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Staircase Refinishing the Easy Way and For Under $50!!

Staircase refinishing can be easy if you follow these step by step directions to transform your oak banister into beautiful brown and white.

This post has been a long time coming.  I have put off this big project for a few years knowing how long it was going to take…

After updating my bathroom cabinets and realizing how easy and wonderful gel stain was, I knew at some point I’d have to do the oak banister. (Check out my review here on gel stain!)

I couldn’t stand the oak staircase anymore and since we finally decided to get all new flooring downstairs, I knew the time had come to bite the bullet and start my staircase refinishing.

And do it, I did!!  All for under $50 too!!  So I thought I’d share with you how to refinish a wood banister for cheap.

Staircase refinishing was my least favorite home improvement project because it’s doing the same thing over and over again and it takes a long time.  I’m an impatient person and once I decide to do something, I want it done now and painting the banister is not one of those quick projects.  

diy oak banister makeover tutorial

It’s not hard by any means, it’s cheap, and requires no tools but it’s tedious.  Two weeks of tedious!  However, now that it’s done, it looks beautiful and makes our house look so much bigger and lighter!!  

It’s made the biggest impact on the feel of our house and I’m so glad I stuck it out.  You can do it too if you follow this easy DIY banister makeover tutorial.

We originally talked about iron spindles or staining the whole thing the same, but decided it would make the house too dark looking since we have so many spindles.  I didn’t want the handrail white because it would get too dirty with all the grubby hands that run down it all day!!

So, a brown railing and white spindles seemed to be a perfect fit for my farmhouse style house makeover.  The hardest part of this process was the fact that we just replaced the stair carpeting a few years ago so I had to paint around it.  

We were tearing up downstairs so that was the only part that didn’t matter if I was messy on.  So, here we go!!

How to Refinish a Wood Banister

This is what it looked like before – the lovely popular oak color of the 80s and 90s.

staircase refinishing
General Finishes handrail bannister makeover tutorial

Materials Needed for DIY Staircase Refinishing

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links from Amazon. I receive a small commission at no cost to you when you make a purchase using my links (purple text).

  • General Finishes Java Gel Stain – there are other gel stains out there, but this one is the best to use and is rated 5 stars!  Trust me it is super easy to use!!
  • Chalk Paint – I used Renaissance Chalk Finish paint in Ivory Tower.  Click here to check it out!  I love this paint!  It is non-toxic, doesn’t smell, and I only needed 2 coats.  If you haven’t ventured into the world of chalk paint, it a different type of paint that doesn’t require sanding and minimal coats.  It does have a slightly different feel and look to it than regular paint so make sure you like it before you start!
  • Sandpaper or sanding block
  • Big and small paintbrushes and old cotton rag or shirt
  • General Finishes Top Coat
  • Polycrylic Finish
  • Blue painter’s tape

Prepping a Banister for Painting

Start off by wiping down your handrail and spindles.  I just used a wipe.  I didn’t break out the TSP or anything for this.  The railing really wasn’t that dirty.  The spots that had some grime built off I just scrubbed with the wipe.  

After it’s dry, lightly sand the handrail and any large spindles that you will be staining.  And I mean LIGHTLY sand!  It doesn’t take much, just a little to scuff it up.  It only took me about 5 minutes to do it and then I wiped it off with a wipe again.

sanding a banister for staining

Tape off anything you don’t want stain getting on!  It doesn’t matter if it gets on the spindles, because the chalk paint will cover it up as long as it’s not a big glob.  I taped the carpet in front of the wood and the walls where the aprons were.

taping off banister to paint

How to Apply Gel Stain to a Staircase

This is the easiest way I have found to apply the gel stain.  First, put a disposable latex glove on your dominant hand, then put a kitchen glove over it, and then put a sock over that.  

Now you’re set!  All you do is dip your socked hand into the stain and wipe it on the wood.

How to Refinish a Wood Banister with gel stain
wiping gel stain on spindles

Rub it all over the wood until it’s pretty even.  The first coat will be pretty streaky and even the second coat will too.  It’s after the 3rd coat that it starts looking even.

oak banister makeover with gel stain
After 1st coat
gel stain on banister makeover
After 2nd coat

For the parts of wood near the spindles, I used a small paintbrush so that I could get into crevices.

suggestions for refinishing stair railing
brown railing diy

I did three full coats – allowing for each to dry overnight -and then did some touch up so some parts had 4 coats.  Looking pretty good already, right??!!

staircase refinishing after 3 coats of gel stain

Painting Spindles of a Banister

Now, on to the tedious part… painting the spindles with chalk paint.  I decided on using chalk paint because there is no prep work and it’s so easy to apply!  I used this renaissance chalk paint when I painted my laundry room cabinets and grey chalk paint on my bedroom furniture makeover.

