Oak is a respectable wood. Known for being a sturdy, solid and reliable building material, it became the builder-grade material of choice for contractors in the 1990’s. Oak floors, oak cabinets, oak banisters…
Our home was the poster-child for 90’s construction.
This is the previous owner’s stuff swimming in a sea of oak. After 14 years of soaking up the sun and being handled on a daily basis, the finish was worn, the grain was dark and the mere sight of it burned my eyes, because it was just so ugly. As my husband said, “It looks like a well used, middle school gym floor.” (No offense to all you oak lovers out there, it’s just not my thing…)
BUT, we saw the possibilities of what this house could be, so we made it our very first project to refinish all the oak floors and stair treads. And by very first we mean it was literally started 5 minutes after leaving the closing table, and by we I mean we hired people. The key to a happy marriage and keeping sane when renovating is knowing what projects you’re physically capable of, and which are beyond your skill set. This was one of those latter times.
The OAK banisters. The flooring company we hired told us because of all the nooks and crannies in the banisters, sanding them down and staining them as dark as we wanted never really comes out great and that our best bet was replacing them.
“ABSURD!”, I thought.
So I checked with a couple other companies, whom all basically said the same thing. One company said they could do it, but it was to the tune of a couple mortgage payments. Yeah, no. And replacing the banisters was also an obscene cost. Determined to find a solution, I turned to the one resource I knew could help… Google. And that is where I learned the magic of Gel Stain.
So this whole long winded setup finally leads to a tutorial: How to Gel Stain (ugly) Oak Banisters.
This project requires NO sanding and a beginner DIY skill level.
This project is easy, but time consuming because of drying times. Allow yourself 4-5 days to have this project finished. Choose days when you can have the windows open as the stain and poly are a bit stinky and you probably shouldn’t be breathing all that stinkyness in. The end result is more of a paint like finish, not that of a stain. With stain you’ll get variations of color and really see the wood. This is very opaque, yet with oak, you will still see the definition of the grain. The color in person is a very dark brown that matches the darkest grain in our floor, it’s not black. See the close ups below.
You will need:
- 1 can of General Finishes Java Gel Stain (You must, I repeat, MUST use General Finishes Java Gel Stain. It’s consistency and coverage are unlike any other gel stain on the market. The color also matters. Java being so dark gives great coverage – I can’t vouch for any other color. A little goes a LONG way, so get the smallest size possible!)
- 1 small can of Minwax Wipe On Poly. (I used Gloss)
- Painter’s tape. (I used delicate tack which is easier to remove IMO)
- A degreaser (TSP or TSP Substitute) OR if the poly finish isn’t worn down like ours was, use a Liquid Sander/Deglosser instead to take a bit of the finish off.
- A couple pairs of disposable gloves. I love nitrate gloves because they don’t rip, stain doesn’t penetrate them, they stay in place, and you can rinse them off so they’re reusable!
- A couple of old white socks (Don’t use brand new socks, they need to be lint free.)
- Staining Pads (I used ones like these.)
- El cheapo small foam paint brushes. (What’s up Dollar Tree craft aisle?)
- A small tray to pour the poly in (I used a clean plastic take out container.)
- Rosepaper, newspaper or a tarp to protect the floor.
- Mineral Spirits (Optional. This allows for easy clean up of the Gel Stain should you want to save brushes or if you accidentally splatter it someplace.)
Step #1: Tape and protect.
Tape off whatever you do not want the gel stain touching. I was just doing the banisters and end posts, not the balusters, so we taped off the top of each baluster to avoid staining them. We also taped where the banisters and posts met the walls. Once taping is complete, lay down your floor protection.
Step #2: Open the windows.
This project contains lots of stink, so make sure the area is well ventilated!
Step #3: Prep for total oak destruction.
Use your degreaser or liquid sander/deglosser on all of the areas you will be gel staining. Don’t forget UNDER the banister! Follow the instructions on the package, but don’t break too much a of sweat on this step. You’re not looking to strip the wood, you’re simply looking to take down the shine a bit and create a clean, grease-free surface to apply the gel stain to. After it’s all clean, wipe the surface down with a damp cloth and let it dry.
