How to Refinish Those Old Oak Bannisters with Java Gel Stain to Give Them Some Pop!

refinished bannister with General Finishes Java Gel Stain
The Refinished Bannister

Mrs Woodworker and I finally pulled the trigger and had the carpet and linoleum floors in the house replaced on the first and second floors with hardwood floors.  This house was one of our rentals and after four sets of tenants (who were great, by the way!) the carpet and linoleum were just worn out.  After the floors were replaced, the next step was to update the bannister and kitchen cabinets to match.  I’ll tell you everything you need to know to update the bannisters and will do another post on the kitchen cabinets.

Given that the floors are a java-colored bamboo, we decided to go with a  java stain on the bannister top rail and vertical posts to match the floor.  For the spindles we went with a white semi-gloss paint to match the trim in the rest of the room.

the old oak bannister
The Old Oak Bannister

So where do you start?  It all starts with a lot of sanding.  I recommend investing in an electric sander if you don’t already have one.  This  will save you a ton of time.  I already had a Festool Rotex 150 Random Orbit Sander which was a little big for a job like this, but worked out alright.  If you are buying from scratch, a small sander from Home Depot or Lowes will work.  I recommend using 120 grit sandpaper which matches the grit called for with the stain we used (more on that later).  For those hard-to-reach areas, you will have to do a little hand sanding.  I’m not going to lie; you’ll need to sand all the intricate curves on the spindles by hand.  Turn on your favorite podcast and the time will fly by!  One tip which may help you, is to sand when you have natural light on the bannister.  Then if you see any shine (remaining finish), it’s easy to see where to focus your sanding energy.  Once everything is sanded down nicely, be sure to vacuum really well so no sanding dust gets in the finish.

Before you start applying the finishes, I need to say a few words about ventilation.  The fumes from the stain and varnish were not too bad, but I recommend running your ceiling fans and opening the windows during and after you apply the finishes.  The fumes from the varnish were the strongest  and most important to keep ventilated.  Also, I recommend wearing a dust mask when sanding since you’ll have a lot of fine particles in the air and you don’t want to inhale them.

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

Next, it’s time to apply the stain.  We used General Finishes Java Gel Stain.  A quart runs about $22.99 at Woodcraft and is plenty for a job of this size.  You can also purchase it for $33.95 with Amazon Prime (click here) and have it delivered right to your door.  It’s very easy to apply and leaves a beautiful color.  To apply, make sure you are wearing gloves then apply the stain using a small rag.  Cut up T-shirts work great for this.  For the tough-to-reach corners, use a small foam brush.  Let the stain sit for about 5-10 minutes then wipe off with a clean rag so it doesn’t leave any splotches.  If you like the color depth at that point, you’re done with the stain.  If you would like a darker color, then apply more coats until you have the color you like.

Our floors have ever-so-slight streaks of lighter color so I only went with one coat of stain on the bannisters.  This left light streaks on the bannister to match the floor.  If your floor is solid, you may want to go with two or three coats of stain.

Next, apply the top coat.  I’ve used General Finishes Arm-R-Seal for years on our Traughber Design projects and it provides a very durable finish.  I typically use the gloss finish when making furniture (see the post How to Make a Beautiful Custom Wooden Mitered Picture Frame for an example of a high gloss finish), but in this case went with the satin finish ($17.99 at Woodcraft).  Why?  Because the bannister rail is a high traffic item and the wear of hands going up and down the stairs on a gloss finish would look unusual over time.  For example, the areas of high traffic would wear to a dull finish and low traffic parts of the rail would still be high gloss.  It would look very uneven.  With the satin finish the rails should have a consistent finish, even after wear.  We went with two coats using small rags to wipe it on.  Make sure you leave at least 24 hours between coats and sand with a high grit sandpaper between coats..  We used 600 grit sandpaper.

Last, paint the spindles.  We went with Sherwin Williams Interior White Semi-Gloss from Lowes.  That’s probably a little more high-end than you need and just about any white semi-gloss interior latex should do the trick.  A quart should be more than enough.  I used a foam brush for a test section, but it was just too slow and I switched to a 2 inch brush.  After two coats and some touch up, the spindles look great.

Check out the pictures.  We think the bannisters look much better than when we started.  Stay tuned for another post soon on how to redo those kitchen cabinets!