This is the story of our staircase renovation, during which we stripped back more than 100 years of additions and amendments. We also shed a ridiculous amount of sweat and elbow grease.
The starting point
The stairs were covered in a brown threadbare carpet when we bought our house, in some places completely worn through. It was one of the first things we ripped out.
Underneath there was evidence there was once a stair runner, and then a slightly wider stair runner at a later date, flanked by thick yellowed gloss paint. In all honesty the stairs weren’t in any better state than the carpet.
Several layers of gloss paint also covered the spindles and many were broken. They posed a worrying hazard for our then 18 month old Molly!
Replacing spindles and handrails
We searched high and low for spindle replicas but none matched up. Meanwhile during our pondering we realised the staircase and landing spindles were completely different. After discovering how expensive it would be to get replacement spindles whittled, we decided to replace the lot. We found a very similar set of Victorian-style spindles and bannister rails on eBay.
It was sad to see the original handrails go as they were wide and worn smooth over a century of dedicated service. We did however manage to save the nule posts. In my opinion nules are generally so underrated, they really add character to a house.
Stripping old paint and sanding the staircase
Once the spindles were replaced, we sent Molly off to stay with her grandparents and began tackling the stripping and sanding.
First we used a long handled scraper to remove as much of the thick layers of paint as we could. It was a rubbish job and took ages. As well as multiple layers of thick gloss, there was an awkward layer of green emulsion on the woodwork. If anyone attempts doing this – wear safety glasses as thin slithers of paint chip off they fly everywhere and are so awful when they land in your eye!
Another tip is to make sure you buy a sander with a warranty – no doubt you’ll need it. We managed to destroy five large mouse sanders despite careful use.
If you have thick, multiple paint layers, try scraping or chipping it off with a fine blade first. Next use a coarse grained sandpaper and graduate to fine for a smooth finish as you transition to the bare wood.
The sanding of the stairs alone took me almost five and a half days (including five approximately 45 minute trips to Homebase and back for replacement sanders and more sandpaper). It was a far bigger job than imagined but it was one I was proud to have successfully tackled while Liam took on the skirting and floorboards.
Should you paint or carpet your stairs?
Obviously if you’ve gone through the effort of stripping and sanding your staircase, you’ll no doubt be reluctant to cover it up. And of course if carpeting, you wouldn’t have bothered doing the job in the first place. We did still contemplate fitting a runner as we felt it would be more practical with a small child. Once we’d stripped back all the stairs however, we loved the look and wanted to appreciate them. They came up really well.
I suggested to Liam we paint the fall of the stairs the same colour as the skirting boards and use clear varnish on the tread. When realising this would save us thousands on stair and hallway carpet we quickly came to a happy agreement.
Paint tricks for an uncarpeted staircase
When deciding on our hallway and stair decor, I put to use the brilliant advice gleaned from a Colour in the Home workshop with Farrow & Ball’s Joa Studholme. You can read a full overview of her decorating tips here.
Joa talked about the hallway being the backbone of the house, tying all the rooms together. Our house features greys in almost every room and it was my colour of choice for this area too.
Considering our hallway doesn’t get much natural light, I went for Farrow & Ball Amonite for the walls. We mixed 40% white for a lighter ceiling shade to give the illusion of height. On the skirting, architrave and fall of the stairs we opted for Purbeck Stone. And to create a bold focal point in the middle, we painted the spindles and bannister in the dark and delicious Downpipe.
We kept the stair treads bare wood, with just a couple of coats of matt varnish. We often get asked about the varnish we used as it has a lovely bare wood finish with little to no sheen. I can highly recommend Liberon’s Natural Matt Finish Floor Varnish. It needs a thorough but gentle stir before use as the mattifying agent sinks to the bottom. Resist shaking the tin or vigorous stirring as it will creates bubbles.
Three years in and I’m really happy with the design and colour choices. The only downside is the inevitable wear and tear from being the thoroughfare of the house. The repainting is being put off as it’s such a big job and I’m not great with heights. To make matters worse, Liam’s uncle was a painter decorator and broke his neck, not once but twice, painting above the stairs – eeek! Once our loft has been converted we’ll bite the bullet and get the professionals in.
What are your thoughts on painting or carpeting stairs? And have any of you also tackled the mega job of sanding an old staircase? I’d love to hear your experiences and any clever tips you picked up along the way.