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Can I use a water-based wood stain for handrail? Want something not toxic

user-6474580 | Posted in Green Products and Materials on

We need to stain a wood handrail going down our basement stairs and the contractor is talking about using oil based, but water-based wood stains could work, right? We want to do a dark walnut color. I’m super sensitive to chemicals, so want to use the least toxic option. Thanks in advance!!

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  1. dan_saa | | #1

    I don't know of options, have not researched. But if you look for something approved for use in California and their AQMD rules on VOC (volatile organic compounds), you are headed in the right direction. This was the first result searching for "wood stain california voc"

    1. andy_ | | #13

      NOPE. NOPE. NOPE. Preservawood is not a good choice here. It's intended as an exterior penetrating oil finish and unless you really want oily fingerprints all over your house I wouldn't use it on a handrail.
      I wouldn't use it period, as it's a mildew magnet but that's another story.

  2. Trevor_Lambert | | #2

    I can't imagine why a water based stain wouldn't work. The only slight hiccough is that water based stain can cause the wood grain to rise. So you might want to lightly sand the railing in between staining and applying a top coat. This is assuming you're doing a two step process. If you're using a 2-in-one product, you would just sand in between two coats, which is something that really should be done anyway.

  3. Expert Member

    User ...580,

    I only use water-based stains. Unfortunately, even they off-gas a fair amount.

  4. jerhullP | | #4

    You should look into Rubio Monocoat. I have been using it on furniture, wall and door Trim and flooring with great success.

  5. OronoWoodworks | | #5

    When I was in residential renos we used Saman water based stains exclusively for stair treads and railings. The only catch with WB stains is you have to work fast and maintain a wet edge. I would highly recommend using their additive that slows the drying time.

  6. finePNW | | #6

    Is it worth using polyurethane on a wood handrail, or is stain good enough?

    1. Expert Member
      MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #8


      I just have stain on ours, and I'm surprised how much dirt builds up. Cleaning it is sobering. Looks fine though.

  7. Expert Member
    DCcontrarian | | #7

    It just drives me nuts when I hear someone say something like "I’m super sensitive to chemicals."

    Air is a chemical. Water is a chemical. Every piece of matter in the universe is a chemical. There's just no such thing as being sensitive to "chemicals."

    I don't mean to blame the person saying that, they've just been poorly informed.

    Probably what you want to avoid are a group of chemicals called volatile organic compounds, or VOC's. Their use is regulated by the EPA, and California has stricter standards than the EPA.
    All finishes are going to release VOC's during application, what you're primarily looking for is something that has been tested and shown not to release any (or very much) VOC's once they're dry.

    There's no reason to believe that because something is "water-based" -- which simply means it can be cleaned up with water before it sets -- it will release fewer VOC's in its hardened state than something that isn't. You need to read the label.

  8. brp_nh | | #9

    We used Vermont Natural Coatings for all our interior wood finishing and have been happy with it:

  9. Expert Member
    Akos | | #10

    I've often used thinned out interior latex as wood stain. This works very well especially when trying to match to a non standard flooring. Takes a bit of work to get the color just right but works very well and you have much better verity and color choices.

    Once the wood is stained, always clear coat. Much easier to clean and you can always add another layer clearcoat as it wears.

    I'm not a fan of all in one stains/clear coat. Once the clearcoat wears out there is no way to refinish without stripping the whole thing and starting from scratch.

  10. OronoWoodworks | | #11

    I agree with Akos...defintely add a clearcoat. My go to is water based poly because it dries very quickly and is easy to build up. All in ones are indeed a pain and not worth it.

  11. walta100 | | #12

    If you want a dark walnut look you could use actually walnut wood no stain would be needed.

    If you had it finished with shellac a natural finish from insects that would be pretty safe.
    The shellac would off gas alcohol as it dries and it is not as durable as modern finishes.

    Seems strange the big problem is the hand rail finish.

    Is it possible to build a house without “was wood” OSB, glue lams and plywood?

    Furniture without particle board seems unlikely today.


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