5 Tips for Staining Stairs

You might think that applying four coats of varnish to our front door would make me an expert on the subject, but you’d be wrong—or so it seemed when it came time to stain and seal the stairs and handrail.

by Stephanie Staton
5 Tips for Staining Stairs
Photo by Stephanie Staton

You might think that applying four coats of varnish to our front door would make me an expert on the subject, but you’d be wrong—or so it seemed when it came time to stain and seal the stairs and handrail.

The treads and handrail for our stairs came unstained and unsanded, leaving those tasks to me to accomplish. Oh dear! I was able to track down the formula and a paint company that carried the matching floor stain in a nearby city, but that was only the tip of the iceberg for this stair-staining challenge.

After all the materials were gathered (stain, fine-grit sandpaper, sander, brushes, tack cloth, painter’s tape, et cetera), I had to work around the house’s and everyone else’s schedules to start. Why? Well, you can’t walk on stained treads for at least eight hours after application. With a friend living upstairs, other friends and family working on various projects that required constant ascending and descending, and a determined toddler who saw the tacky treads as the perfect perch for his animals … well, you see where this is going. And so it became the norm to imprison my friend on the second floor for the evening (she preferred that to couch surfing), staining and sealing my way down the stairs.

It took two (and sometimes three) coats of stain to get close to the hardwood floor color—read three nights that start at 9 p.m.  and end after midnight. Another three coats of polyurethane were needed for a seal that would stand up to the abuse of foot traffic. Between each coat, we had to sand and wipe the stairs clean, being careful not to track in anything (i.e., no shoes which leave tread marks that will show in the finished product or bare feet that leave residual oils—and toe prints—for all eternity).

Here are some tips that helped me pull this off:

  1. Stain at night. I chose nights that would require little to no foot traffic the following day.
  2. Post signs or tape off the area. It’s incredible how many times someone forgot and walked on the treads after being warned.
  3. Lay down protective paper. This allows for light foot traffic on days when foot traffic is unavoidable. As long as the surface has dried the minimum time and you take proper precautions, light treading should be OK.
  4. Wrap paint brushes in plastic grocery bags. To save time cleaning brushes every day, I wrapped them up tightly in plastic bags. Only do this when using the brush again within 24 to 36 hours. If left longer, the sealant will begin to set and the brush will become stiff, resulting in poor application.
  5. Enlist help. My roommate tag-teamed this project with me so that we didn’t fall behind schedule. Having someone take turns saved time and sanity on this rather tedious endeavor.

The key to a smooth stain finish is the application of very thin layers. Poly tends to be very thin and extremely prone to running, so take your time and apply thin layers. As you work, step back periodically to look at the finish from different angles to ensure you’ve lapped up any runs before they set. If you miss one, a little elbow grease and a slightly heavier grit sandpaper can often remedy the problem. Just be sure to make adjustments between coats—it gets hard to repair an issue the further into the project you choose to address it.

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Overall, I’m pretty satisfied with the contrast the white risers and balusters provide against the stained treads and handrail. I have a bit of touching up to do, but I’m delighted to see one of the pieces of my dream farmhouse come to fruition.

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