How to Refinish Hardwood Stairs


Whether you’ve pulled up a worn carpet to reveal hardwood treads or your existing wood steps are showing signs of wear, you may want to refinish your stairs. Risers, handrails and banisters can also be refinished and restored to their original luster. The process creates significant amounts of dust but if you can handle that inconvenience, the results are worth it.

Sanding Treads

  • Remove any staples, nails or carpeting tack strips and fill the holes left behind with wood filler before sanding. Use a floor sanding edger to sand the treads. Start with a rougher sandpaper and progressively use smoother sandpaper. Depending on the finish you are removing, you may want to start with a sandpaper as low as 20-grit and move up to 120-grit. If your spindles connect directly with the treads, use a triangular-shaped detail sander to sand around them.

Finishing Treads

  • Wipe the treads with a tack cloth to remove any dust. To change the color of the treads, apply stain and allow it to dry. To maintain the same color, skip straight to applying at least three coats of polyurethane. To keep the upper level of your home accessible during the process, apply coats of stain and polyurethane to every other step and allow each coat to dry before applying it to the other steps. Use water-based stain and polyurethane to minimize fumes.

Refinishing Risers

  • The vertical sections of your stairs, or the risers, typically show fewer signs of wear. If they are the same wood species as your treads and you want them to be the same color, follow a similar process as you did with the treads. Remove nails and staples, repair with wood filler, sand them with a hand-held power sander and apply stain and varnish. As an alternative, paint them white or another color consistent with your home decor to create a contrasting look.

Baluster Details

  • Sand as much of the baluster’s spindles and newel posts as possible with a power sander and go over the detailed areas with a detail sander or by hand. If you will be painting the stairs, you do not need to remove every speck of the prior finish. For the contrasting look, paint them the same color as the risers. If the wood species matches the rest of the stairway, you can also stain and varnish the spindles and posts for a consistent appearance.

Refinishing the Handrail

  • Handrails, like treads, can show signs of wear. To refinish them, remove as much of the existing finish as possible with a power sander. Depending on the rail’s profile, you may need to go over portions of it by hand. Stain and varnish, as opposed to paint, is an optimal choice here as paint will more easily show the wear of people running their hands along the rail. Stain it the same color as your treads to create a classic look.

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