Staining oak stairs dark

Q: We moved into our new house about a year ago, and we are now ready to stain the oak stairs. We thought they were “conditioned” only, but now found out that they are “sealed”. I don’t think a top coat such as a polyurethane has been applied. What would be the best procedure to prep the stairs for staining? We want a dark brownish/black colour. Also, Should I condition the wood after sanding? Or is it doing the same as a damp cloth to open the pores?

A: Whatever coating was applied will need to be totally removed to bare wood. Conditioners are to help primarily the DIY person especially with certain woods like pine that tend to go blotchy when stained. They will cause the stain to be less dark. On oak, if you are using a dark colour the easiest way to achieve the true colour is to water pop first. When the wood is dry, apply stain with a cloth and wipe off excess in 5 minutes or so.

How do I cut treads overhang to make them flush with risers?

Q: I have ripped up the carpet on my stairs, and I am going to paint them and install a runner. The risers are in poor shape and I am hoping I can use a thin piece of oak to fix that. How do I cut the overhang of the treads to make them flush with the riser below? There is no room for a straight cut. What tool do I need?

A: You could cut the bulk of the tread lip with a circular saw. The last few inches could be cut with a hand saw. There are also special blades for jig saws that allow a flush cut. I have a tool that would do it, but you aren’t going to spend $1200 to use a tool once. It’s a Fein Supercut.

Painful lip on stair treads

Q: I had a professional floorer install a natural oak (2 1/4″ engineered hardwood) in my living area and two sets of stairs.

My question is: The stairs are installed with a lip at the very end of the tread (the thickness of the engineered wood, which was glued together at a 45 degree to make the stair noses). The installer told me that we could not cut the ends (overlap) of the stair tread off (it’s a 8″ x 12′ cut to the width of the stair treads with about 1.5 – 1.75″ overhang on each tread) due to rise and run codes for stairways. Now, I have this lip that every time I walk up and down my steps hurts my wife, kids and my feet. Very frustrating.

I am looking for some type of 1/8″ thick x 45 degree by 3′ – 4′ length trim piece (or a “quick fix”?) so that I don’t have this sharp angle right where everyone steps, and so I can sweep the floors/steps without going nuts. Any insight would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!

A: In my view, the lip should have been cut off flush to the risers and a proper stair nosing installed. I would think the manufacturer of your engineered floor also makes stair nose and other transition strips to match their products. I guess the horse is out of the barn now though. You are going to have to try and hunt down a tiny piece of quarter round or such trim at local building supply/lumber yards. You might even have to find something close and adjust it to make it fit.

Would re-doing the stairs and handrail be prohibitively expensive?

Q: I have oak parquet in living/dining and kitchen, and oak stair treads and handrail. Everything is stained dark ebony. I want to refinish, and would like to have a lighter, taupe/grey, high-gloss look. Questions:

(1) Is this possible?

(2) Would re-doing the stairs and handrail be prohibitively expensive- enough to make me consider keeping the ebony?

A: One thing that needs to be kept in mind with stains is that it is about impossible to remove all trace of stain from heavy grain. So, if you go from ebony to a pastel like taupe, you will still have some trace in the heavy grain and it will show. It is impossible to predict how significant that would be. It also works the other way when going from, say a white stain to ebony.

Your case would be even more expensive because a non yellowing water borne finish would have to be used with a pastel colour. They are always more costly. About a third more.

Leave a gap around the banister?

Q: I’m removing the banister in the hall way to install laminate flooring. I understand that we have to leave a gap around the banister. What do we use to cover the gap? Quarter round?

A: If your banister / picket assembly also has a shoe plate that the pickets sit on, I would remove all that, install a proper stair nosing around the stairway opening, and then install the laminate up to it, except leave the required space. Then, when you put the shoe rail or plate back down, it will cover or sit on top of the gap.

Smooth transition between stair bullnose and new hardwood

Q: I ripped up carpet in a balcony/hallway and am installing 3/4″ hardwood.

Issue #1: The top of existing stair bullnose is about 3/16″ lower than where the top of the new hardwood will be. How do I make this a smooth transition?

Issue #2: There is an open rail on one side of the hall that runs perpendicular to the hardwood. The top edge of the hardwood base plate under the railing spindles has been sanded for a rounded edge. If I butt the ends of the hardwood to this base plate there is a noticeable gap due to the rounded top edge.

What should I do?

A: I installed plank for a couple of nice doctors who had a similar issue with a lower stair nosing height.

The only choices were to dismantle the entire baluster assembly, replace the nosing with one that is 3/4 thick, install a thinner flooring or find a very tiny piece of trim molding to attach to the edge of the floor where it meets the nosing. They decided on the last option.

It looked fine and hasn’t presented any tripping issues. In your case it only involves the short length of nosing at the top of the stairs. Perhaps you could cut the nosing on each end to remove it, then either replace it with a new one or shim underneath and re-install. Make sure you use glue.

