How to finish your stairs

     
  Wooden stair finishes  
             
 

With the exception of the Fusion and Immix ranges, most wooden Richard Burbidge stair parts will need to be finished after fitting to preserve the surface, seal up pores and generally improve their appearance. Even if you have chosen white-primed staircase components, you will still need to apply further coats of paint to protect them from wear and tear.

 
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Preparation 

 
  Stair components  

Good preparation is the key to a professional-looking result. Before you begin work, let the timber acclimatise by storing the stair parts in the room where they are going to be installed for at least 48 hours. This is vital to avoid problems with shrinkage and expansion.

If you leave wooden stair components in a damp outbuilding, for example, they will absorb moisture from the surrounding air and swell up - then when you bring them into your warm, centrally-heated home they will start to dry out and shrink. You may find that if you go ahead and fit the stair balustrade straight away, some components will become loose after a few days.

Before applying a finish, use wood filler to repair nail holes created during installation and sand off any marks with a fine grade sandpaper. Vacuum thoroughly, then wipe all the stair parts down using a cloth dampened with white spirit to get rid of any lingering dust and grease. 

 
             
  Wood treatment doesn't always turn out the colour you expect! We recommend trying out your chosen finish on a test piece of timber or hidden part of the banister rail first, to make sure you like the end result when the compound has dried. This is especially important when using Danish oil, which can darken certain types of timber.      
             
 

Which finish is best? 

 
 

There are many ways of finishing timber staircases, some easier to carry out than others. A few of the more popular finishing options include:

  • Hard wax oil  

  • Danish oil
  • Varnish

  • Wood stain

  • Paint

  • French polish

  Six wood treatments  
             
  Wooden stairs  

Hard wax oil

This relatively recent but increasingly popular product is a blend of natural oils and waxes. The liquid soaks into the wood and forms a protective film on the surface. The wax content helps to keep the oil suspended in the timber for longer, creating a more durable coating.

Available in clear or tinted shades, it provides a water-repellant finish that looks natural and is resistant to scratches and scuffs.

Hard wax oil is easy to maintain and won't easily blister, flake or crack. You can apply it to the stair balustrade straight from the can using a brush, roller or cloth, with no primer or thinner needed.

 
             
 

Applying hard wax oil

If possible, work in a well-ventilated space at room temperature. A firm brush with natural bristles is best, but you can also use a cotton cloth. Hardwood components such as sapele and oak stair parts will require two coats, whereas pine stair parts, being made of a softer wood, may need three. However, you should test an inconspicuous area first to make sure that the timber is able to accept a third coat.

Stir the mixture thoroughly both before and during use. Spread the wax oil thinly and evenly, working it into the timber in the direction of the wood grain. Wipe off any excess with a cloth straight away and allow to dry for four to six hours in well-ventilated conditions. 

Once completely dry, you can apply the second coat. Leave to dry for at least four hours, and if possible overnight. Buff the stairparts lightly with a soft cloth to increase the sheen.

  Hard wax oil and accessories  
             
  Hard wax oil is easy to maintain and touch up. You can simply clean and re-apply a thin coat to any shabby stair parts, with no sanding needed. As long as you are careful to use the oil sparingly, no repair marks should be visible afterwards. Avoid using a steam cleaner on waxed or oiled stair components, however, as this will damage the protective film.  
             
  Hemlock stairs  

Danish oil

The term Danish oil is thought to derive from the modern-looking low sheen finish given to Scandinavian furniture. It varies greatly in composition, but usually consists of a thin blend of tung oil (a high quality product extracted from the tung tree) and natural resins or varnishes.

Other oils such as linseed, vegetable, poppy and sunflower may also be used. The oil will penetrate deep into the stairs parts and help to bring out the beauty of the grain, while also providing protection.

Danish oil is water-resistant and does not form a surface film. However, you can varnish over it for extra durability if required.

 
             
 

Applying Danish oil

Spread the oil liberally and evenly over the staircase components with a good quality brush or lint-free cotton cloth. If using a cloth, work the oil into the wood using a figure-of-eight pattern and keep going until the timber can no longer absorb it.

Leave the oil to penetrate for around 10 minutes before wiping off any excess (in the direction of the grain) with a clean lint-free cloth. If excess oil dries on and becomes sticky, wipe it off with white spirit and leave to dry before continuing.

Allow the banister rail to dry for at least five hours before applying another coat. We advise a minimum of three layers to achieve a durable finish. This is particularly important for the staircase handrail, which will receive more wear and tear than, for instance, the stairs baserails or spindles. Gently rub away any nibs (raised blemishes) with ultra fine sandpaper or steel wool (000 or 0000 grade) between coats.  

  Brushing on oil  
             
  As for maintenance, you can clean oiled stairparts with a damp cloth, and add mild detergent if necessary to remove stubborn stains and grease - often a problem with the stairs handrail. Wipe spills up straight away. You will probably have to re-apply Danish oil at least once a year, depending on how heavily your stairs are used. A word of warning: never leave oily cloths rolled up or in a bundle, as they can generate heat and self-combust. Always leave them to dry flat outside before storing or binning them.    
             
