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Refinishing A Staircase

By Jim Sulski

Summary: Many times a home's staircase is the first thing that greets visitors when they walk in the door. Jim reviews various options on refinishing your staircase to make it look its best.

Upon entering a home, nothing makes more of an impression than a well-manicured staircase. In fact, the front half of many homes are designed around the staircase and foyer.
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Because it's usually the first thing that someone sees, a staircase makes a important architectural statement about a home.

Staircases are also a very functional component of a home, one that is well-used and often abused.

That's why many do-it-yourselfers hope to one day refinish their staircases. Such a project, however, is a bit trickier than it seems, considering that certain sections of a staircase are painted - such as the spindles - while other sections - such as the treads of the stairs - are stained and varnished.

With that in mind, here are a few tips to refinishing a staircase.

The first step is to strip the staircase of any existing coats of paint or finishes. The most efficient approach to that is to strip the staircase in place.

Begin the stripping job with a heat gun, which works best at removing several layers of paint at once. Protect the floors and carpet below with drop cloths and be careful not to scorch the wood.

Then remove any remaining paint or finish with a chemical stripper, using a gel type that will remain in place on vertical surfaces.

Finally, complete the stripping process by hand sanding any stubborn paint or varnish off with a 80 to 120 grit sandpaper.

This is also the time to patch or repair any broken parts of the staircase.

Loose spindles can be tightened by injecting glue into the area where they meet the handrail. You can also secure the loose spindle by sinking - on an angle - a small finishing nail or screw up into the top of the spindle and into the handrail. Drive the head of the nail or screw below the surface of the handrail and then cover the top of it with wood filler.

Stair squeaks, which occur when loose pieces rub together, can also be silenced. First, locate the squeak, often found on the tread of a stair. Then, use a finishing nail or finishing screw to retighten the tread, driving them into the riser.

Pre-drill a hole to guide the nail or screw in just below the top of the tread. Then used a wood filler to hide it.

Next, protect the unfinished wood treads of the stairs by covering them with butcher or craft paper, which can be stapled into the staircase.

Next, move on to the staining and varnishing process.

To protect areas of the staircase that you plan to paint - say risers or spindles - use painter's tape and craft paper.

If you have elaborately carved spindles or posts, and plan to use a combination of stain and paint on the pieces, this will also require some careful plotting and taping.

The type of stain and topcoat applied to the staircase should be chosen carefully.

Stains come in a variety of colors and each produce a different look on different types of wood - oak, pine, maple, birch, etc. Hence, you should test a stain by applying it on a fairly unnoticeable area of the staircase.

If you're trying to match an existing stain, you can have a stained custom mixed.

When applying stain to the staircase, be careful not to place too much stain on vertical pieces such as the posts at top and bottom of the staircase and the spindles.

On rounded objects such as spindles, apply the paint in vertical strokes, versus brushing up and down.

On flat objects, such as treads or risers, apply the stain in the direction of the wood grain.

A rule of thumb for staircases is to work on every other step to make the staircase accessible during the refinishing process. That, of course, is going to double the amount of time it takes to finish the job.

Next, coat the stained pieces with at least two coats of varnish or shellac. If the treads will remain bare, four coats of finish are recommended. Two coats of finish are sufficient for stairs that will be carpeted.

Once the top coat of varnish or shellac is thoroughly dry, you can begin painting the unfinished pieces.

Start by protecting the stained and varnished pieces with painters tape and craft paper. Avoid covering the finished wood with masking tape, however, as the tape will pull off some of the new finish.

© by Jim Sulski. All rights reserved. February 23, 2005.

NOTE: This column is distributed by Real Estate Matters Syndicate, PO Box 366, Glencoe, Illinois, 60022. This column may not be resold, reprinted, resyndicated or redistributed without written permission from the publisher. 

2005 by Ilyce R. Glink. Distributed by Real Estate Matters Syndicate.




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