We floundered a bit in figuring it out, but here I'll share the things I've figured out. Most of this uses low-odor quick-drying options, because I'm working in a house with small children in wintertime. (They're not home while I'm working, but they need to sleep here at night.)
Tools and Materials:
+ orbital hand sander (or two)
+ plastic drop cloth
+ safety goggles
+ dust masks (buy a multi-pack)
+ ear plugs
+ vinyl-palmed work gloves
+ vinyl or latex disposable gloves
+ cheap throw-away paintbrush for chemical paint stripper
+ paint scraper
+ small wood chisel
+ 2.5" angled natural bristle paintbrush
+ small paint tray
+ 40 grit sanding pads (be sure to get the right size pads with the right number of holes - they're for ventilation and your sander will overheat without the right ones) I used about 15 pads for 14 steps and a landing
+ 40 or 60 grit sandpaper and a sanding block, if desired
+ 2" wide painters tape
+ spool of cotton twine
+ Hi-Speed Ready Strip Citrus Paint & Varnish Remover (this project used one half gallon jug)
+ MinWax Wood Finish (this project uses 2 qt sized cans of golden pecan stain)
+ low-odor mineral spirits
+ MinWax Water Based Polyurethane for Floors (this project uses one gallon of clear satin finish poly)
Here you see the old staircase. Someone had painted that beautiful wood a chocolate brown when the house was built. It was old and dingy and banged up. The dark color robbed the stairwell of all light, making it a dark area even in midday.
Step 1: Stripping the old paint, part 1: chemical stripper
1. Open your windows and turn on a fan. It might be "low-odor and environmentally safe", but it stinks.
2. Shake the bottle really well - it's very separated.
3. Pour some liquid onto the top step. Using a cheap paintbrush, spread over the step in a thick layer. Make sure to get the corners and edges well.
4. Move down the steps to the bottom, and throw away your paintbrush, then find something else to do for about 2 hours. I started the bottom step after a half an hour, and worked my way back up. But during the rest of the paint removal process, the upper stairs that had had the stripper on them for about three hours took a third of the time it took to remove the paint from the lower steps.
5. Using a paint scraper, scrape across the step with the grain of the wood. The old polyurethane comes up with the stripper goo. Wipe the goo off of the scraper, and continue (don't bother trying to rinse it off). I scraped it into an old shoe box, but where doesn't really matter. Scraping takes off most of the stripping agent, I didn't bother to wipe off the remaining.
These steps are old and dinged up, and the dark stain penetrated into the wood, and it's imperfections. I was removing the many layers of old poly with the chemicals in order to get closer to the wood and to get started. The picture here shows the stairs AFTER the chemical stripper was scraped off. It was only the first step of removing the old color, but it made the rest of the project move much more quickly. The time (a day) and cost of the stripper was less than the time and cost of using sanding pads to get through that old poly. Not to mention - much easier on my back. I wore work gloves for all of this step, I really didn't get any on myself.
Step 2: Stripping the paint, part 2: sanding
Before getting started, I cut strips of plastic drop cloth and pinned them across the entrances at the top and bottom of the stairs. It wasn't a perfect system, but it kept much of the sawdust in the stairwell. After the first day, I found out how important it is to turn off your central heating system when you're sanding if there's an intake vent in the stairwell. My house is covered in a fine layer of sawdust, now. But after changing the air filter and learning from my mistake, that didn't happen on sanding day #2.
It wasn't lead paint, but it was still a loud and messy business. Full safety goggles, a dust mask that I had to change several times, and ear plugs were necessary. On sanding day #2, I added a kerchief for my hair.
I was working through the color and into the wood to remove dark spots and chips and dings. This was labor-intensive. I actually have two orbital sanders, and used one in each hand for most of this process. My Roybi wiggles back and forth while it sands, so it muscles through the old stuff faster. It also gets closer to the wall than my other one. My DeWalt doesn't wiggle, so it gives me more control. I used it to do around the front edge of the steps and under the lip. But both are powerful. So when I wasn't sanding out edges or front curves, I had both going at the same time. It doubled my productivity.
Nice and slow, back and forth, longer on dark spots. The upper stairs where the chemical stripper had stayed on longer were much quicker to sand off. You can't muscle your way through it. Pressing on a hand sander will overheat your unit. It takes the time it takes, you can only use the large grit and be patient.
I'm something of a perfectionist, so this took me a long time. There are still some spots where the old stain permeates deeply. On several of the lower stairs, there are lines of dots where the staples under the stairs opened the wood to the stain. They will always look "refurbished" rather than new, but they look nice and have character.
