an answer, but consider when a riser is dadoed to allow a tread to go into it, it is old school. And the sander never can go into a gap of a riser to the tread to increase the gap. Well.... it could I guess, but it would really tear things up, not advised. – Jack Feb 19 '18 at 7:06
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The riser is installed first for the reason that you want a nice tight fit along the top of the riser to the tread above it. There is always the possibility that there is a small variation in the width of the riser boards or the height of the notches cut in the stair jacks. The back edge of the tread can then be slid right up to the riser for a nice tight fit. Since the tread bull nose generally overhangs the next riser down small variations in the width of the riser or the width of the notches in the stair jack are not noticeable.

enter image description here

There are other considerations as well:

  1. As shown above it should be obvious that the treads can be easily removed if they require repair or replacement.
  2. If you try to simultaneously get a perfect fit of the riser on both its top and bottom edges you will have a huge task in hand.
  3. An experienced carpenter will install the risers and treads from the top of the stairs down so that they can always be fitting the next riser against the bottom of the previous tread.

When alternate installation methods are used additional molding is sometimes installed to cover up imperfections of the fit. Some folks may really like the added cove molding but it does detract from the clean lines of the installation as shown above - particularly when a thicker tread is used. Do remember that when ascending the stairs you get a straight on look at the quality of the workmanship. Lastly when the riser sits atop the tread some of the tread depth is lost.

enter image description here

(picture borrowed from this other question)

  • In my case I'm cladding prefinished flooring to the stairs. What you're saying about fitting the top and bottom of the riser makes sense but I wonder if I went bottom up couldn't I just sand it even with the step above? – Matthew Feb 19 '18 at 16:20
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    Well....I described the time proven scheme used for decades. If you are installing flooring to the stair jacks you do not know the fit for the next riser down until the tread is in place. Spending hours sanding to fit is not the craftperson's way to do this job. – Michael Karas Feb 19 '18 at 17:13
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Alternate tread, riser, tread, riser, starting at the top. This allows the tread to set on the stringer with the most surface contact to the stringers, I use a minimal amount of adhesive to eliminate squeaks. Once the tread is in, the riser can be slid up to meet the bottom of the tread. Putting in all the risers first runs the risk of there being slight gaps or the tread not seating down all the way if the riser is too high. There is no way to know how an individual tread will sit on a specific stringer notch while installing risers first.

A Collins tread template is a great time saver.

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I think you do the riser first so that when you eventually sand and refinish the floor you don't have a gap under your riser.

  • That makes sense. In reality, though, with modern prefinished floors pretty much nobody ever sands and refinishes them. It's far more likely that I'll save extra boards and just replace them? – Matthew Feb 19 '18 at 4:05
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Use the riser to support the tread. Stringer cuts are never exactly alike and level. You can level your riser just 1/32" above the stringer. The tread will rest on this and be level.

Just be sure to use wood glue or construction adhesive. Glue holds them together with no squeaks, nails just hold them in place while the glue sets up.

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