Staining & Finishing Stair Treads

It seems that current design trends, imply that more than 90% of all the mouldings and stair treads that we sell these days are stained a colour darker than their natural tone. So let me offer a few thoughts on how to get the job done and get some awesome results.

Step #1: Sanding

Although all of our treads have undergone automated sanding it is essential that you fine-sand the edges and the top face one more time, to get the most uniform absorption of stain. This is particularly critical with difficult woods to stain, like hard maple. Some of my clients that do furniture restoration suggest that sanding to 320 or 400 will eliminate ALL of maple’s staining challenges, but then I might need drugs to be that patient!


The flat face of each tread has been sanded to 120 grit and feels and looks pretty smooth. The bullnose on the front and possibly, if you ordered it that way, the bullnosed on the end has been created with a shaper cutter. Thus the rounded edges and the top face are not the same, one has a “cut” edge and one has a “sanded” face. Each will absorb stain differently…. and that is not even considering the challenges of the end grain.


So we need to sand, in the direction of the grain all edges, ends and faces to 180 grit.. if its maple I’d probably aim for 220. And don’t cheap out on the sandpaper. Go to your local automotive supply house and buy good automotive sandpaper. It will make all the different, and for the extra 30 cents a sheet eliminate a lot of frustration. Then the key is to remove all the dust, even that that hides in the pores of the wood. Use a blow gun, vacuum or tack cloth, whatever you have available.

Step #2: Staining

Experiment first. Don’t assume stains out of the can will be exactly as shown, especially water based stains. Sometimes you have to dilute the stain and sometimes you need two coats, so stain a small sample AND apply the intended clear coat FIRST to see if you get the shade you are after. ONLY then proceed with the real stuff.


Brush or wipe on the stain, moving quickly across the surface. I prefer a pad applicator as it allows for a speedy application over large flat surfaces…. speed is essential with waterbased stains otherwise you end up with “lap” lines.  If it is an open pore wood like ash or oak it is important to go cross-grain to work the stain into the pores. To finish use a clean cloth rubbing WITH the grain to remove all the excess. No stain should puddle on the surface.


Let the stain dry as per the instruction and re-apply if you need to darken further.

Step #3: Top Coat

Today you still typically only find water-based finishes, at least in Canada a government regulation for home consumption :).


They do have a couple of benefits, …. they dry fast, less smell but some cheaper water based finishes foam badly and always raise the grain (keep reading and I’ll tell you how to use that to your advantage). Non-yellowing, particularly great in cases where you are trying to maintain as light of a colour as possible.. as in natural maple or retain grey overtones of white oak.


Always whenever possible flat finish BEFORE installation, put on FOUR good coats of finish so you’ll never have to crawl up and down your steps and do this again in your lifetime.

I typically recommend 3 coats of clear finish and then sand down the burr with 180-220 paper, and add a final coat…. so here’s where the benefit of grain raise comes in …. Coats 2 & 3 bind with the “standing fibers” to create greater mechanical adhesion. The product I use has a second feature called “cross linking”, when the molecules from one layer chemical bond with the layers from the previous layer … as long as coat #2 is applied within one and a half of layer one application…. and layer #3 is applied after layer #2 is dry to the touch , but within that 1.5 hours as well. Ask your finish supplier for details.


Do NOT sand earlier or you  risk  sanding through the clear stuff and damaging the stain below … and again , the coats #2,3 have extra bonding strength when grabbing the hair fibers you raised initially.


Note: Do not use lacquers as they are considered too brittle for horizontal applications where you want the finish to “indent” or “flex” with abuse rather than scratch off.

I hope this helps to get you going.

More information on Hardwood Stair Treads, ordering information, what different types of wood are available and even help with installation… or if you would like to see a few jobs that we have completed check out these photos of hardwood stairs in our gallery.

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