Best Polyurethane for Stairs

I Tested 6 Polyurethanes for Stairs: Here are the Best (2024)

Polyurethane is used to form a durable barrier on all kinds of wood surfaces, including stairs.

But what’s the best polyurethane for stairs and stair treads, and what separates low-quality poly from top-shelf poly?

In this article, I’ll uncover some of the best polyurethanes for wooden stairs to help you find a polyurethane that’ll not only protect your stairs but beautify them as well. Let’s begin!

In a hurry? The Minwax Oil Based Polyurethane is the best polyurethane for stairs because it deliver quality results for an affordable price, plus it’s easy to use, quick-drying, and much less toxic when compared to oil-based polyurethanes.

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  • 7+ polyurethanes thoroughly vetted and hand tested
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  • 9+ applications and 5+ hours of analysis

Best Polyurethane for Stairs

1. Minwax Oil Based Polyurethane – #1 Best Overall

Oil Based Poly

Minwax Oil Based Polyurethane is a durable, clear-drying, oil-based polyurethane that’s semi-glossy, self-leveling, and applicable to any wood surface and many other surface materials.

With this 1-quart can, you can get 100-200 sq ft of coverage; if thinned it can cover 300-400 sq feet.

It can be brushed, rolled, or wiped on, and it can be sprayed provided it’s thinned beforehand.

Its composition ensures it’s longer-lasting and more resistant to the erosive elements that wear down wood surfaces, and I found that it dries faster than other oil-based polys (4-6 hours).

Finally, it can be applied on both finished and unfinished wood surfaces, and it comes with a limited warranty (or satisfaction guarantee) – which is nice.

What I Liked:

  • Its composition makes it durable enough for high-traffic surfaces, i.e. stairs and floors.
  • It’s self-leveling so you don’t have to spend as much time brushing.
  • Its sheen is balanced and beautiful accentuates wood features.
  • Its relatively cheap when compared to other stair polyurethanes of similar quality.

What I Didn’t Like:

  • Multiple cans will be needed for larger surfaces since its max coverage is rather limited.
  • Dries clear but eventually displays a yellowish/amberish tint.

My Thoughts:

Extremely effective products that are sold at an affordable price are hard to come by, but that’s exactly what you get when you purchase Minwax Oil Based Polyurethane. Not only is this polyurethane designed to be extra-tough, it’s also visually appealing and self-leveling. Also, it dries quicker than other oil-based polyurethanes, and only a few coats are needed to form a longer-lasting, durable surface. Its only shortcoming is its limited capacity, but this easy to overlook since the price is so low. If you’re looking for a superb oil based polyurethane finish, this Minwax poly is the perfect choice.

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2. General Finishes High Performance Polyurethane – Best Quality

General Finishes Polyurethane

If a top-quality, water-based polyurethane is what you’re after, you can’t go wrong with General Finishes High Performance Polyurethane as it’s supremely durable, easy to apply and remove, and it’s less toxic than other polyurethanes of similar strength.

A quart of this polyurethane can cover 125-150 sq ft, and it dries in 1-2 hours.

It’s only for interiors, and usually 2-3 coats need to be brushed, rolled, or sprayed on.

It’s best to apply this polyurethane when it’s around 70°F, with no more than 50%; colder/hotter temperatures and more/less humidity can negatively impact the drying process.

And if it’s being applied over oil-based paint, stain, etc., allow the previous finish at least 72 hours of drying time before applying the first coat of polyurethane.

Its composition prevents it from being a suitable finish for white and many brightly colored surfaces, since it yellows over time.

That said, it does have a matte sheen, and since it’s water-based it contains less VOC.

Finally, it takes 21 days to cure, and if purchased directly from General Finishes it comes with a limited warranty.

What I Liked:

  • It’s cost-effective since only a few coats are needed to effectively seal a surface for multiple years.
  • It works well on both horizontal and vertical surfaces since different applicators can apply it.
  • It can be thinned easily with water for increased spreadability.
  • It’s great in kitchens and bathrooms since it resists moisture and the growths that thrive on it.

What I Didn’t Like:

  • It can’t be used with certain paints, stains, and some natural wood surfaces because it yellows.
  • Its ability to adhere to the surface material needs to be tested in advance.

My Thoughts:

When it comes to overall quality, General Finishes High Performance Polyurethane has most water-based polys beat, as it’s durable, easy-to-use, quick-drying, and less toxic. It’s designed for indoor use but can resist even the most erosive elements, like moisture, high heat, or heavy feet. It’s great for staircases since its sheen is muted and its designed to be long-lasting once fully cured. It does yellow over time, but this is really the only downside, and it’s overshadowed by all the benefits. If you’re looking for the most durable polyurethane for wooden stairs, this General Finishes High Performance Poly is the best you can buy.

3. Varathane Water Based Polyurethane – Best Value

Water Based Polyurethane

Varathane Water Based Polyurethane is a fantastic polyurethane if the surface you’re applying it to is small, since it’s durable, quick-drying, and easy to apply, and there’s just enough in the can to cover ~32 sq ft.

