A staircase makeover can really set the tone for the rest of the decor. Because a staircase is often one of the first things you see when you step into a house, we’re sharing how to refinish stairs and railings.
Oak Stair Makeover
Here’s a before of the hallway as it looked when I bought the house. The 80’s called and they wanted their wallpaper and blond oak trim back! No problem; we couldn’t wait to bring it into the current decade!
The stairs were carpeted with a grey berber runner that had seen better days.
DIY Staircase Makeover
So how to redo stairs for cheap? You have to do it yourself! The first step is removing the carpet. Even if you’re not confident ing refinishing your stairs, everyone can save some money by doing this part.
We considered removing the carpet permanently and leaving the stairs bare after re-staining them, but it would have been too slippery.
The first thing we did was to pull up the runner on the treads – along with the many years of dust, dirt and dog/people grime that came out with it! There was so much fur, I think a full dog was hiding there! Wear a mask; your lungs will thank you for it. We were only too happy to see that carpet gone!
I used a pair of needle nosed pliers to remove every single staple and/or tack that was holding down the underpaid. It’s a painstaking job, but somebody had to do it 🙂
The reward was finally having a clean slate to work with! I passed the baton over to hubs to work his magic with the rest of the transformation.
Because the spindles were already loose, we could remove them to strip them outdoors. The one advantage to that is the spindles are MUCH easier to strip.
If your staircase is solid and stable, we wouldn’t recommend removing the spindles because it’s a big undertaking to take them apart and then put them back again – and you run the risk of splitting the wood. If our spindles and handrail was in better shape and we left them in place, I would probably have just painted them out, to save the time and effort of using a chemical stripper – as well as our lungs!
The first step in taking apart the spindles was to remove the screws from underneath the handrail.
The railing has a metal piece that runs the full length of the wood and sits just underneath where there’s a channel in the wood; in between the handrail and spindles. The metal serves as a conduit that attaches into both the handrail (from underneath) and the spindles (from above) to keep them secure. Once the handrail is gone, you can access the screws that hold the top of the spindles in place.
The bottom of each spindle has a dowel joint and is glued into a hole on each tread. Since our spindles were so loose at the bottom, most of them easily came out with some gentle persuasion and twisting.
As you are removing each spindle, it’s a good idea to number each one with a pencil on the top edge so you can place it back where it came from later. You can cover each number with a piece of green painters tape to keep it legible after you apply stain.
For the few stubborn ones, use a bar clamp for leverage so they can be twisted out.
A little brute strength with the help of a clamp every once in a while is just the ticket!
We made our way up the stairs.
These last two spindles, however, gave us a run for our money!
We gathered the spindles into a pile and took every outside.
Refinishing Builder Grade Stairs
Once the spindles are out you can strip them. Sand them well before staining and top-coating. Then put them aside while the rest of the staircase is stripped.
Striping Stairs Back to Wood
The worst part of the job stripping stairs is stripping each step because of the smell. It obviously has to be done in place. Stripper fumes are hazardous – especially indoors. Take every precaution by turning off pilot lights on appliances and fire places, and keeping the vapours away from hot surfaces such as stoves, water heaters, clothes dryers, furnaces and other electrical appliances… and of course, don’t smoke (if you haven’t quit yet!) anywhere near the work area. Turn your furnace off before you start.
We wouldn’t recommend you undertake any stripping project indoors unless you can also open doors and windows to fully ventilate the house, so late Spring would be a good time of year to do this. To protect your lungs from the fumes, wear a full face mask with a charcoal insert – not just one of those skimpy paper ones!
Mask off all walls and any flooring surrounding the area so you don’t accidentally spray droplets of stripper onto those surfaces; it will eat through them!
I suffer from migraines and can’t tolerate the smell of stripping solution – even with a charcoal mask – so Hubs took on the task of stripping the stairs on his own. Since I vacated the house, unfortunately that meant that we didn’t get any pictures of the process during the actual stripping, staining and varnishing of the treads.
Follow your stripper instructions and leave it on for the recommended time before removing it with a scraper. Scrape across each step with the grain of the wood. You can use a cardboard box to corral the mess (let the stripper residue dry before disposing of the box in the garbage).
Fine steel wool (00) soaked in stripper can help remove remaining finish. Work in small areas at a time – always in the direction of the grain. If residue still remains, use sandpaper. Hubs also gave the stairs a light allover sanding with fine grit paper and cleaned away the dust.
Apply your stain – ideally with a brush. Again, read the instructions and let it soak in for the recommended time, then remove the remainder with a clean cotton cloth.
Topcoat and Reassemble
Once the stain was done, Hubs brushed on a few coats of water-based varnish and let it dry between coats.
The spindles were then glued back into place; use the numbers to put them back in the same order they were removed. The metal and handrail were reverse-engineered and reattached. As the glue sets up, it’s probably a good idea not to use the handrail for a few days while it dries so you don’t accidentally shift anything out of alignment.
As you can see more clearly below, Hubs only removed the varnish off the outer portion of each one. Since we were planning on putting a new runner down the middle anyway, it wasn’t necessary to spend money on additional stripper solution that wasn’t necessary. He just had to ensure that each step was stained far enough on each side that the runner would completely cover up the unstained portion in the middle!
I have to say that one big advantage of not staining the centre of each step was that the staircase was usable during the time we were working on it!
Here is the staircase with the handrail and spindles back in place.
Staircase Makeover Before and After
A reminder of the before:
Once the stairs were stained, topcoated and reassembled, a carpet runner was installed. The end result brought a new air of sophistication to our hallway that it didn’t previously have!
A Little Staircase Decor
With some staging, the result is pretty dramatic!
It’s amazing how some elbow grease can revitalize old wood and bring a home into the present decade! If you enjoyed this staircase renovation, please pin and share!
For more inspirational updates around the home, check out some of the following project ideas: