What is the Best Polyurethane For Stair Treads? (2023)

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Polyurethane is a good choice for finishing stairs, as it is durable and provides good protection for the wood surface. But there are many types of polyurethane, and choosing the wrong one can damage your stairs and cost you a fortune.

So, our woodworking experts have tested the best polyurethane for stair treads to protect your stairs and save you money!

Premium Option
General Finishes QTHS
Editor’s Choice
Varathane 200041H-2PK
Budget Option
Minwax 63010444
General Finishes QTHS
Varathane 200041H-2PK
Minwax 63010444
• Durable
• UV stabilizers
• Low VOCs
• 1-2 hours dry time
• Water-based
• Quick drying
• Scratch-resistant
• Easy cleanup
• Good dry time
• Clear finish
• Versatile
• Easy to use
Premium Option
General Finishes QTHS
General Finishes QTHS
• Durable
• UV stabilizers
• Low VOCs
• 1-2 hours dry time
Editor’s Choice
Varathane 200041H-2PK
Varathane 200041H-2PK
• Water-based
• Quick drying
• Scratch-resistant
• Easy cleanup
Budget Option
Minwax 63010444
Minwax 63010444
• Good dry time
• Clear finish
• Versatile
• Easy to use

Reviews of the Top Polyurethane Finishes for Stair Treads

1. Varathane 200041H-2PK Water-Based Ultimate Polyurethane

The Varathane 200041H-2PK Poly is highly recommended because it is the most effective non-slip polyurethane available while still revealing the wood’s original beauty.

You get a lot of bang for your buck with this product since you can clean it quickly and easily with only water and little soap. In addition, the long-lasting water-based composition safeguards your steps against discoloration, scratching, and other sorts of wear.

We like this product because it offers stair treads a glossy sheen and a polished look with fewer coats of paint and dries rapidly after application.

What We Like

What We Don't Like

2. General Finishes QTHS High Performance Water Based Topcoat

This General Finishes QTHS polyurethane coating has all the desirable qualities of a mix, making it a great option for stair treads. In addition to being highly reliable and adaptable, it also has excellent water resistance, making it a popular purchase. 

Further, water-based means it dries in just a couple of hours, making it a convenient option for those needing something that you can apply fast. It has ultraviolet (UV) stabilizers, which protect surfaces from degrading and underlying stains from disappearing in direct sunshine. 

The General Finishes High-Performance Polyurethane, available in four different surface finishes, is the best choice if you require a polyurethane with exceptional toughness.

What We Like

What We Don't Like

3. Minwax Fast Drying Polyurethane Protective Wood Finish

Minwax 63010444 is a quick-drying polyurethane that forms a durable, long-lasting barrier over any wood surface. It is an excellent coating for protecting wood, making it suitable for doors, floors, cabinets, and furniture. It works as well on prefinished and raw wood.

When using this product, it is recommended to apply three coats for maximum durability. There is a 72-hour period following the last coat when you must refrain from heavy traffic and/or replace furniture.

We also suggest using a natural bristle brush, synthetic pad, or lambswool as an applicator to prevent lap marks. 

What We Like

What We Don't Like

4. Deft Defthane Interior Exterior Clear Polyurethane Satin Spray

Deft is an oil-based poly with a high solids content designed for heavy traffic areas. In addition to being a great alternative for doors, flooring, cabinets, desks, etc., it also makes for a beautiful staircase.

This oil-based paint comes in satin and gloss sheens and can be purchased in 13-ounce aerosol spray cans with variable spray nozzles. This can give wood a clear and durable finish over any previously painted, varnished, lacquered, or stained surface.

The Deft Defthane Interior Exterior Clear Polyurethane, like other penetrating finishes, shields metal surfaces from corrosion and prevents wear and stains from water, alcohol, food, home chemicals, salt spray, and outside weathering.

What We Like

What We Don't Like

5. Bona Mega Semi-Gloss Polyurethane

The water-based floor finish from Bona made it to our list of best polyurethane for stair treads because you can use it on high-traffic indoor floors in business and residential settings.

This is a finish with the same hardness as oil-based polyurethanes but without the disadvantages of those coatings, such as high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), lengthy drying times, and difficult cleanup.

Remember that stair treads, which see greater wear and tear than other places, should be protected with many coats. Additionally, Bona Mega Semi-Gloss Polyurethane offers a wide variety of sheen levels, including gloss, semi-gloss, satin, and extra-matte.

What We Like

What We Don't Like

6. FIXALL Skid Grip Anti-Slip Acrylic Paint

This textured coating is made from 100% acrylic and can make any surface nonslip. Not only that, but you may use this product to design stunning patios and walks. High-traffic areas can all benefit from its long-lasting coating. It sticks well on asphalt, wood, cement, stone, and more, thanks to its high adhesion and fades resistance.

