DIY Disasters: Handrail Edition Part 2

So I was feeling pretty good about myself having rescued the maple banister from disaster, or at the very least, expensive replacement.  Since the trusty oak handrail had taken the Poly Shades stain pretty well the first time, I figured just a few more coats of that, and we would be good to go.  But as Lee Corso would say, not so fast my friend!

A few more coats of the poly shades and the handrail was still reddish with lots of wood grain showing through.  It looked nothing like the banister.

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So I whipped out my sample can of Minwax stain in Jacobean since that was what did the trick on the banister, and gave that a try.   What a mess!  I think since the handrail is basically round, I couldn’t control the stain as well and it would run and pool and generally looked awful.  Not to mention is was messy as all get out (which it really wasn’t when I did the banister, I didn’t have single issue with controlling the flow of the stain) and the wood grain was still showing through.

I tried this step over a weekend when it was fairly nice outside and I was able to set the hand rail up in the yard on saw horses and do my work.  By the end of the weekend, as the failed stain attempt was curing and not yet dry, a storm moved into our region so I had to relocate the operation to the sun porch.

By now we were running out of time to complete this project before my parents arrival, to say nothing of the fact that we had been living without a handrail for about a week. #safetylast.  So one morning before work I decided to try another approach.  I mixed a batch of roughly 2 parts stain with 1 part Poly Shades.  My hope was the gel-like consistency of the Poly Shades would alleviate my consistency problem while still providing dark, solid cover to the wood.

I mixed the batch in a plastic cup on the workbench in the garage and then brought it into the sun room and set it on the ironing board that I had in there for another project I’ve yet to tell you about. Under the ironing board and the saw horses with the handrail on top was a big canvas drop cloth.  I have absolutely no idea how it happened, but as I reached for the foam brush in the cup of stain mix, somehow I pushed the cup over causing it to fall off the ironing board away from the drop cloth and spill stain

pausing for dramatic effect, because believe you me, there was drama.

You guys, the terror.  I can still hardly talk about it.  Without thinking, I ran to the kitchen and grabbed from the door of the refrigerator four bottles of water (two flat, two sparkling) and dumped them all over where the stain was.  I guess my thought was to try and keep the stain from sinking in.  Then I ran to the basement pantry where I keep a huge thing of baking soda and I dumped baking soda all over the liquid mess.  Then I started grabbing towels and mopping everything up.  Mind you, I am home alone, with the dogs at seven in the morning.  The dogs thought I had lost my marbles and they were probably right.

I started to calm down when, in the process of mopping up the liquid, I noticed that most of it was not sticking t0/staining the floor.  In the places where I had manages to soak the stain with water right away, I was miraculously able to wipe most of the stain away.

In the areas where stain had splattered or simply didn’t come right up when wiped, I grabbed a bottle of club soda, some more baking soda , and a magic eraser and went to work scrubbing.  In about 45 minutes, I had managed to pretty much clean everything up and the floor appeared largely unhurt. I was so relieved.  Still shaking, but relieved.

Needless to say, that was the last time I tried to do anything indoors.  I waited until the following weekend when it was warm and sunny out and continued my quest to ebonize this damn hand rail.  After a coat of the stain/poly shades mix, I came to the realization that stain alone simply wasn’t going to produce the almost black look that the banister had.  Time for plan D, or E, or Z, I am not sure at this point.

This time I thinned a little bit of black paint and added it to some of the Poly Shades. Winner, winner, chicken dinner!  I finally got the dark, almost black look that the banister had.  It only took me about 7 coats/tries, oh and my sanity.  A small price to pay!

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Once the hand rail had completely dried.  I added two thin coats of sealant.  I recently bought this stuff because I read that it does not yellow over time and is eco-friendly.

I also gave the existing hardware a couple of thin coats of oil rubbed bronze spray paint.

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When everything was dry, we re-attached it the wall, stood back and said “wow, that was close!”

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I really don’t recommend you follow any of the steps that I have outlined in the last two posts.  Best practices for DIY, they are not.  But sometimes you just have to play the hand you’re dealt and luckily for us this time, it all worked out in the end.  If I could go back and do it all over again, would I chose the same course?  Oh hell no.  But live and learn and move on to the next project.

And so that’s the end of this story and the end of our stairway renovation project.  We are still saving our pennies for some expensive finishing touches to the sun room, but I have a couple of other little projects to share with you in the coming weeks.  Including why I had the ironing board in the sun room in the first place!




DIY Nightmares: Handrail Edition Part One

Back in October when we had the floors re-finished, the contract with the flooring folks didn’t include the stair banister or handrail.  No problem we thought.  We asked the guys to leave us a bit of stain, which they did no problem, and we planned to tackle these soon after.

