Protecting Your New Staircase

Your new feature staircase has been delivered and installed and it looks great but there is still one stage to go through before it can be called finished. You cannot leave the timber untreated as the open grain will accept all the dust and dirt that is trodden into it and absorb grease marks and stains from spills. In a very short period of time, regardless of the quality of the wood, your new staircase will look worse for wear and if it is not treated some of the damage will be permanent.   The solution is quite simple the timber has to be treated with a protective material. Although the process is relatively straightforward there is a large and confusing choice of materials and terminology on the market so this page is designed to make your choices easier to make. There is even this short video showing some of the different materials and how to apply them.

There are three things you can do to your stairs, one is purely decorative and the other two play a protective role.  Many of today’s products contain a combination of substances that allow  you to treat timber using only the one product.

Stains and Staining.
If you so desire you can stain the timber of your stairs and there is a wide choice of stains to choose from. Pale timbers, pine for example, can be successfully stained with primary colours to give a very pleasing and contemporary effect. Stains will come either in a water or oil based solution.  You can tell which are the oil based as it will say ‘contains VOC’s’ on the tin and you will need to clean your brushes in white spirit. For water based stains you will only need to wash your brushes out in soapy water. Once you have stained timber it will still have to be varnished. Warning! Stains only stain the timber they do not offer any protection to the wood at all.  Also once applied they cannot realistically be removed as they soak into the substrate so it is vital that you do a test on a separate piece of the same type of timber as your staircase is built.

A varnish is a thin layer of protective material that sits over the timber.  It can be water or oil based and clear or with some colouration.  It can be a natural  product Shellac varnish or a synthetic Polyurethane varnish. We are not going to talk about Shellac varnishes as they don’t really apply to staircases. In many respects they have been completely superseded  by the modern equivalents.   As always read the label carefully so you truly understand what you are using.

Polyurethane Varnish
Essentially a plastic in the form of a liquid until it dries, polyurethane is available in both water- and oil-based options, and comes in varieties from satin to glossy. Water based polyurethane varnishes. The easiest to use is a clear polyurethane water based varnish.  This is applied with a brush;   you have to work quickly as it does dry rapidly and if you start to brush back into an area that is drying you will get unsightly brush-marks.  It has the distinct advantage of not having strong and to many people unpleasant,  odours.  It dries to a hard durable finish and a second coat can generally be applied within twenty four hours. Oil based polyurethane varnishes These are what the professionals prefer to use as it produces an even tougher more durable finish than the water based varnishes.  However you need to apply it in a well ventilated space some people find the fumes extremely unpleasant. It takes a lot longer to dry than the water based products allowing areas to be reworked.  Cleaning up afterwards requires the use of white spirits (even more fumes) Oil based varnishes, including those containing shellac, will colour the wood to a degree so a test is very important.

Wood Oils
Now the picture can get really confusing. Most wood oils are a combination of either processed Linseed oil and a varnish or processed Tung Oil and a varnish. That includes Teak Oil and Danish oils. Teak Oil has nothing to do with Teak the wood, it consists of boiled Linseed oil and a varnish, it was originally developed for protecting the Teak decks of boats, hence the name Teak Oil. Pretty much the same applies to Danish Oil, originally this was a blend of processed Tung Oil and varnish, it was never intended for use on Danes. Raw Linseed oil and raw Tung oil have no use in the protection of stairs, in reality they may never dry and they do not leave a hard surface layer which is what you are looking to achieve.

Hard Wax Oils
A great all round product These are a blend of waxes and oils that give a water repellent surface that will not peel. They have the distinct advantage that once applied that’s it. You do not have to varnish them (you can if you want to ) Repairs are also easy all that is required is to sand the area that requires attention and apply some more hard wax oil until the area matches its surrounds. Good ventilation is needed as it is an oil based product but it dries quickly and a second coat can usually be applied after 4 – 6 hours. For more information related to interior finishes have a look at this site. the link takes you to the relevant page.   Use this to go to our YouTube channel