Not sure what you can do with the rounded edge though. Is it possible to make it a square edge with a belt sander?

Stair spindles and installing flooring on the stairs

Q: How do I deal with stair spindles while trying to install laminate or wood flooring on the stairs to my second floor? Assuming I remove the spindles, how do I fit the wood or laminate so that the spindles can be replaced?

A: You really need a professional stair installer. The spindle assembly needs to be all disassembled before cutting back the lip on all the stair treads. I wouldn’t be installing laminate on stairs, if I was you. Solid slab is the way to go. Then, all the spindles have to be cut to fit, new dowels drilled, holes bored in the new treads, etc. Not a job for DIY.

Stair nosing in more than one piece?

Q: I plan on installing laminate wood flooring on a stair landing and a couple of stairs. My question has to do with the stair nosing. My steps are about 47-1/2″ wide. Most pre-made nosings I’ve seen come in 47″ or 94″ long pieces. As you can see, I will either have to splice the nosings or have a ton of waste. Is it OK to splice laminate stair nosing? I understand it has to glued down and also nailed. Any advice? Thanks for your help.

A: You never want a stair nosing to be in more than one piece. Waste or not, install one nosing on each tread. Additionally, the existing over hang on the treads needs to be cut back flush with the riser below it if such an over hang exists.

Have to interlock floor and stair nose?

Q: I am installing tongue and groove engineered hardwood floors into my living room and dining room. From the dining room to the living room, I have three 6 feet long steps. The floor is being laid perpendicular to the steps. What do you think is the best way to handle the tongue and groove while connecting to the stair nose and still cutting my pieces to fit the length of the dining room? My questions comes from the fact that in order to cut the last piece from the edge of the stairs to fit the remaining space, I will cut off the tongue and no longer have an attachment to the stair nose. Any advice is appreciated. Thanks!

A: I think I would just use polyurethane adhesive along the stair nosing and not worry about the tongue and groove interlocking.

Spindle bottom not flush with floor

Q: We have removed carpet from our wood stairs and we want to leave the wood exposed. The banister spindles have unfinished pegs at the bottom that sit in holes in the stairs. The pegs are exposed to differing degrees (the bottom of the spindle does not sit flush against the floor, likely because the carpet hid the poor installation). Is there any easy way to correct this short of removing the entire bannister, like some sort of decorative elements that could wrap around the spindle base to hide the peg? People have suggested installing moulding, but this will be very time consuming with dozens and dozens of mitred joints around all the spindles. Any thoughts? Thanks.

A: I’ve seen this before. I think it’s likely the spindles were installed after the carpet. I think you will need to get someone in to replace the spindles.

Gaps in stringers

Q: For our stairs, carpet was replaced by new oak treads. I will paint the risers and stringers. There are large gaps in the stringers. How can I fill these areas in? Can I start by somehow wedging small pieces of wood and then using a filler?

A: I haven’t seen the gaps but sometimes you have to improvise and use your imagination. You could glue and nail wood strips and use wood filler if that would be easiest. You could mix a stiff concoction of wood glue and fine wood dust, then fill over with patching material that can be painted (and sanded / buffed easily).

Wood Stain Only? No Finish?

Q: I just finished installing new oak treads on my staircase. I love the color and sheen that they currently have, but I only stained them. I did not poly. Is that an essential step? What will happen to my beautiful stairs if I don’t finish them? Is it okay if they have wood stain only?

A: Well, there is nothing to protect the stain, unless the stain you used has polyurethane resin in it. If you want to protect the stain but have it appear as if there is little or nothing on it, then apply 1 coat of finish. There are finishes that are essentially ‘super matte’ made by companies such as Poloplaz or Bona Kemi which are so flat you can hardly detect the finish when dry. That is one option.

Foot barely fits on stair tread width

Q: Our house was built in the 60’s and the stairs to the basement are very narrow. We made the problem worse by adding a Berber carpet to them. Should I remove the carpet and add a piece of hardwood to the front edge of each step? My foot is a ladies size 8 and without shoes my foot barely fits on the stair tread width. You need put your foot sideways to go up or down.

A: Your treads do not meet code for width. You need to go buy solid slabs and install them on top. Cut the existing nosing or overhang back, flush with the riser and secure the new, wider slab. You can veneer the risers.

What might we do to blend these dark areas when restaining?

Q: We just put new maple treads on our staircase. They where walked on before staining, and with the first coat of stain they spotted real bad in the middle where walked on. We are trying to sand it off, but have not had much luck getting deep enough. What might we do to blend these dark areas when restaining?

A: Sand as much of the stain off as you possibly can. A random orbit sander may be helpful with this. I’d go 60 then 80 grit. Then wet the slab with warm water (don’t soak it) and let it dry completely. This is called water popping and helps to get better, more even stain penetration. Then stain again. Apply, let sit several minutes and wipe off excess.

