The Staircase Reveal: Part One

July 14, 2009

Whew!  After 30+ hours of intense labor, it is done.  Ladies and gentlemen, friends and fans, we are proud to announce the rebirth of our foyer.

Where to begin?  First, I must explain the problem.  The staircase was natural blonde oak.  Dated and dreadful.  NOT the first impression I ever wanted to give my guests.  What was a girl to do?  Replacing it with European style iron railing was the cost of an automobile.  Fixing it seemed too daunting.  Then I saw Rhoda at Southern Hospitality blog stained her entire oak staircase a lovely dark shade, from top to bottom, and it planted a big seed in my inquisitive brain.  If Rhoda could do it, surely I could too.

That same week I was watching one of my favorite classics ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ with Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor.  If you can take your eyes off either of them, which is almost impossible since they’re both practically perfect physical specimens, you notice that they frequently descend the incredibly beautiful staircase of Big Daddy’s plantation home.  When I saw it’s espresso dark railing, white balusters and base, it was true love.  I had to have it.  So yet another seed was planted.  After Rhoda, Paul and Liz, I was completely inspired.  Off to the home improvement store I went, daring myself to do the impossible: transform the oak monstrosity into something sophisticated and stylish.

That said, let’s begin.  Here is the before and after:


Update: the wallpaper was later changed to full white picture frame wainscotting after we added wood steps a year later – full reveal here


How We Went From Ordinary Oak to an Espresso Finish:

Step One:  After all the prep work, taping off the balusters and laying down carpet protection, I stripped the existing varnish off the staircase with Klean-Strip.  It was nasty, smelly full-of-chemicals stuff.  I had to ask Mr. CG to keep the kids away for an entire day.  I wore a mask, and the fumes gave me a bad headache.  And I still had to sand afterwards.  (See this follow up post on why I now use Citrustrip instead).

Step Two:  Sand, sand, sand, then sand again.  I spent about 4 hours just sanding until my fingers cramped and refused another stroke.

Step Three:  I cleaned off the sanding residue with wet wipes, then stained the upper hand rail with Minwax Gel Stain in Walnut.  This is a wonderful product which I had used before to redo the highboy dresser in the entry.  It’s not Minwax’s fault that I wasn’t satisfied.  It’s just the nature of oak.  It’s such a grainy wood.  When the stain was applied to the oak, it gave me too much of a stripe-like effect.  Darker was much better, but the product only took me half way to the look I desired.

Step Four:  I did something unconventional – I glazed the wood with two coats of semi-opaque Burnt Umber acrylic craft paint.  Yes, you heard me right.  Craft paint.  I know purist wood refinishers are absolutely appalled, but I’m telling you, the semi-opaque craft paint filled in the gaps and gave me just the espresso finish I wanted.  See the difference after one coat?

Yessir.  These were the three products that gave me the look I desired.  Minwax Gel Stain in Walnut, Burnt Umber semi opaque craft paint, and Minwax Wipe On Poly.

They gave me this finish:

Hello gorgeous !

Using the glazing effect with the semi-opaque watered down craft paint (about 1 drop of water to 1 tsp of paint) helped to preserve the visible grain of the wood.

Step Five:  With the help of a dear friend, and professional painter, we primed the bottom of the stairs with oil based primer, then finished it with two coats of ‘Swiss Coffee’ oil based white paint for durability.  Thanks Mike !

Here’s another peek at the staircase up close before and after it was stained and glazed:


Step Six:  To the upper railing only, I applied one coat of Minwax Wipe On Polyurethane.  This took maybe 20 minutes total.  Pour a few drops on a sponge, wipe on, and you’re done.  It was dry overnight, apply two coats!




 I hope you’re all encouraged to take action, and transform your oak into something classic and wonderful.  Yes you can!

For the full story on how we ripped out the carpet and installed hardwood, look here.

Update March 2012: The staircase railing has held up all these years even with two kids and their friends up and down those stairs, it works!


