Painting a staircase: tips and instructions

Torben Schröder

When you decorated the living room and bedroom of your home, you definitely made sure there was a coherent color concept. But what about the staircase? The walls there are probably just white – as in almost every household. How about a little color instead? After all, you probably pass through this often neglected space several times a day. In this article, we give you ideas on how to paint your staircase – including step-by-step instructions.

View of a staircase covered with film and painter’s fleece. The walls are already partially painted.
© Getty Images/Westend61

In this article

What to consider before painting

Painting walls is one of the easier DIY tasks you can attempt. In most other rooms of the house, you can work standing up. Painting a staircase is slightly more difficult: the floor isn’t level and there is less space available. In addition, it can be dangerous to work standing on a ladder. Here are a few general tips on how to prepare and how to make your job easier.

Stay safe

Even on the staircase, you will be able to do most of the work quite easily standing up – it’s particularly simple if there’s a stair landing, for instance. But if you need to reach a little higher up, and even as far as the ceiling, you won’t get far with a folding ladder, because it’s much too unstable. Instead, you will need a telescopic or staircase ladder with infinitely adjustable extension rails to ensure the necessary stability. An even safer solution is a staircase scaffold, which you can buy in specialized stores or even borrow. This is also more costly, however.

Gather equipment

You should generally use professional tools for painting work. Painting a staircase requires the purchase of a few special utensils – besides the usual ones, such as a paint roller and spatula. The incidence of light is usually quite poor, especially if you have already dismantled the lights in preparation for the painting work. In this case, a construction site light will be very useful. To be able to achieve a decent result even in the most distant corners, you should use a telescopic rod to extend your reach. But you can read more about that in the step-by-step instructions.

Schedule time and assistance

As you will have already guessed, this DIY project will take quite a long time due to the specific conditions involved. You should keep this in the back of your mind during the planning stage. And ask for assistance: not only will the painting be faster and less monotonous, but you will have someone there to help if something goes wrong. Painting for hours at a time at a height or overhead can cause dizziness.

Tips for painting

Thanks to the following practical tips, your future staircase will be not only functional, but also attractive to look at.

Bright is best

Staircases in private properties often don’t have any windows, which means that little natural light gets in. So when choosing colors, you should go for light shades rather than dark tones. A cheerful yellow or a rich orange provide summer warmth, light blue reminds us of the sky, while a delicate green adds natural freshness. If you’re not quite as bold in your color choice, light sand tones, beige or ocher are also options.

Close-up of a woman flipping open a color fan.

Since a staircase is usually a bit dark, you should choose a light tone for the walls.

Design a base

If you don’t want to pick a single shade, or if you prefer color combinations in general, then you can paint a base along the bottom of the staircase. This means that you paint the wall halfway up with one color, then paint the top half a second color. It’s a good idea to use a darker shade, such as brown, for the lower part. The advantage is that wear and tear won’t be visible as quickly. When repainting, you might be able to leave the top half as it is to save a bit of effort.

Apply mineral plaster

Mineral plaster is an alternative to traditional paint for decorating the walls of a staircase. This special type of plaster doesn’t serve as a base, but is actually the top coat that will determine the appearance of the walls. You can even apply it on top of the existing wallpaper – quite straightforwardly with a paint roller. Mineral plaster creates a three-dimensional effect thanks to its surface structure. It’s also robust and breathable.

How to paint your staircase yourself

If you have the time and inclination, and want to save the cost of hiring a professional painter, then just do it yourself. We give you step-by-step instructions below.

You will require the following material:

  • Masking film and painter’s fleece
  • Primer
  • Adhesive tape
  • Filler
  • Wall paint in the desired tone

These are the tools you will need:

  • Construction site lamp
  • Broom
  • Paint roller
  • Brush
  • Wide brush
  • Sandpaper
  • Screwdriver
  • Spatula
  • Telescopic rod
  • Staircase ladder or staircase scaffold
  • Extension cable
Close-up of typical painting utensils such as a paint roller and brush.

Paint roller, brush & co. – in addition to a few special tools, you will also need industry-standard utensils for painting a staircase.

Clean the surfaces

Clear dirt, dust and cobwebs from ceilings and corners with a broom.

Unscrew and switch off the electrics

The next step is to detach all the sockets, lamps and light switches from the walls with the appropriate screwdriver – so you won’t have to brush around obstacles. Important: please switch off the power supply to the staircase in the fuse box beforehand. This is especially important if you live in an old building, as your power grid may not have residual current circuit breakers – fuse switches for short – that cut off the power in an emergency. If there is a faulty current, the fuses trip and disconnect the faulty conductor from the circuit to prevent a sudden discharge, i.e. an electric shock. Next, connect the construction site lamp to the power supply in another room using an extension cord, and switch it on to light up the stairs.

Prepare the subsurface

You will now have to climb to somewhat loftier heights – so it’s time to set up your staircase ladder or staircase scaffolding. To achieve a decent result when painting, the wall should be stripped and cleaned down to the plaster. This means that you will need to remove old wallpaper or previous paint. In most cases, a spatula is sufficient for this task. Old screw anchor holes or small cracks in the plaster should be closed with filler. Once the mixture has dried out, smooth it down with sandpaper.

Mask the surrounding surfaces

Before you get down to the actual painting, you will need to protect everything around you. To do this, place painter’s fleece on the floor and steps; protect the banister or objects that you can’t remove from the staircase with masking film. Cover areas that you don’t want to paint, such as baseboards, with tape.

A woman is covering wooden surfaces with a white sheet.

Before you start painting, you should cover sensitive surfaces.

Apply primer to the wall

Especially in old buildings where the walls are porous or sandy, we recommend applying a depth primer – also simply called primer – before painting. This primer closes the pores and enriches dry areas with moisture. This reduces the absorbency of the surface and harmonizes the conditions over the whole wall. Ultimately, this will give you a uniform and more attractive result when painting. Apply the primer to larger areas with a wide brush, and use a standard paintbrush for less accessible places. If the wall still appears porous, repeat the process.

Paint the wall

Now it’s time for one final effort. When painting, first turn your attention to the ceiling. Apply the wall paint generously to the corners and edges with a brush. If necessary, the telescopic rod can be useful. Then apply paint with the paint roller in large sweeps. Again, make sure there is enough paint on the roller, or it could produce a blotchy effect. Paint all the walls according to the same principle.

Conclusion: step by step to the optimal result

You may run into a few stumbling blocks when painting a staircase: low light, limited space, and an uneven floor to work on. But there are solutions for everything. With our step-by-step instructions and a few tips on color selection, your staircase will soon have a splendid fresh coat of paint.

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