Refinishing An Old Oak Staircase

Owning an old farmhouse brings a lot or restoring, refurbishing, and refinishing. It seems that there is never a shortage of things that need attention.
This summer, I decided that it was time to refinish the staircase in my home.  Years ago, I refinished the floors in my home – the most recent owner, before me, worked for the highway department – he had some leftover paint and painted the floors with highway sign paint.  That was the first job I had to take care of.  Stripping and refinishing floors is a job I have done many times – with hard work and perseverance, my floors are beautiful.  BUT, I’ve never done the staircase, I believe that the only finish my stairs have ever seen is the Johnson and Johnson Paste Wax that was hand applied back in the 60’s and 70’s.  Unfortunately, I’ve never done anything for these stairs and the wax finished has worn away – I’m now down to bare wood.   I’ve been procrastinating for weeks on this job – anything I can do distract myself from getting this job done, I’ve been doing!  But I woke up on Saturday and decided, “TODAY’S THE DAY!!!”  So, I took some pictures of the job before I started – I donned the mask, and fired up the palm sander.

I need to wear the mask because the dust is fierce and bothers my lungs, I think it’s just smart to protect yourself that way.  These stairs are oak, so I started with a 80 grit sandpaper.  I think anything stiffer than that would have been overkill and damaging to the integrity of the wood.  It was really important to work into the corners and edges to remove all the old wax.  If I left traces of the wax, the new finish wouldn’t stick, so I worked hard to get into the corners without pressing too hard.  I thought about using a dremel to get in the corners, but it wasn’t that hard with the palm sander.

My mother was a french polisher, so I’ve had experience with refinishing and the first rule is that you always have to sand with the grain – NEVER go across the grain.  Sanding properly take patience, and it’s better to go over the surface multiple times rather than make one pass that’s too aggressive that might scratch into the grain of the wood.  It took most of the day, but I sanded patiently until I got the surface I was looking for.  Vacuum the surface and wipe with a damp cloth several times until you feel the dust is COMPLETELY gone – make sure you get right into the corners.  Get the first coat down before anyone or anything walks on the bare surface.  Let’s talk about the coating.

I chose to darken the staircase a little, I’m just tired of looking at the honey coloured oak.  I chose a dark gel stain and mixed it with a polyurethane satin finish.  I blended a quarter cup stain with one cup of polyurethane.  And I brushed it on with a natural bristle brush.  I wanted to apply the stain slowly and would rather apply two coats than one coat that was too dark.  After the second coat, I was happy with the darkness so I switched to clear coat polyurethane for the last two coats.  Between each layer of polyurethane, I waited a full 24 hours before applying the next coat.  After the drying time of 24 hours, I sanded lightly with a 400 grit and then a another pass with steel wool and another wipe with a damp cloth.  Coat the polyurethane with a thin coat, if you try to layer too much polyurethane on, you will slow the drying time enormously – better to put two thin coats.  Also, I have chosen to finish my steps in a satin finish, my choices would be high gloss or satin, in this old house, I felt satin was the best choice, that being said, with satin you must stir while you are applying to keep the particles that give the satin look suspended in the polyurethane, otherwise you will end up with the high gloss finish.  Never shake polyurethane because you will put air bubbles in the gel that are just about impossible to sand out, only stir before and during use.

Now your floors are finished!

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