How to Restore a Staircase with Wooden Banisters and Railings

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Original Victorian staircases provide a great deal of character to a period home. However, most experience a significant amount of wear and tear over the years, so they may well require a lot of restoration if they’ve been neglected in the past. Here’s the Invisible Painter guide – based on years of experience – on how to restore a wooden staircase and railings.

Stripping the Paint

As with most period features, staircases are often covered in layers upon layers of paint. And if it’s been painted before the 1960s, it’s reasonable to assume that lead will be present. If this is the case you’ll need to use a respirator and wear disposable coveralls during the process to ensure that the task is carried out safely. Another option is to paint over existing coats, although you may struggle to get a perfect finish if you do this. You also run the risk of making the design features on the Victorian staircase less pronounced.


Once stripping is complete, use drop cloths in your work area and sand the bannisters and railings with 100-grit sanding pads taking care to follow the wood grain. Remove any imperfections to create a smooth surface and then wipe the bannisters down. Any serious flaws should be filled with wood putty.


If it’s not possible to remove the bannisters, use masking tape to cover areas that are not going to be stained and then thoroughly mix the solution. Apply liberally along the line of the wood-grain, removing any excess stain before it dries. Look for any small holes or cracks and remove any remaining stain with a dry brush. For oak and mahogany, the stain should be applied with a bristle brush so that it gets worked into the pores. Repeat this process until you’re satisfied with the result and then allow it to dry overnight.


Consider applying a layer of clear coat to protect the bannisters with the use of a clean paintbrush. This can be particularly useful for protecting against the inevitable wear-and-tear caused by constant usage. Let the clear-coat dry properly before attempting further work.


Before painting your staircase, you’ll need a wood primer that is suitable for the type of wood you’re working with. Primers provide paint with better adhesion and block stains from seeping through. Once you’ve finished, sand the primed surface down and wipe it clean with a tack cloth.

Applying Paint

For large staircases, spray painting is certainly an option and it isn’t that time-consuming. If you choose this approach, protect the nearby walls and furniture properly from accidents. Also make sure to wear a breathing mask to protect against harmful chemicals. For smaller staircases, a standard paint brush is probably the best way to go. Although it takes longer, you’ll be able to ensure that the paint is applied more evenly.  Start at the top of the staircase and work your way down. For bannisters and railings, two and sometimes even three coats are required for an acceptable finish.

French Polishers

Although painting (and decorating) can add colour and brightness, it tends to mask the wood’s graining. So many opt to use French polishing – it can really revitalise tired-looking wood and restore a wooden staircase to its original glory.

For further painting, decorating and fit out advice visit our blog. If you’d like to see some of the work we do, take a look at our case studies and selection of prestigious buildings and properties we have worked on over our years of experience. The Invisible Painter offers exceptional office fit out and refurbishment services as well, where staircase restoration is a key component.

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