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How to refinish your stair railings and sing like Adele!

Come on friends; it’s time to take a little journey.

I wish we were going on a classic road trip, complete with car-dancing, crazy wind-blown hair and more Mike-and-Ikes than one digestive system is equipped to handle, but it’s not that kind of trip: we’re headed down memory lane, buds.

(By the way, I’m fully aware that in normal life, my singing voice sounds like a dying cat… who might also be mating, but is definitely suffering in some way. But I’m convinced that there’s a magical phenomenon that happens on road trips – maybe the “acoustics” of the vehicle and the blaring volume of the music – that morphs my voice into something like Adele’s temporarily. Anyone else become a beautiful vocalist at 75 MPH?)

ANYWAY. Memory lane. When we bought our house, the entryway looked like this:

And, as I mentioned in this post where I showed you all our befores-and-afters, we changed the railings to look like this shortly after we moved in:
Foyer with dark hardwoods and white trim
I’ve gotten soooo many questions about how we stained the railings and replaced the balusters with iron, so I’m finally, finally sharing how we did it. It’s a simple, inexpensive change with a big ol’ honkin’ impact: my favorite kind of update!

This project has two parts:
1. Stain the railings. (Which I’ll tell you about right this very minute.)
2. Add the iron balusters. (See how to do that right here!)

First: a caveat. We did this project pre-blogging, so I’m workin’ with the photos I can track down from the abyss of our hard drive, and recreating the stain process on a random scrap of wood so I can show you how it works. We’re going to have to play make-believe, just a smidge.

Materials You’ll Need

  • Wood stripper. I used Citristrip. It’s a little safer and less fumey than normal stripper, but it’s also a little less magical because it doesn’t bubble. Since we’re not moving the railings outside to stain them, it’s probably smarter to use something safer indoors.
  • Refinishing gloves. (YES. You need them. Signed: your mom.) I used these 3M Tekk gloves.
  • Wood stain. I used this Minwax Dark Walnut.
  • Polyurethane. This is what I used.
  • Scouring pad or steel wool
  • Paintbrush and/or foam brush. (An old, crappy brush is perfect!)
  • Plastic scrapers, like these.
  • Mineral Spirits like this
  • Paper towels and/or rags
  • These links all take you to my affiliate shop.

Materials needed to stain wooden railings

1. Remove the balusters

First we gotta bust out the white wooden balusters!
Balusters vs stair railing: how to stain wooden railings
If you’re trying to save the white wooden balusters to reuse them, go this route: Holding one hand at the top of the baluster and the other hand at the bottom, slooooooowly twist the baluster until it loosens the nail holding it in, then lift it up and out of the railing. You MIGHT be able to save a few of them, but be prepared for many of them to break.

But if you know you’re replacing the balusters, go with our method: UNAPOLOGETIC DESTRUCTION! Just wiggle the balusters up and down, or saw them in half with something sharp and power-tooly, until they break and you can pull them out of the railings. Once you take them all out, reach in the holes where the balusters used to be and make sure there aren’t any lingering nails. If there are, just tug ’em out with needle-nose pliers.

2. Protect the walls and floor.

Use painter’s tape and/or newspaper to cover the walls where the railings meet the wall, so you don’t get any stain on the walls. MIGHT want to protect the floors too, if you’re an impatient, messy DIYer. #JoinTheClub

3. Strip the existing finish

Adios, honey oak! Your days are over!

Pour some of the Citristrip into a metal container and brush it all over the wooden railings.
How to use wood stripper to stain wooden railings
Remember when I said we were going to play make-believe since I don’t have photos from when we actually did this project? Pretend this honey oak-stained piece of wood is a railing. We did this whole process without removing the railing, so pretend like this whole process was done inside, on the installed railings.

