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A Quick Painting The Stairs Post…And How It’s Been Holding Up

This is a case of “how we tried to keep the budget low by saving money on the floors upstairs” which now just seems hilarious and cute. That’s right. Years ago when we bought this house we knew that we needed to do a lot of work on the first floor (reconfigure the living room, add the totally necessary sunroom, and redo the poorly constructed 60s addition). But the second floor was fine! Just needed some paint and new carpet. It’s just for the kids anyway, not our room…But once we realized that we needed all new plumbing and actual electrical, it was full of asbestos and lots of lead paint, we ended up tearing open the walls. But we were still in this “let’s save up here, the kids don’t need fancy” attempt. We wanted to splurge downstairs on some things, including the flooring, but upstairs? No, it was fine! We’d put in new carpet (there wasn’t original wood underneath), and paint the stairs and the landing. Done.

Underneath the carpet here on the stairs was wood flooring (just not in the bedrooms and I don’t remember why or what was in there). While I love a runner ideally this would’ve been a natural wood.

The stairs, underneath the carpet, were in great shape. The subfloor was good and they didn’t creak very much. The landing was fine, just needed some patching and a bit of restoration but I actually like the look of wobbly wood painted white in old houses. Great. So the decision was made and everyone agreed – just keep the wood stairs, the stringer, and the flooring on the landing and paint it.

This is after months of construction but as you can see it was in worse and worse condition.

Here’s a bit of the painted process:

The Painted Stairs

We chose the color Smoky Blue by Sherwin-Williams and we love it. Now in the grand scheme of things do I wish that we had wood stairs and wood floors instead of carpeted rooms? A tiny bit, but not very much. The cost difference was certainly not huge in comparison to the cost of the renovation so it just seems silly now that we tried to save money here. I truly do love the color and I love the wall-to-wall carpet – it’s very cozy, comfortable, and calming. Did painting the stairs instead of installing new stairs save us some money? Sure, but honestly probably just a couple thousand dollars in materials and a couple thousand in labor. Which isn’t nothing! If I could go back in time would I still make that choice? I honestly haven’t thought about it til this very second, which means I don’t really regret it. But sure, if I could snap my fingers I’d put that gorgeous Zena flooring everywhere and layer rugs.

I asked my painter what they used and how they did it and here’s what she said:

1. What kind of primer did we use on the stairs? We used Zinsser Cover Stain oil-based primer (Stain Blocker).
2. How many coats of primer were applied? 1 coat of primer.
3. How many coats of the TREAD-PLEX Waterborne floor coating will be applied? 1 light coat first, then 2 hours later we do a full coat of paint.
4. How will it be applied? Hand or Spray? Sprayed.
5. Do you do the tread and riser at the same time? If not, what order will they be painted in? Will the stringer be painted 1st? The stringer gets painted first, then once it is dry, we cover it up with masking paper. Once the stringer is completely covered, we start painting the stairs. 
6. How long does it need to cure between coats? 2 hours.

The Real Question: How Has It Kept Up Since Moving In?

It’s only been since late August, so 3 months tops. We always knew that we were going to add a runner but it’s taken longer than I planned, so there are some tiny chips on the edges of the treads and hard-to-see cracks already due to a lot of wear and tear. I’m very excited to get the stair runner installed (we chose this one). Stay tuned!

*”Good Photos” By Kaitlin Green


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36 thoughts on “A Quick Painting The Stairs Post…And How It’s Been Holding Up

  1. “…and they didn’t creak very much.” Emily, I love love love your style and perspective, and have for years, but the differences between West Coast and East Coast perceptions sometimes surprise me all over again. Only a West Coast person would buy an older home and expect the floors not to creak lol. On the East Coast, creaky floors are usually seen as part of the package deal of older houses , and even, dare I say, somewhat desirable for the feelings and associations they elicit?

    1. Haha! 🤣🤣 Yeah…my nearly 100 yr old girl creaks a whole lot! I love it.
      Thing is, old houses in Australia have solid wood, very thick planks, for floors.
      Mine are a very hard wood called Jarrah.
      Ftom 2024, this wood will no longer be logged – it’s protected in old growth forests. (YAY!!)
      There’s no such thing as “sub-floor” in Australia . The very thick, solid wood planks ARE the floor.

    2. Our house is 140 years old and the stairs don’t creak that much! (Of course, I am comparing it to when we moved in, and they creaked so much that you couldn’t go on the stairs if anyone was sleeping in the house! We’ve since shored them up.)

