How to stain hardwood stairs

Written by debbie tolle
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How to stain hardwood stairs
Staining stairs requires time and precision. (round stairs image by fafoutis from

Staining stairs is a four-part process. The stairs must be sanded, cleaned, stained, and coated with polyurethane. You must also determine whether you will stain or paint the risers. A riser is the vertical portion of each step. If you look at the first bottom step, you will see a riser that meets with the floor, and then the step, or what is otherwise known as the tread. This job is not to be rushed, and will take three to five days to complete.

Skill level:
Moderately Easy

Things you need

  • 150-grit sandpaper
  • 220-grit sandpaper
  • Shop vacuum
  • Tackcloth
  • Painter's tape
  • Lint-free rags
  • Paint thinner
  • 2-inch angled paintbrush
  • Polyurethane

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  1. 1

    Sand each stair tread with 150-grit sandpaper, and follow the first sanding with 220-grit sandpaper. Sand only in the direction of the wood grain. The wood grain on stair treads and risers will flow from side to side. Sanding against the grain in the wood will create scratches that are hard to remove.

  2. 2

    Vacuum the stairs with a shop vacuum, and then wipe them down with a tackcloth, or cloth that has been moistened with paint thinner. The sanding dust must be completely removed or it will leave a noticeable gritty look on the finish.

  3. 3

    Cover the edges of the risers with painter's tape if you plan on painting them. The tape will keep the stain off the risers. Wrap a strip of painter's tape around the bottom of the balusters to keep the stain off them.

  4. 4

    Stir the stain with a stir stick. Do not shake the stain to mix it. Shaking stain will create bubbles in the stain that will also be applied to the stairs.

  5. 5

    Stain the top step, and use the 2-inch angled paintbrush to apply stain to the each stair tread, and the underneath edge of the stair tread nose that meets the riser. Stain the risers if they will not be painted. As you stain each step, wipe off the excess stain with a soft lint-free rag. Allow the stain to dry overnight.

  6. 6

    Apply a second coat of stain if the first coat is not dark enough. Stain will lighten as it dries, and sometimes a second coat is needed. Allow the second coat of stain to dry overnight before applying the polyurethane.

  7. 7

    Apply a coat of polyurethane to each step, using the 2-inch angled paintbrush. Work your way from the top step to the bottom step. Allow the polyurethane to dry for the time recommended by the manufacturer. Better-performing polyurethane will require more drying time.

  8. 8

    Sand the first coat of polyurethane, and wipe off all of the sanding dust. When the stairs are free of dust, apply a second coat of polyurethane. Allow the second coat to dry, sand and clean again, and apply a final coat of polyurethane. Three coats of polyurethane will provide a good level of protection for the stairs.

Tips and warnings

  • Wash your paintbrush with paint thinner after each use. If you do not wash it, it will not be usable the next day.
  • Allow the final coat of polyurethane to completely dry before putting the stairs back into use. Walking on the stairs too soon will mar the final finish and force you to do it over.

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