The Best Polyurethane For Stair Treads and Railings

To enhance the beauty and durability of your staircase, choosing the right polyurethane can make all the difference. I tested 9 products and found Varathane Water Based Polyurethane the best polyurethane for stair treads and railings.

With a wealth of experience in woodworking, I needed to uncover the ultimate solution for enhancing the aesthetics and longevity of staircases.

In this post, I’ll unveil the surprising results of my exhaustive testing process, highlighting why Minwax Polyurethane outshone the competition.

We’ll also explore the intricacies of when and why this remarkable product might be the perfect fit for your project. Also, as well as explore specific scenarios where alternative options shine.

Read on here for more.

Our Top Picks

Best Polyurethane for Stair Treads

  1. Varathane 200041h Water BasedBest overall polyurethane for stair treads
  2. Varathane 284473 Triple Thick PolyurethaneBest bang for the buck
  3. General Finishes High PerformanceBest durabable polyurethane
  4. Minwax 63010444 Polyurethane
  5. RUST-OLEUM 130031 VarathaneBest premium finish for stairs
  6. Deft Defthane PolyurethaneBest oil-based polyurethane for stairs
  7. Minwax Wipe-on PolyurethaneBest wipe on poly for stairs
  8. Bona Traffic Anti-Slip PolyurethaneBest anti slip varnish for stairs
  9. Watco 68041 Polyurethane FinishBest glossy polyurethane finish

Best Polyurethane for Stair Treads – (Updated List)

1. Best Overall Polyurethane – Varathane Water-Based Ultimate Polyurethane

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Varathane 200041H Water-Based Ultimate Polyurethane emerges as the undisputed champion when protecting indoor wood surfaces, especially stair treads. This remarkable product boasts a water-based formula that dries fast and cleans up effortlessly with just soap and water.

But let’s delve deeper into why Varathane 200041H stands out as the best overall when looking for polyurethane for stair treads.

First and foremost, its rapid drying time is nothing short of impressive. Within a mere 30 minutes, you can touch your freshly coated stair treads, minimizing downtime and allowing you to resume your daily routine without the inconvenience of long drying periods.

What truly sets Varathane 200041H apart is its durability. Having tested this product, I can confidently attest to its ability to withstand the daily wear and tear that stair treads endure. It forms a tough protective layer that shields your wood surfaces from scuffs, scratches, and moisture, ensuring they remain pristine for years.

The gloss finish provided by Varathane 200041H is the icing on the cake. It not only enhances the natural beauty of the wood but also creates a polished and clean look that’s visually appealing. The result is stair treads that exude elegance and charm while staying well-protected.

In my hands-on experience, Varathane 200041H Water-Based Ultimate Polyurethane has proven to be the best choice for stair treads. Its unbeatable combination of fast drying, easy cleanup, durability, and a beautiful gloss finish makes it the clear winner in its category.

Say goodbye to the hassles of extended drying times and hello to stair treads that not only look stunning but also stay protected for the long haul. This product is a game-changer for anyone looking to preserve and elevate the beauty of their indoor wood surfaces.

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2. Best Bang for the Buck-Varathane Triple Thick Polyurethane

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The best bang for the buck in the world of wood finishes, Varathane Triple Thick Polyurethane is the undisputed champion. As a dedicated DIY enthusiast who’s always on the lookout for products that combine affordability and quality, I can confidently say that this polyurethane is a game-changer.

The product offers a remarkable blend of properties that make it ideal for all interior wood surfaces, including stair treads and railings. Its one-coat coverage saves you time and also ensures that you make the most out of every can.

One amazing feature of this product is its rapid drying time. In just 2 hours, it dries to the touch, allowing you to proceed with your project without long waiting times.

Surprisingly, I covered a whole 50 sq ft on my staircases. This guarantees you can cover a large space, making it a cost-effective choice for small and large-scale projects. Most important, the ultimate durability and protection it offers are truly impressive.

I compared it to other affordable options, and Varathane Triple Thick Polyurethane proved its worth by standing strong against wear and tear. The satin finish adds a touch of elegance and enhances the wood’s natural beauty.

Put simply, if you’re looking for a budget-friendly yet high-performing polyurethane, Varathane triple-thick polyurethane should be at the top of your list. It delivers outstanding value for your money.

