Refinishing the Stairwell

How to refinish a stairwell

Happy Friday, friends! Today is my birthday – I’m a quarter of a century old and really excited about what the next year holds! I don’t know yet what’s in store, but I have a very distinct feeling that it’s going to be wonderful. Before I tell you about this week’s house project, let me throw out an idea.…an invitation, even. I, Chloe Joy, invite you to send me your problems. Preferably the house/design/DIY variety cuz I don’t know much about cars or babies or psychoanalysis. Got a room that’s driving you nuts? Need a second opinion on paint colors? Not sure where you’re gonna store your holiday decorations? Tell me about it (no, really)! I would love to help if I can, so send me your question to (or by filling out this contact form) and include pictures if relevant. I think it would be fun to feature these Q&As here once in a while, what do you guys think?

And now back to our regular programming…

Last weekend I had to take a break from all the victory dancing to tackle the buzzkill that was my staircase. The floors were refinished and beauteous, but the newell posts and handrails  were left untouched. I realized kinda late in the process that they would cost extra if I asked the flooring guys to do them, so in a minor lapse of judgement I decided I’d just do it myself. I have no idea how much more it would have cost, but I’m fairly certain it would have been worth the $$ to have them done at the same time as the floors. 

The stairwell was glaring at me after the floors were refinished

Don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t particularly difficult – just tedious, time-consuming and messy. That said, it did make a huge difference and I recommend it if you’ve got a staircase that could use a facelift. It looks so much better and could be done in a weekend! The folks who renovated the house before we bought it chose generic everything, and poly’d the railings and posts just like the floors. My plan was to paint everything white except the railings, which I’d stain “grayown”, like so: 

Refinishing the stair well was well-worth the effort!

Here’s what I needed to get started:

  • Sandpaper – 60 grit, 220 grit, & 400 grit
  • Orbital hand-sander and Black & Decker Mouse Sander – sorta optional but really helpful
  • Tack cloth
  • Painter's tape
  • Staining brushes
  • Oil-based primer
  • White semi-gloss paint to match trim
  • Stain to match the floors 
  • Water-based polyurethane
  • Paper towels

Step 1: Sanding

Before I could do anything, I had to sand everything with a rough 60-grit to remove the poly and rough up the surface Then I followed up with a fine 200-grit. I conquered my fear of the orbital hand sander and went to town on all the flat bits, like the tops of the railings and the sides of the posts. The orbital is GREAT – so efficient and it has an attached bag for collecting dust. I wish I could have used it to do everything, but it’s not well-suited for nooks and crannies – of which staircases have many. For those I used the Mouse and a sanding block designed for bending around curvy posts. This was by far the worst part of the job… after seeing how fast and effective the orbital was at getting down to nice raw wood, hand-sanding felt like running a race in a vat of jello. I focused most of my energy on the railings, since those needed to be totally raw to accept the stain, and then I just roughed up the posts which were going to be primed anyway. 

I used the DeWalt orbital hand sander to remove most the finish on the stairwell

Step 2: Cleaning

Starting out with the orbital sander, there was minimal dust. When I switched to the Mouse my house turned into the Serengeti. You would have thought I’d sanded an entire Redwood forest down to a few toothpicks there was so much dust, and that's when I most regretted not asking the floor guys to take care of the railings. My new beautiful hardwoods were defiled!! I wiped everything down with a damp rag and then vacuumed, swept, and mopped the entire floor. Then I used a tack cloth to gently wipe down the railings and posts again. Fun fact: Tack cloths are literally tacky – their purpose is to grab all loose particles on a surface before you paint or seal it. The ones I got from Home Depot left a sticky residue on my hands that was really hard to get off, so do yourself a favor hold tack cloth with a clean paper towel. 

Step 3: Taping

I taped around the steps and balusters to protect the surfaces while staining and painting

I taped the tops of the balusters, the floor around the base of the posts & balusters, and the wall behind the long railing leading to the front door. I knew I’d be touching up the stair risers eventually, so I carefully taped those edges off too.

Step 4: Staining

I used a paper towel to wipe stain on the handrail

The flooring guys left me a quart of leftover stain, which was a real blessing because I didn’t have to stress about whether it would match the floors. Stain is very watery and a breeze to apply, just watch out for drips. After stirring the can, I just dipped the edge of a paper towel in and then wiped it down the railings in the direction of the wood grain. I stained all sides of the railings, including the bottoms. Just like the floors, it took two coats to get a dark enough color. I applied the first coat Saturday night, let it dry overnight and then applied the second coat Sunday morning.

Step 5: Priming

Once the stain was dry enough I taped it off so I could paint the posts

While the railings dried, I applied a thin coat of primer to the posts and the angled base the balusters sit in at the bottom of the stairs (does that have a name??). I focused on the lower sections first, and then taped off the railing edges after they had some time to dry so I could prime the tops of the posts. I made sure to get a really snug fit with the tape – getting into all the curves and notches so I wouldn’t be priming my freshly stained railings. Keep an eye out for drips. I gave the primer about 2 hours to dry, per the instructions on the can.


Primer on the stairwell posts

3 Coats of Semi-Gloss

I applied 3 coats of white semi-gloss paint to the stairwell posts
I touched up the base of the balusters and around the stair treads

Step 6: Painting

I applied three thin coats of white semi-gloss paint and sanded between each coat with 400-grit sandpaper. I’m not sure the exact shade because it was leftover from the guys who renovated the house, but it’s the same white used on all the trim in our house. While I was at it, I gave the stair risers two fresh coats of paint to cover up the stain marks from the last 2 times the floors were done. Oh Lordy, talk about nerve-wracking! I did not like applying white paint so close to my brand new floors. I was so nervous about dripping paint on the floors or the tape not having a tight enough seal. There were a couple close calls and i had to put my finger nails to serious work, scratching up any paint flecks that dared besmirch the floor.

Risers Before Paint


Risers After Paint


Step 7: Sanding and sealing

I applied 3 coats of water-based ply to the hand rails

Once everything was 100% dry, I lightly sanded the hand railings with the 400-grit sandpaper which made them incredibly smooth. Then I wiped them down with a clean rag, then a tack cloth, and then I applied three thin coats of poly with a brush. I used crystal clear, water-based poly in a satin finish to match the floors. The sealer I used specified not to apply more than 2 coats in one day, so I put on the first coat, waited an hour, put on the second coat, went to bed and then put on the final coat. And that was that! The stair case is lookin' fresh to death! 

Finished stair well gleaming

Have a great weekend y'all! I'm putting the computer away and spending time with my family to celebrate getting another year older :)

New "Grayown" Floors in Da House

I can't really put into words how excited I am about what just happened here, so I'l have to settle for this: 


That's pretty much what Eli and I have been doing since we got home on Thursday night to see our new floors – except in sock feet, obvi! The last 18 months felt like an eternity of waiting to banish the yellow-orange basketball court that was our hardwoods. Dramatic? Yes. But they were so pervasive and affected how I felt about everything else in the house. Having them refinished feels like this huge weight was lifted off my shoulders, and suddenly I feel reinvigorated and excited about the future!

Who knows how much longer I would have put this off if it weren't for you guys helping me decide on a color – so THANK YOU! After we went through that whole process of voting and photoshopping in different options, I was really nervous that I wouldn't be able to translate "grayown" into a real life stain. I dunno about you guys, but I think I got pretty darn close! Let's look at some before and afters, shall we? First stop: the living room! 

Goodbye, Barf Simpson... 

The living room with natural oak floors

Hellooo, Grrrayown 

Our floors after 2 coats of stain
Our entryway and stairs with natural oak floors

When I got the quote for the floors, I didn't realize the newel posts and handrail aren't automatically calculated into the cost. I could have paid extra for them to be refinished, but I figured why pay more when that’s something I can handle myself? I know what I'll be doing this weekend! Just follow my lead and ignore them for now.

The main floor with natural oak floors
The kitchen after two coats of stain on the floors

I really love how the color works with the kitchen cabinets we painted back in July. The view down there on the left was the biggest eyesore in the house – I was so elated when we finished painting the cabinets and then so bummed when we pulled up the tarp covering the floors. Without all that shiny orange screaming "LOOK AT ME!" I can fully appreciate our handiwork 4 months later. Plus, I finally feel inspired to install the backsplash and under-cabinet lighting. 

The kitchen with natural oak floors that clashed with the gray cabinets
Our kitchen after 2 coats of fresh stain on the floors

The powder room already won the distinct honor of being the first complete room in the house, but today it's looking even better. The previous yellow matched the suns in the wallpaper spot on ... that was definitely not what I was going for! Now this little room feels calmer and more grown-up. It’s still quirky but it doesn’t look like a funhouse or a tanning booth anymore.

The powder room with natural oak floors
The powder room with 2 coats of stain on the floors

Below is the view from the master bedroom. I like seeing this first thing in the morning to remind me that it wasn't a dream – the floors really are refinished :] Those newel posts are mocking me but their days are numbered, and the walls are begging me to hang artwork ASAP.

The hallway with natural oak floors
The upstairs hallway after 2 coats of stain on the floors

The darker wood just feels so luxurious... like my feet are getting a little treat every time they touch the floor. Have I mentioned that I love it? I really love it. I chose to go with a satin finish on our redo and I'm so happy with the result. It has this coy sheen that is so beautiful in person.

Close up of the floors before
Close up of the floors after refinishing them. They're a mix of Coffee Brown from DuraSeal and Classic Gray by Minwax.

Okay, so that's enough of the ogling for now. Keep reading if you want to know about the process or cost of getting from A to B. Last week went something like this:

  • Sunday (Prep): Eli and I moved our couches, dining table and refrigerator into the laundry room alongside the washer and dryer...our pack-job would get a very high Tetris score. The breakfast nook in the laundry room went up to the guest room, along with the rug and anything else that was breakable. We cleared the kitchen counters and took artwork down from the walls so they wouldn't get covered in dust...the TV stayed up because it's anchored really tightly on the wall and could be covered with plastic. 
  • Monday (Day 1): I met the 3 floor guys in the morning to let them in and finalize the color. (Word of caution: make sure you specify if you think you want gray, black or white stain as those aren't standard colors that they keep in the truck) They removed the shoe moulding and taped up plastic around anything we wanted to keep dust free (like the kitchen cabinets/counters, built-ins and TV). Then they sanded a section of the floors to put down color swatches. I had picked up a floor sample from Home Depot in the color that I liked  (Colfax by TrafficMaster), which made it easier for the guys to match. After we decided on the color, they sanded the entire floor and applied the first coat of stain.
The floor company put a few swatches on the floor so I could settle on a final color.
  • Tuesday (Day 2): In the morning I went by the house to make sure the color was good before they started applying the poly. It was lighter than we'd decided on, so I asked them to apply a second coat of stain. That added about $0.75 per sq ft to the final bill, but I'm really glad we did it.
The floors with 1 coat of stain
The difference of 2 coats versus 1 was subtle, but definitely richer
  • Wednesday (Day 3): The guys applied the first and second coats of poly. I opted for a water-based polyurethane in a satin finish because it dries fast and clear. If we had gone with an oil poly, the floors would have needed a full day between each coat and then more curing time after. Plus the house would have been filled with noxious fumes and the color would have gotten more yellow over time. Oil is the classic standard, but water-based just sounded more appealing to me. Word of caution: My friend Sharon had a bad experience with water-based poly which she later learned was caused by using Murphy's Oil Soap (CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post said it was Mrs. Meyer's hardwood floor cleaner – it's actually Murphy's! My B, Mrs. M). Apparently something about the cleaner interfered with the adherence of a water-based finish... super crazy and unfortunate! I almost never mop and certainly never with Mrs. Meyers, so I decided it was a non-issue for us. I'll let you know how it holds up! 
  • Thursday (Day 4): The guys applied the third (& final) coat of poly in the morning and installed new shoe moulding. We got home from work around 9pm and did our celebration dance on our new floor!
  • Weekend work: I'll be sanding & staining the newel post and handrails this weekend, as well as touching up the paint on our stair risers and caulking the new shoe moulding. Then we'll move everything back to where it belongs and share more "After" photos.

Eli and I stayed with my sister during the refinishing process...technically we could have been back in the house after the first 2 coats of poly went down, but we played it safe and waited til it was all done. One thing I was really nervous about going into the process, was security. There would be strangers in my house when I wasn't home, which is nerve-wracking for me. The guys we hired were fine and didn't give us any reason to suspect they'd steal anything (before, during or after), but we did take some precautions. Eli took his expensive camera gear to his office and we kept our laptops with us. Everything else stayed, including the TV, iMac, jewelry, etc. but other than the TV, we didn't leave anything enticing out in the open. 

The other concern was what to do with our house key. It wasn't practical for us to meet them every time they came or went because of city traffic and needing to be at work. I ended up leaving them my key, which was nerve-wracking again...what if they made copies? Or what if they forgot to lock up and someone else broke into our house? These are things I have to think about in our neighborhood where there's a decent amount of crime. Luckily we have a home security system that we can control from our phones and see whenever a door or window is opened. The floor guys called me each morning when they arrived so I could disarm the house, and then again when they left so I could arm it again. I also let my neighbors know what was going on so they could call the cops if anything seemed awry. Thankfully we didn't have any issues, but I just wanted to share what worked for us since I hadn't really considered it beforehand.

Lastly, the bill. I called around and got some quotes before deciding to go with a local company called Atlas Floors. Here's how the bill broke down:

Sand, 1 coat of stain, 3 coats of poly for main floors (309 sq.ft.) $927.00
Sand, 1 coat of stain, 3 coats of poly for stair treads (103 sq.ft.) $154.50
2nd coat of stain (309 sq.ft.) $231.75
Discount** -$100.00
Total cost $1,813.25
** I originally chose Atlas because my friend had recommended them and they were offering an Angie's List Deal. After I had them come out to measure and finalize the quote, I learned that it was a different company called Atlas that was offering the deal. Whoops. They offered me $100 discount to stick with them, and I took it. I'm still not sure which company my friend used, but it worked out in the end.

$1,800 is easily the most we've spent on anything in our house to date, but it also has had the biggest impact. I'm considering it an early birthday and Christmas present to myself. : ] And an investment in my sanity! 

So what do you guys think? Did it turn out like you expected?