How to Refinish Wood Stair Treads

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  • 3-24 hours
  • Intermediate
  • $0-150
What You'll Need
Drop cloths
Work clothes
Rubber gloves
Face mask
Electric sander
Several grades of sand paper ranging from 60 to 110-grit
Shop vacuum
Clean, dry rags or paper towels
Mineral spirits or paint thinner
Stain, varnish, or paint
Suitable brushes

Although it is usually considered an easy task, finishing wood stair treads is a thoughtful and customized project. While it requires little in the way of materials, you need slightly more elbow grease than when finishing other types of furniture. Read this article to learn how to finish your stair treads correctly to save both time and money.

Step 1 - Sand

Start by placing drop cloths over the furniture and nearby structures to protect them from sanding dust, paint, and varnish.

WARNING: At this time, you will also want to change into work clothes and put on a rubber gloves so none of these chemicals can ruin your clothes, or get on your skin. You will also want a face mask to minimize the amount of fumes you’ll be breathing in.

Then, begin carefully sanding the old finish with 60-grit sandpaper. While any existing finish must be removed, the shape of the stairs must not be changed, so be sure to sand gently and evenly. Work all the way down to the bare wood if you’re planning on varnishing, but only feather the finish if you want to paint. Go over it several times, working your way up to 110-grit sandpaper.

Step 2 - Apply Mineral Spirits

Vacuum all sanded surfaces, making sure to remove all dust and debris. With a clean cloth soaked in mineral spirits, wipe the surfaces to ensure an even, clean finish. This technique also reveals spots that may require additional sanding treatment.

Allow the mineral spirits to dry before proceeding further. For uneven spots or spots that require further attention, a little additional sanding works well. If stairway steps are bowed, they may need to be sanded further or planed. These should be minor problems which are easily rectified with a plane or block sander.

Step 3 - Choose a Finish

Carefully consider the style and decor of your home before choosing the stain, varnish, or paint for your stair treads. Stains come in a variety of shades to match your existing furniture, wood, and color scheme. Varnishes come in a variety of gloss, semi-gloss, and satin (low-gloss) styles, and obviously paints come in many finishes and in every color imaginable.

Step 4 - Apply Stain, Paint, or Varnish

Depending on the underlying wood of the stairway, it may be necessary to apply several coats of stain, varnish, or paint. If several coats of paint are required, spread each in a thin and even covering and wait a sufficient amount of time before applying then next. Paint will be more durable and will cure better if used this way. If you are applying stain, a single coat will suffice. For varnish, use an initial coat with a 50/50 mix of varnish and mineral spirits. Wait 24 hours before you apply the next coat, containing a 25/75 mix of mineral spirits to varnish. Apply a 100% coat of varnish last on top. Let the final coat dry for a full 24 hours, and lightly sand it with 110-grit sandpaper when it’s finished.

Step 5 - Wax and Buff

Apply a light coat of floor wax to the stair treads, letting it dry for 15 minutes before adding another. Buff it with a dry cloth to achieve a lustrous finish.