A staircase can be painted according to its best features — those you wish to emphasize or enhance.
When you encounter a staircase as homely as the original one in our house, what to do is not always clear. Seriously, it was so bad I thought at one point we’d need to rip it out completely. Only after I started studying staircases and their component parts was I able to figure out how to turn the ugly duckling into a swan.
Here’s our staircase before — a dowdy new-build without a graceful note. And yes, the top photo is the very same staircase “after,” but I digress. First, I had to decide whether I was going light or dark — and where. While generally you can bet on me to go light, there are good reasons to go dark, particularly on balusters — which have impact because they repeat, moving the eye up from floor to ceiling.
Since staircase parts are not as familiar as ice cream flavors, I searched for a diagram to help me understand which parts were which (the better to communicate with the painter) and learn which parts were most important. I referred to this constantly when I started.
Our staircase balusters — the turned vertical posts –weren’t distinguished enough stylistically to be dark, which would have highlighted them. Brown didn’t work because our floors were ash (a light wood) and black didn’t work because it pushes things toward period style — particularly Colonial or Victorian. Also, I had the benefit of living in an 1897 house in Chicago some years ago, one with a magnificent antique English golden oak stairwell. It was easy for me to see the difference. Like many relatively new houses, our staircase was strictly Home Depot oak.
This wasn’t one of my inspiration photos — I found it much later. But it made me feel I had done the right thing by painting the bead board on the rise white, as well as the stringer. I had considered a contrasting stringer but since I wanted to keep the treads the natural oak color (to tie into the floor) I essentially painted the stringer out. Occasionally, staircases have very fancy scalloped stringers or some other type of ornamentation which might merit highlighting. Here, though, the newel post and cap are white — only the handrail remains natural.
A wrought iron handrail and balusters like this staircase have more elaborate shapes and character. The urns, volutes and twists (as well as the iron) call for black, which also marries well with the dark stair-tread color and chunky chest. While it’s hard to tell from the angle in the photo, the risers might well be tile.
Painting the rise dark and the stringer white makes the staircase really pop. The paneling in the hallway helps a lot — since it defines wall from woodwork. I could not have done this. When my stairway was first painted I also left the cap or top of the wall paneling in the natural oak. In my case it didn’t add anything and actually looked better painted out. Here, it echoes the newel, risers, handrail and even the picture frames very effectively. The carpet ties in beautifully as well.
In this Greenwich Village townhouse, the staircase has an eccentric, sandwich treatment. Black paint highlights both the old balusters and newel post. However, the natural pine stringer and treads are not picked out with color. On the rise, there is a combination of bead board and wall surface — adding yet another color and texture. For me, the lack of focus on the stairwell speaks to the fact that it was perhaps considered a less dominant feature in the room than the scraped, wide-plank pine floors.
(Sources: Homemag, NY Mag, designingyourperfecthouse.com)
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