A Fix for Sticky Finish

Dealing with an old finish that gets tacky in hot weather.
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Fix for a sticky handrail

"The handrail still looks good, but it’s often sticky—we assume someone used the wrong finish on it." —Amanda Riker

The stair railing in our 1919 Colonial Revival home is a beautiful, dark-amber color. But when the weather turns hot or humid, it gets sticky. We’ve tried cleaning it with a wood-specific soap, and various furniture polishes. No matter what we try, it feels greasy all summer. I assume that the last owner used an incompatible finish. —Amanda Riker

The Fix

Maybe not! When mature woodwork gets sticky, it’s a sign that the finish has gotten dirty, coated with oils or wax, or that it’s breaking down. A surface that’s sticky or gummy is often the result of dirt and grime accumulation—especially when it’s frequently touched, like a handrail. Other possibilities include waxy buildup from furniture polishes that contain waxes or oils. (Definitely nix the use of furniture polish). Or, at some point, the railing may have been cleaned with a product containing ammonia or bleach, either of which can soften shellac or varnish.

To determine which finish is on the rail, test in a hidden place using a Q-tip dipped in denatured alcohol. If the finish is shellac, the alcohol will dissolve it almost instantly. (Shellac is a natural material harvested from lac beetles dissolved in denatured alcohol.) If it’s a varnish, the spot will react more slowly. (Early 20th- century varnishes are resins dissolved in an oil base mixed with mineral spirits, and are more difficult to remove. Unlike shellac, they also darken with age.)

From your description, it’s most likely that your finish is shellac. Luckily, shellac is by far the easiest to repair. Each application partially dissolves the previous coats, then the entire surface re-hardens to a single layer of film. To refresh a shellac finish, first clean the railing using a small amount of denatured alcohol, which will melt the surface slightly and loosen any built-up dirt. Once it’s dry, apply a fresh coat or two of shellac. The material comes either in flakes or premixed. (Zinsser’s Bulls Eye is one brand: rustoleum.com)

If what you’ve got is varnish, you may ultimately need to strip and redo the finish at some point. But first try a deep cleaning: Mix equal parts turpentine, white vinegar, and boiled linseed oil together and apply the solution on the sticky parts of the railing, then wipe off. Test an inconspicuous area first before tackling the visible surface. 

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