Step #4: Gel application #1.
Open the gel stain and give it a mix-a-roo. Glove yourself, then put a sock over the glove of your working hand. Dip the socked, gloved hand into the gel stain and begin your application. Nice even strokes of awesome oak destruction. Not wiping it all away, yet not leaving too much globby gel stain behind. The first coat will not, I repeat, will not cover all oak and it will, I repeat, will be streaky. Once that first coat is on you will need to wait 12-24 hours to apply the next coat.
Step #5: Take a break.
You deserve it! It’s important to make sure it’s dry before the next coat otherwise when you apply more stain, it will lift the stain that’s still wet.
Step #6: Gel application #2.
Same process as Step 4. Remember, no glove, no love. This stuff stains hands beyond repair. At this point you’ll have anywhere from 85% – 100% coverage of that awful oak. Wait for it to dry completely and see if step 7 is needed.
Step #7: Gel application #3 (if needed.)
If you still see oak and you’re looking a bit streaky, you’ll need to do a 3rd coat. I know, I know. You’re sick and tired of the mess in your hall, but you’re almost there and it’s going to look great. Keep going! BTW, if the color is starting to look flat, don’t worry, the poly is going to bring it back to life.
Step #8: Itty bitty touch ups.
Chances are you missed a few teenie, tiny areas. Probably under the banister where the ballusters connect. Places only you, the Virgo type-A perfectionist will see or know, but there’s no way in hell you’re leaving them. This may be a DIY job, but it MUST come out perfect. I digress…
So umm yeah, take that tiny foam brush and touchup areas needing it. If you’re touching up on the top of the banister, light blended strokes are recommended (this stuff isn’t self leveling, so you’ll see big ol’ globs when it dries if you leave them as big o’ globs.)
Step #9: STOP!
No you cannot poly just yet. I know, you’re getting impatient, but please wait for the touchups to dry completely. Let’s not screw this up now… Kill some time by reading how I turned a sink into a garden. Or just lose yourself in my Pinterest boards for hours. (shameless self promotion.)
Step #10: POLY TIME!
Make sure all the gel stain is dry, then shake the poly and dump some into a tray. Open the windows if they aren’t already. Poly stinks worse than the stain. Glove yourself then grab a staining pad. Dip it in, and slightly ring it out so it’s loaded, but not sopping. Then my friend, the moment of truth… swipe that poly on! Nice and evenly. Check the area you’re working on to ensure you have everything covered before moving onto the next area. Touch ups once the poly begins to dry look awful, so a careful eye is need to get an even finish. Let it dry for 24 hours, you know the drill…
Step #11: Done? Or not?
At this point, I was happy with the finish so I removed the tape and admired my work. But if you want a higher gloss finish or your banisters get a lot of use, you may want to go for round #2 of poly.
And now for the reveal…
From so much oak, to no more oak! Well, in this room at least… but I did just knock off one more oak project – my kitchen cabinets! Read about it here.
This oak eliminating banister project came in at just $55 for supplies. Which is a bargain compared to the ridiculous quotes we were given. Time wise it took about 9 hours, spread over 4 days (not including painting the white under the treads.)
So, are you ready to take on your banisters?! Please share links and pictures if you do!
Oh, and in case you’re wondering:
• I painted the oak trim and under the treads white (Benjamin Moore Regal Select in Semi-Gloss, straight white out of the can, no pigment added). I used liquid deglosser, then one coat of primer before painting. My balusters were already white, so I just touched them up as needed with the same white paint.
• The stain on the floor and stair treads is a blend of Minwax Jacobean and Ebony. The finish is a custom blend to be something between matte and gloss. As stated earlier, we HIRED people to stain the floors and treads. The wood is a mix of red and yellow oak.
• The wall color is Benjamin Moore, Revere Pewter.
• The mirrored chest is from HomeGoods, $149 clearance!
• I’m not done decorating in here, so please ignore the mess of candlesticks on the chest!
This post is not sponsored, all opinions and instructions are my own. Please DIY at your own risk. This post does contain affiliate links.