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How to Refinish Deck Railings

This Old House paint expert Mauro Henrique shows a homeowner how to breathe new life into those old, splintery handrails.

Paint expert Mauro Henrique helps a homeowner restore their beautiful backyard deck railings. After the homeowner explains that her deck is splintering, Mauro shows her how to prepare the deck for stain. The two tape off the cable railings and place tape around the composite decking before getting to work.

How to Choose the Right Stain

There are three types of stains: transparent penetrating oil, semi-transparent, and solid stain. They each protect the wood equally well. However, their lifespans vary.

For enhancing the look of beautiful wood like mahogany, transparent stains are typically best. For discolored wood or matching repairs, solid stains are best. Semi-transparent stains land somewhere in the middle.

How to Refinish Deck Railings

  1. Start by checking each post and railing for signs of rot and damage. Lightly tap the joints where the rails and posts meet and where the posts meet the deck, with the painter’s tool. If the wood seems soft or the tool sinks in, it may be time to replace the post or railing.
  2. Prep the rest of the deck for staining. Start by taping around any hardware that shouldn’t receive stain, such as metal or cable railings or decorative brackets. Wrap painter’s tape around the base of each of these pieces of hardware before wrapping them all with plastic sheeting. Lay tape on the decking boards around each post and cover the entire decking surface with drop cloths to prevent drips.
  3. Sand the entire handrail surface from top to bottom. Sand the flat posts with a random orbital sander fitted with 150 grit sandpaper. For post cables and handrails with intricate profiles, use a 100-grit sanding sponge. Sand through the old stain and down to the fresh wood. Be sure to sand with the grain.
  4. Fill any holes or small damaged areas with a wood filler mixed with sanding dust. Use the painter’s tool to push the mixture into the holes, allow the mix to dry, and sand it smooth.
  5. Stir the stain and pour it into a paint bucket or cut bucket. Use the 2.5-inch angled paintbrush to apply the stain to the freshly sanded wood. Maintain a wet edge and apply the stain with light pressure, going back and forth.
  6. Allow the stain to soak into the wood for about 20 minutes before wiping off the excess with a rag. Afterward, place the oily rags in a metal paint bucket, fill it with water, place a lid on the can, and ask your local town how to dispose of them.
  7. Remove the tape, plastic, and drop cloths and allow the railings to dry for two days before touching them.

FAQs

How do you choose the best stain for your railings?

There are three types of stains: transparent penetrating oil, semi-transparent, and solid stain. They each protect the wood equally well. However, their lifespans vary.

  • Transparent stains last for two to three years before requiring refinishing.
  • Semi-transparent stains last three to four years.
  • Solid stains last about five years.

For enhancing the look of beautiful wood like mahogany, transparent stains are typically best. For discolored wood or matching repairs, solid stains are best. Semi-transparent stains land somewhere in the middle.

How do you check for rot in a wood railing?

To check for rot, use a painter’s tool to tap the bases and corners of the deck railing. Make sure to check all of the sides.

Should I sand with or against the wood grain?

Always go with the grain of the wood when you’re sanding. This applies to painting and staining as well.

How do I dispose of used rags?

Place the oily rags in a metal paint bucket, fill it with water, place a lid on the can, and ask your local town how to dispose of them.


Resources

To check for rot, Mauro used a 5 in 1 painter’s tool from Hyde Tools to tap the bases and corners of the deck railing. To prep the deck railings, Mauro used Green Frog painters tape to cover the rail wires. To vacuum up the dust from sanding the railings, Mauro used the Festool CT 15 E HEPA dust extractor.

The penetration oil Mauro used on the deck railing was the Penofin penetration Brazilian rosewood oil finish for hardwood transparent natural finish.

All other tools used, including painter’s plastic, sanding sponges, and 2 1/2 inch synthetic angled flat brush can be found at local home centers.


Materials


Tools