Recommendations on installing ceramic tiles on staircase risers?

QUESTION

Installing Tile on wood stair risers - I am interested in installing some ceramic tiles on staircase risers. I removed old carpeting from the staircase and got down to the wood staircase.

I would like to leave the treads wood and install possibly Talavera tiles over the remaining wood substrate risers.

What might be the recommended procedures and can I install the ceramic tile over the wood without using backerboard as well.

ANSWER

ANSWER:   I assume this is an interior application.

There are products that will allow you to bond ceramic tile to exterior grade plywood, but it is not considered the best substrate to bond to.  It would be better to use a cementitious backer board.

Make sure the stairs are sturdy.  Thin-set and screw in a cement backer board (CBB) onto the wood risers.  Thin-set your tile onto the cement backer board using an appropriate multi-purpose polymer or latex modified thin-set for the tile you are using.  Leave a 1/4" gap along the perimeter of the tile to any restraining surface and caulk it with a silicone or urethane sealant that meets ASTM C920.  Grout your tile with a polymer or latex modified grout.

Good Luck!

45 thoughts on “Recommendations on installing ceramic tiles on staircase risers?

  1. Ashley says:

    I am doing a very similar project, and curious what type of backer board you would recommend for the stair risers? Is there a specific type or size? I ask, because I don’t have much room, and I’m trying to calculate how much the backer board, adhesive and tile in grout is going to come out. Thanks in advance!

  2. Donato Pompo says:

    If the wood risers are sturdy enough, you can adhere and screw in a 1/4″ thin backer board such as Hardiebacker cement board. To bond the backer board to the wood you have to use a polymer modified thin-set mortar that meets ANSI A118.11.

  3. Mike says:

    I am planning on a similar project as described above. Which should I do first: install the oak treads or tile the riser?
    Thanks!!

  4. Donato Pompo says:

    Depends on which is more adjustable and what method of installation you are using. If the tile is a set size that can’t be cut, then install it first on the riser. Then building up the tread base if necessary and install the trend so you leave a 1/4″ wide gap at the back to fill with an ASTM C920 sealant (caulking) over a foam backer rod.

    If you install the tread first, make sure you leave a gap at the back to mitigate movement. The tile riser can then be installed over it covering up the gap. Then you can caulk that joint.

  5. Donato Pompo says:

    If it is an interior application that isn’t subjected to wet conditions you can adhere the tile directly to the wood. The wood must be sturdy and not have any deflection. You should use a thin-set mortar adhesive that meets ANSI A118.11 for bonding to wood.

    It would be better to first install at least a 1/4″ thin backer board so you can shim it out to be plumb and have a better surface to adhere to.

  6. Debbie says:

    Where do you find tile to fit the toe kick on the stairs? Is there tile made for this purpose? If so, what do I search for or ask for in the store? Mine is new construction. Thanks

  7. Donato Pompo says:

    There isn’t any specific ceramic tile, or porcelain tile, which is a type of ceramic tile, made for stair risers. You can use the same time as you use on the stair tread or you use a decorative tile on the risers if you so desire. According to the building code the height of the riser should be 7-3/4 inches tall. Make sure you leave a space at the bottom and top of the riser to fill with an ASTM C920 caulking sealant.

  8. MCN says:

    Donato your guidance is super helpful. Can the HardieBacker be attached to the stairs with glue and screws or is thinset the only good option? Do you use a 1/4 inch square notch trowel?

    What is the function of the caulking sealant at the top and bottom of the risers?

    Thanks!

  9. Donato Pompo says:

    When installing the backer board you use the thin-set adhesive to help adjust for leveling the backer board to make up for inconsistencies in the subfloor. Fasten the backer board using the recommended screws that the backer board manufacturer recommends and fasten immediately after applying the thin-set mortar. I would use at least a 1/4″ square notch travel, but it depends on how much thin-set is required.

    The sealant at the top and bottom joints of the riser are to make those joints resilient movement joints so they can mitigate the expected stress that the tile assembly will be subjected to.

  10. Chicky Wells says:

    I have two long strong wooden interior steps, once carpeted going from a bedroom up to a hallway. I purchased 12″ Saltillo tile for the 10″ treads and treated them with a sealant 5 times, now very dry. The risers are less than 7 inches and will be a row of 4×4 decorative Mexican ceramic tile and on the top, a row of 2×2 solid Mexican tile. I know I need to trim the Saltillos to make them fit. I have laid them out and I am simply laying them on the wood since there is very little traffic on these steps. My question; do I lay the treads first or the risers first? I plan to have the edge of the tread sit on the top of the riser tile so there is no overhang and bears weight on the top of the riser tile. Is that correct? I see it done both ways. Thank you

  11. Donato Pompo says:

    You should install the treads first leaving a 1/4″ gap at the back. Have it extend out over the lower riser, but do not cantilever over the riser. Leave a gap between the riser top and the trend above.

