DIY Hardwood Stairs and Painted Spindles

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Stairs are easily one of my favourite features of a house. When we chose our first home, it was solely on the fact that it had AMAZZZZING hardwood stairs. When we moved to Ottawa though, every single house we viewed had a set of stairs that was plastered in carpet. Why? I have no idea. Perhaps it was because the carpet goes so well with the texture of the popcorn ceilings, which was also a staple in every house we saw (which is another post in and of itself!)… Whatever the reason, we weren’t a fan.

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To make matters worse, the carpet was clearly the original builder grade, and it had degraded so much from nearly 20 years of abuse that you could feel the staples holding it down. HOLY HECK it hurt walking up them with bare feet!!! Definitely not something we could live with, especially with a toddler running around the house, so the carpet HAD to go.

We considered many options when first presented with the task, since we were somewhat new to DIYing and were therefore daunted by the thought of doing our own woodwork for the stairs. After getting a professional quote for installation that was TEN TIMES what it would cost for us to do it ourselves, we chose the later and resigned to the fact that it probably wouldn’t be perfect, but that was okay.

(For the record, the cost of having carpet installed -which is something most people don’t DIY -would have been equal to what it cost us to put in the hardwood ourselves). 

To make life a bit easier for us, we used a stair and raiser kit for the installation. This meant that we could work with our existing frame rather than having to completely tear out the current stairs. Most box stores will carry a simple kit for DIYers which comes to about $70 per stair, plus the cost of finishing materials. These are the kits we used:

https://www.homedepot.ca/en/home/p.maple-veneer-stair-tread-cap-and-riser-kit-10-18-inches-x-42-inches.1000666686.html

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We chose maple, since it would be the best match to our birch flooring. We needed the extra side caps too, since our stairs were open on one side. We used these, which were meant to compliment the kits:

https://www.homedepot.ca/en/home/p.maple-bullnose-cap-for-simpletread-78-inches-x-1-78-inches-x-11-14-inches.1000706369.html

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You can find both of these products at Home Depot and Lowes.

The first step in the process was to remove the old carpet and clean up the existing stairs underneath. Not a difficult task by any means, but very meticulous since the carpet was attached to the underside of each step with about a trillion staples.

And what did we use to remove them you ask? A crow bar, utility knife, pliers and some heavy duty forks! Basically everything we could find that would be able to pry up those gazillion staples.

Tom did most of this work, as I was off somewhere painting. I did stop in every now and again to see how he was doing, and bandage up his poor pincushions (aka. hands). Eventually he caved and went out to grab a pair of thick gloves and a tetanus shot (ok no shot, but it probably would have been a good idea).

Anyway, it was actually pretty disgusting how much dirt and debris came out during this process. It definitely cemented our decision to ditch the 17  year old carpet!

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*Sorry about the poor quality photos, these were taken with our old iPhone 5 before we knew they’d end up online…*

After we had removed all of the carpet and staples, we then removed the existing handrails, spindles and balusters. Before we began,  we used painters tape to number each piece so that when the time came to re-install them, we’d know exactly where each one went.

To remove the handrails, we found where each was attached to the newel posts. For us, that was here:

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And here:

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To access the screws, we used a chisel to remove the old wood filler.

After our screws had been removed, we then lifted up each section of the hand rail one at a time. A few of the spindles needed a firm twist to dislodge the old glue.

  • Side note on the spindles:
    At this point, if you plan on painting them, it would be a good time to do so. We wanted to get the handrails up as soon as possible though, since we were moving into our home relatively soon and didn’t feel comfortable living in the space without handrails with a toddler. In retrospect, had I known how much easier it would have been to just spray the spindles, I would have done so. Painting by hand is extremely arduous, and never comes out quite as nice; however, it can be done, especially if you would like to change the colour without removing them.

Next we had to remove the bull nose from each step. To do this, Tom used a circular saw until he got close to the wall, and then a hand saw to finish the removal of the bullnose (making sure to get things as even as possible).

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After our stairs were fully stripped and free of bullnoses, it was time to begin capping them – yayyyyy! This first part took only a few hours in total, so we were moving along faster than expected.

To begin, we started on the bottom stair, as each new riser had to rest on the previous tread. You can kind of see what I mean here:

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See how the tread rests on the floor, and then the cap covers it? The only way to put them up is to therefore start at the bottom.

Also note how the sides are unfinished. This is because these kits can be used in situations where you have a wall on one side, both sides, or neither side. To finish the ends, you need to buy the caps for the tread and iron on veneer for the risers. Since we were painting our risers though, we left the ends of the risers unfinished.

After we had all of our tread caps and risers installed, it was time to stain and seal them. As I mentioned, we decided to paint our treads, since our spindles and handrails would be painted too. We were inspired by these photos:

(Image credit: 1- Satori Design for Living; 2- Between Naps on the Porch)

Tom was dead set against the idea when I first brought it up to him – as he almost always is when I mention something less than traditional – but after showing him these examples he jumped on board. He is such a visual person that the only way to convince him of anything is to show him an example.

