Restained banister on wood stairs

Over time, wood banisters start to show signs of wear and tear from constant use. Staining not only makes a banister look like new, but it also adds a layer of protection to the wood underneath the finish. Whether you're installing a new banister or you want to revitalize your old, worn one, staining it can bring out its full potential to beautify your indoor space.

Step 1: Strip Away Old Finish

Remove the existing finish on a banister by stripping it off, either by sanding or with a chemical strippers. The more thorough you are during the stripping process, the better your new application of stain will work and look. Start sanding with a medium-grit sandpaper to remove light nicks and dents, and the existing finish. If the banister is round, wrap a piece of sandpaper around the banister so that it covers as much of the banister’s surface as possible. With the sandpaper wrapped around it, move the sandpaper back and forth as you move along the entire length. Banisters with flat surfaces can be sanded with a sanding block. Sand the finish until the wood is bare. Sand the entire surface again with a medium/fine-grit sandpaper and then lightly once more with a fine-grit sandpaper. Ask an expert at your local True Value hardware store which exact sandpaper grit is best for your banister’s wood. If you don’t know the type of wood, it’s best to err on the side of caution and start off with as fine-grit sandpaper as you can use so you don’t damage it. Test it in an inconspicuous area on the banister.

Sanding top of banister post with sanding block

Sanding side of banister post with sanding block

If your banister is already installed, open windows or doors in the area. Otherwise, work in a well-ventilated area such as your open garage or on an outdoor deck or patio. Make sure your work area is dry and dust-free. When you begin refinishing, place a tarp or drop cloth underneath and secure it with masking tape where necessary. Use painter’s tape on any other surfaces you want to protect from drips and splattering.

If the banister is large, consider using a power sander. Take care not to damage the piece by sanding too deeply. Use medium- and low-grit sandpaper appropriate for the wood. Sand carefully by hand around decoratively curved areas.

Helpful Tip

For a new, bare-wood banister, simply sand it with fine-grit sandpaper before you stain. Remember to remove sanding dust with a cloth or clean rag.

Using chemical strippers is an easier method. Most chemical strippers need to be mixed with water, so check the manufacturer's directions before applying. Using a medium-sized paintbrush or clean rag, apply the solution evenly over the surface. Let it soak in for 20 to 30 minutes then use a plastic paint scraper, rag or sponge to wipe off the old stain. Once you've removed the old finish from the surface, use a clean rag to wipe it down so that the wood is completely bare. Let it dry.

Helpful Tip

If you use a chemical stripper to remove the old finish, it's a good idea to lightly sand the surface afterwards with a fine-grit sandpaper. This will ensure a tighter bond between the wood and the new coats of stain.

Safety Alerts!

Always follow manufacturer's instructions and wear rubber gloves and protective goggles when using strong chemicals.

Never strip furniture near an open flame as stripping chemicals can ignite.

Use chemical strippers clearly marked "no cleanup" or "will wash away with water." However, the "no cleanup" type stripper may leave a residue, which must be sanded away. Residue from the "wash away" type can be removed by rinsing with water. Be aware that water may raise the grain of the wood. Lightly sand to reduce this effect. Heat guns can be used as a supplement to other methods to remove particularly stubborn finishes.

Sanding banister handrail with find-grit sandpaper

Step 2: Stain It

Before you stain, consider applying sanding sealer. Applying sanding sealer is similar to priming the wood for paint. The sealer reduces the tendency of some woods to absorb stains unevenly. Sealer can also be applied after staining to reduce the number of finish coats necessary. When applying sanding sealer, first use a small-sized paintbrush to brush the surface, then wipe clean with a cloth. Shake the can of sealer thoroughly and apply two thin coats using a small- to medium-sized paintbrush. Avoid allowing the sealer to puddle or fill in decorative grooves. Wipe off excess with a rag and allow the sealer to dry completely before lightly sanding with medium-grit sandpaper in the direction of the grain. Wipe the area with a clean cloth.

There are a couple of different types of stains to use. Oil-based stains penetrate into the wood without raising the grain but carry a strong odor. Water-based stains are more environmentally friendly and offer easy cleanup using soap and water. Water-based stains also come in convenient gel formulas that are easy to apply with less mess. Check that the shade of stain you’re using matches the other woodwork in your house, especially the woodwork in the same room as the banister.

Varnising top of banister post

Varnishing side of banister handrail

Varnishing top of banister handrail

Apply a thin, even coat of stain with a cloth, sponge or medium-sized paintbrush and allow it to penetrate into the wood. Brush in the direction of the wood grain and cover the entire banister until it is wet with stain. Let it dry for a couple of minutes and then wipe off excess stain with a clean cloth. Allow the piece to dry completely. Coat once for a light stain or apply additional coats to create a darker color. Lightly sand in between coats with fine-grit sandpaper.

Safety Alert!

Never refinish near an open flame as stains can ignite.

Helpful Tip

If you are using water-based stains, you can minimize raising the grain by moistening the wood with a damp cloth and sanding. Allow the wood to dry completely and sand lightly with fine-grit sandpaper. Repeat as necessary.

Let the stain dry completely before proceeding to the next step. Check stain manufacturer packaging for specific dry times.

Step 3: Seal It

Apply polyurethane sealant to seal the new stain finish. Apply it using a cloth or with a small- to medium-sized paintbrush in smooth, even strokes along the direction of the grain. Hold the brush vertically while applying. Overlap brushstrokes when moving on to the next area. Start at a corner and work it in gradually in a consistent pattern so you don't have bare spots. Let it dry completely (this usually takes a couple of hours). You may want to add a couple of coats. In between coats (once the last has dried), lightly sand the surface with a fine-grit sandpaper. Use a cloth to wipe the piece down or use a brush to remove any residue and debris from sanding. Apply the next coat and let it dry.

Good job! You're done. Your banister should now be an elegant accent of your home.

Staircase with varnished banister

Project Shopping List

Here’s what you’ll need to complete this project successfully.