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A full guide to wooden handrail finishing and care | How to treat, paint and clean a wooden handrail

While staircase handrails fulfil simple functional purposes, they also serve as an eye-catching and stylish piece for your stairway. They can often be one of the first things people notice when they enter your home. It is therefore important to take good care of your handrails to keep your staircase looking in top condition. When buying wooden handrails, you will likely want to know how to care for and treat handrails to keep them in top condition.

Here, we provide a complete guide to caring for and treating wooden handrails, as well as a guide to painting wooden handrails.

Click on one of the links below to jump to that section:

Read the benefits of choosing a wooden handrail over other materials.

Find out wooden handrails are easily maintainable, and which types of wood are the most durable.

Read the benefits of painting or staining a handrail.

Read our guide on how to clean a wooden handrail, including useful tips and advice.

We answer common queries on treating and caring for wooden handrails.

Why choose a wooden handrail over other materials?

Wooden handrails offer a classic, traditional look - which means they never go out of style. They have several benefits, making them a popular choice with homeowners looking to update their stairway:

  • They are typically easy to install
  • Wooden handrails can take a number of finishes, including stains, oils wax and paint
  • You can choose between woods of different shades and tones, as well as varying textures
  • They are available in a range of prices depending on the type of wood, allowing you to find an option that suits your budget
  • Wood is a durable option, requiring little maintenance
  • They are available in a variety of styles and designs
  • Wood works well with other materials in your balustrade, such as metal and glass.

If you’re planning to fit a new wooden handrail then read our guide to handrail height building regulations here.

White Oak Handrails ideal for Glass, Spindles or for Wall Mounting

Are wooden handrails easy to maintain?

Wooden handrails are a fairly durable material option, although they do require occasional care and maintenance. Some types of woods are more durable than others. Oak, for example, is one of the most durable options of wood. You can find out more about cleaning and treating an oak handrail here.

Hardwood is also typically a very durable choice for wooden handrails. Hemlock; although a softwood, will take a stain easily with the minimum of colour distortion and does not split or break when being worked with. Being less brittle makes it stronger than many hardwoods and it is a reliable timber if you wish to paint the handrail.

Treatex Hardwax Oil is a popular option that can be used to maintain wooden handrails, which is quick-drying and hardwearing. Hard wax oils contain a blend of oils and waxes designed to protect wood including linseed oil, sunflower oil and beeswax. Applying hard wax oil makes wooden handrails stain-resistant and gives a lovely smooth finish to the surface.

Are you looking for the ideal wooden handrail for your staircase? Shop our full selection of wooden handrails here.

Should you paint or stain your handrail?

You can represent your personal style and interior design preferences through painting your handrail. For example, you may want to paint your handrail a vibrant colour or perhaps a more neutral shade to ensure your wooden stairs match your home interior. You may also be renovating your entire staircase, and may want your handrails to match your new spindles – for example. White and black are common colour options for painting handrails, and can provide a classic, timeless aesthetic. If you don’t want to change the colour of your handrail but want to provide protection and an attractive finish - applying oil, wax and/or varnish will add a layer of protection from the natural oils on people’s hands, which could discolour the wood. However, bear in mind that staining tends to last for longer and be more resilient over time.

If you are choosing an oil finishing, ensure you choose something that’s formulated for use on natural wood, as this will contain all the necessary preservatives. For example – a thin coat of our Treatex Natural Hardwax Oil Ultra can be applied to unfinished timber, before sealing with Clear Treatex Hardwax Oil. It is important that only a thin coat of Treatex Hardwax Natural Oil is applied to the wood.

Are you finishing an oak handrail? Read our full guide to cleaning and treating oak handrails here.

How to paint a wooden handrail

Before painting a wooden handrail, it is important to first prepare it to be painted.

We recommend painting your wooden handrail with semi-gloss paint – a semi-gloss finish tends to be harder wearing than other paints.

Paint your handrail with a clean 2-inch trim paint brush. Allow the paint to dry to the touch, and then apply a second coat.

Next, remove the painter’s tape from the balusters and the wall before the second coat dries completely to avoid pulling the paint from the handrail after it dries.

How to clean a handrail

What causes wooden handrails to get dirty?