To learn more about chalk paint and what else you can use it for, make sure to check out my chalk paint ideas post.

I started by using a small paintbrush to paint around the top of the spindles.  

how to refinish stairs and railings

Make sure the stain is dry (wait a day or two) before you tape off the bottom of the spindles.  Then I painted the spindles with a chalk paintbrush.

painting spindles with chalk paint
General Finishes gel stain banister staircase tutorial

If I was painting near the stairs, I put a piece of paper in between the spindle and carpet so I didn’t get paint on it.

tips for painting spindles with chalk paint

Tips for Chalk Painting Banister Spindles

I painted as close to the carpet as I could and then I went back and painted the very bottom.  I tried two different ways.

First I taped off the carpet and that worked well but it took a lot of time.  So I ended up using the edge of a metal ruler and just pushed down the carpet while I used a small paintbrush.

painting spindles in carpet
how to refinish stairs with gel stain and paint

My next tip would be on painting the second story spindles.  I am not a fan of heights so getting on a tall ladder was not appealing to me!  So for the backside of the spindles, I leaned over the top railing and painted down as far as I could go.

painting stair railing spindles

Then after I taped off the bottom of the spindles with painters tape

General Finishes gel stain banister staircase tutorial

I held a mirror with my left hand behind the spindles and painted the backside with my right hand.  Unfortunately, that left me with no hands to take a picture of me in action, but hopefully, you get the idea!

tips for painting spindles on 2nd floor

The other amazing thing about this paint is it dries very quickly!   If you really have a rhythm going and your hand isn’t killing you yet, you could paint both coats in the same day.

Look at What was Happening During my Banister Makeover!

I think the one thing that kept me going is that we were getting our floors done at the same time so I couldn’t go downstairs and do anything for 4 days.  This kept me upstairs and made me keep going. 

How to Refinish a Wood Banister

Take a look at how nasty our carpet was.  I couldn’t take it anymore!  10 years of dogs and cheap carpet… not a good combo.  My kiddos had a great time drawing with Sharpie all over the laminate that was going to be ripped up!

farmhouse laminate flooring

This is what I got to watch while I was painting.

how to refinish stairs and railing

Ok, back to the banister… I did two coats of the chalk paint and touched up the third coat in spots.  Once it was dry I brushed on a coat of polycrylic protective finish.  

Now you are really supposed to lightly sand the spindles and then add another coat but I couldn’t do it anymore!  

I figured the spindles do not get touched very often so one coat was going to have to do.  For the java stain, I used an old cloth dipped in General Finishes top coat to rub on the coating.  I let it dry for 3 days and then added another coat.

General Finishes gel stain banister staircase tutorial
General Finishes gel stain banister staircase tutorial

Oak Banister Makeover Reveal

Whew!!  Finally done!!  A long project but one that was totally worth it!  Take a look at how it came out!

staircase refinishing

My next project was the family scrabble tiles on the wall at the bottom of the stairs.  Those were much easier to do.

How to Refinish a Wood Banister
staircase refinishing end result
staircase refinishing with brown banister and white spindles

What a dramatic difference, right??  Staircase refinishing for $30, not bad right??!!  I only had to buy the chalk paint since I had leftover gel stain and topcoats.  

How to Refinish a Wood Banister

Take a look at the before and after.

staircase refinishing before and after picture pinterest

Thanks for stopping by!  If you do some staircase refinishing of your own, I’d love to see it!

leap of faith crafting

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  1. Sue says:

    How has it held up? Can you gel stain stair steps?

    • Hi Sue, some of the stain has rubbed off since my 7 year old flies down the stairs running his grubby hands down the handrails! I need to add some touch up to spots, but I decided it gave it a bit of a rustic look so I haven’t yet! I’ve never done stairs, but I would think you could, but not sure how well it will hold up with feet on them all the time. You might need a couple of layers of the coating. Hope that helps! Thanks for stopping by! Amy

  2. Jill S. says:

    Hi! What a lovely re-do! Your original staircase looks a lot like mine, and I have wanted to try something like this for a while, but did not know how. I wonder, does the order you stain matter? Could you have painted the spindles first, and then the handrails? I would like to do the spindles first, if I could.

