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The Stairs, Step 1

Now that the basement is done, our house guests are gone and winter has really settled into Chicago, we’re in full blown hibernation-le’ts-work-on-our-house mode. The project list is long, long, long, but first up? We decided to take on our entryway staircase – step by step, ha! – and turn one of our home’s biggest eyesores into something, at the very least, a little more livable. Over the weekend, we took those messy stairs (originally covered in maroon carpeting and hundred-year-old filth, remember?) and prepped it for paint:

At this point – and in the least amount of words possible – the stairs were primed, patched + filled, sanded down and primed again. They’re officially ready for paint, new trim along the base and tile on the first floor, tongue and groove wood on the second (hooray!). However, deciding on our process and actually doing it was quite the journey; lessons were learned, backs are aching, and two days later, we’ve completed the first phase of many for these guys and the entryway as a whole.

The much longer version of this story starts with our 3M Lead Check, and even before we rubbed that little stick on a stair, we knew it was going to come back not-so-nice and rosy (pink = lead). The stairs had been covered in carpeting for decades, upping our chances for lead paint underneath (since lead paint was common in the 1970s and earlier), and unfortunately, we were right (boo!):

You might remember that we were hoping to strip down our stairs, stain the treads dark (almost black) and paint the risers white. But when it really came down to it – in all honesty – the idea of messing with lead paint again was so far from our idea of a good time that we found ourselves asking, what now? We could…

  • …suck it up and just strip that lead paint right off. We could purchase Peel Away (as recommended by a few of you guys – thank you!), but we had a lot of ground to cover. And again, lead paint. Even the best removal systems would turn the paint to goop, creating a big mess and large time commitment inside the house – around the fuzzy kiddos.
  • … replace the treads and risers altogether. They’re nicked and scuffed, so perhaps a fresh start was in order!
  • reface the treads. Yes, yes this could work! We found this method which would require sawing the bull nose off each tread, then adding new layers of treads and risers on top of the existing ones.

But the more we weighed each option, the more we felt paralyzed. What if cutting off each bullnose damaged the stair construction? Maybe we should just rebuild them altogether, but holy smokes replacement treads are expensive; can we afford that right now? We went back and forth on a solution countless times, and at one point (a moment of madness, if you will), I pulled up a tread – just to see.

It turns out, pulling up those treads required quite a bit of muscle (I even pretended to grunt in frustration and threw in a handful of swear words for good measure, hopeful that Scott would come to my rescue; no such luck!), and I realized: These stairs are solid. They may be over 100 years old, but they were built very, very well – and come to think of it, they don’t have creaks or squeaks.

In fact, this further reinforced that the only problem with our stairs was the lead paint! The old, chipped, crummy paint.

Rather than turn this into a debate that never gets solved – and to avoid putting it off for weeks – I emailed Alex from Old Town Home. We’re fairly new to OTH, but after so many of you recommended that we dig through the archives (thank you!), we knew that Alex and Wendy were no strangers to situations similar to ours. Almost immediately, he wrote back with a handful of suggestions (see his full list right here), our favorite of the bunch being this:

First, I’d grab a random orbit sander and hook it up to a shop vac that has a HEPA filter attached to it […] Then, paint the stairs with a high quality alkyd/oil exterior primer. You’ll paint before filling any of the chips or gaps. Once the paint dries, fill all of the things you need to fill with a high quality wood filler. Sand the wood filler smooth with the sander, but since you painted the stairs with the oil based primer, you’re not throwing dust all over the place; the primer is your barrier. Still, wear a good mask while doing this. Once smooth, prime the stairs with another coat of oil based primer.

Finally, paint the stairs with a high gloss exterior grade oil enamel (like the stuff they use on porches). Make sure it’s meant for wood. It will dry really hard and will seal in any lead paint. This is easily the most economical, easiest, and most effective. 

Done! While we had thought about encapsulating the lead paint as an option, we were unsure of how to do so safely; enter the sander + HEPA filter double whammy. We thanked him a million times over and the next night, we picked up all of our supplies at the hardware store. By that time, we were feeling really good about just painting our treads black (still with white risers) and moving forward with our navy front door. We were so ready to get this show on the road.

Needle nose pliers
Drill + long wood screws for repairs
Shellac based primer (we used Zinsser B-I-N)
3M™ Safety Products
Paint sprayer (to fill every last imperfection)
Bondo all-purpose putty
3M Wood Filler
Putty knife
Electric mouse sander
3M Advanced Abrasives, ranging from course to fine
Shop vacuum with HEPA filter

We  knew that with our game plan, the stairs would never be perfect. While the construction is rock solid, they would never look slick, shiny and new, and we would always see flecks of flaws through our layers of paint. But! That’s the charm in an old home. We would move forward regardless, tighten the nuts and bolts – so to speak, and give it it’s first freshening up in countless decades. (On a side note, being unable to use the stairs was a non-issue, as we have a large back deck that connects all the floors. So, while it was freezing, we used those to go up and down as needed.)

