Recommendations on installing ceramic tiles on staircase risers?


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:   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!

23 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?

  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?


  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.

Leave a Reply to Donato Pompo Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *