How to Refinish a Staircase for Under $50

Glorious After!
The staircase we refinished ourselves.
Glorious After!

Glorious After!

Glum Before

Glum Before

Our staircase was sporting some pretty terrific carpeting and that special ’90s golden oak shine. As the first thing you see when you walk through our front door, it was a mega eyesore. Frugal Hound was the only one in favor as she liked digging her claws into the carpeting. Needless to say, she was overruled.

Here’s how we got from before to after for less than $50 in:

The Frugal Grand Staircase Refinishing Adventure!

Total Cost: $44.50

Supplies:

  • Nail puller
  • Nail punch
  • Wood filler
  • Sandpaper
  • Polyurethane
  • Damp rags
  • Paint brushes
  • Paint
  • Painter’s tape

How To:

Step 1: Remove the existing carpet runner.

  • In our case (see what I did there?), this was vastly easier said than done. The previous owner installed said runner with approximately 1.5 million staples. Poor Frugal Husband pulled staples out for days. Literally days.
  • Ways to remove staples: with a small nail puller, by punching them into the wood with a nail punch, or by levering a flathead screwdriver underneath them.
  • Supplies: brute strength, nail puller, nail punch, flathead screwdriver/lever.

Step 2: Patch all holes with wood filler.

Holes

So very many holes from the staples that held the carpet runner.

  • We had a great many holes to fill. But, well worth the time to properly fill every. single. one.
  • Supplies: wood filler.

Step 3: Sand entire staircase.

  • Yes, this is a pain, but, it’s really important for smoothing out imperfections in the wood. Most importantly, sanding removes the top layers of poly/paint/shellac so that your finish or paint will adhere.
  • We sanded by hand because we don’t own a sander. It was time-consuming, but super cheap.
  • Sanding our spindles was quite a trip since they’re, well, circular. I found it easiest to wrap the sandpaper and around and sort of rub side to side.
  • Supplies: sandpaper, hands, patience, This American Life podcasts.

Step 4: Wipe down staircase with damp rags and then vacuum.

  • It’s critical to remove all detritus and sawdust kicked up by your sanding efforts. Otherwise you’ll be painting gunk into your final product.
  • Supplies: damp rags and a vacuum. A shop vac is highly recommended, but you can get by with a regular vacuum.

Step 5: Decide which areas you want wood-colored vs. paint-colored.

  • There are a shockingly large number of fiddly pieces of molding on most staircases. Decide in advance how you want your colors and finishes laid out.
  • Supplies: your brain.

Step 6: Apply polyurethane to all areas you want wood-colored.

  • Poly, as it is affectionately know, is pretty stinky and messy. But fear not!
  • Wear latex gloves and carefully pour poly onto a rag then wipe onto your surfaces. Try not to drip and don’t glob it on–you’ll likely need more than one coat.
  • We did four coats in order to even out the wood color from underneath the carpet runner (it was lighter) and blend in the 1.5 million staple holes we’d filled with wood filler.
  • You’ll need to wait a few hours between coats and it’s best to open all your doors and windows for ventilation since poly is smelly.
  • Supplies: polyurethane, latex gloves, rags.

Step 7: Tape around the areas you’ll be painting.

Tape it up!

Tape it up!

  • This is optional, but, we were glad we took the time to tape because of the odd angles involved on a staircase.
  • It’s not like painting a flat wall–there’s a lot more nuance here.
  • Supplies: painter’s tape.

Step 8: Paint.

  • We used regular ol’ brushes and white interior/exterior hi-gloss enamel acrylic paint (Behr Premium Plus Ultra Pure White #8050), which we had leftover from touching up our trim. You could use something more heavy duty, but we figured since we’re not touching the painted areas of the staircase (the treads and handrail are not painted), we’d be fine. And I can attest: so far, so good.
  • Painting the spindles was, well, excruciating since they’re circular. As soon as I got paint on one side, it would migrate to the other side and glob up. I had to quickly flick my brush around in order to get it even. I ended up using a tiny watercolor brush to even out the globs.
  • Be prepared to do multiple coats–we did three to get the color even throughout. It’s worth the time for an extra coat or two to ensure good coverage.
  • Always have a few damp rags close at hand. If you drip paint, wipe it immediately with your rag and it won’t stain or stick.
  • Supplies: paint, paintbrushes, damp rags. 
One coat of paint wasn't enough

One coat of paint wasn’t enough

After three coats of paint

Three coats did the trick! 

Step 9: Rejoice and admire!

Before: sad and strange carpet

Before: sad and strange carpet

We kept the newel post wooden, but you could paint it a contrasting color

We kept the newel post wooden, but you could paint it a contrasting color

So pleased with how it turned out!

So pleased with how it turned out!

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7 Responses

  1. Mr. 15pp says:

    I am about to install a new stair/railing system. Just so you know, I’m going to totally copy your design.

    Nice work and nice post!

    • Mrs. Frugalwoods says:

      Thank you! So glad it’s helpful! We really love our “new” staircase–so much brighter and more modern than the carpet situation we had going on before.

  2. Mr. 1500 says:

    OK, I keep on thinking about this post (my job is extremely boring at the moment) and what I can’t get over is the hand sanding part. I’ve done this type of work before and it takes a while with an electric sander. How long did it take you to sand it? On the other hand, I don’t think you sanded it down to bare wood, did you?!?

    PS: I love the reference to “This American Life” podcasts! Go Ira! That and your neighbors over at CarTalk have gotten me through many boring tasks.

    • Mr. Frugalwoods says:

      Dewey, Cheatem and Howe have their offices less than a mile away from our house 🙂

      The two of us sanded for 3ish hours by hand. Everything that was going to be painted got a pretty aggressive grit (maybe 80?) to knock off the golden oak lacquer. We weren’t OCD about making it look perfect since it was going to be painted anyway.

      The treads and handrail got a progression of sandings to take the lacquer down to something reasonable and then smooth it out. In hindsight we probably shouldn’t have sanded the treads as much as we did… they turned out a little slick!

      If I did it again, I’d buy/borrow/thieve a random orbit sander just to make the tread work easier.

      But the balusters and the trim pretty much require the human hand. Or something like this awesome festool linear sander:

      https://www.festoolusa.com/power-tools/sanders/ls-130-eq-linear-detail-sander-567852

      Slightly out of our budget but amazingly cool!

  1. April 19, 2014

    […] because we know the sweat that went into it. The spots where I got a glob of paint underneath the staircase handrail are badges of honor, whereas if I’d paid someone thousands of dollars to paint it […]

  2. April 20, 2014

    […] is optional. I recommend taping when there are a lot of tricky angles, like with a staircase, but I don’t think it’s particularly necessary when painting a straightforward […]

  3. October 23, 2014

    […] we have an art photo taken on our staircase (refinished by us, instructions here) of a few straggling trash finds. The Corelle bowl almost matches our set of Corelle dishes and […]

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