Staircase Makeover: Filling Holes and Staining Treads

It’s almost been 2 weeks since I posted about the stair makeover, but don’t think I haven’t been hard at work.  The staining took quite a long time and not because it was difficult, but for another reason – keep on reading.  Anyway, I can officially say that the staining is complete and I am at the half way point now (I hope).

This second phase of the staircase makeover covers sanding the stairs, filling the gazillion holes from the carpet tacks and staples, and staining the treads. So let’s jump right in and get started!

Project Details

Duration of Phase Two: 1.5 hours for sanding & filling holes; 2 overall hours for staining / polyurethane (5-10 minutes for each coat)
Phase 2 Difficulty: Easy to Medium
How Many People Needed: 1

The supplies I used for this phase of the project are:

  • Orbital Sander (sandpapering by hand is also possible, but will take longer)
  • Wood Filler (in a color to match the wood)
  • Stain – I used Minwax Wood Finish in Ebony
  • Polyurethane – I used Rustoleum (water-based) in a gloss finish
  • Cheap brush or sponge brush that can easily be thrown away
  • Mineral Spirits (if you don’t want to use a cheap brush and instead wash them)

In my last post on removing the carpet and prepping the stairs, I left you off with this…

Once the carpet tacks and staples were fully removed, it was time to sand the stairs.

As I mentioned above in the supply list, I used my orbital sander to get a really smooth finish and to take away marks and old paint drippings.  Manually sanding the treads and risers with sandpaper is fine too, but will take longer and is more laborious – if you’re looking to build your arm muscles, this may be your calling ;)

Once the stairs were smooth, I used wood filler to fill in the many holes left from the carpet strip tacks and the carpet pad staples.  There were also a few holes from the natural grain of the wood that I also filled in.

After the holes were filled and the wood filler was completely dried and hard 24+ hours later (it’s important that the wood filler is really dry!), I sanded again.  The wood treads were ready for staining when the stairs were completely smooth to the touch.

Now to the staining process…

I don’t have alot of staining experience, and frankly staining has always scared me.  Unlike painting, it seems so difficult, but thankfully I was proven wrong with this project.

As I mentioned in my last post, I was desiring a really dark stained tread for the stairs, so I chose to use an ebony finish.  Before making the final decision though, I reached out to my blogging bud and the very talented DIYer, Kate of Centsational Girl.  I had showcased her stair makeover as one of my inspirations, and wanted to know what she used for her dark tread.  She told me that she used a product called Duraseal, which has a molasses-like consistency and gave a darker finish because it was less watery than typical stain.  I couldn’t find the Duraseal and was anxious to get started on the staining, so I chose to use Minwax Wood Finish in ebony.  It was the darkest color they had, so I was up for the task of trying it out.  As an alternative, Kate gave me the advice of trying a gel stain which like the Duraseal has a thicker consistency.  I’m a bad girl because I didn’t take her advice, BUT thankfully I’m happy with the result I achieved, so all is good :)

When staining, it’s key to apply thin coats of stain and angle the brush at a 45 degree angle to avoid bubbles.  After cleaning the stairs with a rag to remove any remaining dust from the sanding, I was ready to get started. I used a cheap bristle brush to apply the stain, so I could easily throw it away after the stain applications.

Here are the few steps I took to stain the treads.

1. I started at the corner of the treads.

2. I feathered my brush towards the center, parallel to the wood grain.

3. Then I carefully dragged my brush along the edge of the tread and the stair stringer.

4.. After that I feathered the stain in the same direction of the grain again.

The reason for doing these steps is so the tread is thoroughly covered with stain AND minimal stain gets on the stringer (side piece).  For my stairs, I will be painting the stringer white and using a stain blocker beforehand, BUT I was nervous (here comes my apprehension of using stain again) and didn’t want too much stain to get onto the stringer.  Alittle nutty, I know… but it worked.

Continuing with the staining, I applied it to the remainder of the tread in the same direction as the wood grain.

Now that I shared the particulars on how to stain, let me tell you some more details…

The staining process took a while and the major reason was because we still needed to use the stairs.  What to do??  Well, I ended up staining every other stair so we could still get up to the second floors. We did need to sleep, of course ;)

So… because I had to break the project up into two phases, it took longer.  After applying the first coat of stain, it soaked right into the wood, and was dry within about 1-2 hours – there was absolutely no wiping away needed.

Then I applied a second coat of stain, which also soaked right in and took about 1-2 hours to completely dry.  At this point, the stair had a really dull finish to it, but it still wasn’t dark enough for my taste.

So a day later, I added a third coat of stain and that was key!! It took a good day for it to completely dry, but I was happy. Then I was able to move on to the other stairs that were still raw.

The more coats you apply, the darker the result

Once the third coat of stain was complete, I sealed the stairs with Polyurethane.  I had tested one small area using a semi-gloss finish, but it wasn’t right, so I decided on a gloss finish.  It gave just enough sheen, but wasn’t overly glossy (if that makes sense).

