refinishing oak stair railings!

Attention WORLD! 

There is now NO remaining oak surface in my entire house. WHEW! Welcome to this decade, house! Seriously...I'm not sure what it was about the 90's and oak, but it was the defining wood of its time. OAK ALL THE THINGS! Our townhouse was the poster child for it too with oak floors, cabinets, AND stair railings. And to make it worse, when we moved in all of the walls were a light tan color. It was like walking into a black and white TV but instead of black and white the only color able to seen was TAN.
Seriously though- add a plaid throw blanket and you woulda had yourself a genuine log cabin.

Moving on.

The stairs were the last bit of oak to go! 
Can I get a hallelujah?! 

So this will be a pretty detailed tutorial. I'll give you some tips along the way so you can avoid the mistakes I did.

(This was enough for 30 spindles, 3 newel posts, 2 hand rails, and about 25-30 feet of banister hand rails)

-Primer (I used Bulls Eye 123 Primer. I only used probably 1/4-1/3 of a gallon.)
-Semi-gloss white paint (I used about 1/3 of a gallon).
-2 in. paint brush
-Painter's tape
-Flexible sanding sponge, medium grit (I ended up going through 2)
-Steel Wool, extra fine 
-General Finishes Gel Stain (I used the Java color). A little goes a LONG way. I could have easily used a pint.
-Small artist brush
-Cloth rags or old white socks 
-Several pairs or latex gloves 
-General Finishes Top Coat in Satin

(A grand total of around $100-$120! Depending on what you may already have at home.)

Okay, so the "deal" with this project is not that it's hard, or costs a lot of money (seriously to get your banisters replaced all together is thousands of dollars), or requires lots of fancy tools, it is simply one thing: TIME. I'll break that down for you as we go, but for the total transformation this gives your home I think it was worth every minute! (I didn't really think that when was 14 hours in painting spindles with still plenty more to go though...but hang in there! Beautiful banisters ahead.)


Good ole' soap and water. Nothin' fancy. Wipe 'em down, get the gunk off.
(Do you need to clean your handrails and newel posts as well? Not really...you're going to lightly sand those, so you're good- don't make more work for yourself).

Time: 45 minutes  

*Okay so I had this debate in my mind back and forth for a solid couple of days as to whether I was going to paint first, or stain first. Ultimately I decided to paint first, because it would be easier to tape off the tops and bottoms of my painted spindles and stain around that then it would be to tape off around the banister and then paint the spindle.  Because the spindles are round on top and square on the bottom they're super easy to tape off. 
You can do whatever you want, but I found that to be easiest. 


Now the fun begins. Tape off around the spindles that you don't want to get paint on. Using your primer, start painting the spindles. Start in the least obvious place, that way you can get the hang of your technique before you get to the part that everyone will see first. The first coat will look absolutely terrible and you'll think "what the crap did I just do to my already ugly stairs?" It's okay. Promise. Just keep painting. 

The key here is easy does it slugger- don't go on heavy. You'll want to do several light coats instead of just one thick coat to avoid drips and increase paint adhesion. The whole purpose of using a primer like Bulls Eye is that you DON'T HAVE TO SAND. It simply gives the paint a surface to stick to. 

The best way I found to paint the spindles was to use an up and down motion on the flat surfaces, and the portions that have nooks and crannies was to use a side to side sweeping motion, or wrapping around the post motion. (I'm super technical in my terminology guys). 

It's best to do 2-3 spindles on one side, and then move to the OTHER side of the same spindles, so that way in case you had any drips or clumps on the side you couldn't see, you can easily catch those babies and wipe them up with your brush while they're still wet. Because the only way to get rid of a drip after it dries folks is to sand it off. BOO. 

I painted almost to the very top of the spindles with my 2 in. brush, leaving a tiny bit left at the top.

Add another coat of primer.

Time: 8 hours for 2 coats (this was just painting time, not drying time- thought this primer dries pretty fast in between coats)


You should have your technique down by now (I mean you've been painting for like 8 hours...). Use your semi-gloss paint and paint the spindles in the same motion you primed them. 

I did two coats of semi-gloss. 

Next, go back with your small artist brush and finish the tops of the spindles. That way you don't have to waste a ton of tape to awkwardly try to take around the round spindle top to avoid getting paint on the underside of your handrail. Just use some precision painting and you're golden. If you get some paint on the handrail, whatevs. Sand it off in the next step.

Time: 8 hours for 2 coats.

Total time for spindles: 16-17 hours

Ideally you remove painter's tape when it's still slightly wet, but that's kind of impossible since you're doing so many coats of this stuff. Soo when you pull the tape off from painting your spindles, you may leave behind impossibly tiny bits of tape attached to the bottom of the rail, or some paint may have gotten under your tape. 
Not to worry: cue paring knife (or butter knife, or small spackle tool...something with a sharp, straight edge).

