Tips for Painting Staircase Spindles

Updated on April 6, 2019
Matt G. profile image

Matt is a professional painter and freelance writer, sharing his knowledge, house-painting tips, and product reviews.

What's the Best Way to Paint Spindles?

Painting staircase spindles involves a process of cleaning, sanding, priming, and painting. The work is very tedious, but dated oak spindles look awesome when painted white.

There are a couple of ways to paint spindles after the prep work is done. The most common way is to brush and roll the primer and paint, but a faster way is to use an airless sprayer or an HVLP sprayer (high volume, low pressure). If you don't happen to own one, you can rent either one from the paint store or almost any major home improvement store.

HVLP Sprayer vs. Airless for Spindles

Also referred to as a cup sprayer, an HVLP unit produces far less over-spray than an airless sprayer, reducing material consumption and the masking that needs to be done. An HVLP sprayer also produces a very fine finish that can be adjusted to the narrow width of a spindle, unlike an airless sprayer.

With a cup sprayer though, acrylic paints are usually too thick to shoot through the gun, requiring thinning in advance. The problem with thinning acrylic is it dilutes the paint and reduces its durability.

The sprayer you choose really depends on what you plan to coat the spindles with. If you use a thin, white pigmented lacquer, instead of paint, a cup sprayer is the best option, unless the particular unit you plan on using is capable of shooting acrylic paint without having to thin it much.

The most common coating used for spindles is acrylic paint, in which case a small airless sprayer would work great, but you need to be a little more careful with the masking to make sure the surrounding area is well protected from hovering over-spray.

Brushing and Rolling

If the idea of spraying paint inside your home makes you feel uneasy, you can also achieve an awesome finish by using a quality paint brush and a foam roller. The obvious disadvantage is that it's going to take longer to finish the job, but when using the right roller, you can achieve professional results without all of the masking and worry about over-spray.

Prepare the Spindles for Primer

Wood spindles need to be cleaned before priming and painting. The protective lacquer on the surface also needs to be dulled so the primer and paint forms a strong bond. Cover the floors with drop cloths and scrub the wood with TSP (tri sodium phosphate), using a coarse scrubbing pad. I use the green Scotch-Brite pads.

TSP etches and dulls the layer of lacquer on the surface. After the surface has been cleaned with TSP, wipe everything down with a little Dawn dish soap and a clean rag to remove leftover residue that can cause problems with primer and paint adhesion.

Start Sanding

There are several primer products that advertise no sanding necessary, but you should still do thorough surface sanding before applying your primer. This will provide a stronger bond and a better finish.

A random orbital sander works well for sanding spindles, but the sander usually doesn't fit in between them, due to the tight spacing. What I do is use my Makita orbital sander on the front and back, then scuff the sides with a piece of sandpaper, wrapping it around the spindle.

The best grit is 80 to 100. This paper is more coarse and will get the sanding done faster. You can also buy circular shaped sandpaper, designed for spindles, but the cost is usually greater than regular square sheets.

Best Primer for Wooden Spindles

Before priming, wipe the surface with a damp rag, or a tack cloth, to get rid of sanding dust. Make sure the surface below is protected. If the spindles are unpainted and you plan to coat them with acrylic paint, an oil-based primer sealer should be used, not latex. But if they're already painted, a latex bonding primer is a good choice. Extreme Bond Primer from Sherwin Williams would work well in that situation.

Oil-based primer like Zinsser Cover Stain, or Pro Block from Sherwin Williams, are two good products to use on unpainted spindles. I use Cover Stain the most, but either one seals wood to keep tannin from bleeding into your paint.

If you plan to coat the surface with a white pigmented lacquer, instead of paint, using a cup sprayer, a primer surfacer typically needs to be applied first for adhesion.

Options for Applying Primer and Paint

Priming and painting staircase spindles with an HVLP sprayer, or an airless sprayer, is the easiest and fastest way to apply the material. It does take some time to mask flooring and nearby walls with plastic, but once the masking is done, the priming and painting part is so much faster than using a roller.

If you decide to spray the spindles with acrylic paint, an airless sprayer is a good option and requires no thinning like an HVLP would.

Most homeowners are more comfortable with the brush and roller method though. Choosing the right roller is important because you don't want to use a thick roller that's going to produce heavy stippling. The Flock Foam roller from Sherwin Williams is my personal favorite. It's a 4-inch roller that produces a fine texture, very similar to a sprayed look. I also use the same roller for brushing and rolling cabinet wall boxes.

Best Paint for Wood Spindles:

  • Emerald urethane enamel from Sherwin Williams. The paint dries hard for better durability. The semi-gloss finish is ideal for wood spindles.
  • Pro Classic Acrylic Semi-Gloss, or Gloss, from Sherwin Williams. The paint levels nicely, leaving behind minimal texturing, or brush strokes.
  • Waterborne Satin Impervo from Benjamin Moore. This is the Benjamin Moore equivalent to Pro Classic. This paint has excellent flow and leveling to get a smooth finish.

Emerald urethane enamel would be my first choice when applying the material either by hand, or using an airless sprayer. The paint dries hard. All three products look really nice foam rolled, or sprayed.

Depending how well your primer covered, three coats of paint are usually needed to get solid coverage with a roller. When spraying, it usually takes one coat of primer and two coats of paint for solid coverage.

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.

Questions & Answers

  • How do you tape off round spindles on a staircase if you don’t want to paint the handrail?

    If you're brushing and rolling the spindles, but not painting the handrail, you don't have to tape off around the tops of the spindles. Just use an angled 1-inch brush to cut in the spindle tops where they fasten to the railing. If you're spray painting the spindles, you'll have to cover the handrail completely. Unfortunately, there's no fast way to tape around the spindle tops at the handrail. You have to tear off small pieces of tape and stick them to the underside of the railing around the spindles. Cover the rest of the rail with masking paper, or plastic.

  • My spindles are stained and lacquer or varnished. What primer do you suggest?

    The oil-based primer Cover Stain is good. It sands easily and dries hard. Oil-based primer should be used, not latex.

  • I’ve just finished painting the spindles and banisters but I have noticed the odd drips etc how can I get these to the perfect finish now? Would I be able to lightly sand the drips and then touch up?

    The best way to remove paint runs is by lightly wet sanding them with a damp sanding sponge. The sanding sponges with 220-grit sandpaper on them are good for this. Wipe away the paint residue as you sand.

  • What is the best type of brush to use for spindles? Are the foam ones any good?

    I like the Purdy XL brush for spindles and trim. I've never used a foam brush.

  • Do you paint the spindles or stain the walnut banister first?

    I would stain first. Be sure to cover the stained wood with masking paper when you paint the spindles.

© 2017 Matt G.


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    • Matt G. profile imageAUTHOR

      Matt G. 

      6 weeks ago from United States


      It's important to do surface cleaning and sanding. Doing both prepares the surface so the primer and paint forms a stronger bond. Skip the TSP and use Dirtex powder cleaner in the box. Clean and rinse before sanding.

    • profile image

      Jenn S 

      6 weeks ago

      I'm wondering about scrubbing with the TSP first and then sanding. Why do you need both steps? Would sanding alone not prepare the surface? Is it worth the extra time and effort to do the TSP scrub?

    • Matt G. profile imageAUTHOR

      Matt G. 

      6 months ago from United States

      Latex primer usually doesn't stop tannin bleed. It also dries a lot softer than oil based primer.

    • profile image


      6 months ago

      Can you please let us know why latex primer shouldn't be used?


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