Designed for interior wooden surfaces, this water-based polyurethane can be brushed, rolled, or sprayed on wooden stairs, and it dries in just 30 minutes; after two hours it’ll be ready for another coat.

It has a satin finish, so it can accentuate wood grain, natural colors, and paint without being too shiny.

And once you’re done applying it, this poly can be easily cleaned off the applicator you chose with warm, soapy water.

Finally, it comes with a satisfaction guarantee, so you could get all your money back if you don’t like the results you get.

What I Liked:

  • Perfect for small projects since you won’t have any left after application.
  • More accentuating than other matte-finish polys yet not slippery like glossier polys.
  • Easy to spread and get in tight spaces thanks to its thin, watery consistency.
  • Doesn’t yellow so it can be used on lighter woods.

What I Didn’t Like:

  • Small can means you have to dump it into a larger receptacle or use a small brush or roller.
  • Can only be used on wood and most wood-based surfaces.

My Thoughts:

There may not be a lot in the can, but every drop of Varathane Water Based Polyurethane is worth it. Ideal for small wood projects, this water-based poly with form a scratch- and stain-resistant surface once fully cured, and it’s so easy to apply because it has a thin, watery consistency. Personally, I like spraying this poly to avoid brush marks, but brushes and rollers work just fine. Other than it being for wood only, this is an all-around terrific poly for hardwood stairs.

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4. Minwax Wipe On Polyurethane – Best Wipe-On Polyurethane

Minwax Wipe On Polyurethane

If you’re sick of brush and roller marks, and you don’t want to deal with the drips caused by spraying, then choose the Minwax Wipe On Polyurethane, for it’s a can’t-beat poly that’s wiped on to create an ever so attractive hand-rubbed finish.

A quart of this poly can cover about 100 sq ft, and since it’s oil-based it’s glossier and more slippery than the polys discussed thus far.

It’s designed to form an impenetrable seal on wood and wood-based surfaces, but it doesn’t work well with certain woods because of its tendency to yellow over time.

Usually 2-3 coats is enough, but if it’s an outdoor wooden surface four may be necessary.

It dries in 4-6 hours and won’t fully cure until ~31 days have passed since it was applied.

And just like with virtually all of Minwax’s products, this oil-based poly comes with a limited warranty.

What I Liked:

  • Can be used both indoors and outdoors since it’s incredibly durable.
  • Easy to achieve a smooth, balanced finish since you wipe it on.
  • Great at brightening wood surfaces thanks to its glossy sheen.
  • Not too viscous so spreading it out is quick and easy.

What I Didn’t Like:

  • Has way more VOC so you have to be careful during application.
  • Can be too slippery for floors and stairs if too much is applied.

My Thoughts:

Minwax Wipe On Polyurethane boasts that incomparable Minwax quality and it’s my favorite wipe-on, oil-based poly—and by a wide margin. It’s durable enough to work both indoors and outdoors, and even though it’s glossy the sheen doesn’t overpower the wood’s unique features. You’ll never have to worry about brush or roller marks while applying, drips are unheard of, and even bubbles are rare. If it didn’t have such a high concentration of VOC, it’d probably be at the top of this list, since it’s top-shelf stuff.

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5. Bona Mega Semi-Gloss Polyurethane – Most Eco-Friendly

Bona Mega Semi-Gloss Polyurethane

If you don’t want all the chemicals that come with more traditional polyurethanes, Bona Mega Semi-Gloss Polyurethane is a much greener solution, and it’s cost-effective too.

This premium, one-component poly is water-based and oxygen-activated, so it dries in 2-3 hours.

A gallon of this semi-glossy poly can cover 500-600 sq ft, and usually 3-4 coats are needed to form an effective seal.

This product is GREENGUARD-certified, which means it meets SCAQMD requirements, i.e. it doesn’t have a high concentration of VOC.

Plus, there are no additives, and it doesn’t have a finite pot life.

Lastly, it’s self-leveling with a thin, watery consistency making it super easy to apply.

What I Liked:

  • Don’t have to worry as much about safety during application since this is a much greener product.
  • It’s cost-effective since it’s long-lasting and you can cover hundreds of square feet.
  • Since it’s self-leveling you’re less at risk of applying too much too fast.
  • It’s versatile since it works on dense and porous woods and doesn’t yellow woods with lighter colors.

What I Didn’t Like:

  • Drying takes longer because it’s free of the chemicals and additives that speed up the drying process.
  • Somewhat hard to get your hands on since it’s manufactured in Sweden and sold only in select stores.

My Thoughts:

Sometimes, eco-friendliness comes at the cost of effectiveness, but such isn’t the case with Bona Mega Semi-Gloss Polyurethane. This poly is green yet effective, and if properly applied it can seal hundreds of square feet for multiple years. It’s also self-leveling, so there’s less risk of applying too much. The only downside worth mentioning is its longer drying time, but it only takes about an hour longer to dry than other water-based polys. Overall, it’s a remarkable product that’s sure to yield good results for the eco-conscious woodworker.

