Best Polyurethane for Stairs in 2021 – Buying Guide and Reviews

A set of hardwood stairs can be a striking aesthetic feature to a home, especially when visible from the main entrance or living area. But those beautiful stairs will only remain that way if they are well-protected. Constant daily use, shoes, water, paws, and a whole host of other factors can combine to wreak havoc, quickly fading those beautiful hardwood floors.

Luckily there are quality polyurethane products you can use to cover and protect your stairs. These water-based and oil-based products create a hard translucent shell over your hardwood steps, protecting them from scratches, scuffs, water damage, and even dents.

In this guide, we’ll examine what qualities you should look for in polyurethane and review some of the best polyurethane for stairs.

At a Glance: The Best Polyurethane for Stairs Discussed in our Guide

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Best Polyurethane for Stairs

Best Polyurethane for Stairs

Water-Based

1. Bona Traffic HD Commercial Satin

BestBona is well-known and well regarded for its hardwood flooring products, and for good reason. The company puts out top quality products and Bona Traffic HD Commercial Satin is no exception. It creates a tough scratch-, scuff-, and chemical-resistant surface that serves as a shield over your precious hardwood floors.

It’s colorless and clear, so you don’t need to worry about it yellowing. This is an excellent option for homes with hardwood in high traffic areas or floors that must endure the abuse of children and pets.

Some polyurethanes can be difficult to work with, with thicker consistencies that are a challenge to level or that bubble easily. With a smooth consistency that isn’t overly thick, Bona’s polyurethane self-levels exceptionally well.

You also don’t have to worry about long dry times that can put your living area out of service or allow time for impurities in the air to rest on the wet surface and become a permanent part of your stairs.

This product dries quickly, allowing you to walk on it in stocking feet just hours after drying. Thanks to its low VOCs—less than 150 to be exact—you don’t have to worry about overwhelming fumes. In addition to being easy to apply, this product is also easy to clean, thanks to its water-based composition.

While this polyurethane, which comes in one-gallon containers, may cost you more than other polyurethanes, the exceptional quality and ease of application it offers make it worth the extra expense.

Pros Cons
  • Excellent durability
  • Quick-dry time
  • Low VOCs
  • Expensive
  • Thin consistency requires more coats

2. General Finishes High-Performance Water Based Topcoat

polyurethane for stairsWith a consistency that’s more viscous than other polyurethanes, General Finishes High-Performance Topcoat is a worthy choice for protecting your floors from dents, abrasions, scratches, and water damage. You won’t find a product that is much harder than this one.

In fact, Fine Woodworking named this product the hardest of polyurethanes, making it worth its high price point. And, if your stairs happen to get sun, this product includes a UV stabilizer that protects the finish from sun damage.

This product supports a variety of different application methods, including sprayers, synthetic brushes, and rollers. It dries quickly, drying to the touch in just 5 to 10 minutes with the surface ready for additional coats in a couple of hours

If you’re looking to add some color to your floors, you can also use this product as a toner when paired with one of General Finishes’ stains. Low VOCs make this safe for application in small stairways while clean-up is easy with soap and water. If you’re covering wood stairs with white paint on the risers, make sure not to use this product to seal the painted sections as it will cause white paint to yellow.

Pros Cons
  • Hard finish provides super protection
  • Can be applied using multiple methods
  • Low VOC formula
  • Expensive
  • Higher viscosity can make it harder to work with

3. Minwax 63010444 Fast Drying Polyurethane

minwax polyurethane for stairsGiven the popularity of its name and reputation, you can expect quality stains and sealers from Minwax, and its fast-drying polyurethane is no exception. It can be used to seal both finished and unfinished stairs with an even and durable coat that resists scratches, scuffs, and dents. This product is oil-based, so expect it to be harder and hence a bit tougher than water-based polyurethanes.

Of course, this also means that clean up is more of a chore. Thinner is required to clean brushes and rollers. It also means that you’ll need plenty of ventilation when applying this product as it creates more VOCs than water-based alternatives. Dry times are also shorter, so expect to wait a day between coatings.

Minwax polyurethane is also one of the more affordable options at just a fraction of the cost of higher-end polyurethanes. Just keep in mind that it’s also not as viscous and some competing products.

