Staircase Revamp


The first thing you see when you walk in our house is the staircase.  The hickory wood floors are beautiful, but the oak railing?  Not so much.  When we bought the home, I knew it needed a revamp, but I was a little worried about how to go about it.

I saw some tutorials online, but being married to a purist, I knew he’d never go for a ‘paint it all’ scenario.  And, I didn’t want a paint.  I wanted a dark stain.  I was excited to do the project myself, but worried because the banister and spindles are OAK.

Oak is known for its dark prominent grain.  When certain stains are applied to oak, it can often absorb the stain unevenly.  I didn’t want to create a mess.  I wanted a dark even stain that would still show the wood grain.

And, I wanted the spindles white to match the rest of the house.

PREP – STRIP:stairs_before_mancave
To begin, my railing and spindles were very warn.  As in – there was hardly any varnish on them.  There are sky lights above the stairs and I assume the constant sunshine had just worn away whatever coating was on there during previous ownership.  This being the case, I didn’t even have to use a stripper first.  If your stairs have a glossy finish – I would highly recommend using citristrip first.

I went straight to sandpaper.
In that I didn’t want to change the shape of the railing or spindles, I was very careful to use a 220 grit sandpaper and lightly sand all the surfaces, by hand.  This took a few hours.  If you take a power sander to it, be ever so careful.  You’ll easily change the shape of your handrail by accident…

I opted to stain the areas first, and then paint the white.  I taped off all the spindles where white would meet stain.  The color of stain was a tad tricky.  I tested a few samples of stain on oak and wasn’t pleased with any of them.  Therefore, I ended up combining Dark Walnut and Ebony OIL based stain (both minwax).  The Ebony alone was too black for me – no warmth.  I normally like Dark Walnut, but the oak just wasn’t accepting it the way an alder does, and it just wasn’t dark enough.  Once I had the two combined, it was just right.  1 can of each.

**TIP – mix the stain in the can, scraping the bottom every 5 minutes or so while you are applying it!  It settles.  You’ll get uneven color otherwise.

I used a soft rag and applied one coat of stain – rubbing in circles, yet leaving the stain a bit ‘wet’.  Once the entire railing was stained (perhaps 30-45 minutes), I came back and wiped up any excess stain that hadn’t been absorbed.  THIS IS CRITICAL.  If you don’t get the excess off, when you come back for coat #2 – it will strip off down to the bare wood.  Leave this coat overnight before attempting a second coat.  After my first coat, it wasn’t as dark as I was hoping.  Don’t get discouraged.  DON’T attempt another coat yet.  Give it time.  Let it soak in.

After it had time to dry overnight, I did another coat of this same stain.  After 2 coats it was an even stain across the handrail.  Just the color I wanted, and still showing the wood grain.  It didn’t look like I had ‘painted’ the handrail like I saw in most of the tutorials.

First, tape off the opposite as before – so the white doesn’t get on any newly stained sections.  It’s wise to let the stain dry overnight or even for a few days before attempting the painting portion.

For sure – you have to use a primer first before painting.  My railing has been complete for almost 2 years.  I attribute the no chipping and peeling to using a primer.  After priming, I used a good ol’ fashioned brush to apply the white paint.  I went with a semi-gloss as that’s what the rest of my house’s molding is done with.  This was tedious.  In that you can see the underside of my stairs from down a level, I had t be really meticulous about my spindles and where they met up with the stain.

Once the paint and stain were both dry (this was a week long project), it was time to apply a varnish, or top coat.  I know lots of people opt for a rub on polyurethane.  I just didn’t feel that was strong enough for my family’s use and abuse.  Again, I did the old fashioned brush on method.  I ended up using a satin finish lacquer.  I did one coat.  Let it dry.  Sanded very very lightly with 400 grit sand paper, then applied another coat of lacquer.  After this coat was dry I did a light sand with 0000 steel wool.



I really like that I can still see the wood grain of the oak.  It was such a dramatic change to our front entry.  Well worth the time and effort.


It’s been abused the last few years.  It’s held up well.