My upstairs neighbor and I spent the first Saturday night of 2016 staining stair treads. For the past few weeks, the stairs had been covered in red rosin paper and painters’ tape to protect the newly-installed, raw-wood treads. Since our contractor, Gregg, covered up each tread after installing it, neither my neighbor or I had actually seen the rebuilt staircase in its entirety. As we tore away the paper to prepare the treads for stain, the finished staircase emerged, step by step, for the first time. It was like unwrapping one last belated Christmas present.
Standing there looking at a whole flight of clean, flat, uniform treads, it suddenly felt like we had reached the beginning of the end of this stairwell renovation. After taking a minute to admire the new treads, we got to work staining them.
Finding a time to stain and seal the stairs took more planning than you might expect. The stairs provide primary access to my second-floor condo as well as my neighbor’s condo on the top floor, so we wanted to find a way to finish the treads without leaving the stairs impassable for days on end. My first thought was to finish every other step, which would allow us to use the stairs, taking two steps at a time, while the stain and polyurethane dried. Once the first set of treads were dry, we could go back and finish the remaining treads. It seemed like a good idea until we remembered that one of my upstairs neighbors is two years old and probably won’t be taking stairs two at a time anytime soon.
If we couldn’t finish the stair treads gradually, in phases, maybe we could finish them all at once, as quickly as possible. I started looking for fast-drying stain and polyurethane and found Varathane stain and Minwax Ultimate Polyurethane for floors. Both products are well-reviewed with dry times of 1 hour for the stain and 2 hours for the polyurethane – fast enough that we could apply a coat of stain or poly in the evening after everyone is home for the night and safely walk on the stairs in socks the following morning.
Once the rosin paper was out of the way, my neighbor and I sanded each tread with extra fine, 180-grit sanding sponges. (The treads came pre-sanded, but the stain instructions recommended sanding with extra fine grit paper before staining to help the wood absorb the stain evenly.) Thirty minutes later we were left with sore arms and two flights of silky smooth stair treads.
Finally, after wiping away the sawdust with tack cloths, we actually started applying the stain. We worked quickly and didn’t worry too much about getting excess stain on the risers, balusters, and baseboard, since all of these surfaces will be primed and painted later. The Varathane stain soaked into the wood faster than the Minwax stains I’ve used in the past – we only had to leave the stain on for three minutes before wiping away the excess.
Before we started staining the treads, I spent a few days testing stain colors on some of the scrap cut-offs that were left over from the tread installation. At first I wanted to stain the treads to match the handrail and newel post, which, as far as I can tell, are made from American black walnut. I tried Minwax “dark walnut” stain, but it ended up looking too dark and lacked the warm red undertones of the real walnut.
Eventually I came across Varathane “American walnut” stain, which was a much warmer dark brown. I sanded and stained a section of scrap wood, and brought it upstairs from the cellar to compare it to the handrail. The stain left the wood slightly lighter than the walnut handrail, although the color was about right. But then I noticed that the stained scrap wood was a pretty close match for the stairwell’s original pine flooring, which is a medium amber color. I decided that matching the treads to the floors actually makes a lot of sense, so we went ahead with “American walnut.”
It took about an hour and a half for my neighbor and I to each work our way down a flight of stairs, applying stain to each tread and wiping off the excess as we went. But when we were done, the staircase was transformed.
After looking at dusty, paper-covered stairs for so long, the freshly stained treads were an enormous improvement.
The next morning, the stain seemed to be fully cured. As we walked downstairs in our socks, carrying our shoes, our feet didn’t stick to the treads, and we didn’t leave a trail of linty footprints behind; so mission accomplished.
Mara and I spent the next three evenings sealing the treads with polyurethane. Each night we worked our way down the two flights of stairs, wiping away dust with tack cloths and applying poly with foam brushes. The Minwax Ultimate floor polyurethane that we used is water-based, so it dried faster and didn’t smell as much as oil-based poly. And it’s supposed to be just as durable. Hopefully three coats of poly will hold up for a while, but the stairs are a high-traffic area, so realistically, we’ll probably need to sand and put another coat of poly on the treads every year or two. And since the original floors are already scuffed and scarred, a little wear and tear on the stair treads will only help them blend in.
With the treads done, the stairwell is finally coming together. I’m excited to get this project done – I’m looking forward to coming home and walking upstairs through a clean, finished space.