Finally, the staining of the stairs is complete. It took a little longer than expected and if you want the truth, I’m glad it’s over. Staining my stair treads was . . . umm. . . quite the ride.
If I fast forward to the end, everything eventually worked out but the process was extremely daunting and time consuming. I did have a couple of little fudge ups along the way which probably added more time and frustration than necessary.
Here’s what went down. . .
As you may recall, the plan for my staircase was to have white risers and stained stair treads.
Step 1: I got a custom stain made at the local paint store. I wanted the stain to be identical to our hardwood floors. With a sample of my flooring and an unfinished piece of oak, I was able to get a water-based stain created for $35. One quart is all you need.
Step 2: Prepping my stair treads. In order to get that professional look, your tread needs to be smooth as glass. Using a hand sander with 120 grit helped remove any fine scratches, uneven surfaces and finger prints from previous handling. Of course, you always want to make sure you sand with the grains and not against.
Helpful Tip: The lower the grit, the courser the sand paper is. (ie: 40-60 grit (course), 80-120 grit (medium), 150-180 (fine), 220-280 grit (very fine), etc. . . You should be using medium to extra fine grit for this project.
Step 3: I applied my first coat of stain. It went on like butter! Using a synthetic paint brush and 100% cotton to wipe off the excess stain worked best for me.
I was using staining pillows at first which I bought from the hardware store. Save your money because nothing works better than an old, clean, 100% cotton t-shirt (ripped up into 20″ squares).
Step 4: After 24 hours check your stair treads. I happened to notice small little wood fibers sticking up on my treads—kinda resembled peach fuzz. This is usually the cause of the wood absorbing water from the stain. All you need is a light sanding with a 220 grit block sander and you should have a smooth surface again. This will also prep it for your second coat.
MY BIG MISTAKE: I saw the wood fibers and sort of freaked out. Instead of using a 220 grit block sander like I mentioned above, I went into panic mode and used a 120 grit hand sander. I began sanding down the tread to make it smooth again.
Beware. Don’t do this . . .
(Left: first coat / Right: sanded)
The reason you shouldn’t use a courser sand paper in between coats is because you’re just exposing a new layer of wood grains. As soon as you put on another coat of stain, the new grains will swell and stick up again.
Which is exactly what happened after my second coat. I exposed new wood fibers and nearly lost my shit.
Since I was already at my desired colour (after two coats) and couldn’t sand down and re-stain. I had to come up with a new game plan.
So if you do happen to make the same mistake as I did. Here’s how I fixed it.
I lightly sanded down any fibers sticking up with an extremely fine 420 girt block. When I say “lightly” I mean barely applying any pressure just enough to basically cut the wood fibers down. You also want to make sure you don’t take off any colour on the tread.
Based on the above image, you couldn’t notice the small exposed grains from a distance. Since I’m a tad bit of a perfectionist, I needed to get this right.
So I dry brushed the stair tread and it worked like a charm!
In order to do this, you need to have very little stain on your brush. Once you dip your brush into the stain, wipe off 95% of the stain. With your brush, go back and forth over the broken wood fibers. It’s a tedious job but this method allows you to fill in those gaps perfectly without adding any more colour to the tread.
Step 5: Finally, you’re ready to add the finishing coat. Give the stain a couple of days to dry before you proceed.
I used Minwax water-based polyurethane (satin finish) and two coats seem to be good enough for me. The only issue I had with this varnish is it seemed to add a yellowish hue to my tread which warmed up the colour. Although, it’s a really nice finish, it did change the desired tone of my stain. See image below. . .
Overall, staining my stair treads taught me a valuable lesson about working with wood: it’s nothing like using wall paint!!
Although, this portion of my stair project took way too much time, at least I can say I’m happy with my end results. I have a smooth step and even colour (I guess nobody needs to know that I struggled just a tad!)
I wonder if I used an oil- based stain and polyurethane, if I would have had these issues?