How to Paint a Staircase to Spruce Up Your Entryway

A paint refresh can turn a ho-hum staircase into a grand entrance. Here's how to do it right. 

Shelving and cupboards at the end of stairs
Photo: Brie Williams
Project Overview
  • Working Time: 14 hours
  • Total Time: 2 days
  • Skill Level: Beginner

A lot can be done with good bones. Structural focal points, such as built-ins and fireplaces, often need only a facelift to create an entirely different feel, as long as they're in decent shape from the start. One of the most impressive surface-level updates you can do is to give your staircase a fresh coat of paint. Depending on how many steps you have, and how well they've been maintained, the project could wind up being a done-in-a-weekend overhaul that totally refreshes your space.

"With the correct tools and materials, most DIYers will be able to take this project on," says Lowe's store manager Gary McCoy. But he's also quick to point out a few issues that could complicate the process, including the age of the staircase, the number of steps, and whether they're carpeted. These roadblocks shouldn't hinder your plans, though. Even carpet is relatively easy to deal with, as long as you have the right tools and guidance for its removal. However, certain situations require a professional. "Scenarios such as wood damage, stairs not being sturdy enough, mold, and other findings could warrant calling a professional to assist or take on the job," McCoy says.

Because of the wear and tear on handrails and steps, it's also important to select paint finishes that will stand up to heavy use. McCoy advises DIYers to select a paint that is specifically suited for wood trim and/or can be used to paint over wood stain. A sealer is also necessary for heavy-use areas, which can show wear more quickly if left unprotected. Once you have selected your materials and are ready to start painting, read on for the best way to paint a staircase.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • 1 Fine-grit sandpaper
  • 1 Paintbrushes
  • 1 Paint roller
  • 1 Scrap cardboard
  • 1 Drop cloths

Materials

  • 1 Painters tape
  • 1 Butcher paper
  • 1 Primer
  • 1 Paint

Instructions

  1. Check the Surface

    staircase anatomy illustration diagram labels
    Illustration by Rick Hanson

    Before you begin painting, check the condition of the railing, balusters, trim, and stair surfaces. If necessary, remove any carpet and discard. If your stairs were previously painted, look for areas where the finish is bumpy, uneven, or peeling. These are signs you should strip the old paint before proceeding. If the existing finish appears smooth and in good condition, you can simply paint over it.

  2. Prepare the Staircase for Painting

    Repair small imperfections, such as nail holes, using wood filler, following the manufacturer's instructions for application and drying time. Use fine-grit sandpaper to gently scuff up the entire surface to be painted, which will help the paint stick. Clean the surfaces with a degreaser to remove dirt and buildup. Wipe them dry with a clean, lint-free cloth to remove any remaining dust.

  3. Prime and Paint the Handrail and Trim

    painting stairs handrail paintbrush
    Mike Dvorak

    Start by painting the staircase railing and trim, rather than the stairs themselves, so you can avoid walking on freshly painted steps. Mask off the steps and surrounding areas with heavy butcher paper or drop cloths and painter's tape. Starting at the top of the stairs, use a 2-inch trim brush to apply primer on the handrail. Repeat with the staircase trim. Let the primer dry per the manufacturer's specifications.

    Start again at the top of the stairs and apply your chosen paint color to the handrail and trim. Work the brush carefully to cover all the surfaces evenly, and finish each section by brushing with the grain. Apply two to three coats, waiting a sufficient time in between coats to allow each layer to dry.

  4. Prime and Paint Balusters

    painting stairs balusters paintrush tape
    Mike Dvorak

    If you plan to paint the balusters a different color than the rest of the staircase, mask them off carefully where they meet the steps. If you're painting everything the same color, skip the tape, but keep a dampened cloth nearby so you can wipe up splatters and drips as you go. Any drops of paint will dry as lumps, giving your paint finish an untidy look. Prime and paint the balusters as you did the rest of the railing. Let the balusters dry as you move on to painting the steps.

  5. Prime the Stairs, Alternating Each Step

    painting stairs steps nosing riser
    Mike Dvorak

    Cover or mask off any areas around the stairs, including at the top and bottom, where you don't want paint. Starting at the top of the steps, apply primer on the underside of the first nosing. Continue brushing primer onto the first riser, then the stair tread. Continue down the steps in this order, applying primer to every other step. Leaving alternate steps unpainted will allow you to use the stairs while the paint dries. Allow sufficient time for the first steps to dry, then apply primer to the remaining steps in the same manner.

  6. Paint and Seal the Stairs

    painting stairs steps gray paintbrush
    Mike Dvorak

    Repeat this process with the paint, using smooth brushstrokes and reaching into all corners as you paint every other step. Wait for the first set of steps to dry before painting the alternate steps. For a reminder of which treads are safe to step on, lightly tape 4-inch squares of cardboard to the dry ones. Apply two to three coats, waiting sufficient time in between to allow each layer to dry. If desired, apply sealer or polyurethane to the steps to protect the finish.

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