Finishing Stairs - A guide to getting a good finish -

Finishing your stairs is no small undertaking. It requires meticulous preparation and a general understanding of how wood works with stains and paints.

One note should be made here,  that you are most likely reading this with a set of installed stairs and railings however, if you have not had the installation done yet, now would be the perfect time to ask for your balusters in advance of installation so you can finish them. Finishing balusters in place is hard work so if you can get them in advance your back will thank you. At Finishing Touches we are happy to provide our customers with some of their stair parts in advance of installation for this very reason.

Finishing stairs is no longer one of our services however to easy the blow of that statement we have provided you with a referral to someone who has extensive experience in doing just that and a full reference document  below on the subject.

First the referral, if you would like an experience finisher to tackle the job for you and you live in the Toronto (GTA), Ontario area you may contact:

Jim Elvald at 416-266-2896 - Mon.- Fri. 6:00 pm to 9:30 pm  or Email:

Now on to the task at hand, finishing your stairs.

New all wood stairs and railings

First you are going to have to sand your stairs, railings and balusters so we hope you like sanding cause your going to do a lot of it. The quality of your finished product will be in direct proportion to your love of sanding. Yes we know that they feel sanded however they have only been sanded to a pre-finishing stage. This is because the finisher (you) will then start the sand for finish process that is applicable to the type of wood, stain or paint that you are going to use. For example, Maple in particluar, Hard Maple, generally does not take a dark stain as easily as Oak. Different sanding techniques are called for. Maple is a closed grained wood and staining it takes some skill, oak on the other hand is an open grained wood and it likes to absorb stain. We will expand upon that thought further down. All woods will show cross grain sanding strokes and your new stair and stair railings have them you just can't see them but if you don't sand you will find them all the moment you wipe some stain on.  You will then have a doubly tough re-sand to do to get back to square one. Maple, birch and cherry will show cross grain sanding marks the worst when stained especially stained dark and this is why as the finisher you sand according to the stain.

You will also putty according to the stain. To putty or not to putty that is the question. If you are going to put a natural finish or clear finish on your stairs and railings with no stain, putty is going to stick out like a sore thumb so use it sparingly, try to get the closest color match you can. Go for the color of the wood when it is wet not dry but wet (put a drop of water on a scrape piece of wood to see what that color will be because that is what the color will be with a clear coat on it). Putty will also absorb stain, it will look like a solid mark against the wood grain. So putty though necessary at times needs to be used carefully. If the defect is small avoid the putty it will only highlight the defect in the end. Now if you are painting then putty is not an issue you want to use it to give you an even surface with not dents or imperfections because on a painted solid surface these minor imperfections that are not visible under a clear wood finish or stain will stand out on a painted surface . 

Glue, glue is another reason you sand, it dries clear so you won't see it that is until you wipe some stain over a spot that has glue residue then you will see it. Gives the same effect as putty but on the opposite end of the scale, the stain won't go in and you will have a pale spot.

Now that your all fired up and ready to get yourself a hefty quantity of stand paper, you find yourself in a gritty situation. What grit must I choose?  Well that again will depend on the wood and stain color. Remember we mentioned open and closed grain woods? Well if you want to close an open grained wood so the stain won't go in, sand it with say 320 grit and if you want a closed grain wood to take more stain, use say 120 grit but watch the cross sands because that is a  heavy  grit for such a fussy wood especially for one that show cross sands under a dark stain.  Point is, that you will need a variety of grits to get the job done and you may use all of them at different stages of the process. So I would have on hand, 80 grit, 120 grit, 220 grit, 320 grit and some steel wool.

It would be a good time to take a piece of your scrap wood and test this theory so you get a feel for it especially if you are using a dark stain.

1. take the 80 grit sand paper and make 2 passes across the grain. Have the piece sitting there with the grain running North south, you sand East West, now take a bit of stain on a cloth and wipe it over what you just did. Those are cross sands! Maple birch and cherry are especially unforgiving so when you are sanding always sand with the grain and make sure you don't flick your hand at the beginning and end of a sanding stroke. As you extend your hand away from you at the end of a stroke you may slightly veer off the grain and you will make a cross sand, so practice sanding with the grain and get a feel for it.   

2. Take a small rectangular piece of wood now examine the piece and look for the edge that has the growth rings. That is called the butt edge or the end grain.  Now take that edge put a piece of tape half way  and sand 1/2 of it with 80 grit, and the other half with 120 grit, then 220 grit and then 320 grit, all on that same half,  that half should feel very smooth. Now wipe some stain on it. You will see the 80 grit half soaked up the stain but the other half is much lighter and did not take very much stain at all. That is because that is an extreme example of the range of absorption the wood can have and and illustration of what end grain,  if not sanded carefully, will do with your stain. If you are shooting for a light brown, and you do not close your end grains with a bit of a sand/polish technique, then they will turn dark chocolate brown just like your test piece.

3. Take that sample from #2 example and sand off a bit of the stain from the light side with 80 grit and then wipe some stain on it. It should be darker then it just was but lighter then the other side.

