A step by step post about how to bring an old staircase back to it’s original glory.
My super-talented husband, who managed this complicated project, wrote this post. If I had written it, my version would have been a lot shorter:
Step One: Start sanding
Step Two: Cancel all social engagements for the next six weeks and keep sanding
Although my version of how to refinish stairs is what the project really felt like (freaking endless), it’s actually a bit more complicated than that. So, read on to see how we actually did it…
Note: We wanted a two-tone look for our stairs where the treads and trim were stained dark brown and the risers and stringers were painted white. This meant that we needed to sand the treads down to the original wood, but the risers and balusters only needed sanded to a point where they could be repainted (so all drips, lumps, gouges, etc. were smoothed over and the final paint coatings were applied evenly).
* Before we started the actual restoration, we first had to remove the old carpeting, tack strips, staples, nails etc. The vast majority of time on this project is spent sanding so all metal objects have to be removed. If you miss a nail or staple, your power sander will set off sparks and quickly let you know that you need to remove the metal.
1. Bulk Removal of Previous Finish
Our stairs had approximately 5 coatings of various finishes, all of which needed to be removed in order to expose the original wood. We learned from earlier projects that chemical strippers were largely a waste of time. Many people swear by them, but our floors and stairs had so many coats of finish that the strippers only made a goopy toxic mess. Thus, we used a power sander to remove the bulk of previous finishes on the treads. Home Depot rents a Clarke American edge sander and we knew from previous projects that it removed a lot of material quickly. We started with a very coarse 24 grit paper and moved on to a 40 grit with this sander. (Warning about the edge sander: it’s extremely powerful and will try to knock you down the stairs, so be extremely careful! Also, expect to go through a decent amount of sandpaper if, like us, you also have a lot of previous finishes to remove.)
2. Detail Work on the Treads
The edge sander removed the majority of the finishes on the treads, but there was still still work that needed done in the harder to reach places like the corners and sides. For these places, we used a standard hand-held belt sander and plain old 2″ paint scraper to ensure we got a clean line between the treads and risers. With this sander, we used 50 grit sandpaper as to not take off too much material. Additionally, we went back over the middle of the treads with the belt sander and a finer grit paper to begin smoothing them down. (Note: Be sure to sand only in the direction of the grain with the belt sander. This additional sanding was meant to remove marks from the edge sander which, up close, look like the diagram below.)
3. More Detail Work on the Treads
Next we worked on the areas in between the balusters and around the front and side of the treads. Here, we started with the paint scraper to remove the previous finishes. Again, you can opt to use a scraper in conjunction with chemical strippers, but we just ‘dry’ scraped these areas. It does require a little more elbow grease, but we bought a few packs of extra blades and even my petite wife is able to remove all of the finish down to the wood faster than we could with the chemicals. (Note: don’t be alarmed with the ‘chopped up’ look of the areas you scrape, you will return with a sander to even them out. The goal here is only to remove previous finishes and expose the original wood.)
4. Even More Detail Work on the Treads
Next we had to sand the small areas where we just hand scraped. We visited quite a few hardware stores looking for a sander that would fit in the small space in between the balusters. Surprisingly, Harbor Freight came through with their Chicago Electric ½” Bandfile sander and it turned out to be an excellent tool for the job. This is my first experience with a Chicago Electric power tool and although they are typically not as reliable as some of the bigger name tool companies, this product was right for the job. I can see this little tool coming in handy for lots of jobs in the future if it holds up, which it seems like it will! As for the rounded edges of the sides/front of the treads, we hand sanded with 40, then 60, then 80 grit sand paper to even out the ‘hacks’ left behind from scraping.
5. Removing/Adding Trim
This step is completely voluntary. Since we wanted stained trim under the riser on each step, we removed the old trim and attached new. (Why not just work with the trim that’s already in place? Long ago, the trim had been painted and there was no way to remove the paint without damaging the wood beyond repair. So, we removed it entirely knowing that we were going to attach new. If you like the look of the trim being painted, go ahead and skip this step and just paint over the existing trim when it comes time to paint the risers.) Removing the old trim was simple, we used a pry bar and hammer – just be careful not to damage the treads you spent days sanding! Amy then picked out the new trim and I picked up the Kobalt 10″ 15-Amp Slide Compound Laser Miter Saw at Lowes. We then cut two pieces of trim for each stair and attached them carefully with a nail gun. (Note: if your stairs are old like ours, each step with have slightly different measurements, so it’s best to measure and cut each piece one at a time.)
About our saw purchase:
Before buying this saw, I did a lot of research to make sure we got the best tool for the job. For starters, a 12″ saw seemed like it would be too big, but the 10″ felt limiting. However, the sliding action of the 10″ Kobalt meant I could still cut up to a 2″x12″ which will work out well for other projects. My final two choices, based on quality and price, came down to this Kobalt and it’s Craftsman equivalent. Ultimately, I knew Lowes had a good customer service department and that solidified my decision. So far, this tool has been an excellent purchase, the laser is very accurate and (bonus!) the saw came with a carbide tipped 60 tooth blade, which was the best blade in the price range. Also, as a first time user of an electric miter saw, I have to say that it could not be any easier to use.
