Den Redesign: Updating the Banisters and Staircase

I’m including this post in the Den Project category since it really changes the look of our entryway, which is basically in our den; there’s not much of a foyer to speak of in our house. It updates the look of the entire room, and the result of this approximately two-month long project was certainly worth the wait.
When our house was built in 1989, a lot of the wood (trim, staircase, cabinets) was stained a light color – maple or oak?  Whatever it was, it’s one of my least favorite colors of wood stain.  By the time we bought the house, all the cabinets and trim (with the exception of the inside of a the cabinets and a few closet doors) had already been painted white.  

The main area that remained maple/oak was the banister, which you encounter immediately upon entering our house through the front door.


And upstairs, it didn’t look much better.

When we made the offer on this house, we asked that the baby gate at the top of the stairs be left behind, figuring it would be helpful in containing our then 3-month old puppyy, Rocky.  But it didn’t match the staircase, which drove me a little crazy.

So after a few months, we took it off and stained it to match the banister.  It would have looked better had it turned out the way I thought it would, but we did a terrible job, so it wound up looking worse.  The main problem was that we didn’t sand it well enough, so the stain didn’t adhere evenly or cover the entire surface.  The second problem was the metal hardware.  We tried to stain it, too, or at least the stain leaked onto it and we let it dry (my least favorite excuse/explanation for anything, ‘we were young and stupid’ definitely applies here – we had so much to learn!), so of course it wound up just looking dirty.  We put a coat of polyurethane over the whole thing, hung it back up, and left it there looking terrible for over five years.


In December of 2014, I finally got to work on changing this mess.  I’d done my research and found a few blog posts, including this one, where people had sanded down and re-stained their banisters to change them from maple/oak to a dark stain.  Fortunately for me, I was working with a much smaller section of banister, which was a relief since my workforce consisted of only me.   

I’ve always loved the trim in our church, which was built sometime in the 1850s.  I love the contrast of the white against the dark wood stain on all the banisters and railings, and the Christmas garland draped over it in this photo doesn’t look bad, either.  It was a pretty easy decision to update our sad banisters and drippy baby gate to look like these. 

So after about a year of planning get to this project, I finally gathered my supplies and got to work.  This project got bigger as I went and wound up taking place in four different sections:

  1. Sand, stain, and paint banisters
  2. Sand and paint baby gate and spray paint hardware
  3. Paint staircase (and upstairs landing) walls and trim 
  4. Sand and stain handrail; spray paint hardware
I know it looks like I’m just staring at the camera, 
but I was actually smiling under the mask.

1.  Sand, Stain, and Paint Banisters

The sanding process went by fairly quickly…until I had to switch to regular sandpaper on the spindles.  That was not such a quick process due to their roundness.  But the good news was that I didn’t have to sand quite as well on the spindles since I planned to paint them white instead of stain them.  I sanded everything down the best I could, then vacuumed up a bunch of sawdust, and wiped all the wood surfaces down with a wet cloth to prep the wood for staining.

I started with the stain (Minwax Red Mahogany) that I have used in several other areas around the house.  The top of the banisters and the large support posts took the stain really well.  The bottom sections, however, didn’t take them well at all, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get them sanded down well enough to get them to take it, so I had to change my plan and paint the bottom sections white in addition to the spindles.  That’s how the banisters at the church are anyway, but it took me a few weeks to get used to how much white I see every time I look at the downstairs banister.  
You can see really well in this picture how 
the bottom section didn’t really take the stain.
After a couple of coats of stain, I put on three light coats of Minwax Polycrylic Semi-Gloss, sanding in-between, until it was shiny and smooth, then let it dry over the weekend.  This step was a little tricky because I had to pop every one of the little bubbles in each coat to make sure it would turn out nice and smooth in the end.  Keeping each coat light helped keep the bubbles to a minimum.  I let the polycrylic dry over the weekend and moved on to the paint next.
I knew that paint would splatter as I moved the brush back and forth across the spindles and didn’t want it to land on my brand new, shiny stained posts.  So in addition to taping them off, I covered them with newspaper to protect them (I figured it wasn’t as likely for paint to splatter onto the railings above so only taped them off).  It took a LOT of paint to cover the spindles; the two coats of primer, followed by two more coats of white gloss paint took a couple of days to complete, working about 5 hours each day.  The main challenge was making sure that the paint got into all the little crevices up and down each of the 11 spindles.
Finally, a good use for all those ads in the recycling bin!