6. DEFT Polyurethane Spray – Best Polyurethane Spray

DEFT Polyurethane Spray

DEFT Polyurethane Spray is a great option for woodworkers and homeowners who want to avoid the brushes, rollers, and bulky sprayers, as it comes in a spray can, dries quickly, and delivers top-notch durability once fully cured.

This oil-based poly has a satin finish, and it’s designed for both indoor and outdoor wood surfaces.

It has less VOC than other oil-based polys, it dries in under six hours, and a 13 oz can cover about 100 sq ft.

The can has an adjustable spray valve so the user has more control over how much poly is released.

It works on both finished and unfinished wood, and you can use it to finish woods with lighter colors since there’s no yellowing effect.

What I Liked:

  • It’s easy to get at hard-to-reach places poly since the can is small, lightweight, and ergonomic.
  • Wide spray mist ensures you avoid brush marks, roller marks, and even dripping.
  • Achieving a smoother finish is easier since the can doesn’t clog.
  • For a 13 oz can this poly can sufficiently cover a lot of surface area, whether it’s wood or metal.

What I Didn’t Like:

  • Getting a consistent stream of spray is challenging once the can is almost out.
  • Achieving the 4-5 coats necessary for a decent surface finish can take upwards of 48 hours.

My Thoughts:

I’m not the biggest fan of finishes that come in a can, but DEFT Polyurethane Spray has my respect, as it’s an effective, affordable, oil-based product that’s not only easy to use but safer when compared to other oil-based polys. And unlike paint sprayers, this can of poly won’t create drips, even on vertical surfaces. While it may not be best for a big flight of wood stairs, since multiple cans would be required, it’s a capable, widely available product that’ll hold up in most instances.

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What to Consider When Buying Polyurethane for Stairs


Polyurethane that’s used on wood stairs, hardwood floors, metal surfaces, and other materials needs to be durable.

Specifically, it needs to protect the material from moisture, UV rays, heat, and all the other elements that erode surfaces.

In short, when shopping for the best polyurethane for stairs, durability should be the most important factor to look for.


Glossy polyurethane finishes aren’t good for stairs, since they make these wooden surfaces too slippery, which can be incredibly dangerous.

Therefore, when selecting a polyurethane for wood stairs, look out for something with a satin or matte finish, ideally a water-based polyurethane.

Semi-gloss sometimes works and fails at other times; it really comes down to how the product is manufactured.


Polyurethane isn’t just for keeping surfaces damage-free; it can also enhance a surface’s appearance.

For example, if you apply a thin, water-based poly to some oak stairs, it’ll bring out all the oak’s unique characteristics, especially the grain.

Check out these differences between satin and gloss polyurethane for more info!

Ease of Application

A polyurethane finish shouldn’t be hard to apply, especially since you can use a few different applicators to get liquid poly on a wood surface.

I prefer sprayers for poly, but if one’s not available you can use on of these brushes; I find most foam rollers to be too cumbersome, but they can work in some cases.

Drying Time

How fast the polyurethane you choose dries is relevant, especially if you have to apply numerous coats.

Generally speaking, water-based polys dry in 30-120 minutes, whereas oil-based polys dry in 4-6 hours.


Toxicity is, of course, an important factor to consider when choosing a polyurethane.

Water-based polys usually have less VOC than oil-based products, but even when using a water-based poly you still need to wear a mask, respirator, gloves, long sleeves, and pants.

It’s also best if you apply polyurethane in a well-ventilated area with a couple windows open and a fan or two blowing.


Spreadability should be considered with quality, price, and volume.

A quart of quality poly, for example, should cover at least 100 sq ft, and it shouldn’t be more than $40.

Water-based polyurethanes are easier to spread than oil-based finish, but adding mineral spirits (paint thinner) to an oil-based polyurethane will improve its spreadability dramatically.


What polyurethane should I use on stairs?

Since stairs can be subjected to a lot of foot traffic day in and day out, you should use a polyurethane that forms a durable coating and ensures excellent protection. Satin polyurethane is best, since a glossier wood finish can make the stairs unnecessarily slippery and dangerous.

Is high gloss or semi-gloss better for stairs?

A glossy finish can make stairs slippery and dangerous, whether they’re softwood or hardwood stairs. Even a semi-gloss finish can make wood stairs too slippery. It’s best to use anti-slip finishes on stairs, i.e matte and satin water-based polyurethanes.

Final Thoughts

To recap, Minwax Oil Based Polyurethane is the best poly for wood stairs because it can withstand heavy foot traffic, it’s virtually, non-slip, and it can accentuate wood’s natural aspects. Additionally, applying it properly is a breeze, so you shouldn’t have to worry about cloudiness or an uneven finish later on.

General Finishes High Performance Polyurethane offers the most durability, and it too is easy to apply, and accentuating.

Finally, there’s Varathane Water Based Polyurethane. The can may be small, but no other poly is going to get you the bang for your buck this product delivers time after time.

Looking to finish other projects with polyurethane? Check out these guides!