Tips for Painting Staircase Spindles

Updated on November 30, 2017
Matt G. profile image

Matt is a professional painter sharing house-painting tips, related product reviews, and his experience in the trade.

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 an even 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:

  • 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.

Those two would be my personal choices when applying the material either by hand, or using an airless. Both 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.

Questions & Answers

  • 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?

    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.

  • 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.

  • 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?

    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.

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