Staining Staircase Steps

About 2 months ago, I told you that I was going to start making over the staircase in my foyer. Painting balusters, staining staircase steps, and then polyurethaning them just as I did in my previous house staircase makeover.

I had started to tape off the steps to paint all the balusters, but life got in the way along with a much bigger project that took precedence over the staircase makeover.  I will be able to tell you all about this exciting project next Monday.

So while I was busy doing that other project, the staircase got put on the back burner.  Now that the big project is done, I had a chance to start working on the staircase again.

Home Improvement - staircase makeover. How to stain and polyurethane steps on a staircase | In My Own Style

Instead of waiting to post the reveal of the completed staircase makeover with white painted risers and balusters to go along with the stained and polyed steps, I am going to post about completing each step in the makeover process and then the final reveal post. This way you can see my progress in real time, not only in a “Before & After” post.

How to Stain the Steps on a Staircase

Here is how the staircase looked after we removed the carpet runner and lightly sanded over the entire surface of each step.

staining staircase steps

No pun intended, but step 1, was to match up the existing stain to cover the bare wood on the center of each step and then put 3 coats of polyurethane over the stain. I am going to be painting the risers and the balusters white.

In my previous house, there was no stain on the steps since they were completely covered with carpet which was easier to do. Matching stain and poly was a tiny bit challenging.

I could have tried removing all the existing stain and poly, but that would have been too hard with no guarantee that the stain would all come out.  I sanded the previous poly a little bit to provide some tooth so it would take a new coat once I stained the center wood on each step.

I had to figure out the right color of stain to match what was already on the steps, but since all wood takes a stain differently, I had to test the color on one of the actual steps. I color tested on the very top, less viewed step.

Note: If you need to fill in any staple holes on the steps, you can use Minwax Stainable Wood Putty to fill them in.  Don’t use regular wood putty since it won’t take stain.

Best wood stain to use for staining steps in a staircase makeover

I bought two dark Minwax stains to test, Jacobean and Ebony.  Jacobean was a match. For the entire staircase, I only needed 1 little can of stain and a half a can of Pre-Stain Wood Conditioner.

Other uses for a Swiffer duster besides dusting furniture. One use it to use on surfaces you are about to paint. It removes the dust, hair, and dirt so it does not get in the finish of the painted surface.

I also needed a few staining pads and a Swiffer 360 Duster. I found that this little duster is one handy gadget to get hair, dust and dirt off something you are going to paint or stain. It works just as well as a tack cloth.

how to makeover a staircase with stain and polyurethane

Latex or rubber gloves are a must or your hands will have stain on them for days.

Tips and tricks on how to apply stain to wood steps on a staircase
  1. Sand steps with a medium grit sandpaper. Clean off all sanding dust.
  2. Clean the wood with a damp cloth and detergent to make sure all dust, dirt and grease are removed from the wood. Let dry.
  3. Before putting down a coat of stain or paint, always go over the surface again with Swiffer duster or tack cloth to remove any dust, hair, bugs or specs of dirt off the surface. I can’t stress this enough. If you stain or poly over a piece of lint, a dog hair, etc. It will be embedded for life in the finish.
Why you should use pre conditioner on wood before staining

3. Apply Pre-Stain Conditioner. This is crucial to use if you want the stain to go on nice and even, no blotchiness.  I used it on my previous staircase and it turned out great.  It is worth using if you are not a pro at staining.  You can apply it with a high quality brush, rag, or pad. I used a pad.

You only need one coat. Let it sit for about 15 minutes and then wipe up any excess with a lint free cloth or clean pad. Once the conditioner is on, you need to apply the stain within 3 hours.  I waited for about an hour.

How to apply stain to steps on a staircase

4. I applied the stain with another pad. I dipped the pad into the can of stain and then wiped it onto the wood using long and circular motions making sure I got an even coat applied. Wipe up excess with clean pad. Let dry.


Here is how the step looked after stain and before polyurethane. This was the step in the worst condition. I needed to sand it a few times.

On my previous staircase makeover, I used Zinsser Ultimate Polyurethane. It was a water-based product that I loved. I couldn’t find it, not even online. I went in search for another poly and found Minwax Fast Drying Polyurethane in gloss. It is oil-based, but dries in 4 hours.

After using both brands, I liked the Zinsser Ultimate Poly much better. It was easier to use and held up amazingly for years. The oil-based Minwax is thicker and smelled for a long time. It looks nice, but if I were to buy it again, I think I would get semi-gloss instead of gloss. High gloss is too shiny and reflects everything. The Zinsser was not as high of a gloss. It was glossy, but not as reflective as high gloss can be.

