Matt is a professional painter and freelance writer, sharing his knowledge, house-painting tips, and product reviews.
Painting a Staircase Two Colors
I recently painted a huge oak staircase for a customer, using white for the spindles and black for the railings and steps. I've painted staircases before, but never one this large. I used my new HVLP sprayer to spray the primer and enamel on the spindles and a brush to paint the railings and steps black. The whole project took me a little over two weeks to complete.
Painting stained spindles and railings is a dramatic change that really makes an otherwise boring staircase look amazing, and using two colors adds some classy contrast. Painting in a gloss or semi-gloss finish really highlights the beauty and style of the woodwork.
Before you take on this project, know that painting railings a color separate from the spindles is a lot more time consuming than using only one color for everything, especially if you paint the flat part beneath the spindle bottoms black instead of white. You have to cut-in around each spindle and staircase step if you're painting the steps black.
Prepping Railings and Spindles
Oak staircases take longer to prep because the open wood grain can show through paint without using filler first, unless you're using a brush and roller to force the paint into the grain, but even then, some cracks and holes can still show through. Skim coating the surface with filler does make a difference in smoothing out the wood so it looks less grainy.
- Clean. Staircase railings get oily and dirty. I use Dirtex (powder version in the box) for most of my woodwork paint prep, but any pre-paint cleaner is fine. Wipe down all of the railings and spindles and rinse with clean water at the end.
- Sand. Use an electric sander for the tops of the steps and sheets of sandpaper for the rounded parts of the railings and spindles. Fine grit sandpaper is best. Lightly sand enough to reduce the surface gloss.
- Mask the floors. Spray painting a staircase requires much more masking, but even brushing and rolling is messy. Whichever method you choose, make sure the floors are covered. To cover carpeting, the white masking tape from Sherwin Williams works really well. White tape sticks to carpet a lot better than other tape.
- Fill. I've had success using two to three coats of white Aqua Coat grain filler, joint compound, and lightweight spackle. Aqua Coat dries the hardest out of the three and sands fairly easily with fine grit sandpaper. Skim coat the wood with filler and sand it off when dry. The easiest and fastest way to apply filler to spindles is to wear gloves and use your hand. Use a plastic taping knife for the flat parts of the stairs.
Priming and Painting a Staircase Black and White
Using the right primer is critical for coverage and durability. The best type of primer to use on an unpainted staircase is solvent-based primer, either oil-based or shellac-based.
On the staircase I painted, I used Zinsser BIN shellac-based primer, using my HVLP sprayer for the application. I only recommend this primer for spraying though. It's milky viscosity makes brushing and rolling it a very messy task. Zinsser Cover Stain, an oil-based primer, is an excellent product that doesn't splatter as much as BIN when brushed and rolled, but both are messy to work with, so be sure to cover your floor.
- Spray the primer. Spraying is so much faster than brushing and rolling multiple coats of primer and paint onto hundreds of spindles. Spraying gives you a smoother finish and better coverage than rolling. Spray two coats of primer, sanding in between coats to remove rough spots and smooth out the surface. I used my new Graco HVLP sprayer to apply the primer and enamel onto the spindles featured in the pictures. The sprayer produced a really nice finish, but the staircase was a little too big for this small set-up. An HVLP sprayer is great for painting a smaller staircase, but if you're painting a big one, use an airless sprayer with a 110 fine finish tip to paint the spindles. I use the Graco FFLP spray tips with my airless sprayers.
- Spray paint the spindles first. After the priming is done, spray two coats of white enamel onto the spindles, or use a high quality brush and mini roller. If you're painting the railings black, or another color separate from the spindles, paint the railings with a brush after the spindles are done. If you use a roller on the spindles instead of spraying, use a 4-inch mini roller with 1/2-inch nap, or 3/8-inch.
- Brush on the railing paint. Use a 2 1/2 to 3-inch brush to paint the tops and sides of the railings and a small 1-inch brush to cut-in the paint around each of the spindles where they meet the railing underneath. This is the most time consuming part, but if you accidentally dab black paint onto the white spindle tops, you can easily touch them up at the end with a small brush. I find it easier to touch up the spindles than taping off each one.
- Paint the stairs. Paint the tops of the stairs black after the railings are done. Use an angled paint brush to cut-in around the bottoms of the spindles, or tape them off. Use floor enamel on the tops of the stairs. I prefer to brush the steps and railings instead of using a roller. Brushing on the enamel produces a smoother finish that blends in better with the natural wood grain. Rolling creates some texture.
The Best Paint for a Staircase
The best paint to use is enamel that levels when applied. For the project featured in this article, I used Pro Industrial water-based alkyd urethane enamel from Sherwin Williams for both the black and the white. I used the gloss finish, which is very shiny. I would go with a semi-gloss finish, unless you want the extra gloss on the woodwork.
The Pro Industrial enamel I used is very similar to Emerald urethane enamel. The paint sprays really nice through an HVLP sprayer when thinned right. It also brushes on and levels out amazingly well compared to other products I've used. It will drip easily if you lay it on a little too heavy.
Another good product to use on stairs is Pro Classic acrylic enamel, but you can only have this product mixed in light colors, not black. Pro Classic dries faster, which makes it a little more tricky to brush, but it sprays really nice. There is also a water-based alkyd version available, similar to the one I used for this project. Water-based alkyd enamel dries a little harder for added durability on railings and spindles.
For the stairs, I used Porch and Floor enamel from Sherwin Williams. Don't use regular trim enamel on the tops of the stairs. Floor enamel is more durable for every day foot traffic. I applied two coats of enamel on the stairs.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Matt G.