Advice for Staining my Stair Rail?

leafy02July 20, 2011

Our home was built in 1969 and the stair rail is a natural unstained pale wood. I don't know what kind of wood it is, but it's not oak. Maybe poplar? I know it's not oak and it looks too pale for maple.

Anyway, I'd like to stain the hand rail and newel posts a darker color and leave the spindles white.

I'm working on sanding the old finish off. Don't know if it is poly or something else, or if that matters?

I have stained and poly'd a few pieces of furniture but don't have experience with stair rails. I'd be grateful for advice about what stain product to use as well as procedures.


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I suspect that the handrail is pine. I'd sand it and apply Minwax Special Walnut stain to darken it (dark brown), and then topcoat it with Polyurethane or Tung Oil.

    Bookmark   July 23, 2011 at 1:28PM
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Thank you for the reply. At the local hardware yesterday I picked up some conditioner that is supposed to go on before the stain, and Minwax dark walnut stain. Haven't finished sanding yet, though.

What are the relative advantages/disadvantages of the poly vs. tung oil? I have used both, I remember the tung oil being easier to not mess up (it went on with a rag, no bubbles) but the chair I used it on got a drink ring when someone left a glass of water on I am wondering what the pros and cons are.

    Bookmark   July 23, 2011 at 6:05PM
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I find it's easier to get a better looking result when I spot-repair a Tung Oil finish or rub out a fresh run or curtain if I apply it too thickly. I haven't had to repair a handrail, and I don't see water spots being a problem, so my choice would be Tung Oil for ease of application.

    Bookmark   July 23, 2011 at 11:15PM
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Thank you. I can't imagine what would create water spots on a handrail either. My kids are grubby but they are usually dry ;-)I'll check out the tung oil!

    Bookmark   July 23, 2011 at 11:28PM
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Removing an old finish by sanding, unless you are taking off a lot (like a floor re-sanding), is an extremely poor way to do it. It will not uniformly remove the old finish (from the pores) and can easily result in an uneven finish when staining. I'd recommend a chemical stripper done carefully with masking off areas not being stripped.

The "wood conditioners" don't work all that well. They tend to work a bit better if you ignore the label directions and let them dry overnight instead of the less than 30 minutes (or whatever the label suggests). A better approach would be to use a good quality gel stain. There are other "wash coats" that you can use such as 5% solids shellac, hide glue, or other sealers based on your intended top coat. But these are more complicated to find than just grabbing a gel stain off the shelf.

Almost all things with Tung Oil on the label are called "Tung Oil Finish" because they somewhat resemble tung oil. In fact, most of them are not tung oil, nor do they contain any tung oil in natural form or as a component of manufacture. Depending upon brand, it's either an linseed oil & oil-based varnish (typically alkyd or urethane) blend or a varnish, both of which are highly thinned (up to 70%) with paint thinner to make it a wiping finish. It's not that oil-varnish blends or thinned varnishes are bad finishes. They have their place. But what you are reading on the label is pure marketing fabrication. Pure oil finishes are very poor in excluding moisture (some are actually hygroscopic). The more percentage of oil in the oil-varnish blend, the less water resistance the resulting finish will have.

A 100% oil finish will be an in-the-wood finish and will not have the protection that a varnish will. Hand-oil on a handrail needs periodic cleaning. Oil-only won't be working in your favor.

Every true Tung Oil I have ever seen will say something like 100% tung oil and will not have any thinners that can be labeled mineral spirits, stoddard solvent, naphtha, [light]aromatic hydrocarbons, some other alias, or refer to the CAS number for the above on the MSDS, or very rarely, on the label.

In my opinion, there is little reason to use pure tung oil. It's more expensive, looks identical to linseed oil, more difficult to apply, and if you don't do it right, sand between all coats, and have enough curing between coats, you get white spots that are irreversible and need to be stripped off.

(See, KW, I do know what a "pre-stain" wood conditioner is.)

    Bookmark   July 24, 2011 at 9:52PM
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Thank you Bobsmyuncle, for the reply.

I'm going to have to risk the results I can get with a good sanding. There is no way to isolate the stairway from the rest of the house and I'm not willing to have fumes from the chemical stripper in the air.

Hope it works. I plan to finish sanding by next Friday so I can apply stain on Saturday. Cross your fingers for me!

    Bookmark   July 24, 2011 at 10:05PM
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