After you’ve brushed the stripper all over the wooden railings, let it sit. With this particular stripper, you can let it sit between 30 minutes and 24 hours. After about 5 hours, our pretend-railing had turned a milky pink-white like this:
Stripping the wood finish on wooden railings with citristrip
If you used a more chemically, intense stripper, the finish would be bubbling up, which is incredibly fun and satisfying. So you will need to weigh that in your stripper purchasing decision. (Immature snicker.)

After somewhere between 30 minutes and 24 hours (according to the directions on the stripper), use your plastic scraper to test a small portion of the railing. Scrape a little bit of the stripper away and see if the finish comes off with it. If it removes the shiny finish to reveal the raw wood beneath, you’re good to go. If not, let it sit a while longer.
How to use wood stripper on wooden stairway railings
Once I knew it was ready, I used my plastic scraper to scrape the finish away. It worked okay, but I also tried a metal scraper. The metal was speedy and fun, but it also removed a little bit of the wood and created splinters if I got a little crazy with it, as I am known to do.
Choosing the right tool to remove finish from wooden stairway railings
Once you’ve removed the finish from the main parts of the railings, you’ll need to get in all those crevices. A scouring pad is perfect for the detailed portions of your railings that are a little harder to get with a flat scraper.
Use a scouring pad to remove stripper and wood stain from wooden stair railings
The goal here is to remove the stripper and the shiny finish on the wood so you see the raw wood. Once you have it all the way off, go over it with a piece of sandpaper. We just used 180-grit sandpaper and did a very quick once-over by hand with a loose sheet of sandpaper to smooth out any imperfections. Then just wipe it all down with a paper towel and mineral spirits, to clean it and reveal the luscious raw wood underneath!
How to stain wooden stair railings: use mineral spirits to wash off the stripper residue
Now you’re all set to stain! Look at you go!

4. Stain that junk!

SO EASY. Stir your stain with a paint stick, then dip a paper towel or scrap rag in the stain and rub it onto the wood in the direction of the grain.
How to apply wood stain to stair railings
The way I just said that sounds like it’s a careful, methodical procedure, but it’s not. It’s messy and it’s simple and you can hardly mess it up, promise. NOTE: Wood stain is VERY thin, so if you’re in a spot where drippy stain will ruin your floors, go with a gel stain instead. It’s a little thicker and won’t be so watery.
Tutorial: stripping and staining wood railings
Do the staining process in sections so you can keep the color consistent. Do one section, let it sit, then wipe off the excess stain with a dry rag. The longer you leave it, the darker the final finish will be. I think we left it about five minutes to get to this color. Make sure you keep track of how long you let the stain sit on the first section before wiping, because you’ll need to try to be pretty consistent. If it’s not dark enough the first time, reapply the stain, let it sit, and wipe it off again. We did two coats on our railings.

Let it dry about 24 hours… and you’re almost done!

5. Add Polyurethane

Once the stain is dry and you’re happy with the color, brush on some polyurethane to protect the finish and make it shiny and glorious.
How to refinish stairway hand rails
This is the shininess we got after one coat of Polyurethane. If you’re trying to be an overachiever and get that super SUPER glossy finish, you can lightly run some sandpaper over it and add another coat of polyurethane.
Dark walnut stain on stair railings

That’s all!

It’s really a straightforward job and it makes a huuuuge difference. The hardest part is definitely scraping off the stripper, but you can do it.

Just pop on some Adele and pretend you’re halfway to the beach, and you’ll be done before you know it.

At this point your railings should look kinda like this, with sad little holes where the balusters belong. Bare hanging light bulb optional.
Refinished wooden railings
You can either stick some plain white wooden balusters right back in those holes now, or you can add iron balusters, which is SUCH AN EASY JOB, you guys. You won’t even believe it. See how to install iron balusters.

Update your house with just a few steps! Easy step-by-step instructions!

Who’s ready to eradicate some honey oak? Is anyone else a road-trip Grammy winner?

Let's connect


  1. Great tutorial! 🙂 Have to admit I giggled at the many stripper references… lolol Hi, I’m Shannon and I’m a 13 year old boy!!