Maple can and does tend to go blotchy when stained. It is the nature of the wood. If you walked up the stairs with wet shoes that would definitely create a mottled look.

Also see our recommendation to hire a pro.

Cleaning sticky wooden stair rails

Q: How do I clean sticky wooden stair rails?

A: It depends what type of finish is on the rails and what is making them sticky. If it is shellac, you want to stay away from anything containing alcohol, which would dissolve the shellac. If it is a urethane or varnish, then a polyurethane cleaner would do a good job. Otherwise you might try a weak mix of tsp or mineral spirits. Even vinegar and water is worth a try. I would start with the least drastic and work my way up.

Related Q: I recently purchased a home with wooden railings. They have a sticky feeling when you hold on to them and I don’t know how to remove the stickiness. The house is air conditioned so humidity doesn’t seem to be the problem. Any suggestions on what product I can use to make them shiny and smooth?

A: Someone has likely applied a furniture polish or oil type finish over varnish. Any approved cleaner for polyurethane should fix this up. Bona Pacific cleaner, www.bonakemi.com or cleaners from MinWax, Basic Coatings, Mirage and Poloplaz to name a few. They are good for all your top coated wood items.

How does one finish stairs so that they aren’t dangerously slippery?

Q: Home Depot sells oak replacement stair kits (treads with a nose and risers). I’m working with stairs to the basement. How does one finish it so that it isn’t dangerously slippery? I think varnish or urethane might make the stairs too slippery. How do I get non slippery hardwood stairs?

A: You will probably find that a gloss or hi-gloss is a much more “sticky” finish compared to a satin, matte or semi. There are also some water borne finishes designed for sports floors that offer slip resistance in the chemical make-up.

Extra tread width/overhang from the open side of stairs

Q: I am planning to change the staircase from carpet to wood. I have one side boxed and the other side open with rails. I read in the Q&A that the extra nosing needs to be cut flush with the riser face. How about the extra tread width from the open side that extends beyond the riser width and overhangs beyond the drywall, do I need to cut stair overhand there as well? If yes, up to what surface?

A: Yes, you need to cut the overhang on the open side also, up to the outside edge of the stringer. You can buy new tread slabs that are finished on one or both sides or that are just meant to be encased with a stringer on both sides. You would have to glue veneer, or use some sort of cove mold on the outside of the stringer to cover the tread edge you cut off. Not bad if the stringers are painted. This could be difficult if they are not.

Staircase with gouges, gaps

Q: Firstly, thank you so much for such an informative website. I’ve learned more in the last 20 minutes here than the rest of the 3 hours of research combined! I have a question about staircase gaps and gouges.

I own a home in the Chicagoland area, built in 1926. All of the flooring is wood, some hard and some soft. We had someone estimate the cost to refinish, and in that process he determined that our carpet-covered stairs are also hardwood. However, I cannot tell what species. I have now removed the carpet, and am horrified to find a set of treads and risers that seem to have been badly mistreated. There are a lot of gouges on the edges, some gaps between the risers/treads and the wall, and some gaps in the carpentry itself between the risers and treads in some places. I’m curious what you would recommend here other than a complete rebuild. We do not wish to veneer/cover the existing wood; we’d prefer to remain original if it all possible. I was thinking that I would putty the sections that are damaged and see how they turn out, but the gaps are my biggest concern. There are sections that have used shoe trim to cover the gaps, but I wonder if you have a better idea.

A: If you can gain access to the back of the stairs (even if it means pulling down that section of plaster/drywall) you would be in a better position to tighten up the stairs. Perhaps some of the wedges that are used under the treads have come loose. Some of the risers also have likely moved over years of being kicked. You could hammer them back into place too. I know it’s all a pain but a couple of sheets of drywall isn’t that expensive to replace the ceiling behind the stairway. As for gouges, well, you can only sand so much wood off to remove those without creating new issues. You could sand the treads to clean wood and use a random orbit sander to gently smooth out as much of the damage possible. There are some wood fillers that will help you hide what damage is left.

What is the easiest way to remove white primer off of stair railing?

Q: What is the easiest way to remove white primer off of stair railing? Removing primer from wood? Everyone said to paint them white, but it looks horrible. We want to stain them Red Oak; however, we’re having a problem because the stain looks too dark and doesn’t match the rest of stairs. That’s why we went to white, but we hate it, and want to try staining again.

A: I would think chemical stripping followed by a lot of hand sanding and scraping.

Related Q: I had carpet on my stairs since I bought my home. I pulled off the carpet. I want to stain the treads. For some reason stairs are covered with white primer. Please tell me the best way to clean off the white primer in order to stain the stairs.

A: If this is a latex or acrylic primer it should be fairly easy to remove with an orbital or random orbit sander. Start with a 40, 50 or 60 grit and then go 80 and 100. You will likely also need a hand scraper and fine tooth file (to sharpen the blade) to scrape in the corners down to clean wood.