If walls have ears, it's the stairs that chatter away


The stairs in my house squeak. I know why. They are on the path of the thundering herd.

My kids, and the neighborhood tribes they belong to, regularly gallop up and down the three flights of wooden stairs in our rowhouse. The stress of being trampled by the thundering herd and the deterioration that comes with age have loosened many once-taut stair parts.

According to home repair books, noisy stairs give the impression that a house is not properly maintained.

I think squeaky stairs are not all that bad. For one thing, they are an early warning system. When you hear the stairs cry out, you know someone is approaching. For instance, the set of stairs leading to our kitchen has a wobbly step that makes a "plunking" sound when someone lands on it. So when I am in the kitchen and hear a "plunk," I know it is time to hide the cookies.

A "creak," however, means someone is traveling on the set of steps between the first and second floors. Several of the horizontal tread boards creak when weight is put on them. And when someone travels the set of steps leading to the third floor, I hear a distinctive "crackle." That note comes from a warped riser, or back part of the stair.

Telltale stairs make sneaking around the house difficult. My stair-sneaking days are long gone. But when I was a teen-ager with a curfew, I avoided certain creaking steps as I crept toward my bedroom and hoped I wouldn't wake my parents.

Back then, chattering stairs were my enemy. Now they are my ally. Early one school day, for example, when the household should have been in a forced march toward the breakfast table, the stairs told me something was wrong.

I heard the normal "crackle" but did not hear the usual "creak" and "plunk." The crackle indicated one of my sons had moved down the stairs connecting his bedroom to the second floor. But the absence of a "creak" and "plunk" told me the traveler had not completed the approved route.

Sure enough, when I investigated I found the 8-year-old in the second floor family room trying to sneak in a little cartoon-viewing before breakfast. Once discovered, he reluctantly moved down the creaking and plunking steps to the breakfast-fueling area. A domestic crisis, being late for car pool, was averted.

Sometimes you can identify people by their footfalls. Several years ago, when we were rookie parents, my wife and I put bells on the shoes of our firstborn so we could hear him as he toddled around the house. Now the once-belled toddler is 12 years old, and when he storms down the stairs the hallway chandelier shakes.

A reading of home repair books acquainted me with several recommended ways to silence clamoring stairs. You can temporarily quiet the noise by squirting graphite or talcum powder between the treads and risers.

You can nail down a flapping tread. I did this once, but did not follow the correct procedure. I used one nail and hammered it straight through the tread into a riser. The step stayed quiet for about a week, then reverted to its yammering ways.

Apparently the correct procedure is to use two nails, and to hammer them into "pilot" holes drilled into the tread. I figure these "pilots" are from the kamikaze tradition because the nails that go in the holes seem to dive right at each other. It seems the idea is to hammer the two nails at opposing angles toward the tread's squeaky spot. The nailhead is then knocked below the surface of the tread with a spike called a nail set.

Wetted wedges are also a cure. The procedure is to put matchbook-size wedges of glue-soaked wood into the cracks between the raucous risers and treads. Using a block of wood and a hammer, you tap the wetted wedges into place. Then you trim the excess wedge with a wood chisel.

The recommended approach toward seriously troubled steps is the same one my schoolteachers used to use to quiet serious classroom troublemakers. Namely you work on their backsides.

Underneath the stairs, appearances don't matter. So on the underside of a noisy step, you can hammer in a big wedge, or screw in an unsightly block of wood or slap on a big, metal shelf bracket.

A couple of these step-silencing ideas sounded intriguing. But I'm not sure I want to rid my house of stair noise.

Right now, the chatter from the stairs is one of the few clues I get about who is going where.

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