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197 Responses to “The Staircase Reveal: Part One”

  1. Kimm at Reinvented says:

    Well, since I'm the 101st commenter (!!!!), I'll assume that everyone else LOVES this as much as I do. I, too, have ugly orangey oak bannisters on my stairs, and I WANT THIS! Now, must convince hubby…

  2. Amy {The Red Chair Blog} says:

    Fabulous! Love the wall treatment too. Definitely worth the 30 hours!

  3. Paisley & Polka Dot Patterns says:

    Hi! I gasped when I saw the transformation! Absolutely stunng! I check in with your blog every day, thank you for sharing your projects in great detail and those beautiful pictures too!

  4. Carol says:

    Just gorgeous! (More words wouldn't have done it justice. No lie, it is beautiful.)

  5. The DIY Show Off says:

    Stunning. You are amazing! It's absolutely gorgeous! You are an inspiration and star, my friend. :)

  6. Jesse says:

    OH MY GOODNESS! Talk about fabulous! Great job!

  7. Melissa says:

    Absolutely stunning and wasn't what I expected at all – you went all out and your 30+ hours of work was totally worth it.

  8. Marci @OvercomingBusy says:

    That is incredible!! Your hard work definitely paid off!

  9. Paula says:

    What can I say that has not been is beautiful

  10. G says:

    It's absolutely gorgeous! I wouldn't even think that it was the same house in the before and after shots…

  11. Infarrantly Creative says:

    Holy cow that is freakin fantastic…I can't believe how amazing it looks. That was a daring project. I LOVE THE TIP ABOUT OAK WOOD. I hate refinishing anything oak.

  12. Melanie says:

    um… I have no words! Amazing!

  13. Carla says:

    Absolutely gorgeous. I've been playing with the idea of refinishing my blah staircase and you've just given me more inspiration.

  14. Jessica says:

    I LOVE what you did. It looks amazing. Can you please come to my house now and work your magic??

  15. LizO says:

    I can't say much of anything that hasn't been said but that's rockin' cool.

    I am looking for a house right now so if I find a house with stairs, this page is book marked for future reference but now I can see possibilities rather than "ugh".

    Great work and awesome idea!

  16. Mrs. Querido says:

    Gorgeous…absolutely stunning!

    I want stairs…LOL…so I can do that too!

  17. Lori says:

    AWESOME! You are so talented! I love love love it!

  18. Simply Susan says:


  19. mama kt says:

    hey, sorry if this ?? was already asked (i can't seem to read thru 119 comments 2 find it): what is in your 'highboy' in the entry? that space, w/ window and mirror, looks EXACTLY like mine, altho my entire entryway floor is TINY. it's always caused problems but i'm always looking for the perfect pc of furn to go there. wondering what PURPOSE it serves so maybe it would work for us. ? thanks! bee you tee full work!

  20. Melanie says:

    Oh my word. Gorgeous. Love it. I am going to send this link on to a couple peole I know who would love it.

    On the other hand, I want to shoot myself thinking about all that work! Way to stick with a project.

  21. […] Read the entire article about our staircase transformation here.  […]

  22. mary ann says:

    i just used regular old black paint on mine – rustoleum and they look great, i didn’t have to go through all the trouble of sanding and stripping. no problems here.

  23. […] used Klean-Strip chemical stripper before on my staircase to remove layers of varnish.  Chemical strippers are nasty to say the least.  The old […]

  24. Laura says:

    Great Job , it is very rich looking amazing job the hard work and hours are well worth it. My stairs are prettty much like your old look. My husband & I are going to tackle this project thanks for all your pictures and detailed steps.

    I hope I can get all the same supplies in Canada.

  25. malissa says:

    your staircase looks amazing!! would you recommend the same treatment on ugly oak cabinets?

  26. […] and ribbons to hide the ordinary oak railing that I was never crazy about.  Ever since we refinished the staircase in this dark espresso color, I have no desire to hide its new finish, so I swaged simple greenery […]

  27. Sophia says:

    Amazing! Simply Amazing!