Kate recommended applying 2-3 coats of polyurethane and this time I took her advice.  After all my hard work, I wouldn’t want these stairs to get ruined!

The polyurethane that I used had a blue tinge when applied (which I freaked out about for only a few seconds), but quickly went away – thank goodness!

And that’s it for the staining process.  This same process and techniques could also be used for furniture.

I got a few comments from readers after my last post that they enjoyed how thorough and explanatory my post was, so I tried to do the same with this – I hope you enjoyed it and learned something new.  If you still have questions, let me know!

It’s really coming along and I’m excitedly anxious to start the next process… painting the risers, banister, baluster, and stringer! Until next time…

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    • Jenna says

      You are so sweet – thank Marty! It absolutely is a dramatic change and I’m thrilled with the direction so far. xo Jenna

  1. says

    Looks Beautiful! I want to rip the carpeting out of my home completely, including the stairs but that will have to wait a bit. When we do it though, I’m coming to re-read your tutorials. :) So excited to see these finished stairs!

    • Jenna says

      Thank you so much Ange! I definitely want to rip up the carpet on our second floor, but it’s not within the budget right now. The stairs itself though make a huge different without the stairs. Stay Tuned for more to come! xo Jenna

  2. says

    Oh Jenna it’s coming also so nicely! You really did a great step by step tutorial. I’d love to do this project some day, but I know it will be a lot of work (but oh-so pretty!).

  3. imklvr says

    Absolutely gorgeous! But we knew it would be, didn’t we?! Looking forward to the next step. Dona

    • Jenna says

      Thanks you Stephanie! It’s been a fun project – I appreciate you following along. Stay tuned for more. xo Jenna

  4. Joanna says

    I agree, your step by step explanations are very helpful!! This looks amazing!! Did you ever get stuck in the middle of the stairs while the next step was drying?! I would have! lol Looks like it took a lot of careful planning! Extremely impressive. Thank you for sharing!!


    • Jenna says

      That’s wonderful to hear Joanna – glad you found the tutorial helpful. I will tell you, when putting on the 3rd coat of stain and poly, it was difficult to know what was wet and what steps weren’t. My husband actually stepped on the wet step once, hehe – he wasn’t a happy camper…

  5. says

    Ok so I want to know if you just got luck with having good wood under your carpet. I would do this in a heart beat but I think we are gonna have mdf or some other particle board under ours.

    • Jenna says

      I guess it was just pure luck Connie. I live in a neighborhood with alot of similar houses built by a typical builder – no frills or over the top finishes. The upstairs flooring is plywood (otherwise I would have taken off that carpet too), but thankfully the stairs were real wood. Kate over at Centsational Girl has a great tutorial on how to add real wood to plywood stairs if you’re interested. Stay tuned for more details to come! xo Jenna

  6. Alexandra Smith says

    Beautiful! I love the dramatic change of the color and also it help protect from stubborn dirt and its easy to clean. :)

  7. Laura says

    You inspired me tonight!! I found this post through Remodelaholic and tonight I ripped the horrid hunter green carpet off from my stairs. It only took a couple of hours to rip up the carpet and remove all of the tack strips and gazillion staples. Tomorrow I shall sand and fill. Thanks soooo much for the wonderful detail in your posts. I has certainly made me into a DIY-er :)

    • Jenna says

      Thank you so much for the comment – I can’t tell you how happy that makes me feel! Once you got started, it wasn’t that difficult, right? And I swear the hardest part of the project is removing the old carpet. With keep on chugging along and be sure to keep me up to date along the way. I can’t wait to see the final result – send pictures! xo Jenna

  8. Jennifer says

    Hi. I am in the middle of a similiar project and I have used stainable wood filler on some of the gouges and holes but now I am reading that it will not really absorb the stain. It looks like the same product that you show in your pictures. You never really said, but how did your wood filler look after applying the dark stain. Can you tell which areas have filler because they are a lighter color? I am really nervous to move on based on what I am reading on the web. If you have a close-up of an area with the wood filler and stain I would love to see how it turned out.

    Thanks a bunch!

    • Jenna says

      I’m not sure if I got back to you about this Jennifer – I think I did already. If not though, you really can’t tell which areas were filled in with wood putty. I wouldn’t be nervous about it.

  9. Kathleen says

    Love your stairs!! I’m in the process now. Is it hard to paint over the stain that gets on the sides? I was very messy with mine :/ figuring the paint would be fine going over it but now I’m freaking out haha. Thanks!

  10. Mandy says

    Hi! I love your stairs! I am attempting to follow your examples and have started my stairs this weekend. It is my first EVER DIY project. My carpet, nails and staples are all off! Whew! I am really concerned with what wood filler to use as I have seen and heard how even “stainable” wood filler doesn’t actually hold the stain. Which one did you use and how well did it work? Thanks for the inspiration!!!

    • Jenna says

      The stairs was a project from years ago and I don’t recall what filler I used. I’d recommend doing a test on a scrap piece of wood first using the stainable filler and then the stain on top. Make sure the result is what you’d like before diving into the entire staircase. Good Luck! Jenna