This means you’ll need to apply more coats to get the thick protective finish you need on a set of stairs. With this in mind, you’ll need more of it than you would of a higher-end finish, which defrays some of that savings.

Pros Cons
  • Inexpensive
  • Oil base adds durability
  • Shorter than average dry times for oil-based polyurethanes
  • Thinner than other polyurethanes
  • High VOCs

4. Varathane 200041H Water-Based Ultimate Polyurethane

best finish for stair treadsFew carry the reputation of Varathane, which falls under the highly-regarded Rustoleum name and has been making stains and sealers since 1958. What makes this product so great is not only its ability to resist stains and scratches but also the ease at which it goes on.

Varathane polyurethane goes on smooth, blending evenly from brushstroke to brushstroke, while self-leveling ensures you won’t spot tiny ridges in the finish on your daily travels up and down the stairs.

And, unlike other polyurethane, Varathane remains clear regardless of how light the wood is that you’re refinishing. It won’t yellow, making it a great option if you’re protecting light-colored natural wood or even painted stairs.

It also dries quickly, needing just 30 minutes to dry to the touch and a couple of hours for additional coats.

This polyurethane is thinner than other polyurethanes, which is partly what makes it easy to work with.

This also means you’ll need to apply more coats to get a good thickness. This can make for more work when sealing stairs, which require a thick layer of polyurethane to ward off all the abuse they’ll see.

Varathane polyurethane comes in quarts and half-pint sizes and is comparable in price to other high-end polyurethanes. It comes in gloss, satin, and semi-gloss.

Pros Cons
  • Blends evenly, hiding brush strokes
  • Won’t yellow
  • Dries very quickly
  • Thinner polyurethane that requires more coats for stairs
  • More expensive than other brands

5. Bona Mega Semi-Gloss

best finish for wood stairsBona uses its proprietary technology in this product, which it calls Oxygen Cross-Linking, to create a water-based formula that has exceptional durability and luster.

Without going deep into the chemistry of oxygen cross-linking, this essentially makes a harder finish, similar to the one you might find on oil-based polyurethanes without the high VOCs, drying times, and messy clean up associated with oil-based finishes.

It’s practically odorless, is ready for additional coats in about 2 hours, and cleans up with water. Bona Mega Semi-Gloss goes on smooth with exceptional self-leveling qualities, making it relatively easy to apply with a synthetic brush or roller.

Bona Mega comes in 1-gallon sizes, which is about enough coverage for 500 to 600 square feet. This product is thinner than some other polyurethane’s so plan on three to four coats for stair treads that require more protection than lower traffic areas.

You also have options to choose from when it comes to finish. Bona Mega comes in gloss, semi-gloss, satin or extra matte. For the highest level of durability, go with one of the gloss finishes, which is harder than the satin or matte options.

And, since it’s nice to have additional product on hand should a tread or two need repair, it’s nice to know that this polyurethane has no expiration date. Bona Mega is priced similarly to other polyurethanes.

Pros Cons
  • Oxygen cross-linking creates a harder finish
  • Creates an ultra-smooth finish
  • Very low VOCs
  • More expensive than other polyurethanes
  • Is thinner, requiring more coats than other polyurethanes

6. Minwax Water-Based Wipe-On Polyurethane

best polyurethane finishIf you hate the drips and brush marks that polyurethane applied with brushes can leave, consider going with a hand-rubbed option, such as Wipe-On Polyurethane from Minwax. Simply apply it with a soft clean cloth.

This method makes it easier to apply to stair treads that may feature more intricate bullnose styles. It also makes for an easier process when working from awkward positions for applications on stairs.

And, if that stairway has a rail or banister that needs treatment, wipe-on polyurethane is much easier to apply onto these narrow and odd-shaped pieces. It can be difficult to control the amount you’re applying to the shape of a banister with a brush, causing you to undoubtedly have drips, runs, and uneven coatings.

Minwax’ wipe-on polyurethane comes in small pint bottles, makes it easy to hold in one hand, apply to a cloth and wipe on as you work your way up the stairs. This makes for a much easier process over toting a gallon of polyurethane with a brush up the steps.

Just keep in mind that if you have painted risers you don’t want to treat, you’ll likely need to protect them with tape to get the rear of the treads treated without getting polyurethane on the risers.

This wax is water-based, so it dries quickly. A second coat can be applied after just a couple of hours of drying time, and your stairs will be back in service after just a day of curing. Make sure to use a lint-free cloth for best results.