An important note: You'll notice that I never use a sanding grit finer than 60 in this project.. Most DIY sites, and the poly container, and the stain container all say to do a rough grit first, and then go back over the wood with 100 or 120 grit. The guy in the hardware store even recommended 180. But here's the thing: everyone in my house has fallen down my stairs. They were very slippery. Over the two years we've owned the house, we've even considered painting sand onto the stairs, like you do on exterior masonry stairs. So in refinishing them, I just let the texture of the wood remain. No one's going to want to "risky business" slide across the stairs in their underwear, anyway. There's now a slight roughness to the steps. There's a picture toward the end. It may mean that they'll have to be redone again in 10 years rather than 30. But maybe no one will break a leg between now and then, and that's worth it, imho.
Step 3: Stripping the paint, part 3: the little details
I actually removed the old color in several sweeps. This photo is after the initial sanding. My husband used his chisel to carve out the edges. It took out a bit of wood in a few places, but for the most part, it just brought up the paint that had been loosened by the chemical stripper.
I did another pass with the sanders after this, and mostly used those to get in close. In a few places, and in the square corners where my round sanders couldn't reach, I used the chisel. Just a little tap-tap-tap with the chisel angled to take off the tiniest fragment of wood and pigment. The second picture shows the before-and-after of removing the paint.
Then I used a sanding block and sand paper to smooth out the chiseled areas, and to remove the last of the color. Here you see my daughter "helping". She lasted about 3 minutes before she ditched me. Ah, well.
Finally, you see my naked stairs.
Step 4: Prep work
Then I taped carefully around the wood. I'm a great believer in good taping. I've never done a floor before, but I've painted many things. And taping well can save a lot of trouble down the road. That being said, I didn't worry about the odd drop of stain or polyurethane, as I'm going to repaint all the molding and trim soon.
The most involved part of the prep, however, was remediating the landing. (Step 5)
Step 5: The Landing
The floor was old hardwood. There were gaps in between the boards. Some were completely joined together, some had gaps of 3 to 4 mm. Most had gaps of 1to2 mm, and they were all uneven. I saw a website suggesting the use of rope to fill in a space or two in wide-plank hardwood floors, and I decided to make the plan my own.
First, I used a screwdriver and a vacuum to scrape years of crud out of the spaces.
Second, I stained the floor
Third, I cut lengths of cotton twine. For 15 row spaces, I cut eleven 8 ft long pieces, and four 12 ft long pieces. I dipped them into the stain I would use on the wood, and hung them outside on the fence to dry overnight. We were concerned they might get stiff, but they were not stiffened at all in the morning.
Then, I started using the string to fill the gaps. After experimenting, I had the following technique:
1. In the widest/deepest gaps, I cut a length of twine the length of the deepest part, and laid it in the gap, and pressed it down using the back of a razor blade (I had a blade holder you see in the photo - you could use a screwdriver.) Then I started a length of twine near the wall, with a bit of an overhang (~1cm) tucked into the gap. Then I ran the twine down the gap, pushing it gently into the gap with the blade as I went along. In spaces where the string fell too deeply into the gap, I pulled it out, and pressed another short piece into the gap, then brought the long piece back over it. I was careful not to let the string come up higher than the floorboards.
2. It wasn't until I was almost to the back wall that I encountered a problem. A couple of boards were very close together, too close for the string, and the adjacent gaps were extra-wide. I had noticed when I was scraping out between the boards that they could wiggle back and forth a little. I used a probe, and very gently tapped at the crack until the board moved. It looked so much more even, and so much better, that I decided to use my string method to fix the floor. I used the probe to open the boards, then pressed a piece of twine deep into the crack, holding the boards apart. Then I ran the top piece of twine to finish it. The evened gaps were such an improvement that I went back over the floor and repaired a few other sections as well.
In the pictures here, you see the big, uneven gaps in the old floor. Then you see the stained floor with the dyed twine in place. Then you see the polyurethaned, finished floor. The color of the floor and the color of the twine are very similar after being polyed. There are still a couple of small gaps, but I think it looks great. It was a certain charm to it.
It turned out to be a great solution to a problem.
Step 6: Staining the wood
I used MinWax Golden Pecan #245. The color was nothing like it looks on the can. It actually turned out a golden red color. It's very pretty, and I like it. But my original plan was more gold and less red.
1. Start early in the day, open all of your windows and doors and turn on your fans. This stuff smells so bad. Really. Much worse than the chemical stripper or the polyurethane. It smelled TERRIBLE. I had closed the bedroom doors and turned off the central heating to keep the smell out of the sleeping areas, and the lack of circulation certainly didn't help. I did have a fan at the head of the stairs, but only later thought to pull down the steps to the attic, and let the roof vent pull out some of the chemicals. The can says to paint on, wipe off any excess after 15 minutes, allow to dry for 4 hours, and do a second coat, and then allow at least 8 hours of dry time before painting. But really, you want to have a good 6 hours of having the house open before you bring kids back into the house.
2. Wear safety goggles and disposable gloves. Make sure stairs (and walls) are vacuumed and wiped down to remove the sawdust. I also kept an old sock next to me as I worked. I wiped down each step before I moved down, and if the paintbrush pulled up an errant splinter of wood or speck of dirt, I picked it up with a gloved finger and wiped it right on the sock.
