I'm finally ready to share my two-toned staircase makeover with General Finishes Java Gel Stain and paint! We've been dying to perform a banister makeover since we moved into our house almost two years ago, and it's finally done! I am so happy with the result, and I can't wait to show you. If you want to makeover your banisters, you absolutely need to read this post (and watch the videos) first. I now know all the "what to do" and "what not to do" steps for applying Java gel stain, adding an acrylic top coat, and painting the base of the staircase. I am ready to share my secrets with you!
Before and After the Transformation
A makeover post could not be complete without before and after pictures. Almost two years ago, we moved into our new home. The entryway had extremely worn cream carpet and cream tile with almost peachy paint and honey oak banisters. It took us months to pick the new tile and even more time to choose this gorgeous paint color (Agreeable Gray from Sherman Williams) and paint the house ourselves. The two-toned staircase banisters and trim completed the look, and I am so happy! What do you think?
Can you believe the difference? We still have many, many projects to go, but transforming the banisters is definitely my favorite project so far. (Covering up the old carpet and paint is absolutely a close second.)
Transform Your Stairs with Java Gel Stain and Paint
It took some trial and error to get the stairs looking just right, so I'm ready to show you all of the do's and don'ts to get the look that's just right for you. And, of course, I have a 2-part video tutorial to show you how it's done!
Materials You Will Need
Here's a list of the products I used to complete this entire project (preparation, gel staining, varnishing, and painting). These are affiliate links. If you make a purchase, I will receive a tiny referral bonus, but you still get the same great price. I'm only linking you to my favorite products.
- Denatured Alcohol (for prepping the areas you want to paint)
- Mineral Spirits (for prepping the areas you want to stain--you can use denatured alcohol for the whole thing if you prefer)
- Scouring sponge (for cleaning the banister if yours is really grungy)
- Shop towels (for prepping, and gel stain)
- 220 grit sanding block (for prepping the surfaces)
- 1500 grit sandpaper (for touch up sanding in between coats)
- Tack cloth or damp paper towels (for clean up after sanding)
- Several 2-inch foam brushes (for applying gel stain and clear coat)
- Latex/Rubber Gloves (to protect your hands from the mess! Don't buy the cheap ones. They rip!)
- Old cotton t-shirt or rag (for gel stain)
- General Finishes Java Gel Stain (or the color of your choice -- but General Finishes is the best brand for sure!)
- Minwax Fast-Drying Polyurethane in Clear Satin (for protecting the gel stain)
- Primer (for the trim -- optional -- my paint had primer in it, and it worked great)
- White paint of your choice (mine is Swiss Coffee from Behr)
- Stir sticks (to stir!)
- Purdy 2 or 2 ½ inch angled white bristle brush (Don't bother with a cheap brush. It's not worth it. Invest in the good one.)
- Blue painters tape or masking tape (to protect your walls and floor)
- Protective plastic or painters tarps (to protect your carpet and floor)
- Plastic-lined bucket or garbage can (to take care of your messy clothes and shop towels)
Video Tutorial Part 1 (Prep Work and Applying Gel Stain)
How to Prepare the Surface
To start your gel stain project, use mineral spirits or 50/50 watered down denatured alcohol to clean the areas you plan to stain. For light cleaning, you will only need a lint-free cloth or shop cloths. For heavy cleaning on grungy or wood-grain textured banisters, you will need a scouring sponge, and it might take several tries to get it clean. (My banister was easy, but I'm working on a friend's now, and it's taking a lot of work to get it clean.)
Next, rough up the surface of your banister with 220 grit sandpaper or a sanding block. If your banister is heavily textured, you may need a little bit stronger sandpaper. This is just a light sanding to give the gel stain something to stick to. You don't need to sand off the existing finish. Sand with the grain of the wood. Wipe off the dust from sanding with a tack cloth, damp paper towel, or lint-free cloth.
Using painter's tape, tape off all surfaces that are touched by the banister or the newel post. Don't forget the floor at the bottom of the newel posts, and be sure to tape a large area where the banisters touch the wall. When taping the spindles, be sure to tape down at least the width of your foam brush.
