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How to Repaint a Rusty Metal Hand Rail

Ask This Old House painter Mauro Henrique helps a homeowner clean up and repaint a rusty metal railing.

The steel used in “wrought-iron” railings is very susceptible to rust. The good news is that with a little elbow grease and the right coatings, your railing can look just like new again.

Practice Safety When Testing for Lead

Before you begin, test the railing paint for lead with a kit such as 3M LeadCheck, which is sold at paint stores and home centers. If you find a lead layer, don’t proceed until you’ve read the EPA’s online guide “Steps to Lead Safe Renovation, Repair, and Painting” and have put into place the protections it stipulates for safeguarding yourself and your home.

Before You Get Started

If the railing is lead-free (like the one I’m working on above), spread drop cloths over the stairs and nearby areas to capture the paint chips.

You don’t need power tools or chemicals to remove paint from metal. A paint scraper works just fine on the flat railing sections. On curved sections and areas a scraper can’t reach, a stiff-bristled wire brush will do the trick. When all the loose paint is off, go over the entire railing with 150-grit sandpaper. Wherever paint remains, sand its edges smooth with the bare metal. Then replace any badly rusted fasteners with ones made of stainless steel.

Mauro Henrique paints a metal hand rail
After sanding and priming the railing, Mauro Henrique rolls on two coats of a direct-to-metal alkyd enamel paint, an industrial coating that prevents rust. Despite the name, direct-to-metal paints perform best when applied over an oil-based primer.
Colleen McQuaid

Steps for Repainting a Metal Hand Rail

  1. If the railings were installed in 1978 or earlier, start by testing the railings for lead paint. Follow the instructions on the lead test.
    a. If the railing tests positive for lead paint, start by protecting the work area with tough, plastic drop cloths.
    b. Wear a mask that is rated for lead paint, gloves, and a protective coverall suit. Then, follow the additional steps below.
  2. If the railings don’t test positive for lead, begin prepping the work area by placing drop cloths underneath the railings. This is a very messy job.
  3. Using the metal scraper, scrape as much of the metal railings as possible to remove the rust and any peeling paint.
  4. For non-flat surfaces that the metal scraper can’t reach, switch to a wire brush to remove the rest of the rust.
  5. Once the bulk of the rust and peeling paint have been removed, clean up the surfaces with a dry scrubbing pad.
  6. Lightly sand the metal railings with 150-grit sandpaper.
  7. Wipe down the railings with a rag dampened with mineral spirits.
    a. If the railings tested positive for lead paint, dispose of the drop cloths and the protective suits in a heavy-duty trash bag.
    b. Seal up the trash bag with duct tape. This can then be safely disposed of.
  8. Pour the primer into the paint tray and then apply the primer to the railings using the paint roller. For hard-to-reach areas, switch to a paintbrush.
  9. Allow the primer to dry.
  10. Apply the DTM paint as a top coat using the same technique as before. Apply two coats.

Resources:

Mauro suggests that when disturbing any surface in a house, it’s important to test for lead. For this project, Mauro used Lead Check Instant Lead Test, which is manufactured by 3M.

The other materials Mauro used to prep the railing, including the scraper, wire brush, and sandpaper, can all be found at home centers.

To prime the railing, Mauro used Rusty Metal Primer, which is manufactured by Rust-Oleum. The final two coats of paint were Corotech High Performance acrylic gloss DTM paint in Black V330-80, which is manufactured by Benjamin Moore.

Expert assistance with this segment was provided by Mauro’s Painting.


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