What is the Best Polyurethane For Stair Treads? (2024)

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Using polyurethane is a smart move for finishing stairs since it’s tough and safeguards the wood. But be careful; there are tons of polyurethane types out there, and picking the wrong one can wreck your stairs and be a financial drain.

I put various polyurethanes to the test, specifically for stair treads. I wanted to make sure I could recommend the best one to keep your stairs protected without breaking the bank!

Chainsaw Winch Buyer’s Guide

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 comes highly recommended because it is the most effective non-slip polyurethane available while still revealing the wood’s original beauty.

Surfaces coated with this product can be cleaned quickly and easily with only water and a little soap. In addition, the long-lasting water-based composition safeguards your steps against discoloration, scratching, and other sorts of wear.

One aspect I truly appreciate about this polyurethane is its ability to deliver a glossy sheen and a polished appearance with minimal coats. This not only saves time but also ensures a beautiful finish. The quick drying time is a bonus, making it an ideal choice for projects where you don’t want to wait around.

What I Like

What I Don't Like

2. General Finishes QTHS High Performance Water Based Topcoat

This General Finishes QTHS polyurethane coating truly encompasses the ideal blend of qualities I seek, making it my top pick for stair treads. Its reliability and adaptability are outstanding, and the added water resistance only adds to its appeal.

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 I Like

What I Don't Like

3. Minwax Fast Drying Polyurethane Protective Wood Finish

The 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.

For the best results, applying three coats boosts its durability. It’s important to note that after the last coat, there’s a 72-hour window to avoid heavy traffic or moving furniture around.

To avoid any uneven marks during application, I’ve followed the recommendation of using a natural bristle brush, synthetic pad, or lambswool applicator. This really helps prevent any unwanted lap marks and ensures a smooth finish.

What I Like

What I Don't Like

4. Deft Defthane Interior Exterior Clear Polyurethane Satin Spray

This Deft product 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.

What I find really impressive is its versatility. The Deft Defthane Interior Exterior Clear Polyurethane doesn’t just stop at wood; it’s a protective powerhouse. It shields metal surfaces, preventing corrosion and safeguarding against wear and stains from all sorts of things like water, alcohol, food, household chemicals, salt spray, and even the elements.

What I Like

What I Don't Like

5. Bona Mega Semi-Gloss Polyurethane

The water-based floor finish from Bona is one of best polyurethane for stair treads because it can also be used on high-traffic indoor floors in business and residential settings.

What’s really impressive is that this finish matches the hardness of oil-based polyurethanes, yet it completely avoids the downsides of those coatings. You won’t have to deal with highly volatile VOCs; the drying times are much quicker. Cleanup is a breeze, too, which is such a relief.

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 I Like

What I Don't Like

6. FIXALL Skid Grip Anti-Slip Acrylic Paint

This textured coating is 100% acrylic and can make any surface nonslip. Not only that, but you may use this product to design stunning patios and walks. I also liked how versatile this product is – it effortlessly adheres to various surfaces like asphalt, wood, cement, and stone.

Moreover, its exceptional adhesion and resistance to fading mean that it stays put and retains its vibrant appearance over time.

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 damage-resistant.

I 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 I Like

What I 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.

When I used this product as a finish, the stairwell becomes completely dry to the touch within just two hours. You don’t have to wait around for ages to continue your project. And if you’re aiming for a second layer, you’ll be good to go after a wait of about 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. You can also choose from four different levels of glossiness: gloss, matte, satin, and semi-gloss.

What I Like

What I 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.

Once I finish treating the wood with polyurethane, the results are remarkable. The steps look better and gain reliable protection against stains, moisture, scuffs, and scratches.

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

More Polyurethane-Related Reads

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.

What I’ve come to appreciate about oil-modified polyurethane is its impressive chemical scratch resistance, making it a perfect match for high-traffic areas like 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, an 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?

From my woodworking experience, I’ve always leaned towards satin polyurethane for staircases. It not only maintains the wood’s beautiful look for a longer time but also camouflages the usual wear and tear from everyday use.

When you’re torn between satin and semi-gloss for your stairs, consider what you value more: the wood’s color, its durability, or its natural transparency.

If you’re aiming for spotless floors, steer clear of high sheen. It will highlight every little imperfection. For that elegant and dignified look in your space, satin is often the way to go.

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

If you’re hoping to stay in your home shortly after finishing your hardwood stairs, I’d recommend water-based poly. It’s generally a more convenient choice in such situations.

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 painting

Detailed Steps

1. Sand the stairs with 120-grit paper until they are flat and smooth. Once the dust from the sanding was gone, I used the tack cloth and gave the stairs one final polish.

2. I recommended using 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. I always 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, I used a new brush, added 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 when used on stairs.

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.

If you’re looking for other solutions, consider anti-slip sprays, floor treatments, or even clear anti-slip strips. These can provide the necessary grip without compromising the aesthetics of your stairs. 

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 these guidelines 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.

However, it’s important to prepare before applying polyurethane. Always clean the stairs thoroughly and make sure any existing paint is still holding up well. Sometimes, I’ve found it helpful to give the painted surface a light sanding just to ensure the polyurethane adheres better. Proper prep can make all the difference.

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.

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

The best polyurethane for stair treads I 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. 

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Robert Johnson is a passionate furniture maker & carpenter, sought after for his knowledge on the craft.
You’ve probably seen his down-to-earth wisdom in USA Today, Bobvila, Family Handyman, and The Spruce, where he has shared commentary and guidance on various woodworking topics.

Robert is the brain behind Sawinery, where he aims to share tips, tricks, and a passion for all things carpentry.

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