How to Sand Hardwood Stairs


The job of sanding stairs falls between sanding a floor and a cabinet. While the old finish on the stairs and the difficulty of removing it are comparable to refinishing a floor, you can't employ any of the tools used by flooring professionals. The finish, too, is often too tough for cabinet refinishing techniques alone. Fortunately, you can easily modify these techniques and adapt some floor-sanding tricks to get good results.

Things You'll Need

  • Pry bar
  • Paintbrush
  • Stripper
  • Lacquer thinner
  • Respirator
  • Rubber gloves
  • Belt sander
  • Paint scraper
  • Floor scraper
  • Orbital sander
  • Rotary tool
  • Sanding drums
  • Hammer
  • Nail punch
  • Wood filler
  • Pry off any removable trim from the treads or risers with a pry bar.

  • Strip the old finish from the stairs with a strong commercial stripper. Spread it on the stairs with a paintbrush and work it into the finish. Let it sit for several hours. Scrape it off with a paint scraper and then wash the wood with a solvent to remove residue. Lacquer thinner is a good solvent for this purpose because it will dissolve most finishes without raising the grain of the wood.

  • Use a belt sander with a medium to coarse belt to smoothen the surfaces of the treads. Sand with the grain of the wood. If the finish is very hard, sand diagonally across the grain to remove it. Then sand with the grain to remove the scratch marks.

  • Use a floor scraper to remove finish from the corners, between balustrades and other places you can't reach with the belt sander. Scrape by pulling the blade with the grain of the wood. Flatten remaining ridges with the belt sander.

  • Remove scratch marks left by the belt sander and scraper using an orbital sander with 80- to 100-grit paper. Once you've sanded the stairs with the orbital sander, change the paper to a finer grit and sand the stairs again.

  • Sand around the nosing of the treads and along the contours of molding using a rotary tool and a medium-coarse sanding drum. Once you've removed the finish from those areas, touch them up by using a finer sanding drum or sanding by hand with a finer sandpaper.

  • Strip and sand any removed molding, then reattach it with finish nails. Sink the heads of the nails with a nail punch. Fill the nail holes with wood filler.

Tips & Warnings

  • The floor scraper works better if you keep the blade sharp. Use a belt sander to sharpen the blade.
  • Wear gloves and a respirator when working with stripper and lacquer thinner. Both have noxious fumes. The stripper is caustic, too, and can burn your hands.

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  • Photo Credit stairs image by Dmitry Nikolaev from
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