Q: The stairs in my home are in sad shape. One stair tread is cracked and others are scratched from years of abuse. I know I can hide the problem with carpeting, but that's not really my style. What does it take to refinish oak stair treads?
A: Wood stair treads really take a beating in many houses, as a combination of things damage them. For one, the typical motion of contact is that your foot slides slightly across the tread as you plant it on each step. That scuffing action, in the presence of any dirt or grit, can rapidly wear the finish.
Treads also can crack under a concentrated load. This can happen, for example, if workers carrying a cast iron tub up a flight of steps set it down to rest and reset their grip.
With a little work, you might be able to make all the repairs to the treads and return them to prime condition. I recommend you give it a try since you do have rug stair treads as a backup option.
Hardwood stair treads are primarily finished by hand. You may be able to use a belt sander on a wide portion of the flat tread, but be careful not to sand too much wood. Professional floor refinishers have scraping tools they use to pull off the old finish and take the wood down to a satin-smooth finish. I highly recommend getting one of these tools.
Don't cut any corners as you try to refinish the wood. To get professional results, you must have the wood nearly as smooth as glass before you stain it or put on the first coat of finish. All dust must be removed; use a tack cloth, rags damp with mineral spirits or a vacuum that exhausts outdoors.
Staining oak is not difficult, but you need to wipe off excess stain to prevent a blotchy appearance. The finished color of the stair treads will look exactly as it appears as you apply the stain and immediately wipe it off. As the stain dries, it will dull and get somewhat lighter. It will darken again when you apply the first coat of clear finish. I would apply no fewer than three coats of finish to the stair treads. You should lightly sand the treads in between each coat of finish.
You do have another option where you can blend carpet with the oak treads. In my home I have a stair runner carpet that goes up the center of the stair treads. About 6 inches of oak tread is exposed on either side of the carpet runner. If you do this, you can shortcut your refinishing efforts by only working on that part of the tread that's visible. (One caveat: If you do decide to use carpet, have a professional install it. The carpet on steps must be tightly wrapped and fixed to the treads so it never detaches, which could cause a fall.)
As for repairing a cracked stair tread, the job is not too hard if you can inject the crack with an expanding urethane glue or a heavy-bodied epoxy that's formulated to bond to wood. Carefully place the glue so that the top of the crack is left open for some wood filler, then the crack will disappear once you stain and add urethane to the tread. The key is to place the glue or epoxy so you don't get any on the wood adjacent to the crack.
And once you've completed the job, be sure to vacuum the stair treads regularly. Sand and grit can easily accumulate on the stairs because the soles of shoes bend as you go up and down stairs. If you slide your shoes on the sand and grit, you'll ruin all that hard work you invested.
Tim Carter is a licensed contractor. To view previous columns or tap into his archive of information and sources of building materials, go to www.askthebuilder.com. You can write to Tim Carter at P.O. Box 36352, Cincinnati, OH 45236-0352.