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3. Best Durable Polyurethane – General Finishes High Performance Polyurethane

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Durability is often the holy grail, especially on surfaces that endure heavy use, like stair treads. I recently put General Finishes High Performance Polyurethane to the test, and I must say, it’s a standout in terms of toughness.

General Finishes High Performance Polyurethane is the undisputed champion in durability. When it comes to protecting stair treads from the wear and tear of daily foot traffic, this product shines like no other. After rigorous hands-on testing, it became abundantly clear that General Finishes High Performance Polyurethane is the ultimate choice for those seeking long-lasting protection.

I compared it to the first two top products, and while they excel in various aspects, including overall performance and best bang for the buck, they fall short in terms of sheer durability. General Finishes High Performance Polyurethane, on the other hand, held its ground admirably. It exhibited remarkable resistance to scuffs, scratches, and abrasions, even in high-traffic areas.

The application process was smooth, and the result was a crystal-clear finish that accentuated the natural beauty of the wood. On top of that, being a water-based poly, it dries quickly in about 1-2 hours. This polyurethane not only protects but also enhances the aesthetics of your woodworking projects.

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4. Best Clear Polyurethane Coat– Minwax 63010444 Polyurethane.

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Introducing Minwax 63010444 Polyurethane, the ultimate choice for protecting and enhancing the natural beauty of your interior wood surfaces. With its unparalleled clear coat finish, this product stands as a testament to Minwax’s legacy of excellence in wood finishing.

Minwax 63010444 Polyurethane boasts a crystal-clear finish that effortlessly brings out the richness and depth of your wood surfaces. Say goodbye to dull and lifeless wood, as this polyurethane creates a glossy, transparent shield that highlights the intricate grains and patterns of your wooden stairs, floors, or furniture.

The clear coat isn’t just a visual delight; it also preserves the wood’s natural color, ensuring your interior spaces maintain their warmth and charm.

Minwax has been synonymous with top-quality wood finishing products for over a century. With this product, you can trust that you’re choosing a brand that woodworkers and DIY enthusiasts have relied upon for generations. Expect nothing less than professional-grade results in your own projects.

Beyond its aesthetic appeal, this polyurethane offers robust protection. It forms a durable barrier against everyday wear and tear, safeguarding your wood surfaces from scratches, spills, and UV damage.

The result? Your stairs, floors, and furnishings stay looking pristine for longer, reducing maintenance hassles and preserving your investment.

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5. Best Premium Finish for Stairs – RUST-OLEUM 130031 Varathane

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This oil-based polyurethane is made with patented Aluminum Oxide Nano Technology that makes it scuff and scratch-resistant. It also resists stains and household chemicals, so you don’t have to worry about the color changing beyond what is expected from an oil-based finish.

Another feature you would appreciate is the relatively quick drying time for oil-based polyurethane. Within two hours, the stairs will be dry to touch. You can then apply a second coat in another ten hours for same-day application.

While this may seem like a lifetime compared to some of the other products on our list, it is still decent performance. But of course, the drying time is just a small part of the equation.

Varathane Premium Floor Finish offers exceptional durability, making it perfect for high-traffic stairs. You also get four choices of sheen – matte, satin, semi-gloss, and gloss.

This polyurethane for stair treads and railing can be applied on bare and stained wood. It can also be used on previously finished surfaces, as long as you follow the instructions.

As you would expect, the manufacturer recommends that you use the product as it is without diluting. Even without thinning, you will get an even surface without brush marks.

The one major limitation of this is you can’t apply it with a roller, or you may get bubbles. Instead, Rust-Oleum recommends you use a brush or a wool applicator.

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6. Best Oil-Based Polyurethane for Stairs – Deft Defthane Polyurethane

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Deft is a high-solids oil-based poly specially formulated for hard use areas. It is an excellent choice for interior and exterior wood surfaces such as floors, doors, desks, furniture cabinets, etc., which makes it an excellent option for stairs.

This oil based paint is available in two surface finishes, satin finishes and 13-ounce aerosol sprays with adjustable spray valves. As for application, you can use this on painted, varnished, lacquered, stained wood surfaces to give them a clear and tough finish.

Like some other penetrating finishes, Deft resists wear and staining from water, alcohol, food, household chemicals, salt spray, exterior weathering and protects metal surfaces from rust.

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7. Best Wipe on Poly for Stairs – Minwax Wipe-on Polyurethane

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The Minwax wipe-on is an excellent water-based wipe on Poly and probably the best polyurethane for stair railings.