  28. […] Staircase Transformation, Part One and Part […]

  29. Absolutly Beautiful. What a difference!

  30. Breanna says:

    OK… i saw your post the day you posted it, and have been looking for it EVER SINCE! the second i got out of the site, i couldn’t find it again.. and i bet i have thought about it EVERY. DAY. I am SO HAPPY to have found it.. and i showed my husband.. i THINK he is almost on board..

    thanks SO MUCH for the detailed instructions.. i will definitely send you a link with my pics once the project is done.. (since i’m preggo, i might have to wait til after the baby comes, so i can strip the wood..)

  31. […] Victoria completely transformed the look of her staircase just like we did by priming and painting her spindles, and by staining her upper railing, all for under $100 […]

  32. shanna says:

    Your stairwell is nearly identical to mine in style! You did a beautiful job!

  33. Stacy says:

    I absolutely love this transformation. I plan on doing this with my dated oak banister. Couple of questions. Did you use wipe on poly is Satin or Gloss finish? Also, what kind of finish did the glazing give you, and why did you only use poly wipe on the top of the banister? Thanks so much. I am super excited to start this project. It will completely transform our foyer just as it did yours.

  34. […] refinished natural oak before – I restained and glazed my oak staircase banister last year to give it an espresso finish, and I’ve also primed and painted oak […]

  35. […] 2010 benefiting Habitat for Humanity.  Last year, I was one of the weekly winners for our staircase redo.   This contest is a fantastic opportunity to show off your best Before and After, win a […]

  36. Gita says:

    Gosh. Absolutely love the transformation. I have staircase exactly like yours before the makeover. I wish I can pull this off. Is there anything else other than the Klean strip that I can use?

  37. Sharon says:

    I’m sold! I want to do this right away to my staircase.
    Question: Do you know if the gel stain/varnish remover from Home Depot will work just as well to strip the varnish?

    Has any of your “bloggers” tried another product to strip the varnish successfully?

    Sharon in Rocklin, CA

  38. Claire Rose says:

    Wow, love the dark stain-it could be in the movies!LOL You’ve given me alot of inspiration to try the picture frame molding up my stairs- Can’t wait for the finished project!

  39. […] I mentioned in part two of last year’s banister revamp, the carpet was there mostly for the safety of our little tykes, but I’ve never been a fan.  […]

  40. Nancy says:

    Looks great, did you ever use the ebony wood stain? Do you think that would work instead of using the acrylic burnt umber? thanks

  41. Danielle says:

    I am about to do the same to my railing…this is exactly what I am trying to achieve!!! I had hardwoods put in on 1st floor and carpet on stairs removed, wood stair treads finished same color as floors but didn’t have them put my railing back in so I could finish it. It is in the garage, stripped and sanded and ready for stain. I bought the Burnt Umber acrylic paint & wipe-on poly minwax (oil-based). However I keep reading online that if applying poly over acrylic, I should use water-based poly because water & oil don’t mix…..**Have you seen any peeling over time/durability issues? **If none, did you lightly sand acrylic before applying the one coat oil poly?

  42. […] last year?  The blonde oak banister and the carpet?  Last year, you’ll recall we redid the banister and primed and painted the oak base white as a first step.  This year, we finally have wood […]

  43. Nancy says:

    Hi-doing my rail this week–how did you glaze with the paint. Did you brush on like paint or did you wipe with a rag while it was wet so not so thick? Did you mix with anything? Thanks

  44. Abby says:

    I just finished staining our baby cradle with a walnut stain. I hate it. It is blotchy and awful. So I was thinking of doing what you did with your acrylic paint. I was just wondering if you add stain on top of the acrylic paint or if you just put on the wipe-on poly…thanks? Could you clarify? I want to do it right.


  45. Jackie says:

    This is the best diy stair makeover i have seen! I was truely inspired by this, so much that when I saw it, I decided I would redo mine too right then and there. My staircase is stripped, sanded, and stained (2 coats). Now I just need to apply the Burnt Umber and the Wipe-on poly. How did you apply the acrilyc paint? Wipe, sponge, brush? And did you mix it with anything or just applied it straight from the bottle? And how long did you wait to apply the poly? I need you’re help, I have my huge project on pause!

  46. Melanie Strout says:

    WOW. I saw this and immediately started the project of the railings. (actually I hired someone) but had them do exactly what you did. WE are almost finished and it is amazing. I am soooo glad you shared your entire process. Looks great.

