Restoring the banister, part one

Stripping and restoring our banister and handrail on the staircase was one of the projects I most wanted to tackle when we bought the house. I’m a sucker for unpainted, stained wood trim. I love it. Painted trim makes me sad, especially in old houses like ours. I wanted to remove the 8 coats of paint from our banister and handrail from the moment we bought this house.

A friend loaned me a heat gun while we were in the midst of full-on remodeling back in November, and I started testing it out on the handrail. It worked pretty good on the big flat areas, which meant we moved into the house with an unsightly half-stripped, partially sanded handrail. I had been wanting to tackle the rest of the stripping, but with likely lead paint, I was waiting for Rachel to be gone for a few days so as to avoid the hazardous fumes and lead paint chips. (Once you get it hot and peel it off, it hardens pretty quick and crumbles to a million tiny pieces if you step on it.)

See pics below of the day we started work, and then after I half-stripped the handrail before move-in.

Day 0: Front entry east
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Rachel went out to Chicago this last week for work so I fired up the heat gun and got started. In about two hours, I was able to strip almost all of the paint from the main column in the entryway. From the looks of things, everything has been stained or varnished maybe 2-3 times, and then painted at least 3 times. I found a coat of tan paint under at least 2 coats of white paint. And under that, there were at least two different colors of red/brown that look like stain or varnish. That will bubble up with the heat gun and can be scraped away somewhat, but not totally.

Which means that I’ll have to go back and sand the entire thing when I get done. Which is going to be the most time-consuming part of this project, hands down.

For the process with the heat gun, I pick out a few inches square, focus the heat gun on that area until the paint starts bubbling, move a few inches in another direction and repeat this just a few times until I have about 3-5 inches bubbling. Then I take a 1-1.5 inch paint scraper and just scrape the paint off. Usually it gets stuck to the scraper and I pull it off with my gloves or wipe it on my pant legs. (I forgot about step 1, which is plug in the heat gun in in our kitchen with new electrical, because it blows a fuse on any other plug in the house. Which is, by the way, rigged on one long series circuit into one fuse.)

Sunday before Rachel got in at 4, I started stripping the stair side of the handrail (the hall side is stripped up just a few feet from November, but not the rest.) I got it done all the way up to the column at the upstairs landing, which is where I’m planning on stopping for now. After picking her up, I got out the orbital sander and did all the wide flat areas I could get to on the downstairs column, and then used the block sander on the other areas.

My arms quickly ran outta juice, so i called it a day. The next challenge will be sanding all the bevels and edges that no block or mechanical sander can get to. It’ll probably have to be done by hand, though I’m going to try out the small Dremel I got for Christmas from my brother in law.

Here’s where we stand now. Left is after the first round of stripping with the heat gun Thursday; right is Sunday afternoon after the first big go at sanding. I’m feeling optimistic about getting this project done before we go to the beach in June. And as my father in law said, if I can get this all done right, it’ll be a “showstopper” for the entryway.

But there’s a long way to go yet.

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