Cover all floors and walls around the banister with protective plastic or tarps. It may seem like you won't drip (I thought so, too), but you will. (I did.) Trust me. Java gel stain does not come out of carpet! I learned that the hard way!
How to Apply Java Gel Stain
Gel Stain Don'ts
Be very careful with your can of stain. If you have plastic covering your stairs, don't put the can of stain on that plastic above you on the stairs. As you slide down to the next step, your body will pull the plastic tight, and the stain will tip over and spill down the stairs and into your lap (been there, done that). Even if your stairs are covered, you might still get stain on the stairs when you accidentally touch them with parts of your body that you didn't know were covered in stain, like your elbow (been there, done that, too!).
I wasn't sure what color I wanted for my final banister, and there are many different looks you can get with Java gel stain. For that reason, I started changing the color slowly until I found the color I wanted. I'll show and tell you how to achieve some different looks. Below is my before picture. Note the slightly orange tone of the honey oak.
Wipe off Method
Line a large bucket or trash can with plastic and keep it nearby. Stir your gel stain well. Use a 2-inch foam brush to brush the stain onto a small area (see the video for clear visual). Don't worry about covering every spot. Using a shop cloth, rub the stain around to cover the whole small area, and wipe most of the stain away. Your banister will change color, but the wood grain will still show through. Continue this process along the entire banister and newel post.
If your banister is smooth like mine, you will get a gorgeous new color for your banister. If your banister has a rough, textured grain, your look will be entirely different as the stain soaks into the textured areas. It really depends on your banister.
Dump your saturated cloths into your bucket as you work. (You'll go through lots of shop cloths. )
I love the color I achieved with one coat of gel stain using the wipe off method. Unfortunately, it didn't match my floor.
After your stain dries (at least 12 hours later, but possibly longer), apply a second coat. (The more humid your environment, the longer it will take to dry.) If you know you want your stain to be a solid, dark color, don't use the wipe off method again. Go straight to the painting method below. I tried two coats of the wipe off method. Here's the look after two coats:
I decided I wanted to go completely dark, so I switched to the painting method for my third and final coat.
To get a more solid color look, paint the stain on in a thick layer (covering everything). Instead of wiping the stain off with a shop cloth, paint some stain onto a lint-free cloth and then use that to smooth the layer of stain. You are essentially spreading the thick spots out to get an even coat. Here's the look after a painted layer.
Before moving onto the polyurethane layer, wait a day or two to make sure the stain is completely dry and to give yourself a chance to check for spots you may have missed.
Video Tutorial Part 2 (Applying the Polyurethane and Painting the Trim)
How to Choose Your Protective Top Coat
There are many choices for a protective top coat for your gel stain banisters. You could use General Finishes gel top coat, Polyurethane, Polycrylic, or even protective wax. I chose Polyurethane because it dries with a super hard finish. For areas with high traffic, you need a hard, strong finish.
Polyurethane is not good for white or light colored areas because it may turn them slightly yellow. It's perfect to top Java gel stain, though, because it's too dark to discolor. Polycrilic is water based for easy cleanup, but it doesn't give you a hard enough finish.
How to Apply the Polyurethane
Do not apply polyurethane when it has been raining, is raining or is very humid. The polyurethane won't dry as hard when it is humid. If you live in a humid area all the time, you might need to research some other options.
Do not use a paintbrush. Use a foam brush. I started with a natural bristle brush (which is what is recommended for oil-based products), but it was a disaster! The brush holds a ton of polyurethane, and that makes it really difficult to control the amount you apply. The coats I applied were way too heavy. When I thought I had put on a smooth coat, it would drip and run when I had moved onto a new area. The result was lots of drips that had to be sanded off before using a foam brush instead. The foam brush allows you to control the amount of polyurethane in your brush and to apply it in very thin coats.
Do not shake the can!
The contents of your can may have separated into a liquid and a semisolid while sitting on the shelf at the store. It will look like the product is unusable. Don't return it. It's just fine. All you need to do is keep stirring it, and it will come back together.
When you are ready to begin, gently stir the polyurethane so that you don't add bubbles to the liquid. Never shake it! (I think that's worth mentioning twice.)
