Ask the Builder
Ask the Builder: Refinishing Oak Stairs Requires Patience
Q: DEAR TIM: The stairs in my home are in sad shape. One tread is cracked, and others are scratched from years of abuse. I know I can hide the problem with carpeting, but that's not my style. What does it take to refinish oak stair treads? As you can tell, I don't know what to do. Please point out any possible pitfalls. -- Mary Beth M., Cincinnati
A: DEAR MARY BETH: Wood stair treads can take a beating from a combination of things. One is the scuffing action created as your foot slides slightly across the tread on each step. That scuffing action can be made worse by the presence of grit or dirt and can rapidly wear any finish on the treads. Treads also can crack if a concentrated load is placed on a single stair.
With work, you might be able to bring the treads back to prime condition. I recommend that you first try repairing them, but you do have a fallback position with the rug stair treads.
Hardwood stair treads are primarily finished by hand. You may be able to use a belt sander on a wide portion of the flat tread, but you must be very careful not to sand too deeply. Doing so will cause you tremendous frustration as you then try to blend the edges next to the stair risers and side stringers. Professional floor refinishers use special scraping tools to pull off the old finish and make the wood satin-smooth. I recommend getting one of these tools.
Don't cut any corners as you refinish the wood. To get professional results, the wood must be nearly as smooth as glass before staining or applying the first coat of finish. All dust must be removed with a tack cloth, rags damp with mineral spirits or a vacuum that exhausts outdoors.
Staining oak is not difficult, but you need to wipe off excess stain quickly to prevent a blotchy appearance. The finished color of the stair treads will look exactly as it appears as you apply the stain and immediately wipe it off. As the stain dries, it will dull and get somewhat lighter. It will darken when you apply the first coat of clear finish. I would apply no fewer than three coats of finish to the stair treads. You should lightly sand the treads in between each coat of finish.
You do have the option to blend carpet with the oak treads. In my home I have a stair runner that goes up the center of the stair treads. About six inches of oak tread is exposed on either side of the carpet runner. My wife selected an Oriental-style runner that looks superb, but there are various carpets that can be used for runners. If you use a runner, you can shortcut your refinishing efforts by working only on the part of the tread that's visible.
Repairing the cracked stair tread may not be too hard if you inject the crack with an expanding urethane glue or a heavy-bodied epoxy that's formulated to bond to wood. If you place the glue so that the top of the crack is left open for some wood filler, the crack will disappear once you stain and add urethane to the tread. The key is to carefully place the glue or epoxy so that you don't get any on the wood adjacent to the crack.
If you decide to use carpet, I recommend that you have a professional install it. I would visit one or two specialty carpet stores and ask the store managers if they have an expert in stair carpeting. The carpet on steps must be tightly wrapped and fixed to the treads so that it never detaches, which could cause you or someone else to slip and fall.
Tim Carter can be contacted via his Web site, http:/