DIY Stair Banister Makeover Using Gel Stain

When we talk beautifying a builder-grade home, we hear two complaints most: builder beige (or “nicotine white”) paint and builder-grade oak — everywhere! If you’re looking to upgrade your honey oak stair railing, cabinets, or other oak fixtures, gel stain is a great way to update without having to do all the work of completely sanding everything down and restaining it. Our guest today is sharing her stair banister makeover: just look at the before and after!

How to Redo an Oak Stair Banister in Java Using Gel Stain, Semi-Domesticated Mama featured on Remodelaholic

Scroll down for the info on how Delia updated her banister, and check out this post for ten more great stair makeovers:

Best Staircase Makeovers on #stairs #makeover #diy

DIY Stair Banister Makeover Using Gel Stain
by Delia of Semi-Domesticated Mama

oak stair railing makeover using gel stain, Semi-Domesticated Mama featured on Remodelaholic

Hi y’all. I’m Delia- a sassy southern mama blessed with one hot husband & five crazy kids who think the cleaning fairy is a real thing. I share the best parts of raising a large family as well as the challenges of being mom of a special needs child and a foster/adoptive parent. I am on a mission to tame the chaos in our home- you can read all about that in my 31 Days to an Organized & Clutter Free Life series. I spent this summer completing a whole house remodel- from gel staining the kitchen cabinets to designing a fun shared bedroom for my son & daughter– and now I’m busy trying to convince my husband we need to turn our deck into a sun room. Wish me luck.

Gel Staining The Stair Banisters

Our stair banisters and rails were original to the house and were a basic builder grade oak color with white rails. The varnish was chipped and peeling off on the banisters while the rails were old and faded. I had been putting off the project for awhile but something had to be done. The banisters and rails are literally the first thing you see when you enter the front door- and they were not making a great first impression.   diy oak banister makeover, Semi-Domesticated Mama featured on Remodelaholicbuilder grade oak stair railing makeover using gel stain, Semi-Domesticated Mama featured on Remodelaholic

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I decided to use gel stain instead of regular stain, mainly because I did not want to strip the wood down completely. I wanted maximum effect with minimum effort. The gel stain allowed me to achieve the results I wanted without the hassle involved with using regular stain. I used General Finishes Gel Stain in the color Java (Remodelaholic note: you can buy General Finishes Gel Stain in Java here on Amazon or find a store near you). I highly recommend this product and this tutorial is based only on the use of this product.

The prep work is probably the most important step when you use gel stain. You cannot skimp on the prep or you will not get the results that you’re wanting from the finished product. For this project you will need the following materials:

Step-by-Step Gel Stain Process

  1. Clean the surface of the wood with Lysol scrubbing wipes & allow to dry completely.
  2. Use a sanding block and lightly sand all the wood surfaces. Be sure to sand with the grain so you don’t create deep scratches or gouges in the wood. Use cheesecloth or a damp paper towel to remove any dust particles.
  3. Tape the walls, baseboards, and carpet around the banisters and rails. Make sure you are very precise- gel stain is hard to get off of carpet. You can even use plastic sheeting and tape that down if you’re really concerned about your carpet. I used painters tape on the walls and thick masking tape on the carpet.
  4. Apply a light coat of stain. The gel stain has a consistency similar to pudding. I wore double latex gloves with a white athletic sock over top to apply the stain. It’s much easier and faster than using a brush. For the grooves and crevices I used a small foam brush. The key to gel stain is to apply very light coats. If you glob on a thick coat you will regret it. Wipe the stain on with the grain. Do not wipe it off. Allow the first coat to dry- depending on the humidity where you live the drying process can take anywhere from 12 hours to 5 days. I chose to stain my banisters during a heat wave because clearly I lack common sense. It took my banisters 5 days to dry and it took the rails 3 days. You must wait for them to be completely dry before starting the second coat, otherwise you will just wipe the first coat right off and have to start over.
  5. Repeat the same process for the second and third coat. If you are staining over paint- for example, my rails were painted white- you should plan to do at least one extra coat to cover the painted surfaces. Otherwise three coats seem to be the magic number.
  6. Allow the finished product to dry for 24-48 hours. I allowed my banisters and rails to dry for a full 48 hours before I applied the top coat.

I used General Finishes satin poly/acrylic top coat for the finish. (Remodelaholic note: you can buy General Finishes Poly/Acrylic in Satin here on Amazon or find a store near youApply it using the same white athletic sock/small foam brush method. I let the first coat dry for 6 hours before doing the second coat.

The final product was even better than I was expecting. I think it updated my whole foyer/living room area by at least a decade. The result was definitely worth the work.

how to redo an oak stair handrail using gel stain, Semi-Domesticated Mama featured on Remodelaholic
java gel stain stair banister - a diy tutorial, Semi-Domesticated Mama featured on Remodelaholic
how to stain an oak handrail to dark java using gel stain, Semi-Domesticated Mama featured on Remodelaholic

This is definitely a project that takes time but it’s suitable for a novice DIY’er. I spent a few weeks from start to finish to complete this project, but most of that time was spent waiting for the stain to dry. It’s not a hard project but it’s one that requires patience.