    • Oh I know! I couldn’t type “stripper” ONE SINGLE TIME without wanting to reference it, but I restrained. 🙂

  2. It is a long process, but totally worth it! Most homes out here on the West Coast have maple and white staircases… upgrading them to dark stain is expensive! Great tutorial!

  3. Oh I am so glad we started from scratch instead of having to do a total makeover with our stairs…that was enough work for me. yours looks gorg though!

  4. Awesome tutorial! We really want to do some sort of updating to our staircase. It’s literally the first thing you see when you walk in our door, so we want it to POP a little more.

  5. We will be getting our entire orangey staircase refinished at some point. We will NOT be doing it ourselves–both Rick and I have 100% agreed that it is one task we don’t wish to take on. Too many grooves and crevices in the fancy 100+ year old thing!

  6. Great transformation! And thanks for sharing the tutorial, I will never look at a standard, builder grade staircase the same. You’ve turned yours into a custom piece that looks expensive & modern!

  7. i can already sing like adele, but i certainly learned about the stairs…. 😉 next time we get together remind me to sing for you. close your eyes and you will think you are hanging with adele.

  8. This is great!! I have to say, this paragraph made me giggle….(yes I have a gutter brain sometimes) – HA HA HA!
    If you used a more chemically, intense stripper, the finish would be bubbling up, which is incredibly fun and satisfying. So you will need to weigh that in your stripper purchasing decision.

  9. I love this, Kelly! We just bought our new house last year (and it’s totally new), but the one things I didn’t love was the railing. It’s not terrible, but I hate the wood balusters! I can’t wait to see your next post on how to do the iron, because I have been thinking about it for a long time!

  10. Wow. I can’t believe you guys refinished that. It looks awesome! I love the darker wood.

  11. Oh my gosh, why haven’t we taken a road trip together yet? I’m ALL about the singing at 75 mph and car-dancing in between handfuls of Sour Patch Kids (my unhealthy snack of choice)…let’s plan it, k?

    And girl, you did a mighty fine job of doing a tutorial on a pre-blogging project. I’m having some of the same troubles in doing posts on our DIY Wedding. Thank goodness, my Mom documents things like she works for National Geographic, so much of it is covered, thanks to her. The rest, will be up to the imagination, as you say! 😉

  12. The before and after photo of your staircase is mind blowing! It soooooo gorgeous now. The stain made the wood so rich and beautiful.
    Did anyone notice the doggie playing peek-a-boo in the second picture? I like him 🙂

    • haha! That’s my mom’s chihuahua who toured our house with her when they were looking at it for us for the first time… and it’s the ONLY “before” photo I have. 🙂 Thank you!

      • Not the little adorable-shrimpdog in the first picture. The giant horsedog in the second picture. You can see half his head, his rump, and his tail 🙂
        I had to come check again. I posted that comment pretty late last night. I thought the jet lag was making me see imaginary horsedogs.

  13. Yea!!! Love, love, love! I redid my railings and banisters this year and blogged about it, although my project was not easy at all since I had to stain all the railings around the existing balusters (which required way to much taping off). It was a big job for me but I’m so happy with the results! I also painted each white, a lot of detail work! Yours turned out great, as usual!


    • Stephanie says:

      What is your blog? I will be doing mine without removing the baulsters, I would love to see your tutorial!

  14. Julia @cuckoo4design says:

    My kids and I were just driving yesterday and singing loudly while my son was DJing from his iPod. So much fun and I agree, I sound so much better in the car LOL. I think I’m more of a Rihanna then an Adele haha, at least I like to think so, but my kids disagree. They tell me to please stop sometimes 😉
    Love this high impact makeover!

  15. What a huge difference, I love the dark wood!

  16. What a great tutorial Kelly! Blonde oak be gone! Quick question…for the poly, do you recommend oil based or water based?? I’m probably going to be refinishing a table soon and am not sure which one to go with! 🙂

  17. Oh honey oak be gone!! Dark Walnut is my fave … super high impact change!!

  18. We have that EXACT same entry way, and I sure wish it looked more like your after and less like your before. I pinned this, but first I’ve got to locate some motivation and energy.

