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 Remodelaholic.com #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.

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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.

We love hearing from fellow Remodelaholics, so let us know what you like about this and leave any questions below in the comments. If you've followed a tutorial or been inspired by something you've seen here, we'd love to see pictures! Submit pictures here or by messaging us over on Facebook.

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59 Comments

  1. I’m so glad to see this this morning…I plan to do almost exactly the same thing to our banisters (except ours are completely golden oak) and I hadn’t seen a tutorial on gel staining them yet so wasn’t sure if that was because it didn’t work or what. So happy that it does!! It looks so much better!

  2. Wow! Looks great! Did the gel completely cover the white paint? Hummmm… I wonder if gel stain will cover my painted white bathroom cabinets?

      1. So you didn’t have to sand or strip off the paint? You can just apply the gel stain right on top? I have a new home (just built) it comes with all white railings and I have two boys so the first thing I want to do it stain them a dark color so my boys don’t make them disgusting but I’m not wanting to sand them down. Can I just apply the gel right to the painted rails or do I have to sand a little first?

  3. Amazing!! I, like others, have wondered about gel staining other areas in the house other than kitchen cabinets… mainly the banister! I’m terrified with 2 kids and 2 dogs that it will easily scratch or mark. How is yours holding up? If you could do it again would you? Thanks!!!

  4. Just completed this project after 2 weeks. ( drying time was different after each coat). It turned out aaaaaamazing. Thanks for sharing.

  5. This looks like my stairs, so you had to stain the floor as well where the wood was exposed and the carpet was not completely covered. Also, do you have other hardwood throughout your house. Our hardwood in the foyer and dining room is the same color.

  6. Hello,
    I love the blog! I have considered doing this myself. Can you tell me how well the gel held up? Did it wear on the commonly used areas? Did it withstand a years use? Once I get this information I will use it to make a better decision on resurfacing my stairs. Thanks in advance.

  7. This looks amazing! I have done something similar to our bathroom cabinets but am looking to tackle our stair banister soon. Do you have any tips on keeping the kids from touching railings between drying times? Also I used the Minwax Polyshades. Do you have any experience with this product and how it is different from the General Finishes Gel Stain? Thanks!

  8. how light did you sand your surfaces? Do you need to take all of the banister paint off as well as the rails? Mine is standard builder grade just like yours was?

  9. Do you think gel stain would wear quickly on stairs? We had planned to put new carpet on the stairs but after removing the old carpet we are considering leaving them bare wood. 90% of the stairs are unfinished wood but the other 10% is stained along with the banisters.

  10. We just completed our stair railings using this method, and the results are amazing. We followed the prep instructions exactly, and after the third coat, there is no indication of any DIY work. Since we did this in the winter, the first coat took 36 hours to dry, but the second and third only took 12 hours each. We also used General Finished Rich Mahogany stain instead of the Java, because the rest of the trim in our house is mahogany. Thank you so much for your tutorial.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience, Meredith! If you have a photo, we’d love to see it and add it to the post here — you can message us on Facebook or email at hello@remodelaholic,com. Thanks!

  11. Hi! I’m about to tackle this project! But I want to paint my spindles white and darken my railings too and bottom. Which do I do first? Railing or spindles? Lol I love your look! Thanks!