How to Paint Outdoor Metal Railings and Light Poles

Updated on June 25, 2017


The weather can take a toll on outdoor painted metal, particularly metal railings and light poles. So, it becomes necessary every so often to apply a fresh coat of paint to these items. I tackled this project myself recently and ended up with two light poles, a railing, and a garage light that now look good as new. Below are step-by-step instructions on how I did it along with what worked and what didn’t.

Before | Source
Worked | Source
Worked | Source
Worked | Source
Didn't work.
Didn't work. | Source
Wear these.
Wear these. | Source
Wear these.
Wear these. | Source

Step 1: Sanding

If the paint on your metal is chipped or rusty, it’s important 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 off, wear old clothes and buy a bag of disposable gloves. You will get very dirty. You may also want to consider protective eye wear 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.

First, I filled a small bucket of water and added about a 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.

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 helped me remove some wallpaper a few months earlier. After a few hours of brushing and scraping at the paint, I had made very little progress. I even wiped the area down with mineral spirits and paint thinner to no avail.

Next, I read up on a drill bit that you can buy with a sander attached. So, I purchased a small box of these bits, but they would not stay on the drill very well. I ended up using the drill bit by hand, and this worked, but the piece of sandpaper was so small that it was hard to work with. So, I decided that regular sand paper would work 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 took a lot of elbow grease to work. The sandpaper was effective but wore down very 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 it until the top layer of paint was smooth and left the rest of the layers as is.

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 can see a little bit of layering in the places that were chipped, but it’s not very noticeable unless you look at it close up.

Half-sanded railing.
Half-sanded railing. | Source
Fully sanded railing.
Fully sanded railing. | Source
Paint roller - not recommended.
Paint roller - not recommended. | Source
Small brushes for thin areas.
Small brushes for thin areas. | Source
Flat enamel with sponge brush.
Flat enamel with sponge brush. | Source

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 hose when I watered 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. You can find it in the paint aisle. Look for outdoor enamel made for metal and furniture. It comes in a variety of colors and glosses. I bought a flat, black paint made by Valspar and bought the quart size which turned out to be way too much, even after applying several coats to all four pieces. I laid down drop cloths around my railing so that I wouldn’t get any paint on my front steps, and I was ready to go.

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 streaks or drips.

The light poles were trickier. First, I tried to use a small paint roller, but it coated the pole with too much enamel at a time. So, I switched back to the sponge brushes. For the small areas, I had to use very thin paint brushes to tediously paint around the glass and in between round areas. I also had to balance on chairs and a stepstool 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 are prepared to hold the can in one hand and paintbrush in the other. This would be a great time to find a helper to assist you if you haven’t already.

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 the second layer. So, on the next dry day, I applied a third coat, and that seemed to cover all of the areas very well.

Fully painted railing.
Fully painted railing. | Source
Painted light pole.
Painted light pole. | Source
Second painted light pole.
Second painted light pole. | Source
Painted garage light.
Painted garage light. | Source


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 pop up 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.


So, to recap, here are my tips for painting outdoor metal:

  • Wear old clothes and protect your eyes and mouth from paint dust.
  • Clean your area with vinegar water before both sanding and painting.
  • Use 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 with the low temperatures are over 50 degrees and there is no threat of rain.
  • Invest in a ladder if trying to reach a high place.
  • Take your time and catch any drips.
  • Be prepared to put a lot of time into sanding and at least three days of painting.

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!

Questions & Answers


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      • FlourishAnyway profile image

        FlourishAnyway 8 months ago from USA

        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.