Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Restoration of a Queen-Restoring & Refinishing Stairs

In my last house, the stairs to the basement were painted black by a previous owner.  I found it hard to tell where each step was, so decided to paint them in a lighter color for the sake of safety.

The problem was, my office and the laundry room were in the basement.  These were areas I needed to use all day, every day.  So, how do you work on a set of stairs while still being able to use them?

The answer is:  skip every other step.

Of course this only really works if you have legs that are long enough to step over the wet steps and probably wouldn't work for homes with small children.  Using the handrail helps for those of us that are fairly short.

Fortunately, we have two sets of stairs in this house, but if I were going to work the only staircase in the house (and all the bedrooms, etc. were upstairs), this is how I would go about it since it allows for a smooth finish across the entire surface of each tread and riser with no lap-marks.

Stripping treads and risers can be done half and half if needed-meaning, the left half or right half of the staircase so that you can use at least half of it during the prep process which is the time-consuming part of the project.  It's better to work the entire length of a riser or tread at the same time for the sake of color continuity.  When you work with strippers and such, your method-or rather the amount of time the stripper sets on the surface being stripped-may vary from one day to the next and sometimes this shows up as a change in the coloration of the wood (ie. the section that was worked one day may show a darker edge than the section you worked the next) when finished.  This is just an observation from my own years of painting and finishing.  So, it's better to strip on entire length of surface at once-if possible.

Either way you chose to strip them, start at the top so that and dripping stripper runs down onto an unstripped surface below.  Not only can you use the run-off to start removing the finish below, this method also keeps stripper from dribbling onto a raw wood surface-one cause for the color irregularities I mentioned above.  

Once you have a section stripped, wipe it down good with mineral spirits.  The mineral spirits neutralizes the stripper and if there is residue from the stripper on the wood, the spirits will cause it to ball up and it can be easily removed with a broom or vacuum cleaner.  Wipe with the spirits until no more residue comes off the surface.  Those blue shop cloths they sell at the big box stores work good for this as they're pretty durable and don't leave behind a lot of lint, etc.

Strip all of the treads and risers before moving on to the sanding process.  In a household that wears shoes all the time, you'll want to cover the stripped treads so that dirt and shoe prints don't get ground or pressed into the raw wood.  Heavy craft paper (sold pretty cheap by the roll at the big box store) comes in handy as it isn't slippery like plastic and is safer.  If you tape it in place, try not to tape it to the raw wood as the tape will likely leave behind a whisper of a residue that will need to come off.  Old towels will work just as well and without the tape residue.

Once everything is stripped, move on to the sanding process.  I like to use an orbital sander attached to the vacuum cleaner hose for this since sanding indoors is such a nasty business.  There will still be dust, but not as much as sanding with only the bag on the sander.  Every little bit helps.  After sanding, vacuum and wipe it all down with mineral spirits again.


When you're ready to start finishing, consider each tread and the riser above it as a set, working the riser first, tread second. 
While the bottom of your shoe will come into contact with the tread, the toe of your shoe is likely to come into contact with the riser above that tread.  That's why you want to work them together as a set.  You'll also want to do the entire staircase, (skipping every other set) in the same working time.  It's mentally easier-and safer-to maneuver an entire set of stairs when the rhythm is consistent than when it is not, i.e. step-skip-step-skip-step-skip vs. step-step-skip-step-skip-step-step-which becomes a trip hazard just from the confusion of it.  (I hope that made sense.)

It's easiest to do this task when the house will be empty for several hours-like while everyone is at work or school-as it gives the finish time to start drying while there is the least amount of  activity.  After everyone else has gone to bed works out pretty well too.


Put old folded towels that are easy to see on the treads that aren't wet.  Leaving something visual like that helps serve as a reminder of where to step.  I usually put some other obstruction at the bottom and top of the stairs to also serve as a reminder that there is work in progress in that area and to use caution.

Although there will be no one stepping on the wet treads, the nose of the treads will also be wet.  Since they protrude over the riser of the treads that are in use, they are vulnerable to being bumped by a toe on the way up and by the back of a pant leg on the way down-especially since you're having to jump over a step to get to the next one and will be descending at a greater angle than usual.

In my experience, the first coat of finish normally takes the longest to dry.  If you can keep from stepping on that coat until it dries, it's pretty much all downhill from there.  Fortunately, even oil based products (which are the only thing we use on wood surfaces) generally dry to touch in less than a work day, so the inconvenience isn't long-lasting.  Subsequent coats generally dry in a couple of hours in our climate.

When the first set of finished risers and treads have cured enough to handle normal household foot traffic, (usually a couple of days after the last coat of finish has been applied) move the towels to those steps and proceed in the same manner as before on the skipped risers and treads.  At this point, I'd avoid the craft paper on the finished treads as it may scratch your newly finished surface.  I'd also avoid anything rubber backed as it may also make marks in the fresh finish.  Something soft without a lumpy texture and preferably cotton, is nicest.  If you do use towels, be sure to also use the handrail as towels on that slick new surface can be slippery.  If the finished treads are well-cured, you should be able to use tape on them for added safety if you want to tape the towels to the finished treads-or if you want to just use the tape as the reminder that will work too.  Even though I haven't tried it, I'm thinking a smooth textured carpet pad might work great.  Should have thought of that in the first place!

Repeat the process on the remaining stairs.  Nothing to it, huh?

 If you are going to use a high gloss on the stair treads, be aware that they can be very slippery.  Once the treads are cured, wash them with a mild dish detergent and water to help knock down the slickness.  Don't ask me why, (and I suspect it's possibly the lime and minerals in the water) but it seems to help-a little.


Anyway, that's how I'd go about it and I'd have to have that high gloss shine like the ones in the examples as it really highlights the grain, movement, and color of the wood.  Aren't these beautiful?



(Original photo from http://www.thewoodworksbg.com/)



I probably should add that if there is a landing,you can either work it with the stairs or separately.  Either way, you'll have to work it half at a time, following the length of the boards.  Leave yourself enough room to be able to turn the corner of the stairs at the newel post when you work your first half without stepping into the wet.

If you'll be working the landing at the same time as the stairs, you'll want to plan out the pattern for working the stairs that includes a comfortable transition from the stairs to the landing.

In the example, working the stairs marked with 1 and the 1st half of the landing at the same time will keep anyone using the stairs from needing to be able to do acrobatic splits to get from the dry step to the dry part of the landing.  Use the arrows as a guide to traffic flow.  Make sense? 

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