How To Rip Up Carpet From Stairs

A picture of a woman ready to DIY in basement


I had one big thing left to do in my basement.  Rip up the ugly carpeting on the stairs. During construction in the basement, I realized that I might cause a lot of damage to the stairs, so I had saved them till last.  When refinished, I wanted them to be gorgeous.

Before picture of carpeted stairs
Dirty, yucky carpet, the before

I literally couldn’t wait to get that old dirty commercial-grade carpeting off the stairs.  But I am not going to kid you…  It was a much more difficult job than I had anticipated.  However, if you have basic tools and take your time, you can definitely rip up that old carpet just like I did.  This is how to do it:

Gather Your Tools

Did I mention that I had no money for this project?  By the time I got to the stairs, the budget for the basement had been depleted.  Luckily the tools I needed, I already had on hand:

  • Very sharp utility knife
  • Pry bar
  • Hammer
  • Needle nose plyers
  • Gloves
  • Vacuum
  • Chisel
  • Contractor grade trash bags
  • Awl


A picture of tools needed to rip up carpet

These are basic tools you probably already have in your workshop


Steps for Ripping Up Carpet from Stairs

  • First vacuum the entire staircase thoroughly.  You want to get rid of as much dirt as possible before you start pulling up the carpet.  When you start pulling, dust is going to fly.  This is a dirty job, so you will need to run that vac a lot.  


  • Start at the top.  It’s so much easier to pull downhill.


  • Take the utility knife (with a new, sharp blade) with two hands and carefully slice the carpet at the joint between the tread and the riser.  


A Picture of pulling up carpe with prybar


If you don’t yet own a prybar, check this one out:

picture of a prybar
This is perfect for pulling up carpet and tack strips


  • Slide the pry bar into whatever space you can find, and tug until you have enough space loosened to fit your hand in there.  Be really careful here, and wear gloves.  The carpet is probably held in place with a tack strip, essentially a thin strip of wood with razor-sharp tacks sticking out towards the carpet.  Ouch!

A picture of my hand pulling away the carpet from stairs

A picture of tack strips breaking as they are pulled up

Those tacks are nasty!


  • Pull with both hands in short jerking motions until the carpet on the whole step comes loose.  


  • When you have the carpet detached from the first step, cut it with your utility knife if it hasn’t already separated.  Roll it up, being really careful as there are probably lots of tacks and staples in it, and tape it with duck tape and set it aside for the trash man.  


  • Now that the layer of rug padding under the carpet is exposed, you have to decide what your next step will be.  Are you planning to put a new carpet on the stairs?  Is the padding in good shape?  If so, you may leave the padding in place and continue down the stairs, removing just the old carpet.  Also, if you are planning to re-carpet, you may leave the tack strips in place too if they haven’t gotten damaged in the process.


A picture of stairs with carpet pad still intact


  • I was planning to stain and paint my stairs, so everything had to go!.  It is helpful to put a little bucket in close range as there will be lots of tacks and staples flying everywhere.  Lots of dust too.  I ran that vac a lot!
  • The padding is easy to get up.  It just tears around the tacks and staples which you can come back and get later.

Removing the tack stripspicture of woman with crowbar

You can continue removing all the carpet and padding and then go back later and remove the tack strips or… you can remove the tack strips as you go along.  I decided to remove them as I went along so that I wouldn’t injure myself by stepping on them or landing on them in some other way.  Much safer.

The first method I tried to remove the tack strip was using the pry bar.  I tapped it under the strip with a hammer and then pried it up.  It worked, but I found I couldn’t do it without denting the treads.  So I switched from the pry bar to the chisel.  This worked much better for me.  I could be much gentler. 


A picture of me tapping a chisel with a hammer to pry up tack strip


I love this set of chisels.  I am much more likely to put things away if I have a nice box to keep them in.  It comes with a honing stone, chisel holder, and a couple of carpenter pencils as well as a WARRANTY!  Click on the picture for details.

A picture of a set of chisels

This is a messy job as the tack strips tend to splinter and break, so it takes time and patience. Have a heavy-duty contractor-grade trash bag ready to put the pieces in.  Gradually move along the strip’s length, prying up each section in increments, instead of just pulling up one end.  Then toss them right into the heavy-duty trash bag.  With gloves.

