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How to Sand Stairs and Prepare Them for Painting or Staining

How to Sand Stairs and Prepare Them for Painting or Staining

If you’re looking to decorate a carpeted or worn staircase, you’ll need to thoroughly sand it before any paint can be used. While professionals can do this work for you, our step-by-step guide on how to sand stairs will allow you to prepare your own stairs effectively.

Read on to find out more about sanding down stairs before painting or staining them, and see some of our tips on ensuring top-quality work.

Sanding Stairs: A Step-by-Step Guide

Here we have provided you with a full guide on sanding down wood stairs before painting, varnishing, or staining them. 

What You Will Need

Before you can begin to sand your stairs for painting or staining, you’ll need to make sure you have the right tools and equipment:

  • A sander or sandpaper (several different grits will be needed for different types of work)
  • Pliers
  • A wonder bar (also sometimes called a utility bar)
  • A utility knife
  • A putty knife
  • A scraper
  • Wood filler
  • A pair of work gloves
  • A dust mask 
  • A pair of safety goggles
  • Dust sheets
  • Masking tape
  • A broom or vacuum cleaner
  • A cloth and a bowl or bucket of warm water
  • A mild cleaning solution

If you don’t have a wonder bar, you can use a hammer and chisel instead.

  1. Remove the Staircase Carpet

This first step only applies if you have a staircase that was originally covered by a carpet. Starting at the top of the stairs, reach under the carpet with your wonder bar to free it from the carpet gripper holding it in place. 

How this works may depend on how the carpet is set out. On many stairs (particularly straight stairways), the carpet will be one continuous length and the staircase will be carpeted from end to end. This can make it difficult to find an entry point, so you may need to slide the utility knife along one of the edges. Do this carefully, or else you might scratch the stair treads underneath. If this doesn’t work, use the pliers to pull up a small part of the carpet so that you can push the wonder bar underneath it.

Move the wonder bar along steadily and with just enough leverage to avoid damaging the surrounding wood. 

If you are lucky, you may find that the carpet is not one continuous section but is instead made up of several short sections. These should wrap over one or two treads and may be easier to remove than having one long carpet to pull up. Similarly, you may find that cutting a continuous carpet into strips with the utility knife as you go makes disposing of it easier.

  1. Remove Grippers

As you are painting or staining the wooden staircase, you will no longer need the grippers, staples, or nails that hold a carpet in place. Make sure all of these are removed using your pliers, your wonder bar, or your hammer and chisel. 

  1. Remove or Cover Furniture

Before you sand the stairs, you will need to make sure that the area around the staircase is clear and protected from dust and debris. This means removing furniture where possible and putting down dust sheets. These can be held in place where necessary with masking tape. 

  1. Prepare the Steps

Sweep or vacuum the stairs in order to make sure that all loose dust and debris is gone. If there are previous drips of paint or dirt on the stairs already, scrape these off first with a scraper.

  1. Sand the Stairs

Sand down the stairs, using either heavy-duty sandpaper or a mechanical sander. Following the grain of the wood makes it easier to remove any old paint or varnish, while also making sure the surface is as smooth and level as you need it to be. Typically, the sides (or “stringers”) will already be painted. If this is the case, they can be sanded with medium-to-fine sandpaper, depending on their condition. A 120 grit should be right for this part.

If the treads and risers are not painted, then they will need to be sanded with coarse sandpaper. An 80-grit sandpaper is usually recommended for this job.

Mechanical sanders are often recommended for this step because they will make the process much quicker. Many tradespeople will suggest using either a belt or a random orbit sander on the broad stair components, such as the treads and risers, and then using a detail sander (also known as a mouse sander) for getting into corners and the narrowest parts of your stairs.

Sanders will throw up a lot of dust and debris when used, so always remember to use your dust mask and safety goggles. Having a dust extractor attached to your sander, or using your vacuum cleaner as you go, may also help to reduce the amount of dust left in the air by the work.

  1. Sand the Spindles

The spindles of a staircase should always be sanded by hand. Do not attempt to use a mechanical sander on them. Instead, one of the tips we would suggest instead is to cut sheets of sandpaper into strips, wrap them around the posts, and rub them up and down and back and forth in order to remove any old finish and smooth out the surface.

This should be repeated on the stair handrails and any other parts of the staircase bannisters that can’t be treated with a sander.

If you’re looking for further tips on how to make this step even easier, you can always consider removing the spindles and having them replaced entirely. You might end up saving time and money, and if you are redesigning the look of your staircase or hallway you might find something new which suits your needs and tastes more.

  1. Get the Stairs as Smooth as Possible

Once this is done, check for any holes or areas in the stairs that need filling. You’ll need to use your wood filler to fill them back up. If you have an old staircase, there is a chance that there may be small gaps between the treads and the risers. These will also need to be filled and then left to dry.

When the filler is dry, rub down all of the stairs again with a fine-grit sandpaper. This can be a 180 to 220-grit sandpaper. Check if the work is smooth enough by running your finger along the sanded areas. If it isn’t level, sand it again until it is.

  1. Clean Up and Finish Up

Sweep off or vacuum the staircase again, making sure you’re also removing any dust left over in the holes left by carpet grippers. Then, using warm water, your cloth, and a cleaning solution, you should clean off all the surfaces. This should then be left to dry for 24 hours.

Once this is done, you can tidy up all the dust sheets and masking tape, and put the furniture back where it was. All you’ll then have to do is wait before painting and varnishing your stairs.

Completing Your Staircase with Accessories

Once you have sanded and painted your stairs it’s the perfect time make your staircase more decorative and ornate. Our beautiful collections of stair runners and stair rods are just right for adding the perfect touch to any freshly-decorated staircase – whether it’s new or old. You’ll even be able to shop for these by colour and finish!

We’re confident that you will find your ideal design, style, or pattern here on our website, but if there is something you have in mind that we don’t have, you can always get in touch with us. Our team will be glad to help you source the products that will help to make your home complete, whether your ideal design needs a different pattern, colour, or style.