Pros Cons
  • No drops or runs with wipe one application
  • Ideal for railings
  • Small bottle easy to manage on stairs
  • Harder to edge for stairs with painted risers
  • Can yellow lighter colors

Oil-Based Polyurethane

7. Minwax 230004444 Fast Drying Polyurethane

best polyurethane for floorsHaving the most durable polyurethane typically means having to suffer through the downsides of working with an oil-based application. This includes messy clean up requiring turpentine, fumes that will make you light-headed, and, of course, the slow dry times.

The latter is particularly challenging when it comes to sealing stairs given that most stairwells serve as the sole means for getting to and from the second floor. Minwax Fast-Drying Polyurethane gives you the benefit of an oil-based polyurethane without keeping your stairs out of commission for days.

Whereas other oil-based polyurethanes may require as much as a full day’s worth of drying time before you can add another coat, Minwax’s is ready in about an hour, minimizing the time it takes to complete the overall job and get your stairs back in service.

And, with this formula, you don’t need to compromise on durability. You still get the hard shell that an oil-based polyurethane offers, which is key to stair treads that must endure a lot of traffic.

This product also features excellent self-leveling properties, so you don’t need to worry about leaving brush strokes. Apply this product with a high-quality synthetic brush for the best results.

Pros Cons
  • Quick-dry time for oil-based polyurethane
  • Hard finish for durability
  • Affordable price
  • High VOCs of an oil-based finish
  • Clean-up requires turpentine

8. Rust-Oleum Varathane 6041H Interior Oil Polyurethane

stairs finishWhile Rust-Oleum’s water-based version of this polyurethane is of exceptional quality if you’re looking for maximum durability and the smoothest finish you’ll want to go with its oil-based formula Rust-Oleum Varathane 6041H.

It leaves a harder finish, which equates to better resistance against scuffs, scratches, and general wear and tear. And, with its quick-dry formula, you don’t need to wait a whole day between coats—the normal price of working with oil-based coatings. This product is dry to the touch in about 2 hours and ready for additional coats after 4 hours.

Despite being a thicker polyurethane, this product goes on smoothly with impressive self-leveling qualities that eliminate any trace of brush strokes.

A semi-gloss finish adds excellent stain and scratch resistance while also giving your hardwood stairs a classic look. This product is best applied with a quality synthetic brush.

While this polyurethane is an excellent option for protecting stained wood, beware of using it on light paints as it will leave a yellow tint. Clean-up involves your typical regiment for oil-based applications with turpentine required for cleaning brushes.

This polyurethane comes in semi-gloss and satin options and is comparative in cost to other high-quality sealants. It comes in 1-quart sizes. Expect to get about 150 square feet of coverage per quart.

As it is oil-based, this product does put off strong fumes, so make sure to have plenty of ventilation when applying.

Pros Cons
  • Quick-dry formula dries in a couple of hours
  • Hard finish provides superior durability
  • Affordable price
  • Clean-up requires turpentine
  • High VOCs

9. Minwax 40910000 Wipe-On Poly

best clear polyurethaneWhen dealing with odd shapes objects, such as furniture, wipe on products help you get an even coat. For stairs, it adds convenience. Minwax wipe-on oil-based polyurethane offers superior durability and scratch resistance that oil-based polyurethane has over water-based products.

This makes it ideal for applying to hardwood railings that can be tricky to coat with a paintbrush. By using a wipe-on formula, you don’t have to worry about applying an inconsistent amount of polyurethane to the ridges, nooks, and crannies of railings. This means no runs or drips.

This wipe-on polyurethane is a good sidekick for a brush-on formula that you can use with the stair treads. Or, if you like the ease and convenience offered by a smaller bottle and cloth, you can make short work of the stairs with this product too.

It also eliminates the need to clean brushes with turpentine or stow them in your refrigerator between coats. Simply purchase more affordable disposable lint-free cloths or use an old t-shirt for application, then throw it away when you’re done.

Keep in mind that wipe-on polyurethanes go on thinner, so plan on applying more coats than you would with a brush-on coating. Drying time for this product is about 2 to 3 hours between coats with a 24-hour wait time after the final coat before you can reopen your stairs for service.