First thing Saturday morning and manned with our pliers and hammers, Scott and I went over the steps one last time, pulling up staples and nails. We knew there were a few left behind from my first round (although I had pulled up hundreds and hundreds of them!), but we had no idea this would take us almost 2 hours.

We then had to replace the one tread I pulled up (I had used so much force, that it ultimately cracked in half; there was no salvaging it), and Scott put a handful of wood screws in two of the treads with hairline cracks. He did so very slowly as to not crack the tread any further, and he was able to tighten everything up perfectly.

It’s been a long time since we’ve messed with oiled based paints and primer, so we made sure to suit up with (my new favorite) 3M™ Safety Gear, and despite the cold, we opened the door to ventilate the tight staircase. We used our paint sprayer for our initial coat of primer, with the hopes of filling in every last crack and crevice. (In hindsight, clean up took much longer than we anticipated since the primer was oil based, but that first coat was thick and smooth; perfect.)

We allowed the primer to dry for a couple of hours, then we spent Saturday evening going over as many imperfections as we could, while keeping in the back of our minds: These stairs cannot be perfect. Charming, yes. Perfect, no. (Also, this doubles as a full confession for a hoppin’ weekend night at the Vargos!) After seeing Jenny’s luck from Little Green Notebook using Bondo, we decided to take her advice and give it a try. For smaller dents and knicks, we used 3M Wood Filler and used Bondo for deeper cracks – such as the treads that Scott had to repair with wood screws.

By Sunday morning, it was time to sand! We purchased a HEPA filter for our shop vacuum, as well as a small connection that would allow the hose to fit directly into our electric sander. (And of course, I wore my safety gear and taped off the living room!) For the most part, sanding took away the excess Bondo and wood filler , although, full disclaimer, there were a few areas that were taken down lower than the primer. I started sanding using 80 grit Advanced Abrasives, then worked my way down to 220 grit for a smooth finish. The vacuum sucked up nearly all of the dust created, with only the most minor dusting left behind (like, really minor).

Finally – after 4 hours of sanding! – I was able to wipe everything clean using just a wet rag and microfiber cloth to pick up the small amounts of loose dust and apply my final coat of primer. For the second round of primer, I actually opted to use a brush and small roller to avoid the paint sprayer clean-up. Below, you can see ONE) the before – layers and layers of lead-laced paint, TWO) the stairs after they’d been pried free of staples and nails, coated in primer, patched and sanded, and THREE) finallythe second (and last) coat of primer!

Scott walked into the entryway as I was halfway completed with the last coat of primer (he had been tending to a fun plumbing issue), and he was floored. Floored! There are still teeny, tiny pocks and dents in the finish (again, with the whole charming thing), but the improvement is astounding! Now, imagine fresh white risers and glossy black treads:

We’re still missing the trim that I ripped up a few months ago – it was beyond salvageable – but we’ll be taking measurements this week to purchase 1″x2″s to patch them back in.

Yes, there is still a lot to do to bring this entryway together. Finishing items like the main light fixture and flooring will wait until we’ve completed painting (we’ve laid down plain black mats to soak up winter sludge in the meantime), and of course artwork, a small console or mirror – while something I love daydreaming about! – are still a faraway thought. Even still, getting the stairs in this condition was a not-so-small victory (even if it did stray from our original plans of staining the treads), especially knowing that we can rest easier now that we’ve distanced lead paint from little four-legged paws.

This weekend, we’ll be popping open paint cans for the entryway walls!

This post was brought to you in partnership with, and all opinions belong to these two. Keep up-to-date on projects, products and sampling by visiting, and find them on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Pinterest.

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  • Julia@Cukoo4Design12.10.13 - 7:13 AM

    A ton of work but it looks so good. Lead paint is so scary, yuck!ReplyCancel

  • Jane @ The Borrowed Abode12.10.13 - 7:26 AM

    Sounds like the best (easiest/cheapest) safe approach. Alex and Wendy are such a wealth of DIY knowledge – and they are awesome! So glad you found them for some guidance.ReplyCancel

  • Lindsey d.12.10.13 - 8:37 AM

    Wow! Not bad for a weekend! ;) Also, I can’t help but think that connecting the sander to the vacuum is a great tip for ANY indoor sanding project. Will keep that in mind!

    So glad to hear the paint sprayer works well with oil paint. Fiance purchased oil for the trim and I want to use my new paint sprayer on the doors, but was worried about the oil. It all still has to wait until after the holidays and when we have better weather, but I’m hopeful!ReplyCancel

  • Kim12.10.13 - 8:43 AM

    Lindsey, you’re right – any indoor sanding project could benefit from hooking it right up to the shop vac! Regarding the oil paint with the sprayer – yes, it was super easy to use. It sprayed evenly, and it felt no different than using latex. The only thing that made the job more complicated was cleaning the gun (taking it all apart as you need to do, etc), and using the mineral spirits to really soak all the components. The actual spraying took about 3-4 minutes for the entire staircase, and the sprayer took about 60 minutes to clean.

