What Is The Best Finish For Handrails?

A handrail adds aesthetic value to a staircase. Its primary function is to provide support when walking up and down the stairs. The most common handrail material used is wood.

However, wear and tear make the wooden handrail lose its shine and smooth finish. What is the best finish then to keep the handrail long-lasting? We have done our research to answer this question for you.

The best finish for wooden handrails is wood stain. It brings out the beauty of the wood and comes in different shades to match the interiors. Wood stain also is durable, so you get a handrail that will withstand constant use.

Keep reading this post to learn the benefits of wood staining the handrail. Here, we will also share the steps to apply the wood stain and make it last longer. With that said, let's dive right in!

painting terrace railings with a blue paintbrush by hand, Painting terrace railings, What Is The Best Finish For Handrails

Wood Stain Versus Painting

The handrail's contribution to your interiors may be overlooked.

However, this is one way to improve the overall appearance of your staircase. This becomes more important when the staircase is a focal point of your house's entrance.

Using wood for the handrail lends a more homey feel to the staircase. But one might wonder which is the better finishing option for the handrail.

Wood Stain

Wood stain penetrates the wood to create a more natural look by showing the material's grain. One can stain the wood lighter or darker while keeping the integrity of the natural wood appeal.

It also protects the wood to keep it durable, especially since this is one of the high-traffic areas of the house.


Some homeowners prefer to paint on the wood. Paint gives protection to the wooden handrails as well.

The advantage of using paint is the variety of colors to choose from. Match it with the baluster or make it stand out with a pop of color. However, paint can chip after a few years, unlike wood stains.

What Is The Best Wood Stain?

A male hand, holding a large paintbrush, is applying stain to a weathered and cleaned treated pine deck railing. The background is sunlit trees and bushes.

A wood stain is either water-based or oil-based. Choosing which one is best depends on the kind of wood used for the handrail. Whichever you choose helps bring out the beauty of the wood and gives a smooth finish.

Water-Based Wood Stain

If you want to stain your handrail in a short amount of time, a water-based wood stain will do the trick. The finishing is completed in a couple of hours as it is a quick-drying stain. It is also easy to clean.

Water-based wood stain is suitable for the interior and exterior as it offers UV protection.

Prolonged exposure to the sun still allows the color to stay longer. Using it on your interiors is also good as it does not have a strong odor.

See this water-based wood stain on Amazon.

Oil-based Wood Stain

For interior handrails, an oil-based wood stain is a way to go. It lasts longer with less sun exposure. The application also takes less time because the wood absorbs the oil-based stain quicker than its water-based version.

However, the oil-based stain takes about 48 hours to dry.

Clean-up needs more elbow grease as removing oil from the tools and floor drips needs a solvent or paint thinner. This kind of stain also leaves a strong odor because it contains volatile organic compounds.

Check this oil-based wood stain on Amazon.

Materials You'll Need For Wood Staining

Wood staining can change the staircase's appearance with minimal work needed. Prepare the following materials required before you embark on this project:

  • Sandpaper or power sander
  • Pre-Stain wood conditioner
  • Tack cloth
  • Lint-free cloth
  • Drip cloth
  • Stain applicator
  • Mineral spirits

How Do You Apply Wood Stain To A Handrail?

close up of a hand painting with brush

Handrails finishing entails wood preparation and application of the right stain. The process will need a day or two to finish, depending on the length of the handrail.

Here are the steps for applying the wood stain:

1. Sanding

Unfinished wood has to be sanded before the wood stain is applied. Sanding also helps remove pre-existing stains or varnish.

Preparing the wood by sanding helps it to absorb the stain better for an even finish.

Use sandpaper with 120, 180, or 220 grits to manually remove the old finish or smoothen new wood. Another option is to use a power sander. This tool makes sanding easier and quicker.

Remember to sand along the grain, whether doing it manually or with a power tool. Once done, remove the dust using a tack cloth.

Check this sandpaper pack on Amazon.

2. Condition The Wood

Cherry, pine, or other soft and porous wood must be conditioned before the wood staining process. Doing this will improve the absorption and lessen the number of coats for the stain.

A wood conditioner lessens the possibility of uneven coloring from the stain. In short, the handrail will not have blotches of darker or lighter stains.

Check this wood conditioner on Amazon.

3. Read The Product Instructions

Check the instructions for the wood stain properly before use. Wood stain containers should not be shaken to avoid air bubbles on the handrail.

However, pigment or dyes can sink into the bottom of the container. Stir it with a stick to evenly distribute the color before application.

4. Test The Wood Stain

Different wood species will not react the same way to the stain. Try the stain in a small piece of wood to check if you got the right dye.

This also helps to see the shade of the stain before applying it on the full handrail.

5. Wood Stain Application

The kind of wood stain will dictate which tool to use for application. Oil-based stain is best used with a paintbrush or a clean cloth. For water-based stains, use a foam or bristle brush.

Apply the wood stain towards the direction of the wood. Ensure the application is even so the color is consistent on the entire handrail.

To protect the floor from any stain drips, place old cloth or rags under the section where the stained wood is directly located.

6. Wipe Off Excess Stain

painting terrace railings with a blue paintbrush by hand, Painting terrace railings

Water-based wood stain dries quickly, so remove excess stain within 2 minutes of application. This allows the stain not to be too dark or have blotches.

Oil-based wood stains can sit for up to 15 minutes before any excess is removed.

However, note that letting it stay for 15 minutes will make the wood darker. Wipe away the excess stain with a microfiber cloth so no solid particles can stick to the wood.

Check this microfiber cleaning cloth on Amazon.

7. Allow Wood To Dry

Let the wood dry after the wood stain is applied. The length of time depends on the kind of wood stain used. Water-based wood stains need 24 to 48 hours of curing.

However, if oil-based is used, drying takes up to 72 hours.

8. Clean Up

Clean the brushes and cloth while letting the wood dry. Do this right away to avoid stains hardening on the tools used. Water-based wood stains can easily be washed off with water and soap. 

Use mineral spirits for stain applicator used with oil-based stains.

See this mineral spirit paint thinner on Amazon.

How To Protect The Wood Stain On Your Handrails

Home new construction staining with stains staircase with wood railings and hardwood floors.

Polyurethane is a clear finishing material used after the wood stain application. This top coating protects the wood from damage with constant use.

Applying polyurethane makes the wood stain last longer. It reduces scratches and damage to the wood as well. The handrail has to be completely dry before polyurethane application. This ensures the sealer will adhere to the wood.

You may also sand the wood again after the first application of the polyurethane dries up.

Remove the dust from the sanding process and apply the second coat of the sealer. This will result in a smoother handrail.

Check this clear protective finish on Amazon.

To Finish Up

A handrail with a wood stain protects it from scratches, scuffs, and damage. It also gives the wood a smooth and polished finish. Follow the tips in this article to help you have a longer-lasting wooden handrail.

For more house maintenance concerns, here are some articles you can read:

What Kind Of Paint & Finish To Use On Handrails? [Inc. Tips & Tricks]

What Height Should Handrail Be On Stairs?

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