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Staining Staircase Steps

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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. Click here: My Foyer Staircase Makeover

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

  2. 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!!!

  3. 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!

  4. 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. 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.