How to Paint a High Stairwell

Shelley Frost

To paint a stairwell, use an extension ladder and stepladders to reach the highest corners safely. The scaffolding system saves time over an extension ladder.

A sturdy homemade scaffolding system and extension poles for paint rollers are tools that help you tackle the tallest corners of a stairwell. The task requires patience and attention to detail to avoid serious injury from a fall.

Fall Prevention

Before tackling the high stairwell, ensure the equipment, ladder setup and your habits promote safety.

  • Use sturdy ladders with a maximum weight limit higher than your weight. 
  • Extend the stepladder to the full position. Opening the ladder only partially increases the risk of collapse. Lock it in place to secure it when it's positioned correctly. 
  • Place the ladders on flat, secure areas of the floor free of slippery spots so they don't shift. 
  • Wear shoes with clean soles that grip well so you don't slip off the ladder or scaffolding board.
  • Limit the use of the scaffolding to one person at a time to support weight adequately and avoid bumping or shaking that could cause a fall. 
  • Only use the scaffolding and ladder system when you are alert and aware of your surroundings to avoid a misstep. 

Set up Scaffolding

Using just an extension ladder creates a lot of work when you're painting a stairwell. You'll have to move the ladder several times and risk falling if you lean too far. That extension ladder isn't useless, though; use it as a sturdy anchor for a homemade scaffolding. Wrap the ends of the extension ladder with clean, white rags held in place with masking tape to pad them. This prevents the ladder from damaging the paint on the wall.

  1. Place the base of the extension ladder so it rests against the riser of one of the steps. Rest the top of the ladder securely against the wall above the stairwell opposite the top landing of the stairs. The ladder should have a slight lean to it so it rests firmly against both the wall and the stair riser.

  2. Set up a 6- or 8-foot stepladder on the top landing of the stairs. Position it several inches back from the edge of the landing so it doesn't slip.

  3. Place a 2-by-12-inch board on a rung of the extension ladder so it hangs over about 1 foot. Place the other end of the board on a rung on the stepladder so the board is flat. Again, it should overhang by several inches to 1 foot so it doesn't fall.

  4. Clamp the board in place with an 8-inch C clamp on the stepladder side to hold it in place. Another option is to nail a piece of a 2-by-4-inch board to the bottom side of each end of the 2-by-12-inch board. This creates a stop to prevent the board from slipping off the ladder rung.

Cut in and Paint the Walls

  • With the scaffolding in place, you are ready to paint the stairwell. Begin along the edges of the stairwell walls, using a paintbrush or small roller to cut in along the edges and trim. You may need to raise the scaffolding to reach the top edges easily. Work down the corners of the stairwell walls.

  • Use a telescoping pole designed for paint rollers to tackle the walls from a lower scaffolding position. The extension pole holds the paint roller steady and allows you to reach higher without adjusting the scaffolding height several times.

  • Warning

    A 2-by-12-inch board at an 8-foot length holds the weight of one average person. If the length of the board for the scaffolding is longer than 8 feet, place a vertical 2-by-4-inch board in the middle going from the floor to the bottom side of the scaffolding for extra support.


    Raise and lower the scaffolding board as needed to reach higher areas of the stairwell. Simply place the board on higher rungs of the ladder, ensuring that it stays level.


    Stand in one position while painting. Stop painting and look down at the scaffolding before moving to a different position. This prevents you from stepping off the scaffolding board. Position the paint tray several feet away, especially if you are using a telescoping handle. You are still able to reach the paint without accidentally knocking it off the scaffolding and onto the stairs below.


    If you place dropcloths on the stairs below, do not place the ladder on top of the dropcloths. The cloths could cause the ladder to slip.