  47. Kate O. says:

    This is very inspiring and I have been looking to do something like this since I moved into my home. I did a google search and found your fab site. This is now my next project to tackle in my home. I did want to know what you used to protect your carpet. As I have nearly the same stairs I’m concerned when painting the white that might ruin my carpet. Any suggestions?

    I’m having so much fun checking out your site.

  48. Kim says:

    Hi Kate,
    And thank you for sharing all your amazing projects. I found your blog about a month ago and I love it! I am having new hardwood floors installed on Monday, and I am in the process of sanding and staining the railing and newel post along my stairs. I love how your finished project turned out and I want to obtain the same finish you achieved. I have a question I hope you can answer. Do I apply the Burnt Umber semi-opaque paint first, or the Minwax walnut gel stain first? I admire how fearless you are, and I hope after this project I gain more confidence, and a little less fear. Thanks again, Kim

  49. Chris says:

    Hi CG! This is great, I actually found your webstie after viewing starterhometodreamhome, where she did something similar to her staircase. My staircase design is like yours, but I had to paint the banister AND the spindles…68 total. After sanding and applying two coats of walnut gel stain, I applied the acrylic, burnt umber semi-opaque paint, but it dried funny…kind of ashy. So before I applied the poly, I applied 2 coats of Rustoleum’s Painter’s Touch gloss paint in kona brown, (like starterhometodreamhome) and now my banister looks like yours! Now I’m painting the spindles and will do the wipe-on poly last. Thanks again, I would have never tried this if it wasn’t for you! Sincerely, Chris

  50. Christa says:

    Hi CG! First I just want to say I stumbled upon your blog and am now completely hooked. I have been dabbling in refinishing old pieces using paints and stains and it is starting to become quite a passion for me. You have given me some great ideas!

    We are suffering from the same blond oak banister that you had. My first fall/winter project is going to be painting the spindles white and staining the handrail. I just wondered if you have any tips for painting the spindles and also for keeping the paint and stain off of the carpet. Eventually I would like to have wood stairs too but it’s not in the financial cards right now.

    Any help you can give would be great! Thanks for all of the inspiring ideas and keep up the great work!

  51. nicole says:

    I have been admiring your stair banister for so long and have finally gotten the nerve to do the same! We also have the ugly honey oak which looks really bad with our new Brazilian koa wood floors! So I have applied the gel stain walnut color and it is not dark enough so I bought some of the burnt umber acrylic paint. My hope is that you could provide me with some details of how to apply it. How many coats of gel stain should i use before applying the burnt umber? Any additional advice or help would be appreciated! Thank You!!

  52. Jamie says:

    Hi CG!

    Quick Question…what did you apply the acrylic craft paint with? I see it shown with a very small paint brush, but it seems like that would take forever!! Thanks :)

  53. CentsationalGirl says:

    Hey Jamie, it did take a long time! I used that small brush to add the glaze all around the litle crevices but a larger brush would work just fine!

  54. Jennifer Moon says:

    I am so interested in this. I saw your other post with pictures and it looks fabulous, but the pictures aren’t showing in this post…… Thanks.

  55. KaraAnn says:

    I want to try what you have done but your pictures are not coming up on this page. Did you take them off? I love your stairs and want to change ours from the awful honey finish as well! Our house is 20+ yrs old and we are the 2nd owners with 3 active boys so we need to do something!

  56. CentsationalGirl says:

    Hi Kara Anne and Jennifer, this post is one of about 20 that needs repair – I’m working on it and will get it fixed shortly, so sorry!

  57. Melody says:

    I’m a new reader to your blog & you’ve given me tons of inspiration! I just bought a house that I honestly didn’t want because of all the honey oak throughout it’s entirety. (WHY?!) The first thing you notice in our home is the honey-colored stair banister/balcony that takes up so much space. Well, I love our house now, (minus the never-ending honey cabinetry.) I also can’t see these pics, but will keep checking back because I love the “after” pics of your stairwell and I can’t wait to get started! My husband and friends think I’m crazy, but now I have proof it can be done.

