How to Refinish a Railing That Will Last

8 Materials
2 Days

Our home was built in the late 90’s and it screamed 90’s! It just felt so sterile with the white tile everywhere and an over abundance of yellow maple cabinetry and woodwork! Updating the railing was a game changer in bringing this home into the current century! Using the right products and techniques will result in a finish that will last for years to come.

Let’s take a look at the before picture of the area. I did not take a close-up photo of the railing before I dug into it. I am really bad at this (before we started the blog!) I always jumped right into the project, with the excitement of a kid on Christmas morning! The dated maple railing had to go and I was afraid that I would not have enough in my budget to replace it (close to $2000.) Refinishing it was my only option at this point. When you are doing a whole house renovation the $$ can easily spiral out of control with unexpected issues or my expensive tastes.

This is a current close-up photo of the lower edge of my railing. There was a strip of moulding at the base of the railing. I removed this moulding, as we were about to install the new flooring and soon discovered that all of the spindles could be removed from the railing. Yeah for me! This would make refinishing it so much easier, since I wanted the spindles to be white. The photo below shows the railing with the moulding piece and spindles removed. 

There are pieces of wood at the top and bottom of the railing that were cut and nailed into position that held each spindle in place. Then the final lower moulding held everything tight. I kept all of the railing pieces lined up in the order I removed them, just incase there was a slight difference in the thickness of the spindles. I didn’t want to regret removing them when I went to reinstall the spindles.

I prepped the surrounding area by taping off the wall. I also covered the wall with plastic, I did not want any stripper getting on my wall.

I chose to strip off the old varnish finish and re-stain it with a traditional stain. I do know gel stain is a popular choice, but from what I have seen of others using gel stain, it can wear off or scratch. I wanted this to look beautiful for the long term and really last. So taking the time to strip off the old high-gloss varnish was worth it to me. The stripper I chose to work with is Jasco Paint and Epoxy Remover. I like to use this particular one because it is thick and clings to the surface really well. This is important when stripping moulding or pieces that have carvings, so that it will get in all of the crevices and grooves.

Supplies needed:

  • Chemical stripper
  • Chemical resistant gloves
  • Goggles
  • Paint brush
  • Brass or stainless steel brushes
  • Steel wool pads (grade 1) medium
  • Steel wood pads (grade super fine
  • Stain
  • Wipe On Poly
  • cotton rags

Ok, there are no photos of me actually striping my railing. I was home alone the day I stripped it and it’s a little hard to take photos of yourself! Besides the fact I was so anxious to get it finished. These next several photos and video are a recreation of stripping a piece of maple moulding. This moulding was actually removed from this home, so it was a part of this house.

Step 1- Brush on the stripper, don’t brush back and forth like you are painting a piece of wood. Just lay on the stripper, then let it sit for about 15 minutes and watch the magic happen. 

It is important to pour the stripper into a metal or glass container, plastic will dissolve and also make sure that you are wearing chemical resistant gloves and goggles. This stuff will burn your skin.

Step 2- Once the stripper has done it’s magic, after about 15 minutes, take a piece of steel wool and rub off the dissolved varnish. Rubbing back and forth pulling off the varnish. You will have to periodically pull the steel wool to expose a clean section as you continue to rub off the finish. You can see in this photo the varnish on the steel wool.

Using a stainless steel or brass brush, scrub back and forth to get the varnish out of the crevices and grooves in the moulding, just be sure to brush with the grain of the wood. The first time I did this on a 4 poster bed that had a lot of carving, I was so worried that this would scratch the wood surface, but it does not! Brushing back and forth with the grain of the wood will remove any remaining varnish. I dolike to repeat this step and apply a second layer of stripper, let it sit 15 minutes just to make sure that all of the varnish is removed. Unlike paint, varnish is a little more difficult to see if it is all removed and you will know if it’s not all removed when you go to reapply your finish and the stain does not stick in certain areas.

Step 3- Once all the varnish is removed, wipe off all of the wood with a damp cloth. If it feels rough in any spots, lightly sand with a fine grit sand paper, or a fine steel wool pad, then wipe again to remove any dust.

Step 4- Apply the stain, I chose Ebony stain by Minwax. I love this deep charcoal toned stain, it goes so well with my flooring. This can be applied with a paint brush or a clean cotton rag. Let the stain penetrate the wood for 10 minutes.

After the stain has penetrated the wood for 10 minutes wipe off any excess stain with a clean cotton rag.

This is the actual railing after it has been stained and lightly sanded with a fine steel wool pad.

Before applying the topcoat, wipe down the wood removing any dust. This is key to achieving that smooth, beautiful finish.

Step 5- Apply the topcoat, simply pour a small amount of the Wipe On Poly onto a clean cotton cloth and wipe it on. Repeat until the entire surface is covered. Let it dry 2-3 hours then buff with the super fine steel wool and repeat. I like to do 2-3 coats of the Wipe On Poly to protect the wood. After the final coat is dry do not buff again with the steel wool pad.

There is no need to sand the spindles to prep them for paint. The only prep is to use a good bonding primer, I like to use Kilz Adhesion. This primer will bond even to glossy surfaces, eliminating the need to sand, saving a ton of time and the mess that comes with sanding.

I painted one coat of primer and two coats of paint. I did keep all of the spindles in the same order they were removed for ease in reinstallation. 

Here is the completed railing, I just love the way it turned out. It totally updated the look of this banister without the need of buying and installing a new one which would have been around $2000. I only spent $83! That’s a huge savings and only a couple of days of work.

  • Jasco Stripper $14
  • Steel wool pads $8
  • Brass brush $3
  • Stain $5
  • Wipe on Poly $13
  • Primer $40

The best part of this is that it still looks as good as the day I finished it! After four years it still looks great, even with grandkids dragging toys against it. They can be pretty rough.

For more photos of this complete project please check out our website

We hope you have found this tutorial informational and helpful. Please let us know if you give this a try and how it turns out. We would love to hear from you!

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  3 questions
  • Morning Morning on Jul 14, 2019

    Why oh why did you not match the colouring?

  • Ruth Ruth on Jul 29, 2019

    Sunny side where are you located? You say you did the staircase project 4 yrs ago. What year?

  • Anna Anna on Aug 13, 2019

    Is there anyway to get a shot of your kitchen/railing as in the first picture to see the way it looks now? It is outstanding! A lot of elbow grease went into that!


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