This Stairway Is Not To Heaven

I knew the day to sort out the process of refinishing our hardwood stairs would come, but I did not know how much I would dread this topic. To say this project was challenging is an understatement. Now, check out these stairs, painted the beautiful color of brown. In this instance, please use sarcasm to read the preceding sentence.

And for the Stairs we Choose…..Brown? whaaa?

Granted these stairs are not in our front entry, but they are in direct line of sight upon opening the front door. A line of sight that I wanted to change after about one weeks worth of entering said door. DIY blogging and countless youtube videos later, I thought I had it all figured out. I could do it all myself and it would be a weekend project to boot! Yasss, let’s get started!

So anyway, this was a three week project. I took some wrong turns and made it longer than it needed to be and also there’s that thing that pays the bills and supports Riley’s ferocious squeaky toy habit (current victim, Frogger, stuffing and squeaker still intact) called a job. If I had to do this over again, realistically I could tackle this project in about 5 dedicated days.

Prepare Yo Self (say aloud in similar manner to “treat yo self” as seen on Parks and Rec, get familiar ASAP)

* Gloves, Goggles, Respirator, Ear Plugs (if you’re a wimp about loud noises aka Riley), painter’s tape, old cloths, 5″ random orbital sander, extra sandpaper of the grits you plan to use, shop vac, stain of your choosing, & varnish

* Put your hair in a bun, throw on your “I mean business” sweatpants and let’s do this thing

After researching paint thinner, we purchased Smart Strip for a couple of reasons. Ultimately, it was December and keeping this drafty house warm was already a full fledged debacle, without the added peril of keeping windows/doors open for ventilation. I started from the top of the stairs and put a thick layer on each step with a paint brush. The consistency of this stuff reminds me of tapioca, if anyone just got nauseous thinking about tapioca I apologize. I was super surprised to find that after letting it sit overnight, the paint scraped off easily with a putty knife. Once they were scraped I washed them down with an old cloth and lots of water.

When the stairs were dry I began sanding. Let me take this moment to emphasize that I have never done anything like this before. One important thing I left out when researching how to sand stairs is to add the following to my google search “there are still bits of paint and/or discoloration on the wood from the paint.” The recommendations I gathered were to start at 120 grit sandpaper and move up gradually in grits from there. I worked that 120 grit on my new Ryobi random orbital sander fiercely for days! Beside the fresh orange gleam from sawdust covering EVERYTHING (despite taping off my work space), the stairs looked the same. I even had one household member question my ability to properly use a sander, um I’m a youtube pro dude, back off. Come to find out, the real recommendation is to start at 60 or 80 grit depending on how much paint you have left (the more residual paint, the lower the grit).

See Ya Never Sanding

Oh man, what a bozo I am. No big deal, I didn’t develop carpal tunnel in both hands, wake up super early for weeks due to aggressive numbness and tingling in my 1st, 2nd, 3rd and half of 4th digits, lose the ability to hold my phone in one hand or anything lame like that. Oh no, not me….thankfully ibuprofen and losing the power sander routine cured me…mostly 🙂

I treated the stairs with wood conditioner, Benite before staining to remove the splotches. Then I applied two coats of stain per the directions. Linc was home the next day and felt like they needed another coat so three coats total of stain, just used an old cloth to apply. We purchased a water based poly and followed the directions. Linc knew he would be the painting point man on this, although I gave it a whirl and did the first coat. He finished it up while I was at work one day. It was wonderful to walk through the front door to my new line of sight!

Dark on dark on dark…

Sometimes it’s difficult to see the fruit of your labor until the very, very end. In the middle of all this I definitely lost sight of the vision. The stairs looked worse before they looked better. The sanding fiasco had me wanting to call uncle so bad. Riley ended up putting the water based finish to the test and there are several scratches in the varnish. We chose water based poly as the drying time was reduced in between coats, but if I had any experience at all I would have known that water poly was no match for the sweet sweet paws of a golden retriever. I will most likely have to re-sand and apply an oil based poly, but haven’t gotten around to it yet. These stairs have seen a lot of life with several imperfections occurring prior to our arrival so a few Riley scratches will work just fine for now!

Those stairs tho…

Costs for this project totaled just under $225, including safety equipment, which we have been using repeatedly. Safety first! Keep in mind that we had none of the materials to begin with. 


+ What do you think about the plumbing pipe handrail look? Just wondering if it will be considered a trend vs classic style. We will be replacing the handrail, but haven’t quite made up our minds.

+ We just happened to be in need of Saturday night plans last weekend (after the Seahawks demise, that was hard to watch, right?) and decided to try out a new brewery. We brought our own snacks and of course, Riley accompanied us to Urban Family Brewing Co in Magnolia. They had the game on a projector and lots of beers on tap, score!

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Wow! All that hard work totally worth it. Look great!!


1) Tapioca is delicious!
2) Plumbing handrails look like they belong in the geriatric ward…no go on this option…
3) Great post and the stairs looks awesome – the Riley scratches add character 🙂

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