2.  Sand and Paint Baby Gate and Hardware

Once the banisters were all finished, I moved on to the baby gate, which had been sitting out in the garage waiting for its makeover.  I somehow managed to take zero pictures of the baby gate process, but it was pretty straightforward.  It took only a light sanding, a couple coats of white spray paint, and a single coat of Minwax Polycrylic Satin.  I finished up by cleaning the hardware up and spraying it white to match.  At this point, Christmas was approaching, so I took a break from the staircase project for a few weeks, and the gate sat in the garage for over a month.  At first, I thought we wouldn’t be able to get by without it, that the dogs would go crazy with the freedom by fleeing downstairs at night or running up to cuddle up on the bed during the day, but it actually wasn’t bad.  it was a relief when we finally re-installed it, though.

3.  Paint Staircase (and Upstairs Landing) Walls and Trim 

In mid-January, I got back to work on the staircase, this time painting the walls.  Since this part of the project involved me standing up on a 10” wide plank of wood suspended between the top landing and a ladder leaned against the wall, we decided that it was best for the Mister to be at home to ‘supervise’ me.

That’s a long way down!
I’m the primary painter in our household, and it’s not like we could have both stood on the plank anyway, so he brought his computer up to the landing and got some work done while I painted.

Hard at work!

The previous owners had not done a good job with the paint in the staircase and upstairs landing, and it needed some attention.  It also matched the gold paint that used to be in the den, so I painted it Faint Maple to blend with the den, dining room, and our bedroom. 

They hadn’t even removed the baby gate hardware when they painted!
Also, this photo shows just how bad the trim looked before I painted it.
The original paint job didn’t look that great, either.  
Here’s s tip: Use more than one coat of paint!

The staircase painting process only took a few hours on a Saturday afternoon and a few more hours on Sunday afternoon…but then I had to also paint the upstairs landing where all the bedroom doors are, and that made the dirty, worn, used-to-be-white trim look terrible, so of course I pulled the white paint back out and painted the trim…which then made the doors look terrible and yellow, so I had to paint them, too (if you give a mouse a cookie…) so it turned in to quite a process (and while I was at it, I took our closet door off its hinges, painted it, and spray painted the hinges and knob, too, but that’s another story for another day). 

4.  Sand and Stain Handrail; Spray Paint Hardware

After I was finished getting sidetracked by doors and knobs and such for a week or so, I got back to the original staircase project – all that was left at that point was refreshing the white trim along the stairs, hanging the baby gate back up, and refinishing the wall rail.  I had removed the rail to paint the wall anyway, so I rigged it up in the garage to stain and seal it (and spray painted the hardware while I was at it), which took another couple of days.

All set up for sanding

 It turns out, Christmas tree stands are good for more than holding up trees once per year!

The Christmas tree stand was still hanging out in the garage, and it was perfect for holding the handrail in place.
The bottom half of the power sander flew across the garage about a third of the way in to sanding the handrail, so I had to sand the rest by hand.  It was difficult to sand hard enough to get through all the layers and therefore ensure an even stain, so I had to go back and re-sand multiple sections that didn’t take the stain, then re-stain until the entire rail was evenly stained.

Gotta hate it when your power tools fall apart in the middle of a project.
We had to order replacement pieces, which took several weeks to arrive.
Sanding down the areas that didn’t take the stain initially, then re-staining, allowed me to get even coverage.

After it was evenly stained, I added two coats of Polycrylic and allowed it to sit for a day to dry thoroughly before reattaching it to the wall.

Finally, after about two months, the entire project was complete in late February.  I absolutely love it!  It makes the house feel so much newer.

The last trace of maple/oak is long gone!  Upon entering our house now, visitors are greeted by this pretty staircase.

And upstairs, things look even better!  Even coverage on the walls, no more drips on the baby gate, and freshly painted doors and trim.  

If you notice that the doorknobs are missing – you’re right!  I’m in the process of spray painting them brushed nickel.

Thanks for sticking with me!  This post, like the project itself, is a long one.  Later this week, I’ll be sharing my DIY curtain rods – they look great and were very inexpensive compared to the store-bought variety.