Transform your old oak handrails and bannisters into the 21st century with this easy technique.
Updated: Feb 27
We've all seen them in either our own or friend's homes. The tired, wornout handrails in the stairwells of homes built 25 years ago. Their getting to the point of looking dated and meh. The dreaded 90's effect.
I want to share with you a technique that will transform those old stair rails into something quite modern and striking for any home.
To the left is a before picture of a stairwell project we (Honeybear Painting of Mundelein) just completed in Lindenhurst, Illinois. The entire home was painted including the bathroom vanities, kitchen cabinets and these stairwell railings.
This project consisted of painting the base trim and spindles white. The original base was unpainted oak. Then, the posts and railings will be painted with 3 coats of a black Minwax GelStain.
For most interior painting projects, you work from top to bottom. First ceilings, then walls and finally the trim and doors. Staircases are a little different. In this case, we do the spindles and base first. Then we always finish the black posts and top railings.
All staircases are different but the same rules apply. Any bare oak that is going white, must be primed first. We do NOT prime the sections going black. Priming the bare oak is the MOST important step of this process. In addition, choosing an excellent bonding primer is crucial. Everyone thinks all primers are the same. NOT! Primers have different strengths and weaknesses. We have to match the right primer for the job. In this case, a strong bonding primer is what we need.
I would recommend 2 different primers for this job that I've personally used with great durability. Those are Zinsser's Bondz and Sherwin Williams Extreme Bond. Do not use a cheap low end primer. It will chip easily and you will be constantly touching it up and regret this choice. All to save $10 bucks. One quart of primer will usually do it for most projects.
Some people ask me, but hey Matt, "what about an oil based primer like Kilz?" I love Kilz, and use it quite a bit. However, oil primers and paints are unforgiving on carpets, and floors. One mistake, and your screwed. Plus, alot of our customers have just installed brand new flooring. I don't like taking chances with an oil primer that butts up against brand new carpet. That's just me. The Zinnser Bondz is excellent and water based, It's clean up easily. It just doesn't have the blocking capabilites as Kilz. But for light to medium oak, it works great.
Before you prime, you must lightly sand the bare oak. You want to rough it up just a touch so the primer has something to grab onto. This will help the durability and resist chipping. After sanding, use a tack cloth to wipe up all the dust. Again, this will help with bonding. If the oak trim butts up against the walls, you will want to tape the trim before priming.
As you go to put on the primer, use a newer high quality brush. Apply the primer with light pressure. We want to avoid thick brush lines. Nice and easy with light pressure. If the oak trim butts up against carpet, you will need to use a paint shield to avoid getting paint on the carpet.
Once done with the priming and its dry, we want to sand down any drips or rough spots.
Now, we're ready to put on the finish coat of the white. There are 2 products I would recom
mend for this project. The first is Sherwin Williams Proclassic Enamel. It is a latex based paint with a self leveling property that gives it a smooth flat finish. The other product which
is very similar is Benjamin Moore's Advance Enamel. I would recommend using a satin finish. Semi-gloss is nice as well. We at Honeybear Painting, Inc. prefer using Sherwin Williams products but either product is excellent for this project. You will need a gallon unless its a smaller job. We also use the stock Extra White color which is Sherwin Williams whitest white.
You will want to put 2 light coats on to start. The sections that were bare oak will need 3 coats. The areas that were white will need two coats. Take your time and once again, nice and easy. We don't want to see any brush marks and the nice thing about this paint is that it will level out on its own.
Once the white is done, now comes the fun part- THE BLACK!
I like to do the posts and rails in black. I feel like it gives the most WOW factor.
The product that I personally like to use is an oil based black MinWax GelStain. Now I know what you thinking. Matt, you said earlier you were too chicken to use an oil primer, why are using an oil GelStain? Good question. So here's my answer. The hand rails take the most abuse and use and have to be extremely durable. Oil based paints and stains are the most durable products out there. I hate using them, because their unforgiving, the clean up is a nightmare, and you cant get it off your hand for days. If you get just one little tiny drop on the carpet, its game over. But having said all this, they have their place. And this is one of those times where it's worth the inconvenience. Plus, it's literally in a Gel form so we have the ultimate control over it. It's very easy to work with, unlike normal stain.
The other reason why I like using a GelStain is that GelStains act as a stain but have the durability of an oil based paint. GelStains still let the natural grain of the wood come through but cover like paint. It's hard to explain until you actually use it, but its perfect for this project. In addition, GelStain is literally stain in a gel form. So it doesn't run. Its easy to control. Much easier than actual stain or paint. And because we're finishing with the top rails, if you properly tarp everything off, you should have no problems.
The one time consuming task prior to doing the black is that you must tape the top of every single spindle. This could be 100-200 spindles. Its monotonous but it has to be done. It's the only way to get nice crisp lines at the top of each spindle. Trust me, I learned the hard way.
Tape the tops of the spindles....don't be lazy. It actually goes pretty fast.
You will also want to tape off where the rail meets the wall and where the post meets the base. This will also give nice crisp lines. Once taped, it will take 3 coats of GelStain. I let the first coat dry 24 hours. I really want it to set up good before I do the 2nd coat. The 3rd coat really is just a light touch up coat and can be done 3-4 hours after the 2nd coat is done.
If you put it on too heavy, it takes forever to dry. So light coats.
Take your time when your putting the black on. And thoroughly go over it with proper lighting. Poor light can hide thin spots.
Once done with the black, you will need to take off all the tape. Then you will need to touch up the white followed by one more touch up the of the black. It's impossible to not get white on the black and vice versa during this process. It's just part of the deal.
This particular job that my company, Honeybear Painting, did in Lindenhurst took 4 days. I had a helper on this project for 2 days. A project of this size runs between $1400-$1600. It's the time involved that creates the cost. It is very time consuming but material costs are very low. If you have a steady hand and alot of patience, its worth the time.
Lastly, once your done, you want to be gentle with it for the first 14-21 days. Paints and stains need time to cure. The curing process allows enamel to harden and become very durable. But that process takes 2-3 weeks depending on the enamel and stain you use. If you cant keep little kids or dogs off of it for 2 weeks, I wouldn't recommend doing this project. We have 2 crazy Huskies at home, and while I love them dearly, there's no way I'm doing this project at my own home. Unless I ship them off to Siberia for 2 weeks. They might actually like that LOL.
If you know you don't have the patience or the time but love the look of this, you can always hire a professional painting company (Honeybear Painting, Inc.) that has done countless projects like these and knows every pitfall and trick. It just takes time and patience. I hope this article helped you with your potential staircase project and maybe gave you some ideas.