This is important because woods like Maple and cherry will blotch after you have done a fantastic prep sand  for not apparent reason right on the face of the tread with no end grain insight. When this happens as you apply your stain, this is where you use the opening and closing of the grain technique via the sand paper polish method to even things out. For a dark blotch on maple, take a bit of 120 grit and sand out the stain on the blotch but not to deep as to create a groove you just want to get most of the stain off. Then go back at the area with some 220. Wipe a bit of stain on if it blends in fine you're done, if not you either have to close it some more or open it back up a bit depending on whether you need to go lighter or darker. If you need to go lighter, sand off with 120 and then go 220, 320 for real problem spots that just soak up to much stain. Oak will not give you near as much grief for blotchiness, but the end grain will soak in a lot of stain.  Pine, Maple, Cherry, Birch, Walnut are not forgiving woods they show cross sands they show blotches they stain unevenly and each piece tends to take the stain a little differently so you are going to have to fuss with them to get an even color all over. If you are going to stain any of these woods, you might want to have a pro come and do it or at least get it stained with a coat of varnish before you take over.

You should do the above tests because sanding for stain is more of a feel thing. You should get the feel for how your sanding work looks under stain. When you are sanding you can not tell if it is right visually it all just looks like dusty wood. You have to know how if feels physically to sand correctly so you can have this physical feeling as you are sanding that you know you have sanded each section correctly and they will stain accordingly.

So where on your stairs are these cross sands and end grains hiding? Well anything that looks like growth rings should tip you off. The tops of ball posts,  shoulders of turnings, the back edges of returned treads, unreturned treads, the rounds on bullnose treads. On railing parts like volutes ( you can almost guarantee there are cross sands on those) and portions of them have end grain, radius quarter turns, ramps, goosenecks. For the railing, anything that has a machined radius should get your attention.  These areas you will have to stain, see, sand, stain see, sand .....  It is important to note that what the stain looks like when it is wet just after you have wiped it on and taken the excess of is what the final finish will look like under varnish so as you are staining have your sand paper handy as you encounter these areas to finesse the color depth as you go about your staining.

For your prep sand:

If your material is oak sand with 80 grit once and then 120 grit. If you are going to put a dark stain on and you want it really dark, do 80 grit followed by a very light 120. If it's a closed grain wood like maple, cherry, birch, walnut, do a 120 grit through sand and you may need to pull out the 80 grit to get after some tough milling marks or cross sands but do it carefully and just enough to get it out, 80 grit can make a deep groove very fast it saves the elbows but be careful. All softwoods like pine and borderline hardwoods like poplar sand with 120 grit  for your first sand they are to soft for 80 grit. 

To recap

1. Determine the type of wood you are up against.

2. Decide if you are staining or not and if so how dark.

3. Do your sand staining test work.

4. Do your necessary puttying  - its handy at this point to have some sticky notes or masking tape to place next to these putty marks so you can find them later

5. Do your end grains and cross sand marks

6. Do your through once over prep sand  and re-putty anything that needs a second coat as you go along sanding. Put sticky notes or tape next to it.

7. Go back over your second putty and sand off. - remove marking material

8. Vacuum and tack cloth all surfaces. (A tack cloth has a bit of a sticky feel to it which picks up dust this is an important item to have and not a step to miss)

9  Stain if you are - and smooth /even out the color with sanding techniques - if you are bushing on your varnish, you do not want to have excess stain left on the surface of the wood for when you pass your brush over it with varnish on it, the excess stain will be pulled up into the brush. This excess stain if in sufficient quantity will cause streaking.

10. Tack again after stain has dried right before you are going to do a top coat. You need to do this to get rid of any atmospheric dust and pet hair that may have settled on the surface while it was drying.

Now your stair is ready for a top coat. Thin coats build up a better finish then thick coats. If you are using an oil based product then follow the first coat directions it may suggest thinning. Apply your first coat and let it dry. Once dry it may feel very rough, this is the grain raising a bit it also happens with latex finishes. You will now do a once over sand with 220 grit ( note, new 220 can take a finish down quick so be gentle when starting a new piece also, used 120 makes a good substitute for 220) back to a smooth surface. If you have stained be careful of corner edges as you will cut right through your stain these are the edges of squares and sharp corners. If this happens wipe a bit of stain into your sand threw and continue on till everything is sanded. Vacuum, Tack and apply another coat let dry, Sand with 220 again and repeat. At this point you now have 3 coats. Its up to you if you want one more.  Now this is where the steel wool comes in if you want a super smooth finish, steel wool your railing and them buff with a gloss wax with the appropriate shine. Don't do your treads they will be to slippery.

There are a variety of finishing materials on the market to choose from and they all generally do the same thing and that is put a color and a protective layer on your wood. The point to remember is that they all go on a surface, so it is the quality of surface that you make for these products that counts. 

Feel free to email any questions or suggestions that you have as we will be happy to answer them and use them as a basis for revising, clarifying and improving this document to help others. Our email turn around time is pretty quick so you will get your answer fast even on weekends. 

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