  19. Riversana says:

    The refinished staircase looks great, but what struck me most about this post (after the writing, bc your sense of humor is right there with mine!) is the picture with the giant tree painting at the top of the stairs. I love trees, and that’s a really nice painting. Though after I read the other comments, forgot what I wanted to comment on, scrolled back up to remind myself, I realized it’s more of a tapestry/curtain than a painting, isn’t it? Still, very cool!

  20. I just Googled ‘purchase cheap stripper’, and Google rushed me right over here. I’ll pick you up at 8:00 to jump outta the bachelor party cake.

  21. Girl, we could become a great girl band at 75 mph because I sing like Alicia Keys at that speed! 🙂 The stairwell is the last of the that old honey oak molding we have to get rid of in our house – I’m planning on painting that floorboard runner thingie that runs up the stairwell white and I’ve been wanting to do something with the handrail – this looks like just the thing! This could be fall project. Thanks, pretty mama! 🙂 Have a great weekend! xoxo, Sharon

  22. I am so impressed by your blogger dedication in reenacting the staining process! I would love to do this for our stairs…except that our honey oak banister connects to our honey oak stairs, which lead to our honey oak floors upstairs and downstairs….sigh. it is a very big project for someday.

  23. Christy@Confessions of a Serial DiYer says:

    Okay, Miss Kelly, I’ll have you know I read this post just to be entertained! Lol! You crack me up! The staircase is beautiful by the way! We have iron balusters, but a lighter stain that I would love to make darker! XO

  24. I LOVE the iron balusters!
    “Bare hanging light bulb optional.” LOL! =]

  25. This came at the perfect time as I’m getting ready to stain mine!! wooohoooo!!! And I love the tree “tapestry” or picture of the tree you have at the top of your stairs!!! Wish me luck! Yours came out beautifully!

  26. I wanna know how you got the carpet so clean!

    • Easy trick: we replaced it! 🙂

      • Drat, I was afraid of that. We need to restain no less then two staircases….we have a front set and a back set. We have new flooring all through our house after a hot water leak that went undetected for far too long. The insurance company was really great in letting us replace all the flooring. I chose a dark, handscraped new floor, and they look nice. But now the orangey stairs, that look EXACTLY like yours, are hideous. I was going to ask you how you were able to stain the stair treads (or whatever those things are called) without getting it all over your carpet. Then I figured out that was new carpeting in your case. I don’t see how any amount of taping and protecting would keep the stain from getting to the carpet. Any thoughts? I really cannot replace my carpet.

        Thanks for this tutorial. This is the first time I have ever visited your blog. I really like it! BTW, I love your big scrolly iron balusters. No need for any regret there in my opinion.

        • Thanks so much! I bet it depends on how firmly your carpets are attached to the stairs. Our new carpets are kind of loose where they connect to the stair treads, so we probably could protect them pretty well by wrapping them with plastic, but if yours are attached firmly, I think you’re right – you’re just asking for stained carpet! Hope it works out for you!

  27. What a beautiful transformation! I really enjoyed how simple you made it seem, like even I could do it. Do you think that I could use this same process for staining my old wood cabinets? Thanks for your fantastic blog!

  28. Hi Kelly,
    I love your how-to’s on here so much! We just recently purchased a “fixer upper” for our first home. Your blog is giving me hope that we can make it happen. I also wanted to blog about our journey, do you have any tips for a photo editor you use to add all your captions??

    Love it!!

    • Ah! Congratulations!! That is SO exciting. I use photoshop for everything, but I have a lot of friends who use free programs like picmonkey. Good luck!

  29. Thank you! Great blog.
    Mine turned out great. Reading this motivated me to make it happen. I used ebony which is a little darker and goes great with the espresso hard wood I’m going put in.