I used my paring knife to gently scratch off any extra tape or paint from around the bottoms of the spindles using a down and outward. Cutco would probably not recommend this use for their knives. ;-)
Do it gently though- you just want to take off the paint mess, not gouge or scratch your wood.

OR you could do the same thing with the bottom as you did with the top- paint almost to the bottom and then go back with your small artist brush to finish. Up to you.


 Before you start sanding, tape off around the bottom and tops of your painted spindles, that way you can sand the wood around them without worrying about nicking your posts and messing them up. 

Okay now don't get all freaked out by sanding. When I say lightly, I mean lightly. 

I used a medium grit sanding sponge that was flexible and made to get into the detail of the banisters with minimal effort. I only sanded enough to get the top layer of shine off. It took probably about 5-10 seconds per spot ("spot" being about a 6"-8" area). You're not sanding down to bare wood. There's no need. Gel stain doesn't need to penetrate the wood as a normal stain would need to. 
See? Shine vs. no shine.

I used a blow dryer to blow the dust off of the wood before wiping it down, so it was less to wipe off (and more to vacuum off the floor, but it seemed easier...).
You want NO dust left on your banisters. Use a wet cloth or tack cloth to remove the dust.
Vacuum up the rest of the dust from the stairs. 

Time: Doing all of this (taping, sanding, and clean up) took roughly 5 hours.


Your spindles are already taped off, but don't forget to tape off any areas of the floor or wall you don't want stain getting on. The General Finishes is an OIL BASED stain- which means the only way it's comin' off anything is with mineral spirits and prayers. Better to spend a little extra time in prep than risk it getting on something it isn't supposed to (I may or may not have learned this the hard way).

***Okay, now here's where I've seen two different outcomes with this particular color of gel stain.*** In some posts I read and saw on Pinterest, this came out very dark- like black. In other posts, it came out more of the dark espresso. It depends on what you do for the next couple of steps, so take heed.

APPROACH 1: If you want the more opaque, nearly black look you'll apply each coat without rubbing off afterward. It's more like painting it on rather than the rub on/rub off technique. What's cool about gel stain is that you CAN do that- it just takes longer to dry (like 24 hours between coats).

APPROACH 2: If you want more of the wood grain to show through and an espresso look, put a thin, even coat of stain over the newel posts and handrails. Again, it will look splotchy, streaky, and terrible- just get it as even as you can without being globby anywhere. 

General Finishes actually has a video showing you both approaches here. 

Either approach you take:

Put on your glove, then using an old white sock or rag, dip the end of it in the stain and rub it on. You can also use a brush for this if you want to, I just felt like I had better control of it using my fingers stuffed in a sock. You'll quickly see a little goes a long way with this gel stain.

I was using approach #2- I wanted some wood grain to show through and didn't want it to look painted black.

I used a small artist brush to get into any hard-to-reach areas. (Remember, it's oil-based, so if you want to use that brush again you need to clean it with mineral spirits- just water will. not. work.).

So after the first coat, wait.
Like, 6-8 hours as the can says.

After 1 coat of stain:

After 2 coats of stain:

Use your extra fine steel wool to lightly rub anywhere you stained before applying another coat to smooth things over.

I applied 3 coats of gel stain, oh so lightly rubbing with steel wool in between coats. 

Total time: 4-5 hours ish.

 STEP 5,089 6: TOP COAT

Use a clean cloth or sock (or foam brush) to apply the Top Coat.
*I used the water-based top coat because oil based stain will make white paint turn yellow over time.

Remove all tape. 

I had to go back with my artist brush a touch up a couple of areas where I was messy and got stain on the white posts or on the wall, so that added a little bit of time as well.

And then sit the freak down.
You deserve it.

If you've been keeping track, that's a grand total of 28 HOURS. And those are WORKING hours, not including drying times. WHEW!
But in the name of banishing all the oak, it was WORTH IT!  

Moving on to the next (much less time intensive..I hope..) project: the laundry room!


  1. I love this post!! Thanks for the info!

  2. What color gel stain did you use?? Looks awesome!!!

  3. As an owner ofthe house in classic style, I can choose nothing but wood. How to choose the right railings for the stairs?

  4. This is so helpful!!! Thank you for all the detailed explanations!

  5. ugg i have all oak in my house as well, and need to paint my railing, i will go with all white. Thanks for your tips and i am not looking forward to the long road ahead with this project!

  6. Picket fences - These, as the platitude goes, are white picket fences.
    Fence installation


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