    You should cut the tiles and dry install everything first to make sure they layout correctly before installing them.

    The trend to riser joint should be filled with a closed cell foam backer rod leaving at least 1/4″ space to be filled with an ASTM C920 slicone sealant. Make sure the surface of the tile is slip resistant.

  12. Joanne Lane says:

    What are tiles like adhering to a whitewashed stair rise? Also, should the tiles cover the entire rise? I really want it to prevent having to whitewash the stairs again each year after all the toe kicks but also want it to look okay. Thank you.

    • Donato Pompo says:

      I assume you have wood stairs and that you want to install tile on the vertical risers of each stair. You can adhere tiles to wood if you use an ANSI A118.11 thin-set mortar adhesive. You need to first grind down the surface of the riser to remove the paint or any contaminates. The risers should be sturdy without any deflection. You should leave at least a 1/8 inch gap at the top and bottom of each tile and fill those joints with an ASTM C920 silicone sealant. The joints between each tile can be filled with a cementitious grout or with the same sealant.

  13. Joanne Lane says:

    Thanks for the reply. Actually, the stairs are concrete, but the risers have been whitewashed. I didn’t know whether the ceramic should cover exactly from the top of the rise to the bottom – don’t want shoes/feet getting caught at any point so I assume it should cover the entire rise?

  14. Donato Pompo says:

    You need to scarify the concrete risers to remove any whitewashed paint or stain as they can act as a bond-breaker.

    You want to leave at least a 1/8″ gap at the top and bottom of the riser to allow the tile to expand. Otherwise if you install the tiles without a gap, then as the tile expands when subjected to higher temperatures and to moisture, it can cause damage to the tile.

  15. Joey says:

    I also want to put tiles on my risers. To minimize tile cutting, i plan to glue the mosaic tiles to the riser first leaving a 1/8 gap at the top. The 1″ thick new oak tread will be placed in front of the tiles, thus the tiles can stop 1/4 to 3/4″ from the current plywood tread. Is that correct?

    Then I only have to caulk the top of the riser and cut the tiles to fit on the left/right sides.

  16. Felix says:

    Hi, I’m a little confused. I’m planning to tile an interior staircase with ceramic tiles. I read elsewhere that I need to prepare the wooden surface by installing cement backer board or the new type thinner backing materials they are selling now. I read at other postings that I should install the riser first, then install the top tile EVEN with the riser. It’s not mentioned anywhere to leave a gap between the riser and the tile to account for movement. Your instructions make sense, but wouldn’t leaving a gap between the top of the riser and the horizontal tile cause the horizontal tile to break when someone steps on it close to the riser? Thank you.

    • Donato Pompo says:

      As long as you fill that gap at the transition from the top of the riser to the edge of the stair tread with an ASTM C920 sealant it should provide enough support. The tile tread should not extend further than the thickness of the riser tile, unless you are using a stair tread designed for cantilevering over the edge.

  17. Gillian DaCosta says:

    I have tiled thin boards cut to the size of my stairs (risers). They have a little warp to them now that they are mosaic’d. What do I use to firmly attach these mosaic boards to the risers of my indoor stairs. Thank you.

    • Donato Pompo says:

      I don’t know what you mean by “tiled thin boards” or “mosaic boards.”

      To determine what to use to bond them to the risers you need to know what are these boards made of and what material are you trying to bond it to. You have to use an adhesive that will bond to both and that is intend for the type of application and materials.

  18. Joe Buccino says:

    I’m in the process of replacing my carpeted stairway with LVP plank flooring on the treads and want to install 6.25″ square ceramic tiles along the risers. I plan to use 1/4″ Hardie backer over the plywood risers and will tile them before installing the planks on the treads. The stairway is 40″ wide wall to wall and there’s a gap of about 1″ on either side between the plywood riser boards and the walls. When I install the backer board, should I go full height of the riser from tread to tread (approx 7 3/4″)? How close to the walls can I install it? Also, the plank flooring has a bullnose piece that has a lip that extends 3/8″ down from tread surface over the top of riser. If I use 1/4″ foam backer rod, can I put it under the lip even with the wood stair tread surface, and use a caulk sealant below it to meet the grout line? I would also be using the foam backer rod at the bottom and close the gap between the LVP and tile with caulk.

    • Donato Pompo says:

      The hardiebacker board should not be butted up again the restraining surfaces whether it is to the sides or above or below the tile. You should have at least a 1/8″ gap at the restraining surfaces.

      If there is a 1″ gap between the plywood riser and and the wall, you will need to fill that gap with backing and leave a 1/8″ gap in the backing at the wall. Then you can run the hardibacker board over the backing. If you don’t have some sort of backing it will be susceptible to movement from deflection.

      Installing the tile on the riser first makes good sense.