I don’t really know what happened, I blame winter, but we didn’t get around to it until sometime after the first of the year.  The good news (we thought) was that in that time, my favorite home-bloggers, Sherry and John from Young House Love, had tackled a similar project at their house only they used a gel-type product called Minwax Poly Shades instead of straight stain.  The benefit of this product is that you don’t have to fully sand the wood before applying the gel/stain.  You just give it a light sanding and then apply like paint, no removing the excess.

Sherry and  John got great results with this product.  Their goal was to “ebonize”
the handrails so that they were almost black.  This technique is quite popular and Mark and I considered it, but ultimately we decided to be boring traditional and just stain ours to match the floors.  The Poly Shades products comes in a variety of stains so we went for the one that seems closest to our floor color; Antique Walnut.

One day, Mark applied a coat first to the hand rail and when it dried it looked nice enough but wasn’t really as dark as we wanted.  So he went and bought the “Espresso” finish and tried that and it looked great.  It matched the hardwoods and looked shiny and new.  On to the banister.

Ok here’s where things took a turn for the worse.  It turns out that for some reason, the banister is made out of maple, not oak like the hand rail.  This is baffling to us as literally every other piece of original wood in our house is oak.  Why in the world is the banister maple?  The reason we know that it wasn’t the same species as the oak is because when we applied to Poly Shades to the banister, it looked like this.

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Not. Good.  We lived with it like this for about a month or so trying to figure out what to do.  We figured that while we could sand the whole thing down to bare wood and stain it, since it’s not the same species of wood, it would still likely not look the same as the floors and the hand rail.  Plus sanding such a curvy piece (in place since we didn’t want to remove it) would be a huge time suck.

As we thought more about it, we came back around to the idea of ebonizing it.  It wasn’t our first choice, but it’s not a bad one.  I love the look of black and white and it’s a good way to hide the fact that the wood isn’t oak.  I thought with a few more coats of the Poly Shades in Espresso, which is the shade John and Sherry used to create their ebonized look, and we would be golden black.

Cue the sad trombone, after three more coats of the Poly Shades, the banister still looked like the same striped tiger mess.  One morning I was staring at it, trying to figure out what to do and I decided that we were pretty close to having to admit defeat and buy a new oak banister.  This depressed me because it would be a $200+ investment and I just didn’t want to spend the money.

But I rationalized that since we were almost to that point, there was no harm in trying one last thing.  I went out to the garage and brought back the sample sized can of Minwax Jacobean stain that we bought when we were testing stain colors for the floor.  Jacobean was the darkest sample we tested and I thought on top of the poly shades, it might appear almost back.

I just wanted to try it so I didn’t use the traditional stain method, I just got a cheap foam paint brushed and started brushing the stain on as lightly as I could.  Magically, this worked really well!  The stain did a good job of covering the stripes and making everything nice and dark and even.  It look three really light coats to cover it all.  It was a somewhat messy process and I certainly don’t recommend the technique, but it worked for me.  The only issue was that the finish was very glossy.  So I just a little fine grit steel wool to buff off the shine without taking off any of the stain.  Here is the finished product.

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I was very pleased with how we grasped victory from the jaws of defeat and was excited to apply the same technique to the hand rail so that they both were dark and bee-u-tiful.

And here is where things really started to come unhinged.  Stay tuned…

A Stairway of Heaven

I am so excited to show you guys the (almost) complete stairway.  To remind you, this is what we started with.


Talk about a snooze fest.  This is so much better.

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We’ve already detailed how we did the chair rail and panel detail here, so finishing this project up was simply hanging our IKEA Ribba frames in a combination that we thought worked with the angle of the wall and deciding what pictures to put in each.

To draft the layout, I used my InDesign software to play with different combinations.  But you don’t need this software to do it, you could do it in Excel, Word, or probably a few other programs.  I just drew rectangles that we the same size as the dimensions of the frames (that info is online and on the package.)  Pro-tip: since I suck at math and didn’t want to draw the frames to scale, I drew them to be the full size but adjusted the “view” size of the page so that it was at 15% or something; way easier than math, I tell you. Once I got a layout that I liked, I started playing around with photos in different places to see what I liked best.

Here is an example.

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Then to convert this paper to reality, we created templates of each of the frames using some old holiday wrapping paper, found the center of the wall, and placed our center frame there.  Based on the drawing, we were able to determine approximately how far apart the frames needed to be from each other, and we taped up the templates where we thought they should go.  Here’s a photo with some of the templates on the wall.

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Once we had a pattern that we liked, we started assembling and hanging the real frames.    The plan was to have wedding pictures on the right wall (if you’re looking up the stairs) and to have a gallery of photos of us and the kids on the left  We also wanted to include a couple of maps and artwork of Hawaii that we had collected over time for this project.  We ended up starting with those in the entryway, along with a couple of photos of us in Hawaii, which I think works well since you can also see the “ALOHA” letters from the entry as well.