        1. One of the stringers was cracked, and that was reinforced. Then, a 2″x4″ board was added underneath the stairs at each joint between a riser and a tread. The stairs go from first to second floor, and we had access to the underside from the enclosed stairs to the basement, making all of this possible without affecting the look of the staircase.

    3. Creaky floors and stairs are must-haves when your kids get to be teenagers and want to attempt to sneak out of the house!

      (Although these days I suppose there are better electronic monitoring devices…I’m old enough to remember when a creaky stair meant certain discovery by Mom & Dad!)

    4. Meggles, I’m sure you didn’t mean it this way but this comment is reading a little condescending to me. I live in an old home and the floors creak…is that par the course for old homes? Of course! But do I wish my floors didn’t screech like a dying cat and wake up my kids whenever someone walks down the hall by their bedroom? YES. I think it’s a reasonable consideration when you have little people. If I had a dollar for every time I had to put my kids BACK to bed because the squeaky floors woke them up… 🙃

      1. I’m surprised to see so many downvotes on your comment, Kimberly, so I just wanted to come here to say I agree! But it’s always tough to tell tone from text alone, of course.
        As a renter with mixed experience in both new and older homes (I’m in a century home in Toronto, Ontario now), maybe I’m missing the bigger point.

  2. I have painted wood stairs that go down into the living room. Similar situation, when we were remodeling, our contractor convinced me it would be easy, would look fine and would save money. So, so very much regret it now 3 years later. They NEVER look clean. As soon as I scrub them, it feels like 10 minutes later my family and my dog covers them in scuff marks and dirt. Anyway, I think Emily’s look just fine right now, but put them on the 5 year plan and fix them up once the current chaos is over. That’s my two cents.

    1. I agree that painted stairs tend to look worn. My mom has STEEP painted stairs in her 1790’s home . They were very slippery and always looked dirty until she had them repainted with this paint that had a pebbly tread additive. The tread additive made them less slippery and a lot more matte, which has has the added benefit of making them look much less dirty.. Could be a good stopgap for you…

  3. Thanks for sharing these kinds of updates with us! Great food for thought and I always love seeing your work. The blue is beautiful and such a pretty way to make the stairs into a special spot in the house.

  4. I enjoy the charm of the painted wood stairs! Plus the blue.: very EH. If that finger-snap occurred, I think you’d miss this contrast and original detail.
    About that paint, has it been slick ? OK to navigate with slippers? What about in socks? In your opinion, could the stairs be left painted or do they surely need a runner?
    We live in a 1/2 renovated old home; the main floor is complete (aside from decor), but the basement is still on the agenda, pushed back by my husband’s gobsmacking medical diagnosis. The stairs do not have original wood, and will be part of the ongoing reno when we get back to it. This stair post is actually quite helpful, thank you.

    1. We’re in the middle of renovating our 1906 four square and turning it into a duplex. It’s definitely a giant challenge we didn’t quite- know what we signed ourselves up for 😂. Sending light your way for your husband. Navigating a reno during a medical scare sounds like nightmare fuel.

  5. I don’t understand why you didn’t stick to the original plan of sanding the stairs down and using them in their existing wood. A few extra paint splashes and plaster dust is just surface dirt when you’re sanding. If you were worried about dents, don’t they show up on the painted stairs too? I can see they were messy, but they just look like they need cleaned up and sanded – sanding works absolute wonders.

    Can I also ask whether any exposed floorboards in the US are always planks laid over ‘sub-floor’ – what is sub-floor? Here you have planks laid straight onto the joists and there is no sub-floor. Do you have two layers of planks in old houses? I’ve always wondered this on the blog!

    1. I’m having a hard time understanding why you didn’t stick to the orginal plan of sanding down the floors too. And if you knew you were keeping the original stairs, why didn’t you cover them to keep them protected from the construction process? The blue paint looks nice but I agree with the previous poster who commented that it’s hard to keep painted stairs clean and looking good.

    2. Hi Elle,
      Yes, many old houses here originally had a subfloor, typically with wider planks in a softer wood ( e g pine), and then another floor laid on top, typically higher quality wood like oak. The exceptions would be more modest houses, like a small farmhouse, where you might have a more rustic single layer floor, which could be painted. My 1900 sh house has two layers of flooring on the first two floors, and a single layer on the third floor ( could have been intended as servants’ rooms) which was originally painted with a floral border.

