For more than 25 years, I’ve specialized in installing finished stairs and railings, working for different builders on a freelance basis. Typically, by the time I’m called in to finish a staircase, the stringers are already in place under a rough work stair, and the drywall is installed, covering the underside of the carriage. Ideally, the builder will not bolt the stringers directly, but space them off the studs with 2-by cleats. This avoids having to fit the drywall and the skirtboards to the stringers and makes the skirts more substantial and stable. However, I do sometimes find the stringers nailed directly to the studs. In that case, I have to cut the skirtboards to fit the stringer profile, a less desirable approach I’ll discuss later in this article.

One of the very first things I do on every new staircase is check the rough stringers. I haven’t worked on a perfect set yet. No matter how carefully they’re cut, the lumber shrinks as it dries, and the tread profiles become distorted. Furthermore, builders typically gun-nail stringers to the wall, and during the course of construction, foot...

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