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The other addition that we made to this space is a new light at the top of the stairs.  The old one, a shell-like thing also from IKEA, just wasn’t cutting it anymore and I thought that a pop of color was just what this stairway needed. Enter this beauty from Shades of Light.

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I love the coral color, the geometric pattern, and the fact that it was made right down the road in Richmond, VA.

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Here are a few more close ups of the frames as you go up the stairs.

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As you might be able to see, there are still a few frames left to fill.  If you’re really observant, you’ll also notice that there’s no handrail on the left hand side.  Remember at the beginning of this post when I said that the stairway was almost done?  Well in addition to waiting on a few more prints for the frames, I have to work up the courage to tell you about the disaster that was the hand rail.  Spoiler alert: it all works out in the end, but I tell ya, it was REALLY touch and go there for awhile.  Promise, I will share the whole sordid affair shortly!



Creating A More Pleasant Entry

Our front door leads to a teeny tiny “entry way.”  Really it’s so small, air quotes are needed.  I call it the “fatal funnel” which is a military term used in describing the risks associated with entering a dwelling through a narrow passage.  Lots of opportunity for damage.  Our entry is the same way.  Between the small space, the position of the coat closet and it’s out-swinging door, and two large dogs who insist on “greeting” (and by “greeting, I mean barking their full faces off) and then sniffing everyone as soon as they walk through the door, it’s a bit cramped to say the least.


I feel like the dark color of the built-in bookshelves combined with the big “ALOHA” sign at the top, help take guests eyes up and out of the small, cramped entry, but I wanted to do more.  My thinking is basically, “ignore the dog in crotch and look at all the pretty, interesting things!”


Since your straight-ahead view is of this, until-recently, very boring staircase to the second floor, I thought some architectural accents and artwork would go a long way to elevate the immediate “feel” of the house.  I don’t really think you’re going to completely ignore the dogs, but I am allowed my dreams.

Before we started this project the stairway looked like this.


You may recall that I started this project by painting over the tan walls with white and then silver/grey paint.  Next Mark installed a chair rail at 34″ from the floor to the top of the rail.

This was fairly easy to do.  We bought this standard chair rail at Home Depot, measured the height from the floor at the bottom and top of the stairwell and then popped a chalk line to create the correct angle.  Image

Mark used a 4’ level as a plumb to identify where the level floor space, at the top and bottom of the stairs, and the slope of the stairwell intersect. Next, he used a protractor to get a rough estimate of the angle the rail.  Then he divided that number by two to get the proper cut angle.

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Once the chair rail was up, it was time to decide on the materials and pattern of the detail below it.  I found this picture from Centsational Girl on Pinterest and I liked the look of the rectangular boxes.


Finding the right moudling to use, however, was a bit of a Goldilocks process.  The first one we tried was too big.


It stuck out too far from the wall and was too “chucky” for our small, narrow staircase.  However, the second one we tried was too small.


It just wasn’t dramatic enough.  Luckily, the third try was the charm.  It was just the right about of width, depth and the less scientific heft that we were looking for.


Creating the rectangles would require a good deal of both math and ingenuity.  Once again, I am simply amazed at Mark’s ability to think through a problem and come up with a solution.

Mark scribed lines 3” above the baseboard and 3” below the chair rail. The space between the scribed lines was about 21”. Mark thought that square boxes would look the best considering the area so he made the first “box” on the wall 21×21”. He started at the top of the stairs because the wall started at the same length there. The 21×21” box was a little too wide to make a perfect square are the top of the stairs so it had to be angled to start the decent down. Following the same formula as the chair rail, each angle is halved to create the corners. His largest issue was that his miter saw has a maximum cutting angle of 45 degrees. The sharp angles needed to be cut at 115 degrees. To make these cuts be placed a square against the rail of the saw to offset the angle by 90 degrees allowing him to make a 115 degree cut.



Once all the moulding was complete it was time to fill nail holes, caulk and paint.  Event though I had painted the wall white back in February, we gave everything two thin coats of the BM Simply White in semi-gloss.  When we were done, we really love the way it looked.


Mark made the decision to make some of the rectangles “custom” sizes.  Like this.


I am so glad he chose to do this.  I think the “irregular” shapes make it look more custom.


As you can see from a couple of the photos above, we have also started on part three of this little makeover; the frame wall.  We are finishing that project up this week and I will be back soon to tell you how that went and provide the big stairway reveal.

I hope everyone had a great weekend!  Ours was FULL of DIY but we also made it to the Nats game on Saturday night.  It was great to be back at the ballpark after the loooong winter!