Staircase renovations can be costly. But there are ways around it, to save money, and still upgrade the look of your staircase.
From personal experience, I can tell you, the best way to deal with hardwood stairs (the type that have been stained or varnished) is to spend your time effort and some money on approximately 8 inches of tread that will show on each side of a runner carpet! This will save you some money right there. Why spend hours on the center of the tread that will not even be showing?
If you are trying to renovate a house, and your staircase is structurally sound but ugly, and it is hardwood treads that were once varnished. Then stick to the natural color and varnish them a clear satin. Stay away from stains.
Example: Our staircase was once all varnished hardwood treads, with wooden painted risers. The treads looks gray and worn in the middle where the highest traffic would be, but the edges were a bit beaten up, but no where near as bad. So, we decided to work with it, as to carpet the entire staircase (which is an option) was too expensive for us at the time. The carpet store was able to create a simple runner with bound edges for fairly cheap. Just make sure and choose a low pile carpet for a staircase runner, this keeps the cost way down.
Why work hard on the tread by sanding and varnishing it, if it will be covered by the runner? So, we marked off the area of the wooden tread edges that would show after the runner was installed, I used green painters tape. This gave me an area to work with. Now because it is only 6 - 8 inches or so, you can spend a bit more time on fixing it up.
I decided to take fine grade sand paper and give it a quick sand, and fill in any nail holes etc with wood filler. But decided with many of the dents and bumps that I was going for the "rustic" look!
At the paint store, I was planning on purchasing some darker stain, I thought that would hide imperfections better. The decorator there discouraged me from that. She said, if you can't guarantee that you took off all the varnish, and oils etc, then you will end up with a splotchy stain, as the darker stain will sit in any divits and look darker. The stain will obviously not go where any varnish residue is, and will go where it can be absorbed, which would draw more attention to it, as it will look mottled.
So, if you want to hide the edges of your hardwood stairs, or at least not have them stand out in a bad way, then avoid the dark stains or any stains. Go for the natural color. The reason for this, is first of all, there are usually LOTS of stair treads to work on, plus it can be hard to get power tools such as a sander around railings etc. Plus I didn't want to get into varnish stripper, that was too harsh and would possibly damage the bottom of the railing pickets.
So, I took her advice, and I sanded both ends of the stair treads as best I could, then used a very fine sandpaper, then I vacuumed up any dust. You have to make sure it is totally dust free for a good varnish finish. I then used a tack cloth to get any left over dust residue, but you can use a slightly damp cloth as well.
Once all that preparation was done, I then got out my varnish, in a clear satin finish and put 3 coats of varnish on the ends of these treads. Allowing time to dry in between. Satin was a good choice as gloss would highlight any imperfections. But by leaving it natural color, it actually looked nice and finished. Even with the dents and bumps here and there, they looked like they belonged!
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The runner was then installed, and you would not think these were the same stairs. But just doing the 6 -8 inches on either side of the runner, saves time and effort. You can make the runner the focus of your staircase renovation, by being a bright color. This distracts your eyes from any imperfections in the stair tread. I still found that with the varnish on a cleaned and sanded wood area, it looked great.
But if yours already had a darker stain on at some point, and even after sanding, it looks mottled, then why not consider a "paint stain". These are stains that are a little bit thicker, not quite a paint, but still soaks in like a stain, but will give you a uniform color. I did this on the basement stairs, and it looked great. You can then varnish it after it is dried, and it looks like stained wood.
If you have carpet on your stairs, and it is looking dingy, you can try steaming it, but really you may have to decide to rip out the carpet. If you find you have hardwood stairs under the carpet, then you could try the above idea. But even if you have to invest in replacing the carpet, it is still a cheap fix, as the staircase can be such a presence in a room or entrance, and when it is dingy it makes the house feel dingy.
Just changing out the carpet on the stairs, and repainting the railing, and your staircase will look totally new.
Now make sure you set an area up around your entrance way for taking off shoes, because that is the number one cause of dingy and wearing carpet is wearing your outside shoes in the house. It does not take much to track in grit which wears the carpet down.
Staircase renovations can be expensive. So before you decide to rip yours out and start again, see if you can work with what you have. If it is not falling down, then try some paint or varnish, or invest in a runner. It can make a huge difference to your home.