How to Paint Indoor Stairs

Whether you're permanently removing the carpet from your staircase or simply giving a new look to already finished wood, a fresh coat of paint makes a dramatic difference that influences the design of your entire house.

Stripping Old Paint

Always paint the railing before you paint the stairs.Always paint the railing before you paint the stairs.
The painting process isn't difficult, but you may find it time consuming, especially if you choose to strip the old finish and paint the railing. As with any painting project, proper preparation is the key to great results.

If you're removing carpet, painting new stairs or painting over varnish, you don't have to worry about stripping the finish. If your stairs have several coats of old, peeling paint, though, you may want to remove it, and a light-duty furniture stripping compound isn't going to do the job. Use a heavy-duty paint stripper -- you can tell it's heavy-duty because the container is heavy, which means the stripper contains a high concentration of caustic methylene chloride. Wear old clothes, gloves and a respirator when using it. Spread it liberally with a paintbrush; wait for the paint to bubble, and then scrape with a paint scraper. It may take several applications to do the job; rinse with water when you're done.

Cleaning and Sanding

You may not have to strip them, but you should always clean the stairs thoroughly first by vacuuming away dust and dirt, and then washing the old finish with a solution of trisodium phosphate detergent and water. This strong detergent gets off any grime that could inhibit paint adhesion and it etches the finish. Sand unfinished stairs -- or ones you stripped -- with a progression of sandpaper grits. Use 80-grit to remove stripping residue and to remove nicks and gouges from the wood, and then sand with 100-grit and finish with 120-grit paper. A palm sander makes sanding with coarse grits easier, but do the final sanding by hand, following the grain of the wood.

Paint the Railing, Mask and Prime

You may be planning to paint the railing along with the stairs, and if so, paint the railing first so you don't have to protect the stairs with a dropcloth. Once the railing has dried, you can remove any spots on the steps with sandpaper and mask the edges of the stairs against both the walls and railing with painter's tape. You're now ready to apply primer, which is a necessity on bare wood or if you're painting over oil-based paint with latex. Use a high-solids latex floor primer and, to extend the coverage of the paint you're using, tint the primer a similar color.

Paint the Treads and Risers

The most durable paint for interior stairs is latex floor enamel, but it comes in a limited variety of colors. As an alternative, you can paint the treads and risers with conventional latex wood enamel and add one or two protective coats of polyurethane floor finish or varnish. Always start at the top of the staircase and work your way down. If you need to use the staircase while the paint is drying, paint alternate stairs, wait for the paint to dry, and then paint the others. Use a synthetic-bristle paintbrush with latex paint and stroke with the grain of the wood, starting and ending your strokes as close to the ends of the steps as possible.

About the Author

Chris Deziel has a bachelor's degree in physics and a master's degree in humanities. Besides having an abiding interest in popular science, Deziel has been active in the building and home design trades since 1975. As a landscape builder, he helped establish two gardening companies.