Whew! After 30+ hours of intense labor, it is done. Ladies and gentlemen, friends and fans, we are proud to announce the rebirth of our foyer.
Where to begin? First, I must explain the problem. The staircase was natural blonde oak. Dated and dreadful. NOT the first impression I ever wanted to give my guests. What was a girl to do? Replacing it with European style iron railing was the cost of an automobile. Fixing it seemed too daunting. Then I saw Rhoda at Southern Hospitality blog stained her entire oak staircase a lovely dark shade, from top to bottom, and it planted a big seed in my inquisitive brain. If Rhoda could do it, surely I could too.
That same week I was watching one of my favorite classics ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ with Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor. If you can take your eyes off either of them, which is almost impossible since they’re both practically perfect physical specimens, you notice that they frequently descend the incredibly beautiful staircase of Big Daddy’s plantation home. When I saw it’s espresso dark railing, white balusters and base, it was true love. I had to have it. So yet another seed was planted. After Rhoda, Paul and Liz, I was completely inspired. Off to the home improvement store I went, daring myself to do the impossible: transform the oak monstrosity into something sophisticated and stylish.
That said, let’s begin. Here is the before and after:
Update: the wallpaper was later changed to full white picture frame wainscotting after we added wood steps a year later – full reveal here:
How We Went From Ordinary Oak to an Espresso Finish:
Step One: After all the prep work, taping off the balusters and laying down carpet protection, I stripped the existing varnish off the staircase with Klean-Strip. It was nasty, smelly full-of-chemicals stuff. I had to ask Mr. CG to keep the kids away for an entire day. I wore a mask, and the fumes gave me a bad headache. And I still had to sand afterwards. (See this follow up post on why I now use Citrustrip instead).
Step Two: Sand, sand, sand, then sand again. I spent about 4 hours just sanding until my fingers cramped and refused another stroke.
Step Three: I cleaned off the sanding residue with wet wipes, then stained the upper hand rail with Minwax Gel Stain in Walnut. This is a wonderful product which I had used before to redo the highboy dresser in the entry. It’s not Minwax’s fault that I wasn’t satisfied. It’s just the nature of oak. It’s such a grainy wood. When the stain was applied to the oak, it gave me too much of a stripe-like effect. Darker was much better, but the product only took me half way to the look I desired.
Step Four: I did something unconventional – I glazed the wood with two coats of semi-opaque Burnt Umber acrylic craft paint. Yes, you heard me right. Craft paint. I know purist wood refinishers are absolutely appalled, but I’m telling you, the semi-opaque craft paint filled in the gaps and gave me just the espresso finish I wanted. See the difference after one coat?
Yessir. These were the three products that gave me the look I desired. Minwax Gel Stain in Walnut, Burnt Umber semi opaque craft paint, and Minwax Wipe On Poly.
They gave me this finish:
Hello gorgeous !
Using the glazing effect with the semi-opaque watered down craft paint (about 1 drop of water to 1 tsp of paint) helped to preserve the visible grain of the wood.
Step Five: With the help of a dear friend, and professional painter, we primed the bottom of the stairs with oil based primer, then finished it with two coats of ‘Swiss Coffee’ oil based white paint for durability. Thanks Mike !
Step Six: To the upper railing only, I applied one coat of Minwax Wipe On Polyurethane. This took maybe 20 minutes total. Pour a few drops on a sponge, wipe on, and you’re done. It was dry overnight, apply two coats!
I hope you’re all encouraged to take action, and transform your oak into something classic and wonderful. Yes you can!
For the full story on how we ripped out the carpet and installed hardwood, look here.
Update March 2012: The staircase railing has held up all these years even with two kids and their friends up and down those stairs, it works!