How to Refinish Old Wood Stairs

Before and After, From Carpet to Restored Wood Stairs

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From nasty, old carpet to gleaming hardwood, I want to show you how we refinished our old original wood stairs in our 1906 farmhouse. You, too, can create your own little stairway to heaven.

When we first found the house, it had been a dilapidated, old rental for quite some time. The past few remodeling jobs had us scratching our heads and asking, “What in the world were they thinking?!!”

For instance, this lovely work of art along the stairs.

(Not the clothes drying rack, but it isn’t helping things.)

Before and After, From Carpet to Restored Wood Stairs

I think it was from the 60’s and it reminds me of jail bars. The thick, blue carpet was covered in pet urine in the living room. My kids were so excited about the prospect of a new house that I found them rolling along the length of the living room (!), they about gave me a heart attack. You gotta hand it to kids, though, they really live in the moment and celebrate life like no one else.

We soon discovered that underneath the disgusting carpet were the original fir floors and let me tell you, I perked right up at the thought of those floors.

Needless to say, the moment we got the keys, we attacked the carpet with a vengeance. We tore it out as fast as we could and threw it out in the yard. Then we went after the 3 billion staples and nails left in those floors. Our hands blistered, we sent the kids to Grandma’s so we could keep working. We spent our three day weekend over the Fourth of July just pulling staples, with the fireworks booming over the top of the house. It was exhausting, but we were happy.

There was so much work to do that you almost don’t even know were to start on a house like this.  And so, as our story played out there was still a whole laundry list of things to finish on the house when we moved in.

We didn’t get the stairs done, they sat like this for years.

Before and After, From Carpet to Restored Wood Stairs

Just smirking at me. . .

One year for Christmas, we replaced the bars with a handrail and upcycled them into the current hand rail. But, the stairs still looked so bad.

So, last summer when the kids left for a week of “Camp Grandma and Grandpa” we suddenly looked at each other and had a light bulb moment.

Forecasted minimal foot traffic meant only one thing. . .time to refinish the old wood stairs!! Note: we worked for three weeks straight, every day. Plan accordingly.

Supplies You’ll Need to Refinish Old Wood Stairs:

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This was my husband’s solution for not being able to get up to our room.

Before and After, From Carpet to Restored Wood Stairs

“Yeah, no thank you. I’ll just sleep on the couch.”

But then, I forgot my phone charger and so my knight-in-shining-armor climbed the ladder for me. Right when he got back, I remember my glasses were up there. . . .THREE times in a row, he had to go up the ladder to fetch something for the princess.

Conclusion: He’s a keeper.

How to Refinish Old Wood Stairs

  1. Pull any nails sticking out. Remove any trim work where the risers and treads meet.
  2. Rebuild any broken stairs or landings.
  3. Sand the treads with 60 grit sand paper with the orbital sander, this will take the wood down to the raw finish. Keep sanding with 120 grit, then 150 grit, and 220 grit. We didn’t sand the risers really because we planned to paint them.
  4. Vacuum in between sandings.
  5. Take a block sander to the hard-to-reach corners.
  6. Fill the holes on the treads with stainable filler, let it dry and sand with 220 grit.
  7. Do a final vacuum.
  8. Install trim work just under where the treads stick out over the risers. We used new “cove molding”.
  9. Wipe everything down with paint thinner on a rag.
  10. Condition and stain the treads.
  11. Apply two coats of clear coat to the treads, following the instructions on the can.
  12. Caulk the trim work.
  13. Prime the risers.
  14. Spackle any holes on the risers.
  15. Paint the risers two times with white oil based paint.


Before and After, From Carpet to Restored Wood Stairs


Before and After, From Carpet to Restored Wood Stairs


Before and After, From Carpet to Restored Wood Stairs


Before and After, From Carpet to Restored Wood Stairs

Related Posts:

Follow along on my “Farmhouse Stairways” Pinterest board for more inspiration.

Thanksgiving Table Giveaway Winner!

We had 59 entries for the latest giveaway and your comments made me cry. I so enjoyed hearing from each one of you and am so pleased that we love the same things.  The story telling/ teaching and photography fill my heart and I will most definitely keep doing them, especially since now I know they make you happy, too.

And without further ado, I announce our winner:

Kenneta Markelions

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  1. pamela
    October 31, 2016 / 11:27 AM

    Yeah!! Congrats Kenneta πŸ™‚ Awesome job on the stairs! Thank you so much for the how too’s.
    Be Blessed

    • Brenda McAdam
      October 31, 2016 / 12:17 PM

      You did such a lovely job on the stairs, and the directions made it sound so easy… but having done some refinishing, I know it was a huge undertaking. So worth it, though.

      When you take on a huge project, such as a whole house, some things wait. And when they get done I think you almost appreciate them more for the waiting.

      Keep up the good work. I love that you are staying with, even enhancing, the character of the house. It is all so lovely.

      • Sarah | She Holds Dearly
        November 18, 2016 / 8:09 AM

        Yes, refinishing is a BEAR! But, it was so worth the wait. Thank you for appreciating our old house and being such a kindred spirit.

        • July 25, 2020 / 3:21 PM

          We are restoring our foyer and refinishing our stairs soon and your before and after pictures are an inspiration. When I was planning the project and trying to figure out how we could get to the second floor I came up with the odd-even strategy … I would stain the odd numbered stairs leaving the even stairs unstained so that we could walk on them. Then when the odd numbered stairs dried enough to walk on them I would come back and stain the even stairs.

          • Sarah | She Holds Dearly
            July 26, 2020 / 12:03 AM

            I’ve since heard of others doing the same – a very smart plan! πŸ™‚

    • Sarah | She Holds Dearly
      November 18, 2016 / 8:07 AM

      Thank you, Pamela. I’m so glad to finally be done with those stairs!

  2. Marty
    October 31, 2016 / 7:15 PM

    Wow! Your stairway turned out gorgeous! I just love that your husband climbed up and down a ladder for you! Great directions, too. Job well done.

    • Sarah | She Holds Dearly
      November 18, 2016 / 8:09 AM

      Oh my goodness, he is such a keeper! And thank you for all your kind words. xoxo

  3. Mari
    October 31, 2016 / 7:48 PM

    Wow, I just love your home. Every room has something special. I love the drapes in the master bedroom with the lace bottoms. Did you purchase? I looked through your website but I can’t find anything about them. More information please!!!

    • Sarah | She Holds Dearly
      November 18, 2016 / 8:15 AM

      Thank you so much, Mari, I love decorating with a story. And it is so fun to find people who understand that type of decor. People love those drapes! They are just plain panels (fabric from Joanns) and a crocheted table runner (from Etsy) that I cut into wide strips. Then, I hand-stitched them along the bottoms of the panels. So simple!

  4. Tanya Hulbert
    October 31, 2016 / 10:06 PM

    I love your willingness to share step by step on how you accomplished your projects! I remember the stairs before they were finished! What an incredible transformation. I love your stories!

    • Sarah | She Holds Dearly
      November 18, 2016 / 8:10 AM

      Yes, they was a mess, weren’t they? Thank you for all your love and encouragement on this house journey!

  5. November 1, 2016 / 10:25 AM

    They turned out absolutely stunning!! Our To grandma’s house we go link party starts over at our place tomorrow morning, would love to see you there!

    • Sarah | She Holds Dearly
      November 18, 2016 / 8:11 AM

      Oh, thank you, for the invite. xoxo

  6. Karen
    July 28, 2017 / 7:51 PM

    I have fir stairs very similar to yours, and in the midst of refinishing them. What stain color did you use for your stairs?

    • Sarah | She Holds Dearly
      July 31, 2017 / 2:23 PM

      Hi Karen, we used Red Oak by Minwax. Thank you for that question, I will update the post!

  7. Anne
    July 23, 2018 / 9:56 AM

    HI Sarah, what dedicated work. My husband and I live in Germany and we bought this old 95 year old sandstone house with the most amazing spiral stairs. Like yours it was stink with rotten carpet and I yanked it out within a week of moving in. I would like to ask if yours had a rad bit of wood worm under the carpet? One thread it practically eaten to smothers. Is there a way to pist a photo?

    • Sarah | She Holds Dearly
      July 23, 2018 / 11:29 PM

      We didn’t run into this problem, but if we had, we would have opted to replace those boards. I’m sorry you are dealing with this!

  8. June 17, 2019 / 6:41 AM

    Love your new stairway!
    Please tell me, is the cove molding purely decorative or does it support the old treads at all?

    • Sarah | She Holds Dearly
      June 17, 2019 / 10:11 PM

      The cove molding is purely decorative. Hope that helps!

  9. Corinne
    July 12, 2019 / 6:38 AM

    Love the stairs! We are in the process of refinishing ours. What did you use for a varnish, and how has it held up?

    • Sarah | She Holds Dearly
      October 31, 2019 / 10:03 PM

      We used the Minwax Polyurethane linked in the post. It held up well for about two years, but now is worn in high traffic spots.

      • Stephanie Lien
        June 16, 2020 / 4:13 PM

        What sheen varnish did you use, (satin, gloss, semi-gloss)? Is there a different finish you would recommend that would last longer than two years?

        • Sarah | She Holds Dearly
          June 16, 2020 / 11:21 PM

          I believe we used a semi-gloss, I think a Satin would have shown less wear. Hope that helps!

  10. Sherralynn
    January 4, 2020 / 11:23 AM

    Thanks for this tutorial, it’s quite helpful! I’ve heard of people tackling this project by doing every other stair so that you can still use the staircase while the stain dries. I know it doesn’t help you now, but maybe for others that are looking to refinish their stairs.

    • Sarah | She Holds Dearly
      January 4, 2020 / 5:41 PM

      Oh, what a fabulous idea, thank you!

  11. Sarah
    February 2, 2020 / 10:29 AM

    Hi there! Thank you for this great post! Wondering if anyone had the experience where the old varnish is so worn through that the dirt is ground into the tread? Do I keep sanding until I get to clean wood? Can’t really swing buying whole new treads which is why I am DIY-ing it! Thanks for any suggestions!!!!

    • Sarah | She Holds Dearly
      February 2, 2020 / 11:08 PM

      YES! Ours were that way. And you are right, just keep sanding until they look new.

  12. Allison
    May 8, 2020 / 9:49 AM

    We are in the process of refinishing our stairs. My question is…should I paint the risers before poly on the treads? Did the tape damage the poly?

    • Sarah | She Holds Dearly
      May 23, 2020 / 10:08 PM

      No, we did the risers last and the tape did not cause any problems. Great questions!

  13. Jill Fessler
    May 24, 2020 / 1:20 PM

    Hello Sarah! Your stairs turned out gorgeous! I started tackling our staircase about a year ago, it’s exhausting and tedious work. I’m stripping about 5+ layers of paint off as well as removing 3 billion staples! My question for you is the Minwax Wood Filler you used – did it take the stain well? Or is that what the conditioner helps with too? Thanks for any help you can gave!

    • Sarah | She Holds Dearly
      May 24, 2020 / 9:24 PM

      Hi Jill! Yes, the process is too long! The filler did just fine, I can’t even tell it’s there. And yes, the conditioner definitely does help.

  14. Pam L
    October 3, 2021 / 2:13 PM

    I am facing this very same job in our 1904 farmhouse. Fortunately there was no carpet ever on them, but I so appreciate your great instructions! I turned the first floor formal dining room into our master bedroom so we can do this without the ladder LOL! Love your videos and blog more than I can tell youπŸ’•

    • Sarah | She Holds Dearly
      October 13, 2021 / 11:10 PM

      So glad you’ve been finding it helpful here, Pam! πŸ™‚ And I’m glad your process will be a little less tricky! πŸ™‚

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