Ultraviolet light can cause cracking and wood flaking, but this solution adds an extra barrier between your wooden surfaces and the sun, making them more resistant to damage.

We like that there are several attractive, fade-resistant color options available for this product. The FIXALL Skid Grip Anti-Slip Acrylic is a high-quality item that can hold up in a home or business setting.

What We Like

What We Don't Like

7. RUST-OLEUM 130031 Varathane

The Rust-Oleum 130031 has an Aluminum Oxide Nano Technology that renders it resistant to scuffs and scratches. In addition to the normal color stability of an oil-based finish, it is resistant to stains and common home chemicals.

Our tests show that a stairwell will be completely dry to the touch in less than two hours. You can apply the second layer after ten hours.

Stairs that see a lot of foot activity will benefit greatly from the long-lasting protection offered by this Varathane Premium Floor Finish. Four different levels of glossiness are available: gloss, matte, satin, and semi-gloss.

What We Like

What We Don't Like

What to Know About Polyurethane

Because of its adaptability, resilience, and long lifespan, it is used for many applications. In the case of wood, this treatment yields a tough and transparent plastic protective layer, making it a great choice for a high-traffic location like a set of stairs.

After finishing with polyurethane, the steps will look better and protect the wood from stains, wetness, scuffs, and scratches.

Simply said, polyurethane provides an impenetrable, long-lasting layer for wood, making it impervious to damage.

Recommended Read

Polyurethane For Stair Treads Buyer’s Guide

Color

In most cases, oil-based treatments will provide better results when trying to bring out the grain and color of the wood.  Polymers made from oil are yellow, while those made from water are transparent. [1]

Water-based polyurethane can keep its clarity for the hardwood floor’s useful life, but oil-based polyurethane can turn yellow and darken over time.

Quantity

Staircases with a lot of foot traffic may need more coating of the best polyurethane for stair tread to prevent the wood from getting damaged, so you may need to buy more tins.

If you choose a water-based finish instead of an oil-based one, remember that you’ll need to apply extra coats to the wood steps.

Water or Oil Based Polyurethane?

Standard finishing oils are reacted with a chemical that enlarges the oil molecules to produce oil-based or oil-modified polyurethane.

These polyurethane coatings are commonly used on hardwood surfaces since they are less expensive and simpler to apply. Wooden surfaces benefit from enhanced color, depth, and sheen.

Furthermore, oil-modified poly offers strong chemical scratch resistance, making it ideal for use on high-traffic tables, counters, floors, and furniture.

Oil-based poly is well-liked because it brings out the best in hardwood floors, protects them from moisture, and allows them to take on a variety of styles. As a result of the high concentration of VOCs it contains, oil-based poly is also more robust (VOCs).

When used on hardwood floors, it instantly deepens the color and gives them a warm amber tone. This process can make any drab wood hue pop by highlighting the grain.

However, the oil-based finish will continue to darken each year as it ages, which could make it unsuitable for some stair designs.

It also takes longer to dry because of the intense fumes, which may be harmful. To ensure you end up with high-quality oil-based polyurethane, you must be careful about whose brand you select.

Water is the major medium for transporting polyurethane solids in water-based polyurethane instead of oil (solvents). Before, oil-based polyurethane was thought to be more long-lasting than its water-based counterpart.

Recent advances in production have made water-based polyurethane the finish of choice for flooring specialists. Water-based poly of equivalent grade has a similar lifespan if properly cared for.

As a bonus, unlike oil-based polyurethanes, water-based polyurethane does not cause the wood’s natural color to fade. This is especially helpful for gray, white, and lighter woods, whose colors you don’t want to change.

Water-based polyurethanes have gained popularity because of their lack of odor, quick drying time, and simplicity of application.

Semi-Gloss or Satin Finish?

Satin polyurethane is the finest choice for staircases; it preserves the wood’s pristine appearance for longer and masks the inevitable wear and tear that comes with constant use.

It’s important to think about the desired color, durability, and natural transparency of the wood when deciding between a Satin and Semi-Gloss treatment for your staircase.

If you want clean floors, you should avoid using a high sheen because it draws attention to any faults. Thus, satin is preferable if you’re going for a refined and stately aesthetic in your room.

The low sheen and low reflectivity of satin give your wood a more natural look. Because of its ability to conceal flaws and smudges, this material is a good choice for households with children and pets.

Since satin isn’t quite as glossy as Semi-Gloss, it’s less dangerous to walk on it when descending or ascending flights of stairs. However, if you want your floors to look shinier, Semi-Gloss is your best bet.

Particles will be more noticeable as a result of the increased reflectance. While both options are viable, it’s important to remember that a glossy finish will highlight defects and signs of wear more than a matte one.

Dry Time

Water-based poly is the better option if you don’t want to leave your home for a long time after finishing your hardwood stairs.

