I just had a new staircase of red oak installed and I'm trying to determine the best way to finish it. I want a low/zero VOC product with no color to it, just to harden and let the natural red oak shine through, while having a little gloss and protecting the wood from the heavy use of people walking on it every day, and occasionally spilling stuff.

Someone recommended Rubio Monocoat, and there's also polymerized linseed oil (e.g. Danish oil), and there's tung oil, and basically a bewildering variety of options.

Can anyone make a recommendation or comment, and ideally give me the general knowledge to make my own evaluation of the huge landscape of products here?

  • 2
    Just about the surface finish, you want to be careful about gloss for stairs, it's considered quite the safety hazard by some. Ideally stair treads should be matt according to some safety experts, but a semi-matt is a decent compromise.
    – Graphus
    Jan 30, 2018 at 6:52
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    Waterbased poly is basically the option here because of the requirement for no added colour. Everything based on oil or containing oil will deepen the tone of wood, and in the case of pure oils and "Danish oil" it will make the wood very significantly darker (and will add a slight yellow tinge which you may be able to see on red oak).
    – Graphus
    Jan 30, 2018 at 6:56

1 Answer 1


Flooring water based polyurethanes come to mind - they are typically clear (although there are tinted versions as well), low VOC and hard wearing.

Choosing matte or satin would provide both the natural look and low sheen you are after, and be less slippery (which is especially important for stairs, versus plain hardwood flooring).

Application and cleanup of water base poly is simpler than other finishes when applied to such small portions as individual stair treads (water poly on floors in more challenging than oil poly due to the fast dry time).

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