The total cost was very minimal. I bought one can of gel stain for $19.99 and that one can did the entire kitchen cabinets, the upstairs hall bathroom vanity and the stair case. The can of top coat was $20.99 when I bought it and even after completing all three projects I have over half a can left!

As I mentioned, I did my kitchen cabinets earlier in the summer using the same gel stain. I used pretty much the same process as I did with the stair banisters although the cleaning prep was more involved. The difference is simply amazing. If you are looking for an economical way to upgrade your kitchen cabinets and don’t mind doing a little DIY work, I highly recommend using gel stain!

Thanks for sharing your gorgeous new stair railing with us, Delia! I love the change!

Visit Delia over at Semi-Domesticated Mama for more DIY and home decor, plus organizing and family life ideas. 

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Lorene has been behind the scenes here at Remodelaholic for more than a decade! She believes that planning projects and actually completing them are two different hobbies, but that doesn't stop her from planning at least a dozen projects at any given time. She spends her free time creating memories with her husband and 5 kids, traveling as far as she can afford, and partaking of books in any form available.

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  1. Looks awesome! We had contractors at our house for estimates to change the railing, spindles and balusters ($10,000). The previous owner used a sienna color as the stain. Yes, super ugly. This is going to be the solution to correcting our ugly staircase. Thanks for posting this!

  2. you said do not wipe off the stain and let dry first time, when doing the 2nd and 3rd coat you leave on and not wipe off either?

    1. Correct. I did not wipe it off after any of the 3 coats. Not wiping it off did add to the drying time but it also helped the stair rails to be even and uniformly stained when I was done.

  3. Huuuuge improvement! I’ve never used gel stain before, but if it’s easier than regular, I am trying it! I will definitely be saving this tutorial.

  4. Do you mind sharing with me the color you chose? I want a very dark brown, exactly like this. The first one I bought is black and way too dark to do my banisters with. I look forward to hearing from you! Thanks for sharing your ideas with us!

  5. Hi! I am trying to sand down my banister to do this same thing. Do you have to make the wood look even before applying the gel stain? I am worried its going to look uneven or streaky but I am having a hard time avoiding some uneven-ness once I sand the surface.

    1. Hi Amy, This post is from a guest, so you may have to click over there to ask for more details, but as far as I know, you just need to really lightly sand to prep the surface for the gel stain, not a full in-depth sanding. Thanks!

    2. Hi Amy,

      I’m the original guest poster. The wood does not have to be even in order to do the stain. I sanded very lightly and the wood was very uneven afterwards. The stain covered beautifully. The first 2 coats of stain were streaky but the final coat came out perfect. Don’t panic if the first coat looks horrible, just keep going! I wish someone had told me that when I first started 🙂 Good luck!

  6. Thank you for this post – we are in the middle of doing this to our staircase and it’s working out great! Your tips and tricks have been invaluable.

  7. I plan to do this to my honey oak kitchen cabinets since the hubby says “no paint”. I was told the gel stain had a “built in poly”, so that doing a poly finish was not necessary…. So, can you clear that up for me? Thanks for the help…..

  8. Thank you for sharing this post, it looks great! My concern is the drying time, as I have little ones and I am concerned that it will be difficult to keep them from touching the stairs for such long periods of time. Any suggestions on what I can do to solve that concern? The drying time you are referring to, does that just mean how dry the needs to be to paint another coat, or how dry it needs to be to touch?

  9. With stain, you are supposed to wipe off, which highlights the natural grain of the wood and provide a more rustic appearance.
    You have used the stain as paint, by not wiping off.

  10. This worked great for us. However, a much longer process than I expected. The stain dried fairly quickly (sometimes I was able to put a new coat on with 24 hrs drying time), but needed more coats than I expected. 5-6 coats total to get completely dark. If you wanted to have more wood grain showing through or a lighter color, then 2 probably would have been ok. I did fairly thin applications… Still waiting to apply the top coat.

  11. Thanks for the tutorial! Currently following it myself. I finished the 3 coats of gel stain and last night moved on to the top coat. The general finishes website says to lightly sand with 220 grit sponge between top coats, but with one swipe of the pad tonight some of the stain came off! I worked too hard and put too many days into this to ruin it, so I just stopped and applied the second coat of top coat without any sanding. Did you sand between coats? You didn’t mention it so I’m hoping you skipped that with good results too.

  12. We are looking to do white spindles and black rails. For that you would just tape off one and do the other completely correct??

  13. love the makeover!, I used gel stain on my oak bathroom cabinets before (like it better than painting them ), question is how did u gel stain the white spindles part of the stairs banister?

    1. Hi Martin –
      On a project like this, the finished look is really similar between paint and gel stain. On a project with visible wood grain, gel stain will allow the grain to show through, which is one big reason people often opt for gel stain vs paint on projects like kitchen cabinets. The other big difference here is the application process — since gel stain is thick, Delia applied it by hand using a sock over her gloved hand instead of a brush, which made the process much quicker than painting with a brush and also removed the issue of paint drips. Gel stain is meant for applications like this, but you could absolutely paint for a similar finished look if you prefer.