2. I painted on the first coat, and watched as I moved down the staircase. There wasn't really any pooling, so I just leaned over the steps and used the paintbrush to spread out any thicker areas before I started the landing, and again as I moved from the landing to the lower stairs, and again as I finished the lower stairs.
3. I played Skyrim for 3 hours
4. The stairs were mostly dry, but still a little damp, so I sacrificed a pair of my husband's old socks to wear to go up and apply the second coat. I didn't want to get dirt or sneaker prints on my wet stairs. My toeprints were definitely visible as I worked my way back down the steps, and I had to make sure to cover them well with the second coat. It underlined the fact that you can't walk on stained steps till they're really dry.
Two coats of stain made the color rich and even. I didn't need a third. It was already a darker color than I had planned. I rinsed the brush out with mineral spirits and used it again the next day for the poly.
Then I sat in my living room, bundled up in coats and a hat and gloves with the windows and doors open at night in the end of December. It was not the high point of the project. I had started staining at 3pm. I'd suggest 9 am as a better start time. When the stain was mostly dry to the touch (just the tiniest shade damp), my husband took a dry cloth and wiped the last of the damp stain off of the steps. There wasn't much, we were just trying to get rid of the smell. I really couldn't have done it sooner. Think toe marks.
Step 7: Polyurethane
But I live in this house, as do my husband and 3 children, and that was not an option.
So I did some research and found MinWax water-based polyurethane for floors. I bought it at a local Duron paint store, rather than going back to the big hardware store, and it cost me $49.99 plus tax, rather than the $65 I'd seen it for online.
I cannot tell you how fantastic this stuff is! I researched online. I kept seeing reviews about how water-based polys bead up on oil-stained floors; and they cause the wood grain to come up; and you have to do SO many coats (one review said up to a dozen!!) for it to be done.
They were so wrong.
This stuff was great! It brushed on smooth and easy. There was no trouble at all with beading. It's a little milky going on, but they said it would dry clear, and it did. By the time I was half-done with the landing, the upper steps were dry to the touch. There was very little smell. I opened all the doors and windows in the house, and I left the central heating on this time, since I had a good 8 hours before the children would be home. (I used the disposable gloves for this step, too.)
On the landing, I used a lot of poly, and painted sideways across the boards first, to get plenty of poly into the cracks with the twine. Then I went over the wood again, painting with the grain.
I had read warnings about water-based poly drying too quickly, and brush marks being visible. I had even bought a small foam roller to run over it and take the brush marks out. I had no such problems. I painted it on with a brush, painting with the grain, starting at the edges and working toward the middle. Then I painted the front edge of the step, and then I used the roller brush to paint the underside of the lip of the step. It's the only thing I ended up using the foam for, and could really have used a $0.49 foam brush rather than a $5 foam roller. I tried the roller on the steps, but it left a textured look I didn't care for at all. Before moving down to the next step, I went over the whole step with the brush, just gently dragging it over the paint with the grain of the wood, including the front edge. The paintbrush only needs to be rinsed out with water to clean it, which was nice and easy.
It worked great and looks terrific.
I plan to use the same poly when I redo the dining room floor. It will be necessary to move quickly, so it doesn't dry on me, but it was so easy to do, with so little odor, that I'm not worried about it at all.
I let the poly dry for a solid 2 hours before doing the next coat. It was completely dry as I walked up the stairs in my socks. The only part not entirely dry was the gaps between the boards with the twine. Two coats look good, and the wood is sealed. The one gallon container easily did two coats, and could do a third, which I think I may go ahead and add on the next time I have some time off again. But I'm comfortable with it the way it is.
Again, the directions do say to sand in between, but I wasn't going for a smooth finish, so I didn't. I'm including here a picture of the texture I ended up with. It's nothing like my in-laws' unfinished staircase in their mountain cottage. There's just a very slight texture underfoot. If you didn't know to look for it, I don't think you'd really know the difference.
Step 8: Repainting backboards and moulding
The paint I used was Olympic brand latex paint, "ultra white", in semi-gloss. I have the "environmentally preferred - zero VOC" Premium paint. I didn't actually open any doors or windows. It dries fast, and it doesn't smell.
First, we taped over the freshly-refinished wood and the wall above the trim.
Here I got to use that small foam hand roller that I really didn't use while applying the poly. I rolled most of it, and cut in the corners with a brush.
I gave it one good coat all over, and then went back a half hour later and gave a few spots a little extra, where old scuffs were showing through the paint.
Finally, I painted that trim that I had pulled up white. It had never been painted, so it took three coats of paint. But they only needed about 10 minutes to dry between coats.
Just walking up and down my stairs is so exciting now. It looks beautiful! Our stairwell has gone from a dark, dirty hole in my house to a beautiful, shiny, clean staircase that I can be proud of. I love our little house; and now I love the hardwood staircase, too.