How to Refinish Those Old Stair Hand Rails and Give them Some Pizzazz!

Refinished Bannister
Refinished Hand Rail

After we refinished our floors to a beautiful dark half inch bamboo (see pic), the hand rails going to the basement just weren’t cutting it.  The old blonde colored oak finish no longer matched the floor.  In the post (link here) regarding upgrading our bannisters, I wrote about how we refinished the bannisters going upstairs from the first floor.  Since we’re in the market for a new house as I wrote about in the Reflections on 2018 post, it was time to get in high gear on the remaining projects in this house.  Let me give you the low-down on a very simple refinish to the railings that you can knock out in a long weekend.

First, remove the rails.  This will save you endless heartache since you won’t have to cover the stairs with a drop cloth, worry about getting finish on the walls, getting sanding dust throughout the house, and bringing the varnish fumes into the house.  In addition, you can put the rails on a bench or work table at waist height (the Festool MFT/3 works wonders for something like this), which will make the refinishing much easier.  If you do it while they are attached to the wall, you’ll be doing all kinds of contortions to access the side against the wall and the underside.

Second, sand, sand, sand.  Use a coarse grit sandpaper like 60 or 80 grit and I highly recommend using a power sander.  I used my Festool RO150 random orbit sander which worked surprisingly well given how big it is.  The sanding disc is pretty large relative to the piece, but was able to hit just about every surface except for the small bead that runs near the bottom.  I hand sanded that part.  Sand until there is no more shininess to the finish.  You don’t have to take it to bare wood:  just rough it up enough so that the new finish will adhere.

Third, prepare.  Do this in a well ventilated area and wear gloves.  Also wear eye protection in case any of the finish splatters upwards.  It’s not likely, but don’t take any chances.

General Finishes Java Gel Stain and Arm-R-Seal
General Finishes Java Gel Stain and Arm-R-Seal

Fourth, apply the gel stain.  I used General Finishes Java Gel Stain.  I did a test run underneath the shortest hand rail to see how dark the stain looked and how evenly it spread.  Then give it 24 hours so you can evaluate the test area.  If you like it, then press on and stain both rails.

Fifth, apply the topcoat of oil and urethane varnish.  General Finishes Arm-R-Seal works really well for this and I recommend the satin finish.

Sixth, reinstall the rails and enjoy!

I hope that helps!  Catch up on the latest Traughber Design project videos on Instagram here.

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