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How-To: Transform a Staircase on the Cheap

The goal: ridding our house of honey oak one room at a time. In light of that mission the staircase needed some help. Ultimately I would have loved to do iron spindles. But they were pricey and because the way the current spindles were attached to floor, we would have had to also replace carpet which suddenly made it really pricey. So instead I spent just $40 dollars in supplies and a weekend (plus an extra evening) of my time. It is not my dream staircase but it will do until we replace carpet and I can explore iron spindles.

Staircase before:

So Pretty................

Staircase During:
Staircase After:

Here is how I did it-- (my love affair with this paint is described here)

High-Quality paintbrush
Painter's tape
Paint tarps
Medium Grit Sandpaper
Fine Grit Sandpaper
Tack cloth
Ladder (depending on position of railing)
TSP Substitute
ACE Cabinet and Trim Paint in Black Bean (colormatched to Sherwin Williams)
(I used a quart for the amount of railing and risers we had)
1-2-3 BIN Primer tinted to gray
Water-Based Polyurethane (I used MinWax Polycrylic semi-gloss)

1. Cover all flooring in the painting area. This includes anywhere paint could possibly fall/drip or where you will be walking with possible paint on your shoes). Tape with painter's tape the edge of carpeting that will be touching painted areas and as well as the edges of the trim.

I tarped the entire staircase as well as the floor below the balcony and the carpet along the balcony. Taping/tarping was by far the most time consuming part of the project.

2. Wipe down railings and trim you are going to paint with TSP Substitute to get all the greasy fingerprints and other grime off. Be careful not to get cleaner on carpets or spill too much on tarps.

3. Let dry and then sand all the railings and trim with a medium grit sandpaper to take off the top layer of finish which will allow the new paint to stick.

I have an orbital and palm sander but did not use either because of the small spaces I was sanding. I used a sanding block or just my hand and sand paper. Again this was time consuming but I had high gloss lacquer on the honey oak and I needed to dull it thoroughly.

4. After you are done sanding everything, vacuum/sweep up all the do not want the dust in your paint. Then wipe down everything you sanded with a tack cloth to make sure you did not miss any dust.

5. Break out your 1-2-3 primer and apply a coat to all the railing, trim and risers.

6. Let dry and reexamine everything you painted to check for drips and/or rough patches that need to be sanded and then resand.

7. Open up the ACE cabinet/trim paint and apply as I described here (it takes a specific technique and practice).

Tips for applying to staircase: I started to tape every spindle top and bottom which took FOREVER. So I decided to just take my time and be careful around the spindles instead. Overall the plan worked well. I painted the posts first, top to bottom, making sure not to get paint on the railings as much as possible. Then I painted the underside of the railing, one section at a time. If I got any paint on the upper section I wiped it with a damp paper towel just to smear it so it does not form a ridge as it sets. After one section underside was done I then did the top of the railing, making sure not to hit the already setting posts. I then completed the rest of the trim just planning where I could start and stop without forming a line. This paint looks awful as it dries so don't let yourself look at it until it is totally dry. If you do, you will want to go back and fix it which will just make it worse. I still do this after going through 5 gallons of this do yourself a favor and don't look!

8. Let the paint dry (no touching) for at least 24 hours, then examine for drips to sand off. Then apply a second coat in the same manner.

9. Let dry again for 24 hours and then apply a thin layer of polyurethane. Sand with fine sandpaper in between coats. Apply three coats of poly.

I only had to wait a couple of hours to reapply the poly which sped up the process. Be careful sanding as you can easily sand off your color and into the primer. Also I confess that at this point in the project I was getting tired of painting. So the railings and posts that will get a lot of wear got the full three coats of poly while the other trim just got looks the same to me.

10. After final coat is dry, remove tape and tarps and enjoy your masterpiece!

I did not repaint the spindles because they were already white and in pretty good shape. If you do need/want to repaint yours, use untinted 1-2-3 primer and 2 coats of the ACE paint in white (I used high-hiding white for the other trim in the house)

14 comments on "How-To: Transform a Staircase on the Cheap"
  1. Wow! That really made a huge difference! I love the change. I have that honey oak too.. I just thought I would replace it, and never thought of doing this! Great job!

  2. That is an awesome transformation. I have a similar staircase and that would be a huge improvement. Thanks so much!

  3. This looks spectacular! I love the darker wood. You did a great job! I too love the look of iron spindles and toyed with that idea for my own staircase makeover. It scares me though.

    Thanks so much for linking up!!!

  4. This looks great! I love the dark color paired with the white.

  5. What a beautiful transformation! You obviously did not cut corners in terms of the process. Good for you! Doing it right is so much better than doing it fast. (Although I tend to do things fast, and then go back and do them right. haha)
    The paint color you chose is great too.


  6. I have the honey oak and this is exactly what I need to do!! What an inspirational post. Thank you for the excellent tutorial. This turned out gorgeous.

  7. *That* is quite a totally fits with your home now. Great job!

  8. I know what you mean....but you chose a great option, it looks FAB!

    Jen Ramos

  9. I wandered in to this site while I was trying to find a photo of a room painted Uncertain Gray. I am just beginning to redo my home's paint. Actually, I am just planning the colors. You have done a great job!

    I too have Honey Oak everywhere in the house. Hate it. I have thought about painting it. I was going to just start in the guest bathroom and not tell my husband until the last layer is dry. He has a weird fondness for Honey Oak. :o)

  10. Jenny,
    Thanks for the detailed instructions. Our house is an oak-disaster as well, and so I was thrilled to find this. Currently the first coat of paint is drying on our staircase, and you are right, that paint dries slow. I might wait another day to do the second layer.
    One question, I have never worked with polyurethane. Do you have instructions somewhere how to use it?
    I take it that stuff is important to put on? I'm pregnant, so will have to delegate the task to my husband, who has a shorter attention span for these types of things...
    PS: I'll send pictures when I'm done.

  11. How does the dark color hold up against traffic? I am thinking of doing this in a really high traffic area and wanted to see how it holds up for knicks and scuffs around the stairs?

  12. My staircase is identical to yours and I have been wanting to paint it, but I am so worried about the kickboard that runs along the wall up the stairs. How on earth were you able to paint that up to the carpet without getting paint on the carpet?