    3. My 1912 home in California does not have subfloor. I have oak floors downstairs in the living room, dining room, and parlor, and fir upstairs and downstairs in a bedroom and the kitchen. A previous owner laid oak over the fir in the kitchen and downstairs bedroom. I think the fir is incomplete in those areas due to modifications by previous owners. In newer homes, probably starting in the 60s or 70s, subfloor was plywood with finished flooring over, more commonly carpet and vinyl in tract homes. But often it’s hard to know exactly what’s under the flooring unless you do a major remodel. I will add that I’ve had water damage before and the “restoration” company that came in to dry things out assumed there would be subfloor and also that my walls were drywall (they are lathe and plaster), so many people aren’t aware of how homes from different eras and in different areas are built.

    4. In the Portland area, depending on the age of the house, many of the subfloors are fir, and because they were always intended as subfloor -it’s also poor quality fir. Lots of knots, even an occasional knothole and patched in square, and because fir is soft – they are full of dents and scratches. That’s what’s typically under carpet out here.

  6. It would never occur to me to paint stairs but it actually looks pretty nice. Reads up the white in a good way. On the other hand, it would never occur to me to put anything but carpet in bedrooms!

    1. Carpet in bedrooms is just so cozy, especially for kids. Great for sprawling on the floor to do homework, or for slumber parties with friends. Also carpet helps a lot with noise absorption.

  7. I love love love this little area of the farmhouse! The blue on the stairs, that amazing chair in the landing, the way you can see it from the living room and how it adds contrast, the beautiful old window, the light… and how you can make it a festive little spot for the holidays. Everything about it is beautiful, it’s bright and cheerful and happy and yet cozy at the same time! Brava!

  8. Our second floor was likely always painted (except for an interlude in which it was covered by asbestos tile). When we move in we thought we would lay down some new flooring eventually, but decided to repaint temporarily. 11 years later, and we are totally satisfied with the decision. We have rugs down in the most heavily-trafficked paths, and I occiasionally do touch-ups. Our floors are white, but they wash up well and the paint doesn’t chip at all for us. (No shoes in the house, though.) We used Benjamin Moore floor and porch paint.

  9. I think the EH team has one of those technology gizmos like Facebook does where it reads my mind and starts marketing to me the exact item/project I’ve been thinking about. We have to do something to our 1872 farmhouse stairs – the original ones are there and in good shape, but when they switched the staircase around to make room for a bathroom upstairs (thank you, previous homeowners), they added a few extra stairs that don’t match the original ones. I keep thinking about a runner and painting them but I’d prefer a vintage runner and $$$ and length needed are two big barriers. It didn’t occur to me that painted stairs would look dirtier than stained stairs until these comments. Anyway, appreciate the discussion!

    1. my old stairs are also a mess, and I am on a budget for the present. I just bought cheap ikea rugs…I can’t remember the name, but they were quite thin, and a flat cotton weave – easy to cut and fold under. Small black and white check pattern. Then I just cut each rug in half down the middle and used that to make a runner for the stairs. Staple gun and some decent carpet underlay on the riser as well. Super cheap (like I think the total for the carpet was 40 and the underlay was about the same). It has held up just fine for a couple of years now. a good stop gap.

  10. That blue is gorgeous. I can’t wait to see the runner.
    Regarding choosing wood stairs/floors or painted stairs/carpeted floors, often it’s just that ALL the options are lovely

  11. I paint for a living and am really curious as to why they used a white primer under a dark blue paint? It would have been so much better to use a dark grey primer (I’ve used good ones in the past). All paint will eventually chip – although I’d be a little upset about seeing it chip after only a few months – so a dark primer, instead of a stark white, would have hidden some of the wear.

  12. I LOVE the painted stairs- given your feelings with the living room coloring and how flat it was feeling, I think the stairs provide some much needed character- creaks an all. They feel more honestly humble working farmhouse than brand new wood would feel.

  13. The stair runner link goes to an area rug. Is that correct? I am looking for a killer stair runner rug! Thanks

  14. I love the blue paint on the stairs and the striped runner will add some additional charm and interest:-)

  15. Do you know what would be very EHD and help warm up your space a bit? Painting the stairwell walls a pale pink. Blue/pink/white seems to be one of your classic combos, and the pink would provide some of that warmth you’re missing since painting the paneling.

  16. I love LOVE love posts that get into the nitty gritty of how to do things, like the order of masking/painting which part, and curing time, and number of coats, and which application method. Also that color is gorgeous. Thank you for this!

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