I loved the contrast of the black and white with the natural wood tones, which we thought gave the traditional look some unexpected strength.

To create this look, we first stained the treads, using this:

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For reference, here is what they looked like before the stain:

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And

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See how they are paler than the floors in their unfinished state? Here is what they looked like after:

A perfect match to the golden hue of the floors, right?!

To apply the stain, I used a high quality brush and then wiped off any excess with an old rag a few minutes later. We then added 2 additional coats until we achieved the right colour.

After staining, we finished the stairs with a water based Varathane in a Satin sheen to give the surface a more modern and low maintenance look (gloss needs to be cleaned more regularly since it shows dirt and foot prints a lot more prominently).

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To apply it, I used a VERY high quality brush. I’m not sure why, but after the first coat I noticed a million little bubbles had formed on the surface. NOOOOO!! Panicked, I googled and googled to see how to fix things. The only real choice was to sand off that coat and begin again. Sigh.

The second time, I made sure to do the following things to avoid getting bubbles – which are more common in water based finishes.

  1. I made sure to stir the can very slowly before beginning
  2. I tapped off any excess finish, rather than wiping my brush on the can
  3. I applied a somewhat thick coat of finish, waited a few seconds, and then went over it again with my brush held at a 90 degree angle so that I could pop any bubbles that had formed. Then I waited again just to be sure

After each application,  I gave the surface a quick sand with 220 grit sandpaper.

  • Ideally you would do all of this BEFORE adding your spindles and handrails, as staining around them was a little tricky. Again, we were pressed for time so we didn’t do this. If I could go back though, I would.

Next we painted our raisers.

To do so, we taped down the bottom of the stairs to protect our newly finished treads, and then applied one coat of primer followed by two coats of semi-gloss paint (which is much easier to clean than traditional egg shell of flat paint).

After painting every square inch of baseboard and molding in the house, I discovered that this is the magic formula for successfully painting stairs. One coat of primer, two coats of paint. PAINT PLUS PRIMER DOESN’T COUNT – they lie.

After finishing the stairs, I moved on to the handrails and newel posts. Again, one coat of primer followed by two coats of paint. That was the plan anyway – in reality it was more like 20 coats of paint. For some reason the oak was just soaking up the paint.

We used Benjamin Moore’s Advanced paint, with an initial coat of Stixs primer.  If I were to do it over though, we would have used BIN, as this is what we used with the second set of spindles we sprayed as well as on our cupboards, and the result was SOOOOO much better.

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BIN is magical, I swear.

To apply your first coat of both paint and primer, I used a paint brush so that we could really get into all of the tiny grains. After that, a small roller in a low nap worked best and went a lot faster. I used these:

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Doing the spindles by hand was incredibly tedious. They took so many coats that we lost count. And they could probably use a few more.

In contrast, my experience with spraying spindles was a million times better. I tried this method after realizing how time consuming hand painting could be. We had a small portion of spindles located in our bonus room that sat unfinished for the longest time. We had initially considered other options for this space, such as putting in horizontal iron spindles or cables, but in the end we decided it would be better to stick with the original spindles to maintain continuity. When the time finally came to tackle them, I threw caution to the wind and decided to give spraying them a try – and the experience was night and day!!!

Here is what they look like up close when they are painted vs sprayed

Painted:

In the close up you can see all of the tiny grains in the wood.

But with the ones that were sprayed, you cannot:

The ones we hand painted are still beautiful, but there is something so perfect about a sprayed finish. And it took only three coats of paint and one coat of primer, which was applied in less than ten minutes each time, and the finish is factory perfect.

To spray them, Tom built a DIY stand out of four by fours and 2 by fours. He drilled holes into a 4 x 4 for the base, and then corresponding holes in a 2 x 4 that would be the top. Then he placed the spindles in the four by four, and the 2 x 4 on top of that, and drilled everything together with two 2 x 4s on the sides. It made a spindle sandwich that kept everything in place. Here’s what it looked like:

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The spindles ended up falling half way out, as you can see, because I tried to move the stand into my spray tent. It was still stable enough though, so I didn’t make him fix it.

***A note on our spray set up**** We use the HomeRight Spray shelter for our paint projects. We put off buying this for a long time, but we do so many spray projects that it made sense to just buy it so that our garage and everything in it wouldn’t end up covered in paint. For a long time we made a DIY tent out of tarps and cardboard, but it wasn’t perfect and paint always ended up getting out. The HomeRight tent is a bit difficult to put together, but is otherwise a great product, and it will save you a lot of money in paint in the long run if you ever paint outdoors.

If you are not able to spray them, you will just have to be patient and do a little bit at a time.  We did a coat or two every day or so, taking probably a month to achieve full coverage. But it was sooo worth it.

Here is a few more before and after shots:

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And there you have it. A brand new hardwood staircase! We’re so happy with how this DIY turned out, especially given that we were still relatively inexperienced DIYers. So worth the hard work and hours of labour ❤

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