  30. Good post. I learn something totally new and challenging on sites I stumbleupon on a daily
    basis. It will always be useful to read through articles from other writers and use something from other sites.

  31. That’s really great techniques to refinish your stair railings.Great way & cheaper too. Thanks for sharing.Its really a great help to everyone….

  32. Thanks so much for this tutorial! We are preparing to do this exact project and I’m scared, lol. Much appreciated info. 🙂

  33. The overall design of your staircase may seem to call for one style of baluster or another, which will help you to narrow it down as you are shopping. All the elements of a staircase need to integrate well.

  34. Christie Fecko says:

    Love the tutorial! Did you stain your floors too? How are they holding up?

  35. Theresa Wiltrout says:

    Hi! Your stairs look fabulous and you have given me the incentive to tackle my railings and staircase. Like you, we have that orangey stain on our red oak hardwood floors. I read that you used the dark walnut stain on your railings and banisters. What stain did you use to refinish your hardwood floors? They look beautiful by the way 🙂

  36. I am not sure how I stumbled across this post on Pinterest but I am so glad I did! My stairs, 4 years later, still look like your before picture. It was the one project that I absolutely wanted done & sadly still remains in the distant feature. Your post makes the project look totally doable! And your ballasters look awesome too!

  37. danielle says:

    When you applied the citristrip, after you scraped it off how long did you wait to stain? We tried on a small piece and the stain is still tacky. It has sat overnight.

    • Diane Marie says:

      Thank you so much for the tutorial — I LOVE how your staircase turned out. Our home was built in about 1996 and it too has light oak everything so we have been busy slowly reworking the light oak. Two large projects that remain are the huge kitchen with a zillion cabinets just begging for sanding/painting, and the two stair flights and the 2-sided balcony, all with “lovely” light oak. I was researching how to add wrought iron to an existing staircase and I found your blog :). Our balusters unfortunately are glued solid at the bottom so it’s impossible to twist them out. We will have to cut them out, however, the job is very doable over the period of a few weekends to strip, stain, cut, etc., etc. Your blog offered new inspiration as usual. Thank you again for sharing!

  38. Thanks for this and the iron ballasts tutorial. I have been wanting to do this as I also hate my honey oak staircase! Awesome!

  39. Thanks for sharing this! Your railings and balustrade look so much nicer now with the cast iron! Something like this would be perfect in my home, but I don’t have the time or talent to do a DIY project like this. I think I would have to have a professional do this for me, but at least I know how the process goes if I want to make repairs myself!

  40. Thanks for explaining how I should refinish my stair railings. Removing the balusters first seems like a good step to take. It helps to know that I can twist them off and lift them out of the railing. I was wondering how to remove them so that I can use them for my railing later, so it helps to know that removing my balusters is pretty easy.

  41. Hello, my wife and I are refinishing our railings. I have followed your step by step blog. I have hit a bit of a snag, when I went to sand the coat of polyurethane off it stared to take some of the stain off. Do you know what may be causing this? As well the railing isn’t as smooth as it was before I put the polyurethane on.

    • It may be that you’re using the wrong sandpaper or maybe being a bit too enthusiastic about it. It should just be a light sanding.

  42. Did you use stripper on the treads as well?


  1. […] wooden balusters and jazz up your staircase with iron balusters. In the last post, I showed you how to stain your wooden railings… and today we talk iron balusters. Glamorous, glamorous […]

  2. […] like when we first bought it: And today it looks like this, courtesy of new flooring, new trim, stained handrails, new iron balusters, lots of paint, one very handy husband and lots and lots of sweat. Another shot […]

  3. […] 4. Kelly offers her personal experiences as she fixes up her home. I am most looking forward to her post about refinishing stair railing. […]

  4. […] Helpful Resources How to refinish and update wood stair railings – View Along the Way […]

  5. […] HUGE thank you to the folks at Make It & Love It  and View Along the Way – their tutorials were my bibles during this project. I took their suggestions, and coupled […]

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