Pros Cons
  • Eliminates drips and runs
  • No brushes to clean
  • Excellent for railings
  • Tough to edge on certain stairs
  • Requires more coats than brush-on polyurethanes

10. Deft Defthane Interior Exterior Clear Polyurethane

Deft Defthane Clear PolyurethaneIt’s no secret that your hardwood stairs are going to face a significant amount of foot traffic, making them more susceptible to scratches and wear than other hardwood areas of your home.

If you have pets and children or don’t follow a strict “no shoes in the house” policy, expect the stairs to take a pretty good beating over the years.

Deft Defthane Clear Polyurethane seeks to address that by putting more solids into the oil-based formula. The result is a product that features exceptional hardness for resisting scratches, stains, and dents. And, if you happen to have stairs exposed to sunlight, this product features excellent UV protection properties.

In keeping with having high durability, this product comes in a harder gloss finish. With a crystal clear finish that doesn’t have a yellow tint, it’s also a great option for lighter natural wood.

Keep in mind that this product is a bit harder to work with. It’s thicker than most polyurethanes and takes longer to dry. You’ll need to wait about four or five hours between coats.

Plan on paying significantly more for this high-quality formula. Deft Duhane’s polyurethane is about twice the cost of other polyurethanes.

Pros Cons
  • Superior durability
  • Higher viscosity requires fewer coats
  • Won’t tint lighter woods
  • Very expensive
  • Harder to work with than thinner polyurethanes

What Is Polyurethane

Polyurethane is basically plastic in liquid form. When exposed to air, polyurethane hardens, creating the shiny protective coating over wood that it’s known for.

It’s used to protect surfaces from water damage and scratches. This is especially useful for surfaces that see significant traffic, such as furniture, hardwood floors and stairs, or outdoor furniture.

It also beautifies, creating a shiny finish that compliments the natural grains in unfinished and stained wood. Some polyurethanes include a slight amount of pigmentation that gives wood a glowing effect.

Like paint, polyurethanes come in sheens ranging from matte to gloss. Polyurethane can be applied with a roller, sprayer, brush or cloth.

Types of Polyurethane for Stairs

Water-Based

Color and ease-of-use are the main advantages of water-based polyurethane. Water-based polyurethanes leave a clear finish, making them ideal for covering unfinished lighter woods such as pine and maple.

They also dry very quickly, usually in less than two hours, allowing you to apply multiple coats quickly, enabling you to finish a project in a day. And, because these coatings are water-based, brushes need only be rinsed with water for clean-up.

Water-based polyurethane is also more expensive and doesn’t include as many solids, meaning you’ll need more coats to get the same amount of protection as an oil-based polyurethane.

Oil-Based

Oil-based polyurethane leaves a yellow-ish glow after curing dry. While these may be fine for darker woods and certain stains that benefit from that glow, it leaves an undesirable tint when coating lighter unfinished wood or light-painted wood.

Oil-based paint contains more solids than water-based paints, making it harder and therefore more durable. This means it won’t require the amount of maintenance of refinishing over time than water-based polyurethanes will demand.

Although there are oil-based polyurethanes that are quick-drying, many require you to wait overnight for the coating to dry before applying a second coat. This can put your stairs out of commission for days.

They also have significantly higher VOCs than water-based polyurethanes, which means you’ll need the area to be well ventilated, which can be a challenge with a stairwell.

Will Polyurethane Make Stairs Slippery

All that polyurethane that you coat your stairs with to make them so eye-catching and attractive can also leave them slippery, making them a hazard to those in stocking feet. There are ways of making polyurethane stairs less slippery with some doing a better job of maintaining the aesthetics of your stairs than others.

Transparent adhesive slip strips, anti-slip sprays, and floor finishes are one option. They’ll add some grip to your stairs without detracting from their appearance. The downside with these options is that they are inherently sticky, so they have a tendency to trap dirt.

Stair carpet strips, anti-slip tape, and stair runners are other options but will take away from the beauty of your stairs by covering part of them.

Best Polyurethane Finish for Stairs

When choosing polyurethane, you generally have four options: matte, satin, semi-gloss, and gloss. When choosing a sheen for stairs, it’s best to go with something in the middle.

While many people believe gloss is the most durable finish you can buy, semi-gloss actually provides comparative properties with less maintenance. Semi-Gloss offers plenty of sheen as well as resistance from scratches and scuffs as well as excellent protection from water.

