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Tips for Painting Staircase Spindles

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Matt is a professional painter who owns and operates his own painting business, specializing in interior and exterior house painting.

Staircase spindles and railing I painted.

Staircase spindles and railing I painted.

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 that can dilute the paint and reduce 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 should also 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 flat spindles, but not rounded spindles. Electric sanders usually won't fit in between spindles anyway because the space is too narrow. The best way to sand rounded spindles and railings is with the 3M Softback sanding sponges. These sanding pads are my favorite because you can fold them and wrap them around the spindles for easy sanding.

The best grit is 80 to 100. Coarser grits will get the sanding done faster. Use finer grits between coats of primer and paint. Another option is to buy circular-shaped sandpaper, designed for spindles, but the Softback sponges I recommended will last a lot longer, so you can reuse them for other projects.

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.

An 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.

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If you plan to coat the surface with a white pigmented lacquer, instead of paint, using a cup sprayer, a primer surfacer (lacquer) should 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 as 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 four-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 on 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

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

Answer: 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.

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

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

Question: what type of paint do you recommend for the stair treads??

Answer: A durable enamel would work well on the stair treads. The acrylic-alkyd ProClassic from Sherwin Williams, or Emerald urethane. Semi-gloss, or a gloss finish, is good. If the wood isn't already painted, you'll of course have to prime the treads first with a quality oil-based primer.

Question: 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?

Answer: 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.

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

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

Question: Do you paint the spindles or stain the walnut banister first?

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

Question: I am interested in painting over an existing stained and lacquered finish on staircase spindles and handrails. It has been stained a rich, red color and is sealed with a lacquer. I'm not sure what the best process is with regards to painting it a white color. Can you offer any advice?

Answer: Clean and sand everything thoroughly to dull the glossy lacquer. Then prime and paint. You can also use de-glosser to dull the lacquer, but sanding the surface thoroughly will achieve the same result without nasty chemicals.

Question: I've just had a new banister built that I will paint. Hand rails and newels are unprimed poplar. The spindles are square primed poplar. I am going to brush/roll everything white, probably glass too but the handrail will be a darker color. What would you use for primer and color?

Answer: Use oil primer. I like Cover Stain oil primer. It seals the wood and serves as a good bond coat for your paint. I use Sherwin Williams paint, but whatever you choose, use quality paint. Don't use cheap paint for your project.

Question: I am staining 200+ new spindles for an outside deck (that will be stained before construction). Should I use an HVLP or airless sprayer? They will be sprayed in a driveway where overspray is not a problem but I don't know if the tip of an airless can go small enough not to waste a lot of stainer. The spindles are 1"x1" around.

Answer: An airless is fine. Just turn the pressure down low and use a small tip. For spindles, use a 110, or a 112 tip. Graco has green fine finish tips that are available in those sizes, but you first need to check the label of the product you're using for the recommended airless tip size. If the tip is too big, there will be too much overspray and wasted material. Too small of a tip will cause clogs.

Question: I am using an HVLP to spray SW Extreme Bond Primer on metal chairs that have been painted. I have been told not to dilute the primer much but it is extremely thick. Do you have a recommended dilution for this product using an HVLP?

Answer: I don't, no. Extreme Bond Primer is too thick for a cup sprayer. You would have to thin the primer too much, potentially comprising the product.

Question: What would be a good primer for spindles previously stained?

Answer: BIN shellac primer, or Cover Stain oil primer, both by Zinsser, are good choices. BIN is thinner and sprays really nice with an airless sprayer, or an HVLP set up. It splatters like crazy when brushing and rolling, but dries faster than Cover Stain. The smell goes away faster with a window open. It really depends on how you're applying it. I would personally mask off the area and spray the spindles with BIN. The sprayed finish of BIN is much smoother and nicer looking than oil. Don't use a latex primer.

© 2017 Matt G.


Matt G. (author) from United States on June 23, 2020:


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.

Jenn S on June 22, 2020:

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. (author) from United States on January 27, 2020:

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

Kusuma on January 27, 2020:

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

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