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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

Sharing is caring!

Michelle Bisson

Monday 16th of August 2021

This is the best step by step ressource for staining and painting my oak staircase. Thank you so much for sharing! 😊

gail w turner

Thursday 5th of August 2021

One of the best tutorials on staircase refinishing I have found. Especially the java gel stain. I am inspired. Thank you.


Friday 2nd of July 2021

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!


Sunday 17th of January 2021

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?


Tuesday 29th of December 2020

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?


Sunday 18th of April 2021

@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.

Leap of Faith Crafting

Friday 1st of January 2021

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. is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to