Unlike its oil-based predecessor, water-based poly doesn’t require as much drying time before usage (6-24 hours).

Size

Polyurethane typically has a coverage range of 300–600 sq ft per gallon. You may need to buy multiple cans if you need to cover a bigger area, like a stairway or hardwood floor.

Applying Polyurethane on Stairs

Tools/Materials You’ll Need

tools for wood finishing

Detailed Steps

1. Sand the stairs with 120-grit paper until they are flat and smooth. Once the dust from the sanding is gone, use the tack cloth and give the stairs one final polish.

2. It is recommended to use painter’s tape along the stair railing to prevent polyurethane from getting onto the walls. If you don’t want the finish on the bottom of the spindles or any other details on the steps, cover them up.

3. Before using a polyurethane can, turn it upside down ten times and keep doing so at regular intervals. If you shake the can, air bubbles will form in the coating.

4. Dip the end of your polyfoam brush into the poly. Keep it in place for several seconds to allow the brush to absorb the paint fully. Move it to the wooden surface and let some excess liquid drip back into the can.

5. The wooden steps should be given a light coating of polyurethane. It’s best to begin at the top of the stairwell and make your way down.

6. Drag the brush down the stairs in even, lengthy strokes. Brush only in one direction at a time, which would be in the orientation of the wood grain. Remove any puddles or drippings of polyurethane using a back brush.

7. Please allow the surface to dry for the specified time (2-12 hours) on the product label.

8. The initial finish coat needs to dry for a whole night. Use sandpaper with a grit of 200 to remove any splinters from the steps. The steps must be vacuumed and cleaned with a ph-neutral cleanser and a tack cloth.

9. The following day, using a new brush, add a second coat in the same manner. When applying additional coats, polyurethane should not be diluted. The second coat needs a whole night to dry. If a third coat is required, sanding and cleaning are required before application.

10. A total of four or five coats of polyurethane may be needed to produce the desired look; therefore, it’s important to double-check this quantity. Sanding and cleaning the wood is important in between coats. You do not need to sand the last coat of finish.

Is Polyurethane a Good Finish for Stairs? Will it be Slippery?

Polyurethane helps protect surfaces, which is great, but some varieties of polyurethane can make people unsteady.

Hardwoods are dangerously slippery on stairs due to their smooth polished surface, and the shinier polyurethane form will only worsen things. As a result, you can prevent mishaps and injuries by using anti-slip or anti-skid polyurethane materials.

Alternatively, you might use anti-slip sprays, floor treatments, or transparent sticky slip strips. You can get some traction on the steps without sacrificing the way they look with them.

You can also use stair runners, anti-slip tape, carpet strips, and anti-slip tape, but these will hide a portion of your steps and detract from their aesthetic value.

Hardwood flooring can be hazardous for all its aesthetic value, so follow our guide to have a beautiful, glossy floor without the risks.

FAQ

Can you apply poly over painted stairs?

If you want to, that is fine. Adding polyurethane over freshly painted stairs protects them from wear and tear caused by the constant pounding of feet. It will also add a glossy finish to the hardwood, making it simple to maintain.

On the other hand, can you stain over polyurethane? Find out here! 

What’s the most ideal finish for oak staircases?

Two layers of clear polyurethane are all needed to highlight the grain and natural reddish hue of oak in a straightforward finishing method. If you dye the treads before spreading the polyurethane, you can increase the warmth even further.

How many coats do you need to apply on the stairs?

Stairs made of wood often only need two or three layers of oil-based polyurethane. On the other hand, water-based polyurethane does not provide quite as thick a coating as its oil-based counterpart so you may need four or more coats for full protection.

Does polyurethane have side effects on our health?

Anyone with respiratory issues should avoid breathing in uncured polyurethane. However, this in no way puts others in danger. Polyurethane, whether oil- or water-based, poses no risk to users or bystanders if applied properly.

What’s the ideal varnish to use on stairs?

A transparent water-based poly varnish is the finest choice if you care about the lasting beauty of your stairway. Brush it on your wood, and then reapply a second layer within 24 hours, then allow it to cure for a firm and durable surface.

Our Top Pick For a Polyurethane for Stair Treads:
Varathane 200041H-2PK

The best polyurethane for stair treads our pro woodworkers chose is the Varathane 200041H-2PK

It is a good choice for anyone who wants a durable and protective finish for wood surfaces but also needs the convenience of a water-based product with a quick drying time and a variety of sheen-level options. 

Robert Johnson is a woodworker who takes joy in sharing his passion for creating to the rest of the world. His brainchild, Sawinery, allowed him to do so as well as connect with other craftsmen. He has since built an enviable workshop for himself and an equally impressive online accomplishment: an extensive resource site serving old timers and novices alike.
Robert Johnson
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