This polyurethane finish provides a durable layer of topcoat protection that is thinner than regular poly, making it an excellent choice for touching up small worn or scratched areas.

A unique perk of this product is that it can be applied with a lint-free cloth, so this keeps your surface free from cost drips and brush marks.

Before applying wipe on poly to any surface, ensure it is dry and free from old furnishing. This will guarantee a hard, clear finish protecting the wood against water, household chemicals, and food stains.

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8. Best Anti Slip Varnish for Stairs – Bona Traffic Anti-Slip Polyurethane

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Bona Traffic Anti-slip is a waterborne, commercial, and residential hardwood floor finish explicitly designed for the unique demands of heavy-traffic commercial and residential hardwood floors.

This clear and colorless floor finish highlights the natural wood tone of stained or natural wood floors. It is the industry’s premier finish for durability and beauty, covering over 350 to 400 square feet per gallon.

As a result of its higher friction quality, it makes an excellent choice for stairs, nurseries, kitchens, and similar places.

The material will not change color over time, allowing for easy touch-ups. It is designed mainly for areas more likely to be wet, like commercial kitchens or living spaces for people with compromised balance.

This can be the perfect solution for people looking to make wooden stairs less slippery.

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9. Best Glossy Polyurethane Finish-Watco 68041 Polyurethane Finish

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Watco 68041 Polyurethane Finish offers a versatile solution for various wood surfaces, making it an excellent choice for projects ranging from countertops to stairs.

One standout feature is its oil-based protection, which proves invaluable for elaborately detailed pieces. It brings out the richness of the wood and provides a level of depth that’s hard to achieve with other finishes.

The quick drying time significantly reduces the waiting period and allows you to proceed with your project efficiently. Plus, it covers up to 100 sq ft, ensuring you get ample use from a single application.

What truly sets Watco 68041 apart is its application method. You can apply it by hand with a clear dry rag or cloth, offering unparalleled control over the process. This allows for even coverage and minimizes the risk of drips or streaks.

The gloss finish enhances the wood’s appearance and offers robust protection against water, household chemicals, and more. This ensures that your wood surfaces look stunning and remain in top-notch condition.

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What is Polyurethane?

Polyurethane is a flexible, resilient, and highly durable material that serves various purposes. When applied to wood, it creates a sturdy and clear plastic protective cover making it an ideal finish for a heavily traveled area like stairs.

Stairs often have to accommodate a lot of human traffic daily, and quick wear and tear would be inevitable unless there is a hard, durable layer of protection.

So, using a polyurethane finish will not only add to the appearance of the stairs but will also help to protect the wood from damage such as stains, water, scuffs, and scratches.

Essentially, if your wood is covered in polyurethane, nothing can penetrate it as it offers a durable, hard coat.

Types of Polyurethane

Polyurethane is regarded as the most practical yet easily-available hardwood finish. Polyurethane surface finishes have two main types: water-based and oil based polyurethanes.

Both protect hardwood floors from damage, and you should choose the one you prefer based on your preferences and the job at hand.

Oil-based Polyurethane


Oil-based or oil-modified polyurethane is created by reacting common finishing oils with a chemical that makes the oil molecules larger.

These polyurethane finishes are often chosen because they are more economical and easier to apply on wooden surfaces. It also offers more color, depth, and shine to wooden surfaces.

Furthermore, just like oil based stain, oil modified poly offers high chemical scratch resistance making it well-suited for use on tables, countertops, floors, and furniture that will see a lot of traffic. 

Related read: Best poly for kitchen table.

Oil-based poly is popular since it enhances the natural color of hardwood floors, is water-resistant, and is versatile. In addition to that, oil-based poly is more durable because it contains a significant amount of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs).

It immediately gives the surface a darker shade or an amber hue when applied to the hardwood floor. This can bring out the beauty of the grain and make any dull wood color come alive.

On the flip side, as the oil-based finish ages, it continues to grow slightly darker every year, and this may make it less suitable for certain stairs types.

In addition, oil-based polyurethane fumes are hazardous. You should therefore be keen when choosing oil based polyurethane brands to get the best product.

Water-based Polyurethane

As the name implies, water-based polyurethane uses water as its base or primary agent instead of oil (solvents) to carry the polyurethane solids. In the past, water-based polyurethane was considered less durable than oil-based polyurethane.