Tips for Applying Polyurethane to a Staircase Steps:

  • Apply when you are alone in the house or make sure your family stays out of the space as much as possible so no unwanted dust gets stirred up.
  • I lightly sanded between the first and second coat using 220 grit sandpaper to help create the smoothest finish I could.
  • Clean the steps well with a lint free cloth, tack cloth (sticky cloth to remove debris before painting/staining), or Swiffer duster before applying a second or third coat.
  • Stir the poly in the can. NEVER shake it to mix. Shaking will cause air bubbles in the poly, even when you spread it. They can ruin the finish.
  • I used a 2″ angled Purdy paint brush to apply 3 coats of polyurethane, letting each coat dry before applying the next.
  • Don’t over work the poly. Try to apply it in long even strokes, overlapping slightly.
  • I applied the second and third coats 5 hours apart from each other.
  • Keep off the steps as much as you can for at least 24 hours after the last coat, after this time, walk up and down them with socks on only. After 72 hours, they will be cured enough to walk on as usual.
  • If you need to use the staircase, consider doing polyurethaning every other step. Finish them and let cure for 72 hours, then do the the others. If you finish the staircase this way, you can still use it by just using every other step to go up and down. Use post it notes to mark which steps can be stepped on.
How to stain and polyurethane staircase steps

To learn more about staining staircase steps and staircase makeover inspiration, check out the first staircase I transformed.  It is one of my most popular posts. Find it here: My Foyer Staircase Makeover

To learn more about working with stain. See this post stain versus paint on wood.

More Staircase Makeover Ideas

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  1. Looks fabulous!

    I am about to start the same project. Three questions.
    1. Why stain first, and not the painting? Pros and cons?
    2. How long after applying each coat of stain can I walk on it?
    3. To be able to use the stairs while a poly or stain coat is drying, can I just do the left half of the step first, and switch to the right after the left is completely dry?
    (I know that was 4 questions, but I feel mischievous :-)

    1. Diane Henkler says:

      Hi Kannan –
      1. You stain first so that if any the stain drips it doesn’t get on the paint and discolor it. It is easier to wipe paint off of stain, not vice a versa.
      2. Read the label on the can about drying times. At least 24 hours in dry, non humid conditions.
      3. No you can’t only do half a step, you would see a textured line where the two dried stains and sealers meet. It is best to sweep over the entire step to get a fluid smooth application across the each step.

      I have another post on a different staircase I made over, it may help you see the process.

      If you have any other questions let me know.

  2. Theresa Skelly says:

    I am seeing so many staircases with black railings lately and would love to change mine from a medium stained oak to black. Do I stain it or can I paint it? Do I need to remove the finish first or just lightly sand it? Thank you so much for any help you can give!

    1. Diane Henkler says:

      Hi Theresa – You can use either product to change the color of your staircase railing. Black paint may give you a deeper black and is what I would use. I would find the deepest black paint in a gloss. I have a post on painting staircase balusters. The process for painting the railing would be the same. Here is a link to the post:

  3. Did I have to pre stain first if using semi gloss paint on risers?

    1. Diane Henkler says:

      Hi Lorraine – You don’t have to use the Pre-stain on the riser where you are painting. Only where stain is going to be applied on the steps.

  4. We have had our staircase many years without finishing, so our hand rail has a patina caused by our hands, is there some way this can be removed?

  5. I am about to stain my stairs as well. I have a questions if I finish the last step at 8am, what time can I actually walk lightly on them. I was thinking 12 am. ?? Your stairs look awesome.

    1. Diane Henkler says:

      Hi Crystal – If you need to use the steps at the end of the day, I think it should be fine especially if you have dry conditions in your house. The stain dries pretty quickly and you can walk on new stain by the end of the day or after about 4 – 6 hours. The poly is what takes longer and depending on what the temp and humidity is it may take longer. After about 4 – 6 hours, test the surface with your finger to see if it feels dry to the touch. If it does, you could probably go lightly over the steps, but remember the poly will not be cured and it may not be fully dried underneath the surface, you may leave prints. Just tread lightly or do every other step first like I did so you can still get up and down the steps all day long as they dry. Once these are dry, do the others. It may take 2 days, but you will not have to worry about messing up any of the poly.

  6. Theresa O. says:

    Hi Diane,

    Your stairs look great!
    I have a sanding question…how did you sand the corners and sides of the treads. I’m having a hard time getting the sprayover paint off of the treads where they meet the wall.


