How to Paint and Refinish Your Stairs

Updated on December 22, 2016
Painted Treads
Painted Treads

Make Old Stairs New By Painting

Stairs are an important part of a house; they are usually a central focal point and high traffic area, so they need to be durable to withstand daily traffic, and should look good doing it. Many homes will, unfortunately, accumulate some major wear and tear on the stairs. Painting your stairs can be a great way to improve their look for a small investment, and by following this guide you can be sure that the paint job will last too.

Identify a Plan of Action

Depending on your existing stairs, you will have certain options in how to proceed.

  • In the case of worn-out carpeted stairs, you could simply replace the carpeting, but why not try improving that dated look? Remove some of the carpet and see what kind of wood is underneath. On some homes you will find perfectly good solid wood treads and risers. If you do, you are lucky! And we can begin the process of refinishing as with bare wood stairs below.
  • If your stairs consist of manufactured chip board or other lower grade woods, the best option will be to paint both treads and risers.

Bare Wood-Treaded Stair Refinishing

If you have nice wood on your treads, you can get a great look by staining them, and then painting the risers and sideboards in a suitable color. Even if the wood is not perfect, and has a few gouges or nail holes, you can get a stylish antique look that can be very interesting, and the right type and colour of stain will maximize this statement.

If this is the route you want to take, then you should follow these essential prep steps:

  1. Remove all nails and staples, and vacuum dirt left by the carpet underpad (if applicable).
  2. Next you want to sand the treads, to get the wood clean and to look its best: Use a belt sander with 60 or 80 grit sandpaper, and you will need to hand sand to get in the corners. Aim for an even finish.
  3. You should also sand the risers and sideboards/trim before any painting begins. Then vacuum and wipe all dust thoroughly.

next you will want to choose a stain if you want a particular color. Its advisable to go with a dark stain for a rich look if you want to conceal imperfections, should your wood not be in good shape. Otherwise go with any stain you fancy, including light and medium tones; especially to have a weathered antique look. You could skip this step if you want just the natural oil finish, which will bring out the wood grain and detail. Stains purpose is really just to add color and will not affect the durability of the final product. It is also possible to get 2-in-1 stain and finish products, though use these with caution. Its better to get separate products for each step.

Stairs with a rustic-look stained tread and white painted risers
Stairs with a rustic-look stained tread and white painted risers
painting the stairs!
painting the stairs!

Applying the Stain and Finish

Wood finishing should be done before painting, as its far easier to clean paint off of the wood finish than vice versa! Apply the stain by spreading with a brush applicator and let it saturate the wood; then after a few seconds, wipe off with a cloth. You should do 2 coats for even and defined colour, but one coat is ok if it looks good. Allow stain to dry for several hours (check label for specific instructions, depending on product).

You will next apply a clear oil urethane finish. This is a standard floor finish, meant for high traffic. Buy the best quality you can. You can get oil and water-based formulas, each with its own characteristics (see how to choose house paint for perspective), but an oil will give a slight yellowish tint which can be appealing for an antique look, and wood finishing in general. According to the product instructions, you should apply 3 coats for excellent durability, and sand with fine grit paper between coats to achieve the finest finish. I recommend a satin finish, since it has a lower gloss level and makes for more a subtle and appealing look.

Painting your Stairs

After 24 hours, the treads are dry enough for light foot traffic, and you can start painting. Follow these steps:

  • Tape off the treads with masking tape if you are not comfortable cutting (or edging) with a brush.
  • Prime bare wood using a high quality wood primer (latex primer will work). This is necessary for good adhesion and sealing the wood.
  • Paint 2 coats with a high quality enamel trim paint. Use a quality sash brush (as shown in pic). Satin will blend well with the satin treads. The color is up to you, but you should pick an off-white that matches other trim in your house, or you can make a statement with a darker color as well.

Other Methods: Painting Treads

If you decided to paint your treads too, follow the same painting procedure as above. Priming is extra important here for durability, and you want to pick a paint rated for floors. The higher quality the better. The color should be dark to conceal dirt: a dark brown can look quite good and create the illusion of dark stained wood. Added durability can be had by applying a final coat of a clear urethane.

You can also get some great looks by adding paint details to your stairs, such as a multi-tone pattern. And further enhance by adding a carpet runner for a classic look.

If you have any questions I am happy to answer them in the comments. Thanks for reading, and hopefully you can take this information and make your stairs a lasting thing of beauty.

Questions & Answers


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      • profile image

        Antonetta Kowalew 9 days ago

        If you enjoy free woodworking plans, you will love woodprix. Get inspired by all the endless possibilities of furniture plans and other wood projects to build, for both indoors and outdoors.

      • profile image

        Chris Brown 6 weeks ago

        I stripped my oak stair treads and stained them with an oil based stain and I am not happy with the way they look! They have unevenly accepted the stain.I have decided to paint over the stain, I can’t stand the thought of more saw dust from sanding! Please advise, can I use any kind of paint to cover the stain or does it have to be oil based? Or do I have to resand?

      • profile image

        Jim 10 months ago

        I am redoing my basement steps. They are six steps that we use every day. My problem is, I have to do half a step, so we can get up and down. I wanted to paint the treads and risers then glue step pads. The directions on the glue can says not to glue over paint. What would be the best way to do this? I do have a staple gun, not sure if it would hold.


      • profile image

        Sue 5 years ago

        Hi there, brilliant tips. I am trying to achieve a similar look to your photo but instead of staining brown I will need to paint treads brown and runners white. Could you suggest what type of paint and brand I should use? Thanks

      • profile image

        Angie 5 years ago

        what do you do about gouges left from moving on the treads?

      • paintingToronto profile image

        paintingToronto 5 years ago from Toronto

        Hi Jess,

        You might try a chemical stripper if there is a lot of paint. Peel Away is a good one; you apply it as a paste, then cover with provided special paper which keeps it moist underneath and allows it to 'eat through' many layers of paint.

      • profile image

        Jess 5 years ago

        Our stairs are already painted - and badly. The wood is quite dented as well. I'm just not sure where to start. Curious one day, I tried scraping the existing paint off, then tried sanding, but I can't seem to get to the wood underneath. Suggestions?

      • paintingToronto profile image

        paintingToronto 6 years ago from Toronto

        Sounds good, hope it goes well. You can, and should sand after stripping as well, and in between coats and you'll get rid of any unwanted raised grain. Thanks for the comment!

      • Chrmer profile image

        Chrmer 6 years ago

        This is a timely topic for me. I'm about to pull 12-year old carpeting up from my 97-year old stairs. The surface was originally varnished, but has paint smears collected over the years. The treads have natural grooves from wear. Whether I paint or refinish the risers and treads, I believe it would be best to first strip the surfaces bare. I plan on using Peel Away (the non-toxic water-based chem stripper). I realize this raises the grain a bit, but that's probably not a bad consequence in terms of traction. I welcome tips or comments.

      • paintingToronto profile image

        paintingToronto 6 years ago from Toronto

        Thank you sir. It's funny how for a while it was in style to cover perfectly good wood stairs with carpet. If you get lucky, it's like a free house upgrade!

      • Jakob Barry profile image

        Jakob Barry 6 years ago

        Great tips! I know that feeling of removing carpet/rug and finding amazing wood underneath. It's refreshing. Steps take some time prepping but as you have shown the end result is rewarding.