    • Hi Jill, thanks so much! It probably doesn’t matter too much if you are really careful with the stain. I just knew I’d be able to cover up the stain with the chalk paint so I wasn’t worried if some of the stain went on the spindles. You could always do touch up though!

  3. Nicki says:

    Why chalk paint and not regular trim paint? Also, this looks great!

  4. Allison says:

    How did you ensure you didn’t get white paint on the underside of the railing? Your spindles are circular shaped at the top so I imagine taping them wasn’t possible. Did you free hand that cutting in? I have similar spindles and want to paint them white, but am nervous to get white paint on the underside of my wooden railing (if you know what I mean). Any tricks to make it look neat and professional? My husband thinks we need to have the railing taken off and the spindles professionally paint-sprayed… I just don’t know

    • Hi Allison, yes I did free hand it. I used a smaller paintbrush and got the bristles as close as I could. The nice thing about chalk paint is that it wipes off pretty easy if I happened to get a little paint on it. It was definitely time-consuming but well worth it! Good luck!

  5. Stephanie says:

    This is beautiful! You are giving me the courage to do my staircase. Im worried that since the staircase is in the middle of the house, the smell of the stain will get in the bedrooms. Was this a problem for you? I want to start now and its pretty cold outside so i wont be able to open the windows too much!

  6. Kim says:

    I love the look. As I’ve been remodeling each of my rooms, I also have been painting all the wood, which has given my husband panic attacks. He loves the real wood look, but I wanted it painted and since I was the one doing the work, I painted them.
    Next on our list is redoing the carpet that has been down 16 years, which is also wrapped around my stairs and banister spindles. I think to prevent the added work of trying not to paint the new carpet, I’ll attempt your banister update once the carpet has been pulled up. Thanks for the tutorial, it is a big inspiration.

  7. Lisa Ambrosio says:

    How much paint did you need! During quarantine it seems like a perfect project! I want to order all thwe supplies! Thanks so much!

    • Hi Lisa, it is the perfect project! I keep wanting to build something but I can’t order wood online! I’m pretty sure I just needed one quart of the chalk paint and one quart of the java gel stain. Have fun!

      • Linda sarine says:
        Your comment is awaiting moderation. This is a preview; your comment will be visible after it has been approved.
        Was it the water based or the oil based? Thanks!!
      • Rachel says:
        Your comment is awaiting moderation. This is a preview; your comment will be visible after it has been approved.
        Did you have to wipe off after each paint?
  8. H tuell says:

    love your paint job but also am DROOLING over your new wood floors. Can you give me info on that too? Love how it blends with the carpet tone etc. 🙂 thanks for the post!

    • Jacklyn says:
      Your comment is awaiting moderation. This is a preview; your comment will be visible after it has been approved.
      @Leap of Faith Crafting, can you give the info of the floor dealer in Sacramento? I live 3 hrs away and would love to check out their floors. We’re thinking of redoing our floors downstairs but we can’t find something that we like our local home improvement retail stores. Thank you.
    • Thanks so much! I love them too! They are actually a laminate that I got from a local floor dealer in Sacramento.

  9. Becky says:

    What did u use to sand the section holds the spindles at the bottom?

  10. Katie G says:
    Your comment is awaiting moderation. This is a preview; your comment will be visible after it has been approved.
    Did you wipe off the gel stain? Or just paint it on? I started mine without wiping off….it’s been almost 48 hours and still tacky. Not sure if went to heavy with first cost of if I should have been wiping it off during the first coat. I’ve seen people do both ….I’m following your tutorial. Also how has it held up?
  11. Katie G says:

    Hello
    Did you wipe off the stain during the process? I’m following your tutorial and I’m not cause if I went too heavy but it’s been almost 48 hours and the stain is still tacky after 1 coat.

    • Hi Katie, I’m sorry, I guess I never actual hit the button to post the answer!

      No, I didn’t wipe the stain off. I used the sock to spread it on, the layers shouldn’t be overly thick. I’m wondering if it’s your weather? If it’s too cold maybe it doesn’t dry as fast??

    • Rachel says:

      I didn’t wipe off just like she said and mine dried within 24 hrs.

  12. Rachel says:

    Your tutorial was spot on. My project turned out to be perfect. Thank you.

