You are currently viewing How to Refinish a Railing That Will Last

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! I believe updating the railing was a game changer in bringing this home into the current century! 

Let’s take a look at a couple of the before pictures of the area. This area was once the kitchen. 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, then Steph would ask, “did you take a before photo?” and I just shrug my shoulders. You know when the excitement starts and you just want to dig into the project and those thoughts flee from your mind. 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. This is the stripper that I like to use, 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 #0000) 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.

This close up view shows the stripper working it’s magic only after 1 minute. Let it sit for 15 minutes to penetrate through the layers. Stripping varnish by the way is a lot easier than stripping paint, if you’ve done that before.

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.

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 do like 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 an oil based stain in Ebony 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.

This is my favorite topcoat. It is easy to use and the results are absolutely beautiful. You get that amazing hand-rubbed look with no brush marks and it protects the wood beautifully.

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.

Here is a view of the stained and topcoat railing, now I just need to do the spindles. I was actually able to work on the spindles while I was waiting for the stripper to do it’s thing and in-between coats of the poly drying.

There is no need to sand the spindles to prep them for paint. The only prep is to use a good bonding primer like this one. 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

On this project I used an oil based stain.

But if you choose to use an water based stain, checkout our pro tips for applying a water based stain.

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.

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! We also invite you to share this with your friends and family, please


As always here at Sunny Side Design


This Post Has 14 Comments

  1. Sarah

    Wow! It’s crazy how this project completely transformed the way your stairs and living room! I received a quote from a local refinisher for banister refinishing, but after seeing your process it seems like a doable DIY project!

    1. Michelle Dickson

      Thank you Sarah. It is really a project you can do yourself. Just beside to set aside the time you will need. It took me about a week. Of course I didn’t work on it all day long, just an hour or 2 each day. Good luck with your project.

  2. Alice Carroll

    Thanks for pointing out that custom railing designs can be refinished well using a bonding primer. That info will come in handy someday because I’d like to be able to find a contractor to install new railings in my home soon. Having a smaller gap in them will make them a lot safer for my kids.

    1. Stephanie Hofer

      You bet. Thanks for visiting our site and for your comment. Good luck with your railing in the future.

  3. Stacey

    could you do this process without removing the railing and newel posts?

    1. Michelle Dickson

      Thanks for visiting our site Stacey. That’s a great question. In fact, that’s what I planned on doing, but when we pulled off the moulding at the lower edge to install our new floor I saw that the balusters would just slide out. I have stripped off the finish all the parts before, but since I was planning on painting the balusters, they just needed a good bonding primer, then paint. If you don’t want to remove paint from the baluster pieces mask them off when stripping the pieces your want to strip. Good luck on your project! Please share how it turned out.

  4. Kat Han

    Hi! It’s beautiful!! What white paint and finish did you use for the spindles?

    1. Michelle Dickson

      Thank you Kat! I used Behr Marque Paint & Primer in a semi-gloss finish. The color was custom matched to my kitchen cabinets.

  5. going here

    Thanks for all your efforts that you have put in this. very interesting info .

  6. Angela Waterford

    I think I’ll hire someone to install some wood railings on the second floor of my home. That’s the part that I need to secure with railings because I’m planning to put some stairs on it that will lead up to the attic, and I’m planning to make it another room that I can use one day. Thanks for the insight that I can use a traditional finish to stain the wood with should I decide to do so.

    1. Michelle Dickson

      Good luck with your project Angela. Adding more square footage is a great investment for your home. Let us know how it all turns out.

  7. Marsha Craig

    How did you adhere/attach the spindles to the floor and railing?

    1. Michelle Dickson

      Thank you Marsha for your inquiry. On the top part of my railing it is recessed and the top of the spindle just slides into position. Once the spindle was positioned on top I pushed it in-between the wood pieces that were already nailed down that separate each spindle. Then a piece of moulding was nailed across the entire length of the railing securing all of the spindles in place. So there was no need to glue or nail each spindle. The 4th photo on the blog post shows an up close view of the moulding piece that we nailed on that secured all of the spindles. I hope this helps.

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