      After installing the tile and LVP you can caulk the joints. Although technically it is ideal to use a foam backer rod under sealant joints, but in this case it probably isn’t necessary. If you are using an ASTM C920 sealant with a +/- 50% movement capacity, it is unlikely that you need that capacity for an indoor stair application. Plus you probably won’t have the room to achieve a minimum thickness of the sealant of 1/4″ if you have a backer rod.

  19. Dave S says:

    Donato, thank you for taking the time to answer questions. Like others have said your advice is super helpful.
    Do you have any experience or recommendations for or against using the Schluter Dietra as an underlayment for stair risers instead of the more traditional cement backer board?
    Thanks

    • Donato Pompo says:

      I’m not a big fan of the Schluter Ditra unless you have a badly cracked substrate. I don’t see where it adds any value on stairs. It will tend to give more of a hollow sound. As long as you don’t have excessive deflection I would bond directly to the cementitious backer board.

  20. Jennifer says:

    We plan to install either 5 x 5 or 6 x 6 decorative ceramic tiles on our stair risers. Currently, a small finishing trim runs just below each tread. The height of each riser with trim is 5 5/8, without trim 6 1/2. Are we better off keeping the trim and using the 5 x 5 tile or removing the trim and using the larger tile.? Either way we will still have space above and below. The space would be too large to caulk. Do you have any recommendations, maybe using a piece of wood to border the top and bottom of each tile?

    • Donato Pompo says:

      Not knowing what the trim is at the top of the stair riser, I’m assuming it is another material element with a different coefficient of expansion from the tread tile and the riser tile. The more materials you have the more potential issues can arise. Thus I would with the larger tile riser without the trim.

      Having a 1/4″ wide movement joint at the top and bottom of the tile riser isn’t too large. Put in foam backer rod if there is room in depth and caulk with an ASTM C920 pure silicone or polyurethane sealant caulk.

  21. Jennifer says:

    Thank you for your prompt response! The trim is just a piece of wood finishing trim similar to quarter round. I was thinking maybe it would be best to remove the trim, use the 6 inch tile and basically make it flush with the bottom of the riser and then use a half inch trim across the top? Would that work or is it important to have space above and below each tile?

    • Donato Pompo says:

      Don’t use wood. You need at least a 1/8″ wide sealant joint at the top and bottom. You could add a 1/4″ wide glass tile strip at the top as an accent.

  22. linda says:

    My stair risers are taller than the tile size and if I center them then the above and below grout lines are too thick. Do I cut another piece of tile and match the pattern to put at the top of the tile to meet the stair tread bullnose?

    • Donato Pompo says:

      If you can’t get a larger tile, then I would get a glass tile liner that comes in various lengths and widths from 1/4″ to 1/2″ wide and put it at the top or bottom of the riser as an accent.

      Keep in mind that you need to have a movement joint filled with an ASTM C920 sealant at the top and bottom of the riser. It should be at least 1/8″ wide.

  23. Christian Pontikes says:

    We are using a large format tile for the riser, cut to size and laid on hardie backer. I’m getting different answers. My oak treads at in. Should we stain them first or install the tile and board risers?
    Stain

    • Donato Pompo says:

      I would protect the oak treads and then install the tile. Then protect the tile with painter’s masking tape and stain the treads. It will be easier to prep the treads if they get dirty than to have to clean the tile if it gets dirty.

    • Donato Pompo says:

      Stair risers have to be structurally sturdy and must have a substrate that will perform for the intended use. Normally the stairs are either floated with concrete to create the substrate or there is a cementitious backer board applied. The thickness of which depends on the layout of the tile to ensure that you meet the building code requirements for height. For exterior applications a waterproof membrane should be applied.

    • Donato Pompo says:

      Stair treads have to be structurally sturdy and must have a substrate that will perform for the intended use. Normally the stairs are either floated with concrete or mortar to create the substrate or there is a cementitious backer board applied. The thickness of which depends on the layout of the tile to ensure that you meet the building code requirements for tread depth . For exterior applications a waterproof membrane should be applied.

  24. joan says:

    i have a question. if ceramic tile is applied to stair risers, will they eventually crack because of movement when people go up or down stairs. Our stairs are very creaky.

    • Donato Pompo says:

      The stairs have to be structurally sound before installing tile over them. That means they can’t have any movement. They need to be sturdy.

      When you install tile on wood risers you need to first install at least a 1/4″ thick backer board to bond the tile to. You need to have movement joints at the top and bottom of the riser and at the side if it is against a restraining surface. You have to fill/caulk those joints with an ASTM C920 sealant.

  25. Erin says:

    How do you feel about tiling each riser on the backer board first and then installing the finished piece onto the riser?

    • Donato Pompo says:

      anything is possible. If you adhered the tile to the backer board and then installed the assembly onto the riser of the stairs it would be problematic. I don’t see how you would be able to mechanically attach the backer board in a structurally sound manner.

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