  13. Lidia says:
    Your comment is awaiting moderation. This is a preview; your comment will be visible after it has been approved.
    Can chalk paint go over oil base? My spindles are painted with oil-based paint
  14. Tara says:
    Your comment is awaiting moderation. This is a preview; your comment will be visible after it has been approved.
    Thank you for your post! I put a second coating of the gel stain on today and am anxiously waiting for it to dry to see if I need a third. Your information helped me a TON!! Thank you, thank you!! Would love to share before & afters but not sure where to post?
  15. Tara says:
    Your comment is awaiting moderation. This is a preview; your comment will be visible after it has been approved.
    Thank you for your post! I put a second coating of the gel stain on today and am anxiously waiting for it to dry to see if I need a third. Your information helped me a TON!! Thank you, thank you!! Would love to share before & afters but not sure where to post?
  16. Tara says:
    Your comment is awaiting moderation. This is a preview; your comment will be visible after it has been approved.
    Thank you for your post! I put a second coating of gel stain on today and am anxiously waiting for it to dry to see if I need a third. Your information helped me a TON!! Thank you, thank you!! I would love to share before & afters but not sure where to share?
  17. Missy says:

    Thank you for posting this! It’s the only tutorial I found that has carpet wrapped around the spindles like mine. I had the carpet installed only 8 months ago, and really wish I would have done the stairway while the carpet was up, but I had the whole home re-carpeted right before move in. My question for you is, did any of the white paint transfer to the carpet? I imagine you’d have to hold the ruler in place until it dried? I don’t have that kind of patience, lol.

  18. Lindsay says:

    I am about to try this! Just painting my spindles though, I am going to leave the handrails since they match our hardwood floors. I’m curious why you opted to stain the larger posts (versus painting white like the spindles)? Do you recommend this or is it just personal preference?

  19. Laura Bliss says:
    Your comment is awaiting moderation. This is a preview; your comment will be visible after it has been approved.
    Thanks so much for taking the time to share step by step! Question- how has the chalk paint held up? I have 4 boys under 11 and i’m hoping the chalk paint is in good condition still. Thanks! Laura
  20. Maria says:

    Wow this was a long tedious project. I followed your post step by step and love the results. Thank you for your step by step guidelines!

  21. Adam says:

    This looks fantastic! I’d like to do it to ours. I already have white spindles, just want to darken my orange oak railings. How strong was the stain smell? Are open windows a must? I may have to wait until next summer.

    • Probably depends on how big your house is and how sensitive you are to smells. I don’t think it’s that bad and I’m pretty sensitive. I’ve done upstairs bathroom cabinets with it and just turned the fan on. Good luck, it will make such a big difference to the oak railings!

  22. Carolyn Covert says:
    Your comment is awaiting moderation. This is a preview; your comment will be visible after it has been approved.
    Thank you for your blog. I really don’t think I would have been successful in attempting this without your guidance and exceptional directions. This was a long, tedious job for me as well – more like 3 weeks. We have 71 spindles, so realized in the middle of painting the white (I used the snow white), I needed to order another can. I don’t see where I can attach a picture, but must say my husband has risen up and called me blessed 🙂
  23. Pati says:

    Your stairs look great. I have the same type of stairs, but hate the carpet. wanted to tear out the carpet and put in new treads and risers but fearful on how to work around the baulusters. Any ideas?

    • Judy says:

      @Pati, if you find a way to do that, let me know! I’ve had several quotes and most say they can’t do it, while the others want an outrageous amount of money. Good luck and keep me posted.

    • I wish I could tear out my carpet too! It’s not easy to workaround. If there is no carpet it would be pretty easy to tape off the floor around the spindles.

  24. Tammy says:
    Your comment is awaiting moderation. This is a preview; your comment will be visible after it has been approved.
    Looking at options to refinish an old wood staircase. So just curious, since you were using a gel, stain, did you wipe off after each coat as one would normally do when staining an item?
  25. Sarah says:
    Your comment is awaiting moderation. This is a preview; your comment will be visible after it has been approved.
    Wow! It’s crazy how this project completely transformed the way your stairs look! I received a quote from a local refinisher for banister refinishing, but after seeing your process it seems like a doable DIY project!
  26. gail w turner says:
    Your comment is awaiting moderation. This is a preview; your comment will be visible after it has been approved.
    One of the best tutorials on staircase refinishing I have found. Especially the java gel stain. I am inspired. Thank you.
  27. Michelle Bisson says:
    Your comment is awaiting moderation. This is a preview; your comment will be visible after it has been approved.
    This is the best step by step ressource for staining and painting my oak staircase. Thank you so much for sharing! 😊

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