Saturday, May 17, 2014

How to: Refinish Hardwood Stairs

One of the few things we left 'original' in our house was the hardwood stairs to the second floor. It simply would have been to difficult to remove and replace them. We could have simply carpeted over them as was the case when we bought the house but we both loved the look of wood steps with white risers and a carpet runner. So we had to bight the bullet and refinish them.

This project is not for the faint of heart. It involves hours (and hours, and hours) spent hunched over the stairs, cramped hands from scraping and sanding, and pounding headaches from paint removal. 

But the end result is worth it.




  • Heat gun
  • Scraper or putty knife
  • Palm sander
  • Sandpaper
  • Stainable wood filler
  • Stain
  • Lint-free cloths
  • Clear varathane
  • Foam brush

Step 1: Preparation

Remove the old carpet, including any staples, glue, etc. Our carpet left behind about a million staples which had to be pulled one by one. I found that needle nose pliers and a putty knife were the best tools for removing the staples but I am sure there are more appropriate tools out there.

Step 2: Remove Old Finishes

Our stairs had been painted and stained about a million times in the past. There was every type of finish imaginable. On the risers and baseboards, we only had to remove paint so we were able to use a heat gun. Aim the heat gun at the paint until it begins to bubble. The bubbled paint will slide right off with a paint scrapper or putty knife.

On the steps, we not only had to remove the old paint but all of the old stains or varathanes. For this we resorted to paint stripper. Paint stripper works best if you apply it, cover it in plastic and allow it to sit for a short period of time until the paint begins to bubble - check the recommendations on your specific product. Then use a paint scrapper or putty knife to remove the bubbled paint.

It is important to make sure the area is well ventilated... And make sure you have Advil on hand - this step guarantees a pounding headache!

Because we were planning to install a carpet runner, we chose to only refinish the edge of the steps that would be visible. It saved us a considerable amount of time and effort.

Step 3: Sand

Using a course sandpaper, such as 80 grit, remove any left over finish and stripper. A palm sander or Dremel Multi-max fitted with a sanding attachment will make the work go much faster.

Step 4: Patch

Fill in any cracks and nail holes with wood filler. For any particularily large holes, we have found that Bondo Body Filler works better than wood filler as it does shrink and it dries in a fraction of the time, although it does stink all most as bad as the paint stripper. It is meant for automotive body repair and can be found in most automotive part stores - in Calgary, try Canadian Tire or Princess Auto. Warning - it is not the same as the Bondo Fibreglass products sold at Home Depot.

Step 5: Sand Again

And again and again... Each time use progressively finer sandpaper. I used 80 grit and 120 grit.

Step 6: Apply Stain

Step 7: Apply Clear Top Coat

Apply several coats of a clear top coat - we used five (yes, five) coats to ensure a durable, shiney finish. I recommend using a waterbased product for ease of clean up and to prevent any further headaches.

Step 7: Paint Risers

We used General Paint's Monamel since it is an extremely durable finish. However it does take considerably longer to dry. Make sure you caulk all of the joints to create a more finished look.

Step 8: Install Carpet Runner

We left this step up to the professionals!

Step 9: Ta Da!



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