How to remove the carpet tacks and staples

First of all, there are millions of them.  Just when you think you’ve found them all, you’ll find a few more!  The tacks and most of the staples came out OK with the needle-nose pliers.

A picture of ,e pulling out carpet tacks with needle nose pliers

Yuck, look at all this dirt too!

Some of the carpet tacks, which are U-shaped, were too buried in the wood to get out with the pliers.  There were flat staples too, all hard to get out.  For these hard-to-remove buggers, I used my awl.  I love my awl!  What is an awl, you ask?  An awl is basically a steel spike with a nice handle with its tip sharpened to a fine point.  As a matter of fact, it looks like a screwdriver with a sharp point.

An awl is generally used to scribe a line (thus called a scratch all) in wood or metal or to start a hole for a nail or screw.  It can also be used to punch a hole. I, of course, used it for an entirely different purpose. This awl is much nicer than mine.  I like the cushioned handle. Click the picture to see it.A picture of an awl

I took the awl, squiggled it under the staple or tack, tapped it with my hammer, and it came right out.  Times about a million.

Finishing the stairs

Even though I was lucky and had oak treads under the carpet, they were in terrible shape.  Now full of holes, they were also extremely worn and dirty.  So I got to work with my electric mouse sander, starting with 80 grit sandpaper and working up to 1000.  It took me hours, (actually days) but it was pretty smooth when I was done.

This is important:  Do not be tempted to rush the process by using a belt sander!  This will not be a shortcut!  You will dig deep gauges in your stairs which will take a lot of extra time to smooth out.  Hmmm…I wonder how I know this.  I think the mouse sander is the best sander as it is small enough to get into the corners.


A picture of the staircase after the carpet has been removed


My plan was to stain the treads to match the new dark Pergo floor I had installed in the basement and to paint the risers white.

I filled all the holes in the risers which were to be painted white but left the holes in the treads until later.  I find that the filler never takes the stain the same way the wood does.  Never!  So it’s safer to do the filling later.

I had several different colors of stain (oil-based) in my workshop, so I experimented with different mixes until I ended up with a color that matched the Pergo floor pretty well.

Next, I vacuumed very thoroughly.  Did I say “vacuum” yet again?  Yup!  There was sawdust everywhere. Then I wiped down the stairs with a tack cloth and mineral spirits.  

An optional step is to water pop the floor, also known as popping the grain.  This is an especially good idea if you are working with a dark stain like I was.  Using this process, the result is less likely to be blotchy because it opens up the pores of the wood.

How to water pop a floor

Check out this article by theflooringgirl. She does a fantastic job describing the process. I followed her directions, wiping on the water in the morning with a rag, and then sanding and staining in the afternoon.  I am very happy with the result, no blotchiness.

Staining the steps

By the next day, the steps were dry and ready for stain.  I applied my stain mix with a brush and removed the excess with a rag.  I stained every other step so that I could get up and down.  Amazing that I thought ahead.  It took 3 coats of stain to get the coverage I wanted.  I waited about 2 hours between each coat of my oil-based stain.  

Finish coat

A picture pf Varathane Ultimate Polyurethane
Great product!

I waited a day or two before I started with the finish coat.  After much research, this is what I used, a quart of Varathane 200241H Water-Based Ultimate Polyurethane, in satin finish.  I applied 3 coats of this.  It went on smoothly with my favorite brush, the Wooster Shortcut.  


A picture of a Wooster Shortcut paintbrush
This is the best brush


I have learned the hard way that it is never smart to use cheap brushes.  Do you want bristles stuck on your floor?  No, me either.  


A picture of the treads after they have been stained and polyurethaned


Wow, I’m getting excited!  I still have to paint the risers and touch up the paint in the stairwell.  I’ve also decided to stain the banister to match the stair treads. So I still have work to do.  But I’m so happy with what I’ve done so far.  

Never underestimate a woman with a crowbar!  Why?  She can do it.


As always, take care. You can do it!


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