Stair Rails

Hello to all.
I've not worked with wood before and am completely ignorant about selection and finishing thereof. However, I'm now in need of some of your knowledge. Your advice would be greatly appreciated.
I have a thirty year old townhouse and need to replace the stair railing - on a tight budget. Home Depot sales two kinds - don't like either style, but - one is hickory and the other is oak. The finished color needs to match, as closely as possible, adjacen wood - which is very dark.
How should I go about finishing the rails? Is it just a matter of sanding, preconditioning, a couple of coats of stain and then a protective clear covering? Will the color of the stain fairly closely match the color on the can - or does the type of wook affect how close of a match I will get?
Advice, thoughts and tips would be greatly appreciated.
Something else I will be working on in the future:
The house still has the origional kitchen cabinets and the color is fading in a couple of spots. Over the sink, the finish has become very spotty - there is a lot of "specles" of bare wood showing and the surface has become rather rough. Also, the top of the door under the sink (trash can area) has also faded where you put your hand on it to open up.
Can anything be done to treat these areas without having to refinish all of the cabinets to get a consistent look?
I will be very grateful for any help you guys could provide.
Andy Fern
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It's a slippery slope. Don't blame us if you end up liking it. <G>

Let's stop right here.
Why does it have to "match"? Wood is a natural product, so it's extremely difficult, or at the least, very time consuming to get a perfect match, even for an experienced pro. Over time, the wood will change color, so there goes the hard worked match.
Woods that are similar in color and textures usually look good together. If the other trim is oak (open, strong grained), use the oak rail. If the existing trim has a tight, smooth, quieter grain, use the other. Need help comparing? Compare oak and "whitewood" moldings at Home Depot to see what I mean. You're looking at the grain only, not the color of the raw moldings.

Remember, staining is optional, not a required step. That railing will probably look better, for much longer, if you simply clear coat it. Hand sand the railing (and samples) to 150 grit before staining. Attention to detail here will pay off big later.
If you do decide to stain, buy a short piece of the same railing, cut it in shorter pieces (for multiple tests) and test finish it. On oak you do not need or want any sort of conditioner, on the whitewood, you may. Conditioners work by sealing the wood, so the stain will come out lighter than the store sample. Remember, the clear coat will slightly modify and deepen the color, so make sure to clear coat the sample(s) as well, before deciding on a color.
Once you get to the clear coats (I like oil based polyurethane for this stuff. For your ease, apply with disposable foam brushes, say a 2"), use the following steps:
- Remove all dust with a tack rag (ask at the paint store for on compatible with your finish). Now, do it again. <G> - Apply a thin, even coat of finish. DO NOT try to put a thick, plastic coat on at one shot! Allow to dry at least overnight - _Lightly_ hand sand with 320 grit to remove any dust nibs - remove all sanding dust - Apply another coat - _lightly_ sand with 400 grit - DUST! - apply the final coat
The sanding is important. You hand will run up and down the railing, so the smoother the better. If you stain, be very careful sanding after the stain, as you risk sanding into the stain.
Do ALL of the steps on the samples, taking notes of what you've done. It's practice and a learning experience for you, and you'll have the exact picture of what your final railing will look like before you attack an expensive piece of material.
Try the samples and come back with questions.
You might be out of luck with the cabinetry, as far as DIY goes, as the white marks are often water damaged lacquer.
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