  58. CentsationalGirl says:

    Will fix it by Friday, so sorry Melody, it’s part of a series of posts from 2009 that lost images, will get it repaired soon!

  59. Ashley says:

    Interested in seeing the photos, but they are not showing up?

  60. CentsationalGirl says:

    All fixed Ashley!

  61. Julie says:

    Hi CGA friend told me about your site and I love it. We are getting quotes for our ugly white washed oak banister. I have six kids and not nearly as talented as you, so I will have most of it done by someone else. I might do the banister though after looking at your site. I love the umber glaze. If I wanted to go more cherry in color, would you just use a cherry stain with the umber? Thx


  62. CentsationalGirl says:

    Hi Julie, the umber will likely mask the cherry stain, it definitely is a more “espresso” finish. Kate

  63. Amy says:

    Thanks for the photos! Just moved into 25year old home with golden oak banisters can’t wait to get working on them! I’m so inspired by your creations!

  64. Melody says:

    thanks for “fixing” the pics on this project! (:

  65. Elizabeth says:

    I’m going to be doing the same thing on our staircase, only leaving the carpet on the stairs! This is a HUGE INSPIRATION! My only question is how were you able to paint the wood molding on the wall side with the carpet intact!? Did you have to remove it somewhat, paint, then replace the carpet?

  66. CentsationalGirl says:

    Hey Elizabeth, I simply taped it down then when I was painted, pushed down the carpet even more with a trowel, worked great!

  67. Connie says:

    This is absolutely gorgeous. There was a time when I would have done a project of this magnitude…but not anymore. Wonderful job!

  68. Jessica says:

    Would you now recommend the same stain you used on the stairs for the railing so you would not have to use the craft paint? I love the look! I am inspired now that I see that you can do the stairs and not all the floors at the same time. I thought I was going to have to save up and have it all refinished at the same time. Thanks for the inspiration.

  69. CentsationalGirl says:

    Great question Jessica, I would have used the Duraseal on the banister had I known about it! The glazed banister is holding up well though, those coats of polyurethane sealed it. Duraseal is mostly available to the trade but I believe there are online suppliers too.

  70. Mana says:

    I tried the antique brown and did my banister with that. I want to do my cabinets too but I feel antique brown is too dark for my cabinets, any idea what could give a chocolate brown color.

  71. Michelle says:

    This is so gorgeous! I plan on doing the same thing following your awesome blog step by step. One question.. how in the world did you sand all the small crevices on the banister?

  72. CentsationalGirl says:

    There were’nt to many crevices on the banister just the railing’s top and underside. The balusters were previously painted white so I left them alone!

  73. Linda says:

    Great Looking stairway. General Finishes gel stain (you’ll have to google to find in your area) gave me the same look. I did my kitchen cabinets which were oak and no stripping necessary. Used a little liquid sander to dull existing finished. I would like to know how hard it was to lay the wood on staircase and where you got your suppllies for it.

  74. Ryanne says:

    Love your blog. I recently used Rust Oleum Cabinet Transformations in Espresso for my kitchen. Do you think that kit would work on an oak banister? It looks almost identical to what you had.

  75. Rebecca says:

    This is an opinion question. I, too, have honey oak banisters. I also hav hardwood throughout including the stair treads that are ALL honey oak. Staining the floors is more of a professional job and out of our budget right now. Would it look totally strange to do ONLY the banisters and treads in this espresso finish? I love it, but not sure how it would look with the rest of the floors still in honey. Advice/opinions, please!!

  76. CentsationalGirl says:

    Hi Rebecca, I used to think they should match but now after living with it for over a year, I don’t even notice. I think it’s okay to have two wood tones in a space, makes it interesting, push it to three and there’s confusion. Of course there’s always exceptions, but I don’t think your floors and treads have to match at all – go dark on the stairs!

