After just a short 14 months, the bannister and railing project is complete

And you know what, you could justifiably call it a full year and a half from start to finish on this project.

Because I started stripping the handrail during Thanksgiving 2010 when our family was here after a friend loaned me his heat gun and I was curious to see how it would work and wanted to see if the railing would strip. And I have zero patience. Other than the walls, that was probably my first experience stripping paint. In just a few minutes, I had the easiest part of the handrail stripped and after some sanding. That was easy, I thought! Oh wait, the rest of it isn’t flat and it’s filled with nooks and crannies. So it mostly stayed looking like this until April 2011.

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In April 2011, I started stripping the bannister while Rachel was out of town for a work trip. I made a bit more progress and got one side of the handrail mostly stripped, as well as almost all of the bannister itself. I didn’t get all the stain and varnish off, though, so it looked half stained (or half stripped, depending on your point of view, I guess) for the last 14 months, which drove Rachel crazy. But sadly, we got used to it.

The second photo below is how it’s looked every day since last April.

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Finishing this project has been on my must-do pre-baby list for a few months, though I’d been dreading it. Tedious, mind-numbing work that would take me hours upon hours — about two full weekends working nonstop Saturday and Sunday, which also meant a solid week or two of dust and mess in the house.

That dusty mess is the other reason we wanted to get this done before the baby gets here. It generates a lot of dust and the paint likely has lead in it and it’s best to get it all over with and cleaned up and everything wiped down before there are tiny lungs in the house.

So as I mentioned earlier this week, I called the guy who refinished my floors to come out and finish what I started and get the entire thing stripped down and refinished. They came on Monday and basically knocked out all of the sanding in one day, with four guys working for about 9 hours. Here’s how things looked during the day on Monday. Check out the pile of dust and paint shavings in the corner and on the stairs.

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They got the stain on by the end of the day on Monday and came back Tuesday to touch up a few places and put on two coats of water-based polyurethane in a satin finish. Water-based poly works well for a surface like this that’s not going to see very high traffic and won’t wear away. (Most people use oil-based on floors.) We opted to use the same stain color (Minwax Provincial) as we did on the stairs and downstairs floors in an attempt to match the color. It didn’t match up exactly, mostly due to the different types of wood, but I opted to keep the darker color — it’s a nice contrast with the floor and will look really good with white spindles once I paint those, hopefully this weekend.

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I think the newel post turned out to be hickory or cedar, which made the stain difficult to even out. I like how it turned out with darker spots in places. And the railing itself is mahogany, based on the tight little grain pattern and what I know from years of selling acoustic guitars. The spindles are cheap pine, which looks like junk when you stain it, which is ok, because I’ve been planning to paint them white all along. Reminds me of the look of wood against white paint that I like on staircases where the treads are stained and the risers are white. Very classy.

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The only thing that didn’t go according to plan is the lower rail below the spindles. You can see that they stripped it as best as they could, but it has two sets of grooves that run the length of it and that were filled with caulk or filler of some kind that made stripping all the way down to bare wood nearly impossible. So that whole bottom rail will be painted white as well, which I think will work out fine. Here’s a closer detail of that area.

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The underside of the handrail has the same problem, so the stain goes to the edge of the spindles, and then a space in between every spindle will be painted too. That should barely be noticeable.

So after only a year and a half, our bannister and stairs are the kind of showstopper that we always knew they could be one day. Honestly, this is the project I’ve wanted to have done almost more than anything else. I’m a sucker for unpainted woodwork, and I could totally see the railing paint-free with a nice stain in my head from the moment we first bought the house and started working. Which is probably why I started a project I had no intention of even finishing at the time. Like I just wanted to know that it was possible…

But at long last, it’s all refinished. And once I paint the spindles, it’ll look really sharp.

Here’s the entryway, then and now from about November 2010 to June 2012. Hard to believe that it’s come this far.

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Since November 2011 in the entryway, we have: stripped the walls of all paint and wallpaper, taken up the carpet, removed the popcorn covered plaster ceiling and put up new drywall, refinished the floor and stairs, painted the front door red, repainted the dining room light fixture and moved it in here, installed a skylight over the stairs and hung a load of pictures on the stairway wall.

All that’s left now is to install a new smoke detector and do a little moulding and trim work to cover up that little piece on the ceiling that’s actually the bottom edge of the upstairs railing.

Update: I would be remiss if I didn’t give a plug for the great crew who did the work. Neftali Florian refinished all the floors in our house back in November/December 2010 for about half the price of the fancy company with their names on a fleet of trucks, as well as our awful kitchen floors that those same “pros” said were beyond saving. He and his bros knocked this out in two days for a very fair price. Give him a call at 703-843-1289 or neftali.florian@yahoo.com. He does tile, floors, moulding, and pretty much everything you can think of.

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