How to Paint Outdoor Metal Railings and Light Poles

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Harsh weather can take a toll on outdoor metal, particularly metal railings and light poles. Over time, the paint fades and chips off, exposing an ugly coat of rust that makes your railings rough to the touch and your light poles an unattractive ornament in your front yard. Scraping off the old paint and rust and applying a few new coats of sturdy, outdoor paint can make a huge cosmetic difference and can even prevent an accident or two in a person's willingness to utilize the railings on your stairs.

When I saw that my outdoor metal was in bad shape, I decided to tackle this small project, and now my light poles, railing, and garage light look as good as new. Here's how I did it along with tips on which tools and techniques worked and which ones didn't.

Necessary Tools and Materials

Step 1: Sanding

If the paint on your metal is chipped or rusty, it’s best to sand off all of the old paint. This is the most time-consuming step of the process. In my case, my railing had several layers of paint to take off, and I turned to the Internet for advice.

First of all, wear old clothes and buy a bag of disposable gloves. You will get very dirty. You may also want to consider protective eyewear and a face mask. I only used sunglasses which helped, but I breathed in a lot of paint dust which has the potential to be harmful if inhaled, especially if you are removing very old paint.

First, I filled a small bucket of water and added one cup of vinegar. Using a rag dipped in the vinegar water, I wiped down the metal area to remove any surface dirt and debris. I then let it air dry for a few minutes before completely drying it with a clean, dry rag. Then, I got to work.

It was recommended that I use a wire brush and steel wool to remove the paint. This did not work for me; neither did my trusty putty knife which had proven useful in removing wallpaper from my bathroom walls, but in this case, it didn't do much. After a few hours of brushing and scraping at the paint, I had made very little progress. I even tried mineral spirits and paint thinner with no luck.

Next, I read up on purchasing a drill bit that turns your drill into a sander. So, I purchased a small box of these bits, but they were a little too small for my drill. So, I ended up using the bits like sandpaper, working through the crevices by hand, and this was useful around curves, but in the end, it was regular sandpaper that worked best.

I bought a pack of coarse, 60-grit sandpaper and broke out my metal files. I used every file I had and every shape to get all of the nooks and crannies. It took about 12–14 hours over the course of a few weeks to get all of the paint off. The files were good for taking the paint off of the sides and edges of the railing, but they also scraped the metal very easily and was very labor intensive. (You will definitely build up your biceps during this project.) The sandpaper was effective but wore down very easily.

I did not wear gloves during this step. So, by the time I was finished, I could have sanded the railing with the palms of my hands. I also didn’t stress about getting the underside of the railing too well. I just sanded off the rough bumps since this side of the railing wouldn't be seen, but I still wanted to coat the entire railing to prevent chipping and rusting.

My light poles weren’t badly chipped and had only one layer of paint applied to them. So, I just went over them lightly with some sandpaper to remove the dirt and dust. In retrospect, I should have removed the entire layer of paint since you can see a little bit of layering in the places where the paint had chipped, but it’s not very noticeable unless you look at it close up.

Painting Supplies

Flat enamel paint with sponge brush.

Step 2: Prepping for Painting

As I removed the paint, rust started to form on the bare metal surface of the railing as it was exposed to the rain and garden hose. So before I painted, I used some sandpaper to knock off the fresh rust. Then, I wiped it down with more vinegar water and wiped it dry.

I bought my paint at my local home improvement store. You can find it in the paint aisle. Look for outdoor enamel made for metal and furniture. It comes in a variety of colors and glosses. I bought a flat, black paint made by Valspar and bought the quart size which turned out to be way too much, even after applying several coats to two light poles, one railing, and the garage light. I laid down drop cloths around my railing so that I wouldn’t get any paint on my front steps, and I was ready to go.

Step 3: Painting

I used sponge brushes to apply my enamel, using a little at a time and being careful to catch all of the drips so that the coat was nice and even. My brand of enamel dried in one hour so I had to be sure to catch the drips right away and make sure that it didn’t drip down over the sides and cause any runs or bubbles.

The light poles were trickier. First, I tried to use a small paint roller, but it coated the pole with too much enamel at once. So, I switched back to the sponge brushes. For the small areas, I had to use very thin paint brushes to tediously paint around the glass and in between round areas. I also had to balance on chairs and a step stool to reach the top of the light poles and the light fixture above my garage door. Be sure that you have something sturdy to stand on and that you are prepared to hold the can in one hand and the paintbrush in the other. This would be a great time to find a helper to assist you if you haven’t already.

The directions on the paint can said to let the paint dry overnight before applying another coat. I could see the next day that there were some missed spots and places where the paint did not stick. About two hours after applying my second coat, it unexpectedly started to rain for a few minutes which wiped away some of the second layer. So, on the next dry day, I applied a third coat, and that seemed to cover all of the areas very well.

Despite my trial-and-error technique, the unexpectedly time-consuming nature of taking off the old paint, and setbacks with the weather, I'm very pleased with the end result of my project. The black paint is very eye-catching. The railing is smooth, and best of all, there is no more rust or chipped paint everywhere.

The paint was easy to wash off my skin whenever I would get any on myself. It didn’t seem to cause any skin irritation either. So, besides inhaling paint dust, nearly falling off of my step stool several times, and dodging popup showers, it was a pretty safe and straightforward project that anyone could attempt if willing to dedicate their time and effort and get a little dirty. It’s also an inexpensive way to improve the look of the exterior of your house. I highly recommend it if you are looking to make simple cosmetic changes to your front yard.

To recap, here are my tips for painting metal railings and light poles.

To recap, here are my tips for painting outdoor metal:

Wear old clothes, and protect your eyes and mouth from paint dust.

Clean the area with vinegar water before both sanding and painting.

Use coarse sandpaper and metal files to take off old layers of paint.

Buy a small can of paint unless you are painting a very large area, such as furniture.

Paint when overnight temperatures are no lower than 50 degrees and there is no threat of rain.

Use a ladder if you're trying to reach a high place.

Take your time, and look for any drips.

Be prepared to put several hours into sanding and at least three days of painting (one for each layer).

Have you ever painted outdoor metal? If so, how did it go, and what worked for you? Leave your comments and questions below. Good luck!

© 2017 Laura Smith

Adam Hiebert on February 24, 2020:

I would suggest using oil-based primer to cover up the rust and prevent any more rust from forming before you apply any of the paint

FlourishAnyway from USA on August 16, 2017:

I'm going to need to do this soon so your tips here are helpful. The step-by-steps are well described and illustrated and the end product looks professional.

Watch the video: How to paint metal. Rustoleum


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