Satin provides a more subtle and hence formal look than the shiny semi-gloss stairs. Since it’s not as shiny, satin doesn’t reflect light as much as other finishes and thus does a better job of hiding scratches and other imperfections.

Satin isn’t as silky smooth as semi-gloss, so it’s less slippery, making it a bit safer for use on stairs. That said, satin isn’t quite as hard as semi-gloss and therefore is more susceptible to being scratched or scuffed. It also doesn’t resist water as well.

Best Brands of Polyurethane for Stairs

Bona

Bona, known for its collection of hardwood cleaning products as well as its polyurethane finishes, offers perhaps the highest-end polyurethane products on the market with their top formulas used to handle the high traffic of commercial settings. This also means they’re among the most expensive polyurethanes you can buy.

Minwax

Minwax makes perhaps the most variations when it comes to stains and polyurethanes. Because it makes both, the company’s polyurethanes are well-blended to protect Minwax stains. Though not as heavy-duty as Bona, Minwax also offers very affordable products that are a fraction of the cost.

Varathane

Like Minwax, Varathane polyurethane comes in both water and oil-based forms. It dries quickly and features excellent self-leveling qualities, making it easy to work with. Its oil-based formula is particularly attractive, giving its ability to dry quite quickly. It is a little thicker than Minwax, which can make it harder to work with, though it requires fewer coats.

What to Look for in the Polyurethane for Stairs

When it comes to polyurethane for stairs, consider that stairways are high traffic areas. With this in mind, it’s best to go with durability over all other qualities. Oil-based polyurethane contains more solids and is, therefore, harder, making it better capable of standing up to the constant pounding it will endure day in and day out.

With that in mind, it’s important to understand that not all oil-based polyurethanes are created the same. Those rated for high traffic feature more solids than those that are not, making them more scratch resistant and hence more durable than other formulas.

When it comes to finish, go with a semi-gloss or satin finish. Semi-gloss will do a good job of resisting scratches and dents while still providing an attractive sheen to highlight the wood grains in hardwood stairs.

Satin provides a more nuanced, classic look, which is excellent for darker stains while hiding scratches and imperfections. It’s also not as slick as higher gloss finishes.

Stairs are essential functional parts of the home, so drying time is an important consideration. Many oil-based polyurethanes have long drying times, which could put your stairs out of commission for potentially days whereas a water-based polyurethane might be ready for service by the next day.

You also don’t have the fumes to contend with when using a water-based polyurethane compared to the high VOCs of oil-based coatings.

Most of the time you get what you pay for, and such is also the case with polyurethane. High-end polyurethanes can cost twice as much as lower-end products. While the higher price may be hard to swallow up front, these higher-end finishes will last longer, produce better results, and provide a higher degree of protection than cheaper products.

How Many Coats of Polyurethane Should You Put on Stairs

Because stairs are high traffic parts of your home, you must ensure your stairs are well protected from stains, water, scuffs, and scratches by applying three coats of polyurethane to the treads, making sure to lightly sand between each coat for good adhesion between each layer.

Do You Need To Sand Between Coats Of Polyurethane?

In order to give each layer of polyurethane something to bond to, you need to sand in between each coat using fine-grit sandpaper such as 320 grit. Failing to sand between coats can result in a rougher finish.

How Long Does It Take For Polyurethane To Dry On Hardwood Stairs?

For water-based polyurethane, wait about two hours between each coat before lightly sanding and adding additional coats. It takes about six hours after the last coat for the stairs to dry enough for use.

Wait about a day for most oil-based polyurethanes to dry before you can add a second coat. You’ll have to wait another 24 hours before you can walk on the floor in stocking feet.

It takes 24 days to a month for polyurethane to fully cure to its maximum hardness.

Conclusion

When choosing a polyurethane to treat your steps, it’s crucial to consider the amount of traffic your steps will have to endure. Choose a polyurethane that will provide a good barrier against scratches, scuffs, and water damage.

While oil-based polyurethanes may offer the best protection, they can be difficult to work with and do produce significantly more VOCs than their water-based counterparts. There are many water-based products that are easier to apply while offering a high level of protection.

Regardless of which type you select, make sure to go with a quality polyurethane that will maintain the beauty of those hardwood steps for many years to come.

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