Finishing Custom Staircase
I have restored quite a few large staircases and my experience has been that disassembling the parts and shop/ground floor finishing is always faster and higher quality. We used awls to mark a dot code on any necessary parts to make re-assembly simpler. We also used a $30 air ratchet and a foot switch to make a simple rig to spin the balusters while staining and topcoating. Because an air ratchet is a gear motor, it has good torque and won't stall at very low speeds.
If you are finishing onsite and you are not the only crew on the job, be prepared for a real pain when all of a sudden everyone needs to do something on the second floor. Consider a scaffold or ladder and have two people spray the case. They play tag on the balusters. This helps you get a wet coat on everything to reduce your overspray and insures that you get good coverage on the underside of any baluster ogees. Be prepared to use a lot of masking paper.
We're currently building a custom Douglas fir staircase using a gel stain and topcoat system. Everything is finished in the shop then transferred to site. The gel stain makes touch-ups relatively easy. Just be careful with the material onsite. The system is very successful for us.
I agree with disassembling. You'll get a nice and even coat of finish when sprayed individually. However, if you decide to spray onsite, adding retarder or using a slower thinner to your finish will help absorb a lot of overspray.
Always a lot less man hours pre-finishing stairs. Another method I've tried is bringing finish up to final coat and when installed, sand any nicks, dents and apply final topcoat (still a lot of work but less mess from spraying and staining). If balusters are painted or another stain color, I'll finish banisters, treads and risers first and then paint balusters (since they're painted, you don't have to tape off from the clearcoats). You get the picture.
P.S. Spray from bottom to top of stairs - wait for coat to flash off and final coat working your way back down. If you start spraying at top, all dry overspray lands on dry wood, so it helps to get a wet coat down even if it's not a perfect cover coat first lap.
If you can, pre-finish, then install and touch up. This will be a lot easier. If you're going to finish onsite, try brushing and/or padding on a water born (oil-modified), like Target's Oxford, or Last n Last Ultra Gold. It'll save you the hassle of spraying and will provide a good finish, especially one you can easily wax and rub to give the handrail a nice polished feel.
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