Wooden handrails can develop a sticky texture, and factors ranging from dirty hands, body oils, and even using the wrong cleaning products can lead to stickiness. Build-up of dirt and dust overtime, and children touching a handrail with sticky hands are also common reasons for dirty wooden handrails. Since the stair handrails are used nearly every time a person goes up or down the stairs, it's important to keep them clean and as hygienic as possible.

Cleaning a handrail

Although handrails are fairly easy to clean, you should bear in mind what finish has been used first. For example, you can clean waxed oak with warm, soapy water and a microfibre cloth - do not scrub wax finishes as they can wear away over time. If your handrail has a wax finish, then you could apply another coat of wax after cleaning it to give it a lovely shine.

You can clean varnished wood with wood cleaners or a mixture of oil and vinegar (one cup of good-quality oil mixed with a tablespoon of white vinegar; this can kill bacteria while keeping the wood healthy).

If your handrail has an oil finish, you can clean your oak handrail with either oil-based soaps or a mixture of oil and vinegar, as described above. With any cleaning method; you should be careful not to be harsh or too rough when cleaning the wood.

To find out more about handrail care, visit the page Your Guide to Handrails.

Treating wooden handrails

Most wooden handrails are supplied unfinished, which gives you the perfect opportunity to pick the perfect stain or varnish to bring out the natural beauty of the wood and prevent the wood from drying out. Alternatively, you can paint your handrail a vibrant colour to show off your personal style. You could leave your wooden handrail unfinished, but applying oil, wax and/or varnish will add a layer of protection from the natural oils on people’s hands, which could discolour the wood.

Here are some popular methods of treating your handrail:

Hard wax oil

At Jackson’s we recommend applying Treatex Hardwax Oil to wooden handrails which is quick-drying and hardwearing. Hard wax oils contain a blend of oils and waxes designed to protect wood including linseed oil, sunflower oil and beeswax. Applying hard wax oil makes wooden handrails stain-resistant and gives a lovely smooth finish to the surface.


If you prefer a more traditional approach to treating wood, you could apply two or three coats of linseed or teak oil and then apply a layer of wax. Danish oil is a mixture of oil and varnish so is more hardwearing than regular oil but not as hardwearing as hard wax oil.


Finishing waxes give wooden handrails an ultra-smooth surface and add an extra layer of protection to the wood. Wax can be easily reapplied as and when needed, without having to strip the handrail. You may want to apply a coat of wax to your handrail after oiling it to give it a shine.


Varnish contains resin, drying oil and a thinner to create a clear finish on wood. You can apply it after oiling the handrail and once it’s dried, varnish will protect against spills. The downside of varnish is that it can dull overtime and it can be tricky to apply, with air bubbles being a common issue.


If you want to match the look of your wooden handrail to your existing spindles, newel post and stair treads and risers then you’ll need to apply a stain before treating the wood. You’ll need to apply a coat of sanding sealer to softwood handrails, such as pine, before applying a stain as softwood doesn’t stain very evenly.

It can be tricky to colour­-match wood so use a tester pot to apply a small amount to the underside of the handrail and allow it to dry so you can get an accurate impression of the colour.

Once you’re happy with the colour, you can apply the stain to the rest of the handrail and allow it to dry before sealing the wood with varnish. Staining wood simply changes the colour of the wood and doesn’t provide any protection, so you’ll need to finish the wood with wax or varnish.

Shop our range of finishings here.

Frequently asked questions

Should you use a varnish finish?

Varnishing is a popular option for finishing a wooden handrail, and you can choose either a clear varnish or something that has a colour tint if you prefer. These finishes protect the wood from moisture, dirt and oil but they can be less hard-wearing, however, they may look less natural as they form a hard coating on top of the wood.

Can you paint a handrail white?

It is possible to paint a handrail white, but sanding and preparing the wood is an essential part of this process. You will need to take extra care to make sure this is done to a high standard, to ensure that no colour comes through in the finished result.

What is wood filler?

Wood filler is ideal for filling small imperfections in wood. For example – it can cover holes, dents, chips and deep grains in wood, disguising them and smoothing the surface. You can use wood filler on painted stairs to make them more aesthetically appealing and comfortable to walk on.

Can you paint over stained wood without sanding?

While it is possible to paint over stained wood without sanding, the stain may bleed through and cause streaking.

How do you refinish a wooden handrail?

To refinish a wood handrail, you will need to strip the wood before preparing and priming it. Then you can stain and finish the wood to your own aesthetic tastes.

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