    All that to say, clean-up with oil paint is always more tricky, whether you’re cleaning a gun or maintaining your brushes. Good luck!ReplyCancel

  • Lindsey d.12.10.13 - 8:58 AM

    Thanks for the heads up, Kim! With 16 internal doors to take down and paint (both sides), I’ll take a long clean up over all that brush work any day! I’m not looking forward to the oil paint and I’ve never used it, but c’est la vie!ReplyCancel

  • Laura @ Rather Square12.10.13 - 9:09 AM

    Oh no, more lead paint drama! But what a great solution. And I LOVE that your staircase isn’t perfect and still has some charm. You are so right, that’s what old homes are all about. I was just contemplating all the cracks and dings in our plaster walls last night, and wondering, what if we had filled them in somehow before painting (we did with the major ones, but there are still lots of little indentations here and there)? But I actually don’t mind the imperfections. It’s like a history map on the walls of the house.ReplyCancel

  • Kimberly | Turning It Home12.10.13 - 9:12 AM

    Although I’m not familiar with lead paint OR staircases, I am very familiar with pretending to grunt and mumble obscenities in hopes of a husband-rescue.ReplyCancel

  • Kim12.10.13 - 9:28 AM

    Lindsey: oh my, well then, YES! It will be so worth it! You could always use water based primer… just a thought. Our favorite is Zinsser 1-2-3 (about $20/gal), and we’ve used it on furniture easily. Oil based was necessary for the lead paint cover-up this time though.

    Kimberly – sometimes it works, sometimes they know it’s all for show ;)ReplyCancel

  • Jodi12.10.13 - 10:00 AM

    it looks amazing!ReplyCancel

  • Amy12.11.13 - 2:33 PM

    Ah! I think you’re going to love your solution! My husband and I recently refurbished our 150 year old staircase and (omg!) it was an endlesssss project. It literally took us six weeks of working almost every night. (The tutorial is here: I think you’re going to be super happy with your result and you’ll still be sane at the end of it! I’m excited to see the final result!!


  • Kim12.11.13 - 2:47 PM

    Amy, THAT is amazing. And they look SO beautiful! We’re really lucky we didn’t have to deal with a baluster, and the wall stringers were in decent shape overall. Bravo, bravo for you guys!ReplyCancel

  • Frank12.12.13 - 1:51 AM

    This looks awesome – it’s really coming along! Stairs have always been my arch nemesis when it comes to any remodel job, but you are doing fantastic!ReplyCancel

  • bekah12.12.13 - 9:12 AM

    Well done!ReplyCancel

  • Nikki Kelly1.9.14 - 3:49 PM

    They look so much better! I bet they feel better on bare feet too! I’m in the process of refacing our stairs from carpet to wood and boy do they feel a lot better under foot! I’m excited to see how your foyer turns out!ReplyCancel

  • RenovationMan1.22.14 - 2:37 AM

    You created way too much work for yourselves on these stairs. This is why most people just call the carpet man, and have the stairs covered in a nice fresh new carpet. Besides, carpet is much safer to walk on, is warmer for the feet, and looks much better. (carpet reduces the slips and falls on stairs dramatically, especially for kids)ReplyCancel

    • Kim1.22.14 - 8:09 AM

      Hi RenoMan, thanks for the input! We definitely prefer the look of wood stairs, although once we get them nice and painted, we’ll be looking for a stair runner just to add some texture and color in the foyer.ReplyCancel

  • Shannon6.20.14 - 7:44 PM

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Just what I needed for our 100 year old fir stairs. Hoping bondo can do the trick on my pesky cracked tread. Stringer is over treads and no underneath access so replacement would require major disassembly. There is no way I can manage rebuilding it all, but now feel like I may have a shot at polishing it up while kids weekend and grama’s. Thanks for all the great directions. Fingers crossed that I don’t end up with a bigger mess than we have already.
    Love your blog. Your entry tiles made me drool.ReplyCancel

  • Tom1.18.18 - 4:25 PM

    Any thoughts on how the Bondo has held up over the years? I’m thinking about doing this to my stairs.ReplyCancel

  • Becky8.10.19 - 7:24 AM

    Do you have any photos of the black paint on your treads? And did you use textured black paint to make it less slippery? Thanks! -BeckyReplyCancel

  • Patsy Cannon8.29.20 - 8:06 PM

    My gosh!  Our home is 120 years old and I have been trying to figure out how to make my stairs look decent since we purchased it 17 years ago.  The first paint job my husband did doesn’t look well enough to meet my standards.  It’s always been an area I have tried and tried to figure out how to fix.  I am definitely going to try the approach you have suggested.  I am actually excited to work hard for this!  Our home was in pretty bad shape when we moved in.   We  have spent a lot of time, money and sweat to make it a home we are proud of.  The stairs are my last huge challenge, so I will be proud.  Thank you for the great article!  Hopefully I can send good news in the near future.ReplyCancel

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