    1. Diane Henkler says:

      Hi Theresa – It was tricky to get the overspray off the steps by the sides of the treads. My husband did most of it since he could put more muscle into it. There is an inexpensive pointy hand sander that might help you. 3M makes it and they are sold at the home improvement store. The one I have used is purple. It allows you to get into hard to sand places. I would use 60 – 100 grit sandpaper on it to help get the paint off.

  7. Christina says:

    Amateur questions here! We have the same problem–some of our treads are half-stained, half bare wood and we have no idea what they used on them. When you stained the bare wood, did you also stain over the already-stained parts as well? Did this produce a darker finish on those parts? I’m concerned with there being a ‘line’ between new stain and old. Thanks!!

    1. Janet Smith says:

      Hi Christina – did you figure this out? I didn’t see a reply to this part of your question and I’m curious as to how to deal with half-stained treads as well

      1. Diane Henkler says:

        Hi Janet – In my post I did explain how I dealt with half stained steps without having to sand the treads down to the bare wood. I will update the post to make what I did stand out more.

        I cleaned the steps and went over each step even the stained sections with 100 grit sandpaper to slightly rough up the surface a bit. I bought a few small cans of stain that looked close to the existing stain on the outer sides of the steps to come up with the best color match. You may even have to mix two colors to get the color match. Depending on the type of wood the steps are, you can get a scrap piece of wood to experiment on if you don’t want to do it on the actual steps.

        Once I found the color mix, I used pre-stain conditioner on the bare section of each step. Waited the length of time recommended on the can and then used a staining pad and wipe the stain on the unstained sections of the steps and going over into the stained areas so there would be less visible lines where the stain met the old. Once dry, I touched up a few areas until there were no demarcation lines and let it dry. Then brushed on two coats of poly over the entirety of each step
        Let me know if this answers your question.

  8. Christine Battaglia says:

    Also did you sand the risers before painting them white? Mine are same stain as steps with poly on them, but I want them white

    1. Diane Henkler says:

      Hi Christine – You will need to go over the stained risers with 100 grit sandpaper to provide some tooth for the paint. Clean the grit up and then brush on a stain blocking primer. 2 coats. Letting the first one dry before applying the second. Then once that is dry white paint. I may use a new product called Complete by Glidden. It is a stain blocking primer and paint in one. I will test it out and post about it.

      1. When painting over previously stained wood, would it suffice to apply a coat of Kilz or similar sealing product before painting – and save the trouble of sanding?

        1. Diane Henkler says:

          Hi Kannan – It is always best to sand so the paint adheres better. If you are painting over paint, you could just go over the sruface with 80-100 grit sandpaper held in your hand for a quick 5 minute going over to provide some “tooth” for new paint to adhere. If you want to paint over previously stained would then it is a must to seal with a stain blocking primer like KILZ.

  9. Christine Battaglia says:

    Hi Diane, I wrote down all your directions to start my staircase, and I have a question. What about the handrail/banister. Did you sand , per stain, stain and poly it also? When do you recommend I do this after the steps?, before I paint the risers and balusters white?

    1. Diane Henkler says:

      For a classic staircase, the banister should be stained/polyed like the steps, the balusters should be painted white. I would do all staining/polying before painting since stain can “stain” the paint if it gets on it.

  10. Julia@Cuckoo4Design says:

    Looks wonderful how you matched the stain. I still can’t make up my mind what I want to do on mine and the only reason is the knots in my check pine. I hate them. And I’m not thrilled to have wet stairs with my cats. It won’t be a fun project ;)

    1. Diane Henkler says:

      Thanks Julia – Yep…those furry 4 legged kiddos do not make it easy to makeover a staircase. We put our cat in a bright sunny bedroom with his litter box for 2 days. He was happy to lay in the sunny window all day, we were happy that he was out of the way. In my previous house, I hid the knots as best I could using a dark stain. In my new house, they steps have nice wood, so no knots to deal with this time.

  11. Alina Watson says:

    Yes you told about staircase & now you shared a amazing post about staircase. This is your passion. Well stairs looking really beautiful with help of wood finish. It get amazing look.

  12. Beautiful! Almost makes me wish we had stairs .

    1. Diane Henkler says:

      Thanks Belinda :-)

  13. Hi Diane!
    Your last staircase makeover inspired me to do both sets of stairs in my house–these look beautiful! SO impressed by everything you are doing to make this new home your own!

    1. Diane Henkler says:

      Thanks Danielle – I love hearing from readers who have redone their staircases. You have 2 under your belt. You are a Pro now. :-) I am looking forward to getting my second one done.

  14. Just beautiful!! And what a great tutorial. Thank you.

  15. Elaine Williams in Baltimore says:

    I would not even dream of tackling a project so big. They look beautiful.