  Wooden stairs  

Varnish

Resistant to both heat and water, varnish will form a film all over the staircase components, creating excellent surface protection. It needs little maintenance and comes in a variety of clear satin, gloss and matt finishes as well as tinted shades. 

Some varnishes are made from oil-based polyurethane, which provides added flexibility and resistance to cracking. You can also get acrylic and water-based varnishes which are solvent free, with a low odour. They are quick drying and easy to use. You don't even need white spirit to clean the brush – just rinse it with water afterwards.  

If you use a coloured varnish, remember that it will not penetrate the wood like a true wood stain or dye. To prevent colour fade from wear and tear, we recommend adding two or three coats of clear varnish.

 
             
 

Applying varnish

Having sanded and cleaned the stair spindles, handrail, newels, baserail and any other parts of the banister rail, blend together a mixture of three parts polyurethane clear varnish to one part white spirit. Add one part spirit-based wood dye or stain if you want to change the colour (first coat only) and apply using a good quality brush.  

Leave the varnish to dry for a minimum of eight hours. Gently rub down with a fine grade of wire wool, then brush on a coat of clear varnish. Again, let it dry for at least eight hours.

Apply two more layers of clear varnish, leaving a minimum of eight hours between each coat. Your stair balustrade will now be well protected.

  Applying varnish  
           
  Stained stairs  

Wood stain

As it is able to penetrate right into the timber, wood stain is ideal for enhancing the colour of stairs banisters. It can also improve the look of the staircase parts by neutralising the many natural variations in shade to give a more uniform appearance. 

Various types of wood stain are on the market, some based on water and others on oil (also known as solvent-based). Both are effective, but water-based stains have the advantage of a faster drying time. They are also more pleasant to work with as they contain much less white spirit, so don't tend to give off strong fumes. 

Another advantage is that it is possible to lighten water-based wood stain by adding a little water. Both types of stain can be mixed with other wood stains and dyes of the same composition to change the colour.

Wood stains and dyes do not seal the timber, so to protect the staircase components from wear and tear you will have to apply varnish, oil or wax on top.   

 
             
 

Applying wood stain

As staining is permanent, you should wear disposable rubber gloves and safety goggles. Try the mixture out on a test piece of timber first, and stir thoroughly before and during use. If you are using an oil-based stain, make sure the area is well ventilated as the fumes can be quite strong.

Following the direction of the wood grain, apply the stain generously and evenly to the stairparts using a brush, cloth or decorator's sponge. Wipe off the excess with an absorbent cloth straight away if you're aiming for a pale tone, or leave it on for a few minutes to achieve a darker shade. 

Allow to dry according to the manufacturer's instructions - usually around an hour for water-based stains, or up to six hours for oil-based ones. If the colour of the stairs parts is not rich enough for your liking you can gently apply a second coat, taking care not to lift off any of the first layer. Before applying the protective top coat, lightly sand down the staircase components to improve adhesion.   

  Woodstain and brushes  
             
  Wooden stairs  

French polish

Made from a blend of shellac and alcohol, French polish can give your stair parts a striking gloss finish. You have to build the coating up over many layers, and a high degree of skill is needed for good results. 

While many professionals choose to make their own mixture from shellac and methylated spirits, beginners will find it easier to use ready-made polish, which is available in a variety of shades. A great deal of time and patience is required for good results, and it's worth practising first on pieces of scrap timber before tackling your precious new banister rail. Many useful guides to French polishing techniques can be found on the internet.

However, be aware that French polish alone will not provide any real protection for your stair banisters. It cannot make timber resistant to heat, scratches, water or alcohol, so is most suitable for surfaces that won't be subject to a lot of wear and tear.

It's best therefore to polish only the stair spindles, baserail, newels and stairs handrail, while using carpet or a durable timber treatment such as hard wax oil, paint or varnish for the treads.

 
             
  A more recently developed alternative treatment is polyurethane-based varnish and stain. This is a convenient all-in-one compound which dries quickly, enhances the colour of the timber stair parts and is easy to apply. Unlike dyes and stains, it seals the wood, providing resistance to scratches, heat and liquids including alcohol and boiling water.   
             
 

Paint

Painting part or all of the staircase can give it a truly individual look and brighten up your hallway at the same time. Gloss and satin are the most popular options, with the shiny finish providing good protection against grime and scuffs.

Before you start, use a knotting solution to seal live knots and resinous areas (particularly important if your stairparts are made of pine). This will prevent any resin from seeping through and spoiling the finished surface.

Apply a coat of primer to bare wood, followed by either one or two layers of undercoat, depending on the manufacturer's instructions.

Finish off with one or two top coats of your chosen paint. For more details on painting staircase parts take a look at our page: How to paint your stairs.

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