However, its manufacture has improved recently, so flooring professionals now prefer water-based polyurethane over almost any other finish. In fact, good quality water-based poly will last just as long if it is well taken care of.

Apart from this, a water-based polyurethane is a non-yellowing clear coat thus preserving the natural color of your wood compared to the oil based ones.

This is especially useful for certain types of wood which you don’t want to alter their color like gray, white & lighter wood.

Overall, water-based polyurethanes have become popular because of their low odor, rapid drying time, and easy application.

water based polyurethane on stairs

Factors to Consider when Buying Poly for Stairs

Before choosing the best polyurethane for stairs, there are some essential factors to consider to help you make the right buying decisions. Some of them include: 


If you’re already considering applying polyurethane to your stairs, you’re probably wondering, how many tins of poly should I buy?

The short answer to that is, it depends on the type of polyurethane finishing you’ll be using and the level of traffic on your stairs.

Stairs with heavy traffic will require a lot more coating to adequately protect the wood from damage which may mean purchasing more tins.

Furthermore, if you decide to use a water-based finish, your wood stairs will require a lot more coating than oil-based ones, and that is something to keep in mind. 

Both oil and water-based polyurethane have their strengths and weaknesses, which we discuss in more detail below. 


When it comes to highlighting the figure and color of your wooden stairs, oil-based products will generally achieve more color and definition. Oil-based poly has an amber hue, whereas water-based poly is clear. 

An oil-based polyurethane will continue to amber and darken over time, while water-based poly will remain clear for the lifetime of the hardwood floor.   

Drying time

If you plan to finish your hardwood stairs without staying away from your house for a long time, you should be leaning towards water-based poly.

Water-based poly takes about 6-24 hours after coating for the stairs to dry enough for use, unlike its oil-based counterpart. 


When choosing a fresh finish for your stairs, appearance is also something you must consider. Likewise, it is crucial in the flooring process because you need to be comfortable with how much light your floors absorb and diffuse.

Remember that glossier floors would show more dirt and imperfections than matte floors. However, if you prefer a shinier look on your floors, a semi-gloss coat is a good option since it has nearly 55% luster. 


Most polyurethane products cover between 300 and 600 square feet per gallon. For much larger staircases or hardwood floors, then you may have to purchase more than one tin to coat the entire surface properly. 

Satin or Semi-Gloss Polyurethane for Stairs?

Comparing Satin or Semi-Gloss Polyurethane for Stairs

Satin polyurethane keeps wood looking new for longer periods and hides normal wear and tear of regular use; that is why it’s the best polyurethane for stairs.

When choosing between a Satin finish or Semi-Gloss finish for your stairs, consider your color preference, wood transparency and the degree of durability your stairs require.

You must first realize that the glossier your floors are, the more they show off dirt and imperfections. Therefore, if you want a subtler and more formal look for your space, satin will make a better option.

Satin reflects less light, giving your wood a duller, low sheen appearance. This quality makes it relatively easy to hide all the imperfections and dirt, which makes it a plus for homes with pets and kids because it is easier to keep clean and smudge-free.

In addition, satin isn’t as smooth as Semi-Gloss, so it’s less slippery, making it a bit safer to use on stairs. On the other hand, Semi-Gloss finishes are perfect if you prefer a shinier glossier look for your floors.

Since it reflects more light, debris on the surface will be more visible. Ultimately, you can choose any of the two but remember, the glossier the finish, the more it will show any imperfections and wear and tear. 

Editor’s recommendation: Flat paint vs satin paint

How to Apply Polyurethane on Stairs 

Material/Tools needed:

  • Polyurethane in a can 
  • Sandpaper
  • Painter’s Tape 
  • Paint Brush
  • Tack cloth 
  • Lint-free rags 
  • Lamb’s wool applicator