    1. Diane Henkler says:

      Thanks Elaine – It is my DIY nature to take on even big projects. I see the decorative potential in everything and go for it to create my vision. It is the only way I can get many of the things I like since I do not have the budget to hire someone else to do it. I do know my limits though and hire out the projects that are above my skill and knowledge base. :-)

  16. The stairs are now beautiful, Diane. Just let me know, as this is one of my normal worries, it’s not slippery?
    Tks for sharing! kisses ML

    1. Diane Henkler says:

      Hi Marcia – They are shiny but not slippery. I had everyone walking up them with socks on the first few days after the last coat of poly went on. No problems with the steps being slippery even in stocking feet. :-)

      1. Sorry Diane! My intention was to write that “the stairs are NOW beautiful!” kkk just seen that mistake!!
        Tks for letting me know about the test in socks! kisses ML

        1. Diane Henkler says:

          I just changed the T to a W in your comment so it reads now instead of not. …so no worries. :-)

          1. Tks a lot! :)

      2. That answers my question about slippery stairs but I have one more is it slippery when wet like if something got spilled on it just making sure since I have four little boys

        1. Diane Henkler says:

          Hi Danna – The staircase in my current home is the second one I made over. We never had a problem with slipping in either. Having four little boys could be a concern if they are racing up and down in socks. :-) I didn’t have to deal with this scenario as my daughters were grown when I redid the first staircase :-) Normal use and even at a hurried pace, we never had a slipping problem even with just our socks on.

  17. Lauren @ Mom Home Guide says:

    It looks great! Thanks for the awesome tutorial — I am pinning this! I am not sure whether to do my stairs. Much to my chagrin, my whole house is carpeted (save for the kitchens and bathrooms), and my husband likes it that way! But I HATE vacuuming stairs and love the look of wood stairs. Our stairs are just plywood, but it looks like they would look nice with stain (from what I can see from your post). But I wonder if it would be weird to have wood stairs but carpeting everywhere else. Thanks again for sharing this!

    1. Elaine Williams in Baltimore says:

      Lauren I hear you! I hate carpeting too. There is a product made out of oak that you can put on pine or plywood steps – like a veneer. My husband did this in our old house making the risers white. Turned out beautiful.

    2. Diane Henkler says:

      Hi Lauren – It may look a bit off to have only the staircase with a wood finish if there is no wood or hardscape flooring connecting to it in some way. Plywood steps can be covered with risers and step wood covers. They sell them at home improvement stores. The riser wood is already painted white making it an easy way to cover lower grades of wood.

      Maybe you can sway your husband to think like you. Clip pictures and from magazines and print photos from blogs and place them where he can see them. He might just see the beauty in having a wood floor in a foyer and a wood staircase. :-)

  18. Aw, can you come over and do mine? Considering that I just had both knees replaced, its gonna be a while before I can do a project like this (and I have three sets of stairs in my house)!

    It looks beautiful. I don’t know why builders (and other homeowners) insist on carpeting – either all or a little. Solid wood steps are gorgeous!

    1. Diane Henkler says:

      Hi Julie – I agree with you about carpeting on steps. I think the reason is because it is much cheaper
      (lower grade of wood can be used) and easier to carpet steps then to stain, paint and poly them. I hope you knee replacement PT is going well and you are back to doing all the things you love soon. My mom had both her knees replaced at the same time. She did great. Having it done made life so much better for her. Best wishes for a speedy recovery :-)

  19. That looks gorgous!

  20. Sheryll $ Critters. says:

    What a lot of work! Can you stand up straight again yet? Sure is beautiful. Try not to get yourself too tired.

  21. Christina in FL says:

    Diane, this tutorial is fabulous! Tell me, did you do this all by yourself? Did you stay downstairs while the process was… er.. processing or did you do the every other step protocol? Just nosey is all. :) Your candid review of the poly finishes is greatly appreciated. Your stain match is flawless.
    I get such joy from seeing your project and all the details you provide.
    THANK YOU!!!

  22. Love the dark stain you chose. I just did my steps with dark gel stain and white risers after pulling carpet up and love the new look. You are right about keeping things dust free and rerouting foot traffic but the temporary inconvenience will be worthwhile for everyone. Looking forward to your finished steps!

  23. Looks great, can’t wait to see the finished project.

  24. Hi Diane
    I have to tell you it was your previous makeover on your stairs that made us do ours. They turned out great. Thank you again for your tutorial.

    1. Diane Henkler says:

      Hi Linda – That makes me so happy to hear! Thanks for telling me. Doing that makeover was scary at first since we didn’t know what was under the carpet. Once we got going though, we knew we made a good decision to make the effort to transform it.