6. Sanding for Painting
Although we are painting over the already painted risers, balusters and trim going down the side (the wall stringer and outer stringer), the previous paint jobs had been shoddy and there were large clumps, drips, gouges, etc. that we didn’t want showing. By fixing these previous mistakes, our paint job will look much more clean and even. So – back to sanding! We hand sanded these areas and spot-fixed what needed it. We did this with a combination of 40 and 50 grit papers working down to some finer 80 and 100 grit. This took a lot of time, but it was fairly easy work and it will make a big difference at the end of the day. (Note: This spot-sanding technique will make the painted surfaces look like a mess because some places will be sanded more than others. Use your hands, not your eyes to judge what is smooth and ready for paint and what still needs more attention.)
7. Wood Filling
The point of working on the the painted surfaces is to make them as smooth as possible. Thus – where you have gouges, nicks and scratches, apply wood filler until the areas are even with the rest of the surface. We mostly noticed needing to use filler on the risers. When we pulled out nails and staples from the carpet tack strips, we took off some layers of finish as well making mini divots. We used Elmer’s Wood Filler Max to fill in these areas. Once the filler dried, we sanded the excess down with 80, 100 and 120 grit sandpaper until they were perfectly smooth. (Note: I was not a big fan of this wood filler product. It dried much too quickly and as a result – did not go on evenly, adding extra steps in the sanding process.)
8. Final Sanding
Once the previous finishes were totally removed, the trim was added and the wood filler was applied/sanded down, we went back through and did a few final sandings. We used our finishing palm sander and started with 80 grit, then used 120 and finally 220. This doesn’t take nearly as long as removing finishes, but it will make sure that the stairs are nice and smooth at the end of the project. The 220 in particular will ensure that the grain doesn’t stand up (causing a rough surface) when we apply the stain.
An extremely thorough cleaning is needed after all of the sanding is finished. It is very important to make sure that you don’t ruin all of your hard work sanding by getting dust in your finish. Use a shop vac with a soft bristle attachment, then wipe the area down with a tack cloth. Clean not only the treads, but the risers, trim, walls etc. As your stain and finishing coatings dry, you don’t want dust falling on them from other surfaces.
We settled on the Minwax Early American stain for the treads. This mid-tone color was dark enough to give the contrast we wanted, but light enough to blend in with the naturally stained wood on our first floor. For this, we used a lambswool applicator attached to a wooden pole. In between the balusters and on the trim we used a small foam brush to make sure that we coated evenly. (Note: we applied two coats of stain to the trim but only one to the treads. Since the trim was new wood [ie – not 150 years old] it was much softer and absorbed more of the stain, so two coats were necessary for a unified look.)
Lastly, we applied Rustoleum’s Varathane Polyurethane Oil-Based Wood Finish. We chose Varathane because we wanted to use an oil based finish, as they are more durable, and Varathane is a premium product that doesn’t “yellow” when it dries. We have used Varathane products before and are extremely happy with them. It is important to take care when you are pouring the product from the container so it doesn’t form any air bubbles. We applied this with the same type of lamb’s wool applicator and again we used a small foam brush for the detail areas. We let this dry for 12 hours and then lightly sanded with 220 grit and reapplied a second coat. As always, follow the instructions on the side of the can for ideal temperature, timing and humidity. Finally, you may want to apply a 3rd coat, but as we are still living in a work zone, we plan to do all of our ‘final coatings’ of finish at the very end of construction.
12. Taping, Priming & Painting
The final step is painting, but a lot of prep work has to happen first. After the polyurethane is dry, you can begin getting ready to paint. Since we already sanded everything, we were ready to tape off non-painted areas (we used Frog Tape because we didn’t want any bleeding on the detail work). This took a while as we had to section off each baluster (top and bottom), riser and stringer. We then primed with Kilz Max Primer to ensure that the paint stuck to the previously finished areas (mainly the risers). After the primer dried, we went back and applied 2 coats of Benjamin Moore Simply White (to match the rest of the trim in our house) and then we carefully removed the tape. (Note: don’t be alarmed if some of the primer/paint dries to the tape, simply remove it carefully and keep a sharp blade nearby.)
And that’s it! You are now…finally…done!! [The crowd cheers!]
A few things to note:
- This project took a substantial amount of time. We had a few other things happening at the same time, but regardless, work on these stairs took about 4 times longer than we expected. Be patient. And occasionally, take a night off!
- You won’t be able to use your stairs when the stain and polyurethane are drying, so prepare ahead of time. (Yay first-floor camping!)
- We wrote a how-to for fixing a wobbly banister and/or newel post in a separate entry. It is here.
- In these ‘after’ pictures (which I took with my cell phone, forgive the quality) the newel post is not yet finished. It needed rebuilt and I’m actually installing it tonight!