  77. Diana says:

    Hi Kate, first of all, you totally inspired me! I teach at a year round school and made it my mission to redo my stairs this month while I was off. I have dark floors and have had an ugly oak banister for going on 3 years. I did exactly what you did with Minwax Gel stain in Dark Walnut and went over it with Delta Dreamcoat Acrylic in Burnt Umber, but I found that the acrylic dulled the finish, even after one coat of poly over it. I ended up lightly resanding the entire banister, and going over it once again with the Minwax Gel Stain and it brought back the luster, even without the poly. Did you experience the dullness with the glazing process? How many coats of poly did you use to bring back the shine? Just wondering for future reference :-)

  78. CentsationalGirl says:

    Hi Diana, I don’t recall it’s been so long, but a few coats of wipe on gloss polyurethane gave it a nice shine!

  79. Cass says:

    I was wondering what is the paint color on the walls? I love it!

  80. joanne says:

    Hello,love your stairs. Can you tall me how you did the wood on the walls…love it. Thank you….can’t wait to do this on my stairs

  81. CentsationalGirl says:

    Hi Joanne, Matt (my husband) cut the molding and the chair rail and we painted everything white below it. You can see more pictures here:

  82. Kristen says:

    Your stairwell looks amazing! I was also wondering what the paint color is on the walls?

  83. Mommy2blinks says:

    How did you contain all the nasty dust? I see you have high ceilings…. I do too, and am having a HARD time w sanding, dust, kids!

  84. Mommy2blinks says:

    …. Also, what mask did you use? :D

  85. CentsationalGirl says:

    Hi Kristen, all of the paint colors in my home can be found by clicking the button in the sidebar!

  86. Becca says:

    Thank you so much for this tutorial. I redid my banister and I just love it so much. I also used the acrylic paint and it turned out perfect!

  87. CentsationalGirl says:

    Wow Becca so glad to read this!

  88. Gracie says:

    I am trying to achieve the look of your gorgeous stair rails. You are calling the acrylic craft paint “semi-opaque” glaze… is that because you added a drop of water to a teaspoon of paint? I used that same formula, but it is going on as a solid brown acrylic paint. Did you simply brush it on and leave it to dry? Thanks!

  89. CentsationalGirl says:

    Hi Gracie, mine was watered down so it went on like a glaze but I used two coats as I recall. It shouldn’t be completely opaque, it should have some transparency to it.

  90. Kristen says:

    Hi there! This may sound like a weird request, but the doorway seen at the foot of the stairs – is it a single doorway or a double/french? I ask this because I am looking at adding a door to my formal living room to make it an office that can be closed off, but my doorway is a double with a stair banister in half of the doorway – if that makes any sense. I was considering removing the banister and putting a wall up so that it was just a single door entry – but I am not sure if it is going to look good. I also have a 2 story foyer.


  91. CentsationalGirl says:

    Hi Kristen, that’s a set of double French doors – I have a single door opening to my office.

  92. Kay says:

    I want to know the paint color for your walls?! Please! Nothing to do with the staircase – that creme, light color – i want it! what is it?!

  93. CentsationalGirl says:

    Hi Kay, all of the paint colors in my home can be found through the button in the sidebar !

  94. Kay says:

    I’m sorry, I’ve been looking and cannot find anything! Would a direct link be too much to ask?

  95. Melissa says:

    Love the transformation…I have been telling my husband that we should change the oak to dark stair treads and railing…we have light oak hardwoods at the top of the staircase and the landing in the foyer is a white = greyish marble…. his concern is that it wont match the lght hardwoods in the two rooms to either sides of the stairs or the second floor hallway …. and your pic shows how great it matches!
    great job!

  96. Jaclyn says:

    Hi, Kate,
    What is the height of your chair rail? I’ve been scouring your site for the dimensions, but don’t see it. I like the scale of it to the staircase and frames. Thanks!

  97. NicoleK says:

    Project update! We bought our current house in 2009 and the first thing we did – immediately after reading your post – was strip our honey oak banister and followed your steps to re-stain it. It is still my favorite thing and we get so many compliments! We also used the technique (love the craft paint! that makes all the difference!) on our french glass doors to the office. I have a household filled with boys and their millions of friends and the banisters look the same as they did almost 6 years ago! We are finally hoping to replace all the carpet (which is just so bad… remember those boys?? plus big dog & Seattle rain… ugh!)

    So a huge THANK YOU!

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