Begin at the bottom of your stairs and work up to the top. This will give you the best chance of controlling the drips. Use a foam brush to apply a thin coat of polyurethane to a very small section of your newel post or banister. Don't soak your brush. Use only a small amount at a time. Before moving on to another area, check for drips and bubbles in the polyurethane. Carefully brush them out.
If a large bubble dries in your polyurethane, it's tough to sand out. After sanding the bubble, you may be left with a ring of removed stain and need to touch it up before adding another coat of polyurethane. This only happened to me when I was using a paintbrush instead of a foam brush. Stick with a foam brush! If this still happens to you, try 1500 grit sandpaper. It sands off drips and bubbles without removing the stain.
Once the polyurethane dries, add another coat. The dry time for this finish is much shorter than for the stain. I was able to paint on two coats a day. (I think my dry time was about four hours.)
Apply at least three coats. Here's what happens if you only apply two:
I originally applied three coats of polyurethane on my long banister (the one people actually touch), and only two coats on the short bottom banister (because no one ever touches it). Then, I taped the newel posts off before painting the white trim. After I removed the tape on the long banister side, everything was fine. When I removed the tape on the short banister, this happened. It completely pealed off an entire section of stain! Argh! Not fun.
How to Paint the Trim
If your paint does not have primer in it, you may want to prime first. My paint had primer in it, and it covered beautifully without primer. I prefer Kilz primer for most projects.
Don't use a cheap brush or anything that is not a Purdy or Wooster brand. I don't work for either company. I just know through trial and error that it's not worth it to go cheap for this part. If you don't want brush strokes, use Purdy or Wooster.
Because Purdy doesn't make a short-handled brush (to paint between the spindles), I started with a store brand brush. It left brush strokes everywhere! I had to spend lots of time sanding before applying my second coat. On my next coat, I used a Purdy brush and had great results. I didn't even need a short-handled brush. The Purdy worked just fine. If your spindles are close enough together that you do need a short-handled brush, Wooster makes one that works great.
Don't paint thick layers. Stick to thin coats. If your paint is too thick, thin it very slightly with water.
Begin at the bottom of your staircase. If you have a really long banister, if possible, get a partner to paint one side while you paint the other. If that's not possible, do very small areas at a time so that the paint doesn't begin to dry before you get to the next section.
Work in small sections. After painting each small section, stop and watch for drips before you move on. Pay close attention to the spots around each spindle. Those spots tend to collect paint which drips as it dries. Before moving on, use the brush to carefully make sure all of your strokes are in the direction of the wood grain, and feather the new area into the old.
When it comes to removing the tape, you have three choices:
- Remove the tape immediately after painting each coat of paint so that you can wipe off any paint that sneaked under the tape. Retape before each coat of paint.
- Leave the tape on between coats and be prepared to touch up the areas where the paint sneaked under the tape. (I'll show you an easy fix in a minute.)
- Use frog tape (I've never used it) and trust that it will keep the paint from sneaking under it.
I'll let you decide what's best for you. I unintentionally chose option 2, and was left with a little bit of a mess around the bottom of the spindles and the places where each newel posts met the base. I had two problems around the spindles -- the paint got on them, and sometimes the paint peeled back a little bit when I removed the tape. Ouch! Don't worry. I found a simple fix.
Want to know my secret for removing the paint from the spindles without accidentally removing more from the trim? I didn't remove the paint! I simply grabbed a tiny, flat brush from my kid's art supplies and painted gel stain right over the white. You can't tell at all!
As for fixing the spots where the paint peeled off? Sorry. I don't have a great fix for that. I had to touch it up with the paint and a tiny brush.
You're finally done! I hope you are as happy with your finished product as I am with mine!
I wish I could tell you how long the project will take, but it really depends on the length of your banister, the humidity of your area, and how much time you have to devote to the project each day. I'm currently helping a friend redo her banister, and I'm finding that humidity makes a huge difference in dry time!
If you had great dry weather, a short banister and all the free time in the world, you might finish in a week, but I would never count on that. Life and weather always get in the way. Plan on your stairs being in construction mode for at least two weeks, and possibly longer.
What do you think? Would you try this in your home? I'd love to hear how yours turns out. Thanks for stopping by today. Be sure to browse around for more great projects for your home and family. I've linked a few of my favorites below. (Just click on the image to visit the post.)