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How to Paint Outdoor Metal Railings and Light Poles

I am the author of three middle-grade children's books, and I blog on the side. My favorite topics are movies, writing, and pop culture.

Painting Outdoor Metal

The elements can take a toll on outdoor metal, particularly metal railings and light poles. Over time, the paint fades and chips off, exposing an ugly coat of rust that makes your railings rough to the touch and your light poles an unattractive ornament in your front yard. Scraping off the old paint and rust and applying a few new coats of sturdy, outdoor paint can make a huge cosmetic difference and can even prevent an accident or two in a person's willingness to utilize the railings on your stairs.

When I saw that my outdoor metal railing and light pole were in bad shape, I decided to tackle this small project. Now, my outdoor metal looks good as new. Here are some tips on how to paint outdoor railings and light poles.

Step 1: Sanding

If the paint on your metal is chipped or rusty, it’s best to sand off all of the old paint. This is the most time-consuming step of the process. In my case, my railing had several layers of paint to take off, and I turned to the Internet for advice.


First of all, wear old clothes and buy a bag of disposable gloves or a pair of thick work gloves. You may also want to consider protective eyewear and a face mask. I only used sunglasses, which helped, but I breathed in a lot of paint dust which has the potential to be harmful if inhaled- especially if you are removing very old paint.

Cleaning the Area

First, I filled a small bucket of water and added one cup of vinegar. Using a rag dipped in the vinegar water, I wiped down the metal area to remove any surface dirt and debris. I then let it air dry for a few minutes before completely drying it with a clean, dry rag. Then, I got to work.

Scraping Off the Paint

It was recommended that I use a wire brush and steel wool to remove the paint. This did not work for me; neither did my trusty putty knife which had proven useful in removing wallpaper from my bathroom walls. In this case, it didn't do much. After a few hours of brushing and scraping at the paint, I had made very little progress. I even tried mineral spirits and paint thinner with no luck.

Next, I read up on purchasing a drill bit that turns your drill into a sander. So, I purchased a small box of these bits, but this didn't work so well either. I ended up using the bits like sandpaper, working through the crevices by hand. This was useful around curves, but in the end, it was regular sandpaper that worked best.

I bought a pack of coarse, 60-grit sandpaper and broke out my metal files. I used every file I had and every shape to get all of the nooks and crannies. It took about 12–14 hours over the course of a few weeks to get all of the paint off. The files were good for taking the paint off of the sides and edges of the railing, but they also scraped the metal very easily and were very labor-intensive. The sandpaper was effective but wore down easily.

I did not wear gloves during this step. So, by the time I was finished, I could have sanded the railing with the palms of my hands. I also didn’t stress about getting the underside of the railing too well. I just sanded off the rough bumps since this side of the railing wouldn't be seen, but I still wanted to coat the entire railing to prevent it from rusting.

My light poles weren’t badly chipped and had only one layer of paint applied to them. So, I just went over them lightly with some sandpaper to remove the dirt and dust. In retrospect, I should have removed the entire layer of paint since you could see a little bit of layering in the places where the paint had chipped, but it’s not very noticeable unless you look at it close up.

Cleaned Railing

Railing during the sanding process.

Railing during the sanding process.

Sanded Railing

Fully sanded railing.

Fully sanded railing.

Step 2: Prepping for Painting

As I removed the paint, rust started to form on the bare metal surface of the railing as it was exposed to the rain and garden hose while watering my flowers. So before I painted, I used some sandpaper to knock off the fresh rust. Then, I wiped it down with more vinegar water and wiped it dry.

I bought my paint at my local home improvement store. Look for outdoor enamel made for metal and furniture. It comes in a variety of colors and glosses.

I used a flat, black paint made by Valspar. I bought the quart size which turned out to be way too much, even after applying several coats to two light poles, one railing, and the garage light. I laid down drop cloths around my railing so that I wouldn’t get any paint on my front steps. Now I was ready to paint.

Painted Railing

Fully painted railing.

Fully painted railing.

Step 3: Painting

I used sponge brushes to apply my enamel, using a little at a time and being careful to catch all of the drips so that the coat was nice and even. My brand of enamel dried in one hour, so I had to be sure to catch the drips right away and make sure that it didn’t drip down over the sides and cause any runs or bubbles.

The light poles were trickier. First, I tried to use a small paint roller, but it coated the pole with too much enamel at once. I then switched back to the sponge brushes.

For the small areas, I had to use very thin paintbrushes to tediously paint around the glass and in between round areas. I also had to balance on chairs and a step stool to reach the top of the light poles and the light fixture above my garage door.

Be sure that you have something sturdy to stand on and that you are prepared to hold the can in one hand and the paintbrush in the other. This would be a great time to find a helper to assist you.

The directions on the paint can said to let the paint dry overnight before applying another coat. I could see the next day that there were some missed spots and places where the paint did not stick.

About two hours after applying my second coat, it unexpectedly started to rain for a few minutes which wiped away some of that second layer. On the next dry day, I applied a third coat, and that seemed to cover all of the areas very well.

Painted Light Pole

Newly painted light pole.

Newly painted light pole.

A Cheap and Easy Cosmetic Fix

Despite my trial-and-error technique, the unexpectedly time-consuming nature of taking off the old paint, and setbacks with the weather, I'm very pleased with the end result of my project. The black paint is very eye-catching. The railing is smooth, and best of all, there is no more rust or chipped paint everywhere.

The paint was easy to wash off my skin whenever I would get any on myself. It didn’t seem to cause any skin irritation either. So, besides inhaling paint dust, nearly falling off of my step stool several times, and dodging popup showers, it was a pretty safe and straightforward project that anyone could attempt if willing to dedicate their time and effort and get a little dirty.

It’s also an inexpensive way to improve the look of the exterior of your house. I highly recommend it if you are looking to make simple cosmetic changes to your front yard.

Second Painted Light Pole

Second painted light pole.

Second painted light pole.

A Follow Up Note

Incidentally, a few years after painting my pole, a car slid into my yard during a winter storm and took out the light pole. I had just replaced the lantern a few months earlier, and it was crushed to pieces, and the light pole needed to be replaced. After getting a new pole, it will be awhile before I have to paint again, but at least I'll be experienced when I do.

Painted Garage Light

Painted garage light.

Painted garage light.

My Tips for Painting Outdoor Metal

To recap, here are my tips for painting outdoor metal:

Wear old clothes, and protect your eyes and mouth from paint dust.

Clean the area with vinegar water before both sanding and painting.

Use coarse sandpaper and metal files to take off old layers of paint.

Buy a small can of paint unless you are painting a very large area, such as furniture.

Paint when overnight temperatures are no lower than 50 degrees and there is no threat of rain.

Use a ladder if you're trying to reach a high place.

Take your time, and look for any drips.

Be prepared to put several hours into sanding and at least three days of painting (one for each layer).

Have you ever painted outdoor metal? If so, how did it go, and what worked for you? Leave your comments and questions below. Good luck!

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2017 Laura Smith


Adam Hiebert on February 24, 2020:

I would suggest using oil-based primer to cover up the rust and prevent any more rust from forming before you apply any of the paint

FlourishAnyway from USA on August 16, 2017:

I'm going to need to do this soon so your tips here are helpful. The step-by-steps are well described and illustrated and the end product looks professional.