Stairs Refinishing

Years of constant use can leave your home's staircase looking worn-out. Although it generally takes a few years before wooden staircases start showing signs of wear and tear, the rate might depend on how often you use the steps and the type of staircase you have installed among other factors. Regardless of how deteriorated your staircase might be, you can still restore and get it to look like new.

Although many people consider it an easy undertaking, refinishing your stairway is a customized project that requires serious thought and some level of expertise. Even so, it can take as little as a weekend to complete a refinishing project. While it won’t take much in the way of materials, you’ll need slightly more elbow grease to refinish a scuffed-up staircase than you would need for other types of furniture. To help you save time and money, here’s how to refinish your stairs correctly.

Restore the stair treads

In many cases, trouble will start on the stair treads. Constant foot traffic often scuffs the horizontal surface, scraping off the finish and exposing bare wood. Once the protective finish wears off, your staircase is more susceptible to damage. To begin your stairs refinishing project, examine each stair-tread carefully. You'll probably notice varying degrees of wear and tear. For instance, the top and bottom stairs can have more worn-out treads than those in between. 

If the topcoat finish is still intact and no bare wood is showing, a good cleaning might be all that is needed to restore the tread and get it to look like new. Once you’ve changed into work clothes and have a pair of rubber gloves on, apply gel or liquid stripper onto the tread. Working on small areas helps keep the finish remover from drying on the wood. 

Wait until the surface of the old stain or paint starts to blister. Use a steel-wool pad to rub thinner into the wood. After you’ve worked it in, scrub the tread lightly to remove any stains and scuff marks. Use a cloth soaked in mineral spirits to wipe the surface, removing the stripper before it dries up on the surface. Use a clean white cotton cloth to dry the tread thoroughly. This technique helps reveal spots that might require additional treatment.

Refinishing is necessary if the topcoat has worn off. If you're using an orbital sander, you’ll need an 80-grit disc. However, if you’re doing it manually, use 60-grit sandpaper. You need to remove any existing finish if you are looking to apply vanish, which means sanding the tread down to bare wood but without changing the shape of the stairs. So, make sure you sand gently and evenly. Vacuum the surface clean before you sand the tread again. Go over the process several times, gradually working your way up to the finer 100-grit disc.

If the tread’s rounded front edge needs to be refinished, use a sanding sponge to sand it down to bare wood. Alternatively, you can use an electric profile sander, one that features a 5/8-inch-radius convex pad.

Before you begin work, place drop cloths over nearby furniture and any other items to protect them from dust, paint, and varnish. You’ll also want a face mask to help keep you from inhaling fumes. Since sanding machines can produce a lot of fine dust, getting one that can be attached to a dry/wet vacuum or has a dust-collection canister is advisable.

Sand the risers

Risers are the vertical parts of the staircase. Although risers don't get stepped on, they usually get beaten up. Because they are kicked repeatedly, these features do get bruised and battered. To begin, dip a steel-wool pad in paint thinner and scrub each riser lightly. Thoroughly dry the risers with a clean cotton cloth and sand the surfaces smooth. If you want to paint, don’t sand all the way to the bare wood. Feather the finish instead. 

When working on your risers, making use of a quarter-sheet orbital finishing sander in place of a random-orbit sander is advisable. Compared to the latter, the former is more compact and a lot easier to control, particularly on vertical surfaces. But be sure the machine is fitted with 100-grit sandpaper. 

Renew the handrail

In most cases, staircase railings are not subjected to as much physical abuse as risers and treads. Even so, it won’t be long before your handrail is filled with smudged handprints and caked-on dirt. A sanding sponge is best-suited for refinishing any type of wooden stair railing. Although it features a coat of abrasive grit, the sponge is soft and flexible, allowing it to conform to the contours of the handrail easily. When sanding, start at the top and work your way down the railing. Besides applying even pressure, make sure you sand parallel with the wood grain and not across. Though sponge sanding takes time and effort, it removes smudges, blemishes, and rough spots effectively. For particularly stubborn stains, use a steel-wool pad dampened with paint thinner to clean the surface and then sponge-sand again. 

Choose a finish

Before you select the varnish, stain, or paint for your staircase, consider the décor and style of your home carefully. Varnishes are available in an array of gloss, semi-gloss, and low-gloss (satin) styles while stains come in various shades. Paints, on the other hand, are available in almost every color imaginable. Matching your color scheme and existing furniture is, therefore, a lot easier. 

Apply the finish

You can apply a fresh finish to the staircase once you’ve sanded and cleaned every surface. Make sure you've removed all the smudges, dirt, and stains. Vacuum the staircase from top to bottom and cleaned away all the sanding dust. Use a damp white cotton cloth to wipe down the surfaces before you apply the finish.

Depending on the underlying type of wood, applying multiple coats of varnish, paint, or stain might be necessary. If you need to apply several layers of paint, make sure each coat is spread thinly and evenly. Allow enough time for the initial coat to dry before applying the next layer. When applying paint, start from the inside and allow the paint to dry for at least 24 hours. Paint cures better when applied in this manner, making it more durable.

For stains, one coat is often sufficient. For varnish, mix equal parts of varnish and mineral spirits for the first coat. Mix 25 percent mineral spirits and 75 percent varnish for the next coat, applying it 24 hours after the first coat. For the final coat, apply a 100 percent layer of varnish and allow it to dry for 24 hours.

You can apply polyurethane to painted or stained staircases to help protect the wood and allow easy cleaning. A light coat of polyurethane minimizes the risks of peeling and cracking. When applying polyurethane, use a 3-inch-wide foam brush. Because it doesn’t have bristles that come loose, this type of brush is known to produce a much smoother finish than a typical paintbrush.

Use a super-fine grit paper to sand the wood lightly after the first coat dries completely. Wipe away the dust and apply a second layer of polyurethane. Give the finish enough time to dry completely before you use the staircase. It can take anywhere from 2-8 or more hours to dry, depending on the humidity and air temperature. Although staircase refinishing can be a do-it-yourself project, having a professional do the job is probably the best option.