Step-by-step process

  1. Using 120-grit sandpaper, sand the steps so the surface is flat and smooth. Then, gently brush the steps with a brush attachment to remove sanding dust and use a tack cloth to smooth the steps further.
  2. Apply painter’s tape along the trim of the stairs to protect the walls from polyurethane. Cover the bottoms of any spindles or other objects on the stairs that you don’t wish to get the finish on.
  3. Invert the polyurethane can gently about ten times before use, and repeat this regularly as you work. Do not shake the can as this will cause bubbles in your finish.
  4. Take your polyfoam brush, and dip it halfway into the poly. Hold it there for a few seconds, so it really soaks in and fills up the brush. Let some excess drip off back into the can, and then bring it to the wood surface.
  5. Apply a thin coat of polyurethane onto the wood stairs. Start at the top stair and work your way toward the bottom. Run the brush along the stair using long, uniform strokes. Move the brush in one direction only, i.e. in the direction of the wood grain. Back brush over any drips or pools of polyurethane.
  6. Leave the stairs to dry for two to 12 hours, or the time recommended on the manufacturer’s label.
  7. Allow the first coat of finish to dry overnight. Sand the stairs smooth with 200-grit sandpaper. Vacuum the stairs, then clean with ph neutral cleaner and tack cloth. 
  8. Apply a second coat the next day in the same manner using a clean brush. Do not thin the polyurethane when applying the subsequent coats. Let the second coat dry overnight. Sand, clean, and apply a third coat, if necessary. A fourth or fifth coat may be required to achieve the desired appearance, but first confirm the number of polyurethane coats you will need. Be sure to sand and clean the wood in between each coat. Do not sand after polyurethane.

Read: Can I apply polyurethane with a rug?

Is Polyurethane Slippery?

Although polyurethane serves a good purpose by helping to keep surfaces protected, some types of polyurethane may cause people to slip and fall.

Already, the smooth polished surface of hardwoods makes them quite slippery on stairs and using the more shiny and glossy variety of polyurethane will make your floors even more slippery. 

Therefore, to prevent accidents and injuries, you could go for anti-slip or anti-skid polyurethane products like the Varathane 200041h, Fixall Skid Grip, or Bona Traffic Anti Slip that are specially formulated to turn any surface skid resistant. 

Alternatively, you could opt for transparent adhesive slip strips, anti-slip sprays, and floor finishes. They will add some grip to your stairs without detracting from their appearance.

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

Ultimately, hardwood floors are beautiful, but they can also cause accidents. However, using some of the tips above, you can have a beautiful, shiny floor without putting your life in danger.

Interesting read: Ideal polyurethane for countertops.


What is the best finish for an oak staircase?

A simple way to finish oak stairs is with two coats of clear polyurethane, which brings out both the grain and the reddish tinge of the wood. You can further enhance the warmth by staining the treads before applying polyurethane. For this, we recommend you use the Minwax 63010444 Polyurethane.

Can you polyurethane over painted stairs?

Yes, you can. By applying polyurethane to already-painted stairs, you can provide them with extra protection against heavy foot traffic that can cause the paint to chip and crack over time. It will also give the hardwood a glossy sheen that makes it easy to clean. Here is the best finish for painting stair treads to use in case you’d like to go that route.

How many coats of polyurethane do I need on stairs?

In general, two to three coats of oil-based polyurethane are enough to cover a set of wood stairs. However, water-based polyurethane does not coat as thickly as oil-based polyurethane, so you might need four or multiple coats for maximum protection.

Are polyurethane side effects free?

Unfortunately, they aren’t. Uncured polyurethane can irritate people with respiratory problems. However, that does not mean you are putting anybody at risk. As long as you apply polyurethane correctly, whether it is oil-based or water-based, you and everybody around the product will be safe. It is also important to note that these side effects are more likely during production, not application.

What is the best varnish for stairs?

If you wish to maintain the quality of the appearance of your stairs, a clear water-based polyurethane varnish is the best option. Apply it with a brush to coat your wood and then apply a second cag coat within 24 hours and let it dry to create a hard and durable surface finish.

Brands of polyurethane that I highly recommend. – Minwax, Bona, and Varathene.

Is polyurethane good for outdoor use?

Yes, polyurethane is good for outdoor use. It provides a protective and water-resistant finish, making it suitable for wooden furniture, decks, and outdoor trim. However, use water-based polyurethane, as it tends to resist yellowing better than oil-based versions.

What is the Best Finish for Stair Treads

After thorough testing and evaluation, we’ve uncovered the standout options for various needs. Absolutely! There’s a polyurethane tailored to your specific project, whether it’s maximizing durability, achieving a premium finish, or getting the best bang for your buck.

Your choice should align with your priorities and budget, ensuring that your stair treads and railings stand the test of time while looking their best.

Now that you’re done reading this, you can go on to get the right products you need to keep your stairs free from water or sunlight damage. Also, read our review on the best oil polyurethane for wood floors.

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