Aah, our stairs. We’ve been slowly – very, very slowly! – working on them since we moved into this house two summers ago. After taking down a handful of walls to open the foyer (the first step to transition our two-flat into the single family home it is now), ripping up the old maroon carpet and encasing the chipped, cracked paint with oil-based primer, we let it be. We let it be for almost a whole year, and we allowed our primed stairs to fall into disrepair once again, and so finally, we told ourselves that it was time.
Because we have a back staircase that connects all the floors in the house (you might remember that our master bedroom – the ex-second-floor-kitchen – has a door), we wanted to tackle this project before the cold settled in, allowing us to use those back stairs while paint dries on the interior staircase. And because the main stairs were never properly completed, we had a bit more groundwork to lay. The good news is that we’ve completed the project, they look amazing (yup, biased!), so let’s get to it!
3M™ Safety Products (respirator and eyewear)
Sandpaper / electric sander
2″ angled paint brush
4″ foam roller
WHAT WE DID. Just like the priming step, we worked with 3M DIY once again to get our stairs up to snuff. The stairs themselves weren’t terrible, but primer isn’t meant to stand on its own without a hardened top coat, and so the treads had started to chip. Although these 130-year-old stairs are solid as a rock, we had gradually noticed more pocks and dents appear, which is to be expected in a house of this age. Using 3M™ Wood Filler, we patched in what we could, bearing in mind that they weren’t ever going to be perfect. But isn’t that part of the charm in an old house?
To eliminate the fine dust that kicks up during sanding, I attached our orbital sander to our shop vac (which has a HEPA filter) – also being sure to wear a respirator and glasses. It was a bit tricky to do this on stairs (I had to move the vacuum to the first floor halfway through and balance it along the steps on a few occasions), but it was absolutely worth it! There was virtually no dusty clean-up, although I still wiped everything down with a microfiber cloth when I was finished.
Next, I used a paintable, flexible latex caulk to seal in the cracks and gaps around the stringers, risers and cove molding under each tread. Below on the left, you can see the stairs with caulk vs. the ones without; I swear, caulk is the glue that holds an old home together – what can’t it hide? Once the caulk had dried completely, I applied 2 coats of Ultra Pure White Behr® paint in semi-gloss exterior (we figured it couldn’t hurt in a high traffic area!) on all the stringers and risers. Already, the difference was astounding!
We let this dry overnight, and the next day, it was time to move on to the most impactful part of the project – the treads! You saw that we chose Sherwin Williams® Tricorn Black, and we purchased it in the Floor & Patio paint with a satin finish. (The F&P paint has a more flexible finish, allowing it to move with the wood, preventing future cracking.)
With such a high contrast look, I very carefully taped off the stringers with ScotchBlue™ Painter’s Tape. As mentioned previously, we were ready to accept that these stairs would never look brand new, but not wanting to sacrifice a clean edge, I made sure to rub the tape firmly along every divot and ripple I encountered. (Which, by the way, was still a lot!) Note: If you’re also tackling a large project, I’d recommend testing the tape on a small inconspicuous area beforehand.
Starting at the top and working my way down, I used a brand new 2″ angled brush and kept a steady hand as I painted along the sides of the treads and around each bullnose. I chose to not tape those areas for two reasons: 1) time and 2) the existing trimwork was a bit of an obstacle I wanted to avoid. After cutting in, I took a 4″ foam roller and covered each tread with thin coats. This was repeated a total of three times, with two hours between each coat so that it was, at the very least, dry to the touch.
Two hours after the final coat of Tricorn Black went on, I took a touch-up can of my white paint back to the top, and I began peeling away all the tape. I held my breath, hoped for the best, and found that I was very pleasantly surprised! With the somewhat rough texture of the treads and risers (for real, no amount of sanding would ever get these stairs totally smooth!), I needed to course correct only a couple of treads. I’ll be honest and say that I was somewhat skeptical to use tape, but I knew the results would be much better than free handing it along the almost-3′-width, and I was confident in my diligence to really seal down the edges.
This project was purposely completed the day before we left for Portland, which would allow everything to dry and harden for a full seven days with no temptation for use – that is, with the exception of the kitties’ paws. In total, I spent close to three days on these final steps (pun intended?), as each component required downtime before starting the next. It’s been close to a month since we’ve had the new look, and so far, so good! There is one step close to the tiled entryway that has received a small (and I mean small, small) scrape, but this is also known as the launch-pad-step from which Jack and CC take their flying leap towards the living room. As they do.
Can we please rewind one year and see how far these stairs have come? To call this project a labor of love would be the Understatement of the Year. Starting at the upstairs landing, we knocked down the partition wall for the second floor apartment (eliminating an unnecessary coat closet and raising the stairwell ‘ceiling’ in the process), removed the deteriorating carpet and spent hours upon hours pulling up a century’s worth of padding, staples and nails.
By installing the below knee wall, natural light from that window can now flood into my studio space! A thick, hunky slab of walnut was stained and used as a wall cap, the same dark stain was used for our handrail, and the landing floor was patched in with matching hardwood:
When you enter our home, the stairs are the very first thing you see. On moving day, we were greeted by another door that led to the first floor apartment. Again, it was one of the first things we were thrilled to demolish, and when the carpet came up, so did a not-so-mysterious, stale and filthy scent.
And when you walk in now? Navy! Brass! Cleanliness! (Maddie!)
The view from our living room has improved, too! After discovering this adorable arch hiding beneath lathe and drywall, we – sort of on a whim – decided to mimic the same arch in the studio. While we were at it, we widened this doorway a good foot (or two), giving that entryway we’ve worked so hard on more presence in the home. We’ve poured so much into it; why not?
We were warned by a few (and even read a few tutorial and articles on the topic) that black and white stairs, while classic, can require quite a bit of upkeep. Yes, we do need to run our handheld vacuum along the treads a few times a week, but overall, we’ve found that it looks much better than our all-white-primed stairs ever did! We’re toying with the idea of adding a runner, but it would mostly be to inject some pattern and color. The hunt isn’t yet active, but it’s not out of the question down the road.
Also? If you look closely, you can see where the treads have been worn down in the middle, and there are telltale signs of age on every surface. And you know what? We love that.
Looking from the foyer into our living room, we find that we’re slowly unfolding a whole house color palette that feels new to us. Blacks, grays, shades of white, deep navy and bright red! Our love of color has always been a part of us (orange bedroom, anyone?), but it feels different this time around. This old house has been a learning experience in every way, and these stairs have been one of our biggest challenges. As we continually stumble into funny little issues, we’ll say, let’s call this an old house quirk! We’ve got a lot of those – but we never expected to embrace them so wholeheartedly.