What Is The Best Finish For Wood Stairs? [3 Options]

Once you have selected the right stain for your stairs, next comes the finish. At this point, you probably already have a headache! It's no picnic trying to sort out the best selection from 100 different wood stains. You just want a quick and simple answer - what is the best finish for wood stairs? After checking with both contractors and woodworking experts, we've got the answer for you.
Wood finish options include either surface types or penetrating types. For wood stairs, the best finishes are:
  1. Polyurethane
  2. Tung oil
  3. Anti-skid options (finishes, paint grit additives, and spray paints)

But what is the difference between surface finish and penetrating finish? Which one should you use - and besides that, do you really need a finish at all? Keep reading for everything you'll need to know to finally wrap up your stair project, both safely and beautifully.

Wooden staircase, What Is The Best Finish For Wood Stairs? [3 Options]

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Best Finish For Wood Stairs

Finishes come in two major types, surface and penetrating. The surface finish creates a durable coating on top of the wood,  shielding the wood from anything that might contact and damage it. Penetrating finish soaks into the wood, working to maintain the integrity of the wood itself.

1. Polyurethane (Surface Type Finish)

Polyurethane is the best surface finish for stairs. Surface finishes do have some drawbacks. The main one is that they can cover up the natural charm of wooden stairs. A penetrating finish lets the wood shine through a bit more. But in the case of stairs, they really can use the extra protection. Nothing's going to keep them safe quite as long as covering them with a hard coat of polyurethane.

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Squeegee Style Brush Applying Clear Polyurethane to Hardwood

Cons of Surface Finishes

The downside to using polyurethane is that, eventually, you will need to refinish your stairs. While coating the stairs with polyurethane prevents damage to the wood, you do need to reapply a new coat of polyurethane occasionally. This means sanding down the old coat first, every time. More natural options available in penetrating finishes do not require resanding. However, these finishes also do not offer the same protection as polyurethane.

Should I put Polyurethane Over Stain?

Using a water-based modified polyurethane such as this one by Minwax is the best of all worlds to protect yet allow the stain's hue to shine through. It is low odor and easy to clean, like other water-based wood finishes. But it is also strong and can withstand the high traffic that stairs are typically exposed to. This is thanks to the modified recipe that includes oil characteristics by Minwax. Be sure to use a satin kind, as high-gloss options show scuffing too much to be a good choice for stairs.

Minwax Water Based Oil-Modified Polyurethane

Click here to see Minwax polyurethane on Amazon.

What Is The Difference Between Varnish and Polyurethane?

There are several kinds of surface finishes besides polyurethane. Some examples are shellac, lacquer, and varnish.

  • Shellac adds a warm amber finish to wood but can be damaged or react to heat or chemicals. Shellac has a classic look that works well for historical pieces but isn't as durable as newer options.
  • Varnish is most useful for exterior wood. It protects like any other surface finish but also prevents damage from UV rays.
  • Lacquer creates a smooth, glossy finish. Most surface finishes go on with a paintbrush. In the case of lacquer, a sprayer is used.

2. Tung Oil (Penetrating Type Finish)

Wooden and elegant steps new applied finish

Using a penetrating finish such as tung oil is a good choice for stairs when you want a more natural option. Penetrating finishes actually soak into the wood, rather than simply sitting on the surface. With proper maintenance, oiling your stairs protects the integrity of the wood. While you will still have to re-oil the stairs in the future, you won't sand after the initial application.
Using oil on your stairs also leaves the wood itself on display. Instead of covering the wood surface with a shiny finish, you can really see the beauty of the wood. It creates a more natural, rustic look. Furthermore, surface finishes can create a slippery surface. But wood stairs that use oil have more traction.

Cons of Surface Finishes

Hardwood Stairs

The biggest drawback to oiled stairs is that they need regular maintenance. Though you'll save time never sanding again, you will have to oil fairly often to keep them looking good. At least the task is easy - simply coat the oil on the stairs, then wipe the excess away.

They also require specific care when cleaning. You need to be aware that most cleaners are actually designed to break down oil. Obviously, this is the last thing you want when you deliberately put the oil there on purpose. Be sure to only use a ph neutral cleaner such as this one by Zep.

How to Apply Pure Tung Oil to Wood Stairs?

Tung oil leaves a dark finish that doesn't really change over time (unlike linseed oil, which tends to yellow). It is durable, easy to apply, and environmentally friendly. It's also more water-resistant than linseed oil.
Apply tung oil with a cloth or rag. You will need to apply several coats. In order to use tung oil, you first have to mix it 50:50 with a citrus-based solvent. You can use a solvent like Real Milk Paint, featured below.

3. Anti-Slip Wood Stair Finishes

Bona Traffic (Anti-Slip Formula)

Both matte polyurethane and tung oil do not have a very slippery finish. For this reason, they make effective choices for stairs. However, if you desire a special anti-slip finish for safety, Bona Traffic Anti-Slip is a good option.

Non-skid Paint Additives

You can also mix a non-slip grit additive directly into any finish, such as featured below by Homax.

Anti-slip Spray Paints

Another option to prevent falls is by applying an anti-slip spray. Spray this on after the finish cures, directly on top. Rust-Oleum makes this one below, it dries clear.

Does Stained Wood Need A Finish?

brown wooden stairs

Stains are applied to wood as a decorating choice. Stains change the color and look of the wood. They help to coordinate your wood with the rest of the room.

The finish, on the other hand, is applied after the stain. It makes a durable coating that protects the wood from damage and fading. In the case of stairs (and most wood), finishing is not a required step. However, it is necessary if you want your stained wood to last and continue looking as nice.

Stairs, in particular, are a hard-wearing area in the house. Wooden stairs take a lot of abuse. To take the time and money to sand and stain your stairs, then not bother protecting them with a finish is just asking for trouble. It's a lot like buying a new car and then leaving the windows down in a rainstorm.

To learn more about staining and finishing stairs, see: How to Paint or Stain Plywood Stairs? [4 Steps]

In Summary

Classic vintage elegant wooden staircase with wrought iron railing

Wood finish is necessary for stairs to protect them from fading and damage. Polyurethane provides the most durable, hardy finish for wood stairs. If slips and falls are a particular concern, anti-slip finishes or grit additives can be mixed directly into the regular finish.

For an environmentally friendly or more natural option, try using tung oil instead. Tung oil requires more frequent maintenance but is a satisfactory choice. Tung oil also creates a more natural appearance for wood, as compared to the shinier finish of polyurethane.

If you enjoyed this article, consider reading:

14 Best Types Of Wood For Stair Treads

Should Stairs Be Darker Than the Floors?

A classic vintage elegant wooden staircase with wrought iron railing, What Is The Best Finish For Wood Stairs? [3 Options]


What finish should I use on stair treads?

For stair treads, you should use a durable and slip-resistant finish. A polyurethane finish is a good choice, as it is durable and slip-resistant. You can also use an oil-based finish, which may not be as durable or slip-resistant as a polyurethane finish.

What is the best wood finish for stairs?

The best wood finish for stairs is a durable and attractive polyurethane finish, such as a semi-gloss or satin sheen. This finish will provide a protective layer to your stairs, which will help them withstand the wear and tear of foot traffic. It can also be easily maintained and cleaned.

Do you use polyurethane on stair treads?

Yes, polyurethane is often used on stair treads as it provides a durable protective layer that is resistant to wear and tear. It also helps to protect the underlying wood from scratches and moisture.

Should you polyurethane steps?

Yes, you should use polyurethane steps, as it will provide protection from wear and tear and make them more moisture-resistant. Additionally, it will protect them from dirt and dust while making them look more attractive.

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