Tips for Painting Staircase Walls

Updated on April 5, 2019
Matt G. profile image

Matt is a professional painter and freelance writer, sharing his knowledge, house-painting tips, and product reviews.


Painting staircase walls might sound a little scary if you're scared of heights or have no experience working over stairs. But with my tips, painting high walls is actually a lot easier than you think. I have painted hundreds of staircase walls of all sizes and configurations, and I don't use those plastic edging tools designed for homeowners.

Using Scaffolding for Painting Stairs

Unless you're replacing drywall above a stairway, removing wallpaper, or applying a faux finish that requires you to work on the walls for an extended period of time, renting scaffolding for basic painting is a time and money waster. Erecting scaffolding high above stairs can also be dangerous and labor intensive, usually requiring two people for assembly and disassembly.

In all my years of painting, I've never used scaffolding to paint walls over stairs. Using a quality extension ladder and a few professional painting tools, you can paint the walls efficiently like a professional painter. In the amount of time it would take to erect scaffolding, you could have already cut in the first coat of paint, using my tips.

Ladders for Stairs Painting

Working off of an extension ladder over stairs might sound scary, but when a ladder is set up safely, it's the fastest way to cut in nice neat lines. For this project, the ladder is only used for the purpose of cutting in the walls at the ceiling edges, not rolling. Once the corners are cut in, the walls can then be rolled with an extension pole from the ground.

Choosing the Right Ladder Size

In my experience, either a sixteen foot or twenty-four-foot extension ladder are best for use on a staircase. Unless the walls are abnormally high, a sixteen-foot ladder is usually the perfect height for most of the stairways I've painted. If you're unsure of the height, you can use a laser measuring tool to determine the total height from the stairs to the ceiling.

Extension Ladder with Adjustable Legs

These are excellent for use on stairs, as well as for exterior painting projects, working on sloped ground. I highly recommend using an aluminum ladder, not fiberglass. Aluminum is much lighter and easier to maneuver.

I use the Equalizer extension ladder by Werner, which is equipped with locking pins that can be removed to adjust the leg height accordingly. This allows the ladder to be leveled perfectly and safely on stairs. This particular ladder also includes a useful level on the first rung.

Another option is to buy a ladder leveler from any major home improvement store and install it on your extension ladder. These usually sell for $50 to $100. These basically function the same as a ladder that comes with adjustable legs installed.

Telescoping Ladder (Little Giant)

I own an imitation Little Giant ladder for use in situations where an extension ladder is difficult to use. These work good for stairwell painting, but the biggest disadvantage is that they're very heavy and take more time to adjust, but when set up right, they're very sturdy.

Since these are usually set up on four legs like a step ladder, they can be used with a plank too. You can position one end of a plank on the stairs and the other end of the plank on the ladder rung.

Pivit Ladder Tool

When painting walls over stairs, I use my Pivit ladder tool more than my ladder with adjustable legs. Setting up this tool is so much easier and faster than tinkering around with the leg of my ladder.

The Pivit is a multi-tool used for leveling a ladder in numerous situations, and it can also be used to set up a plank if needed. It's without a doubt, one of my most useful painting tools. The non-skid surface allows you to safely position your ladder on stairs the same as you would using an adjustable leg with a pin lock.

Extension Pole Brush Holder

If the thought of climbing up an extension ladder over your staircase is out of the question, using a paint brush on a pole is the best alternative. I know there are edging tools and foam pads that advertise easy cutting, but in my experience, these tools won't cut nice sharp lines like a quality paint brush. My go-to paintbrush for cutting in is the Purdy Clear Cut in the 3-inch size. This brush holds a good amount of paint, releases paint nicely when cutting, and cuts razor-sharp lines with some skill.

A brush extender tool is one of my most useful house painting tools that really comes in handy in situations where cutting in from a ladder is impossible or very difficult. The disadvantage of cutting in staircase walls this way is that it usually takes more time than working up close to the surface.

Using a paintbrush extension to cut in high walls does take patience and skill to achieve a straight line. An extension pole of the proper length is needed to reach the top for ease and comfort. Typically, a sixteen-foot extension pole is more than enough to access high corners with a brush. If there's a landing at the top, parallel with the stairs, it's easier to cut the wall tops from the landing than from the stairs.

Cut-in First, Roll Last

After covering the stairs with drop cloths, taping the trim, and patching and sanding the drywall, staircase walls should be cut in first before rolling. Since stairway walls tend to get more foot traffic than other areas in a home, the walls should be painted with a durable paint that can withstand washing. Two coats is best.

Duration Home from Sherwin Williams is a good choice. I personally use the matte finish, but the extra gloss of the satin finish provides a little more durability.

The fastest way to paint the walls is with an 18-inch roller, but a smaller 9-inch roller works fine too, using an extension pole, not by hand. The premium Purdy White Dove rollers work great, but the Soft Woven rollers from Sherwin Williams are basically the same thing and cost less. These rollers are lint-free for a smooth finish.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Questions & Answers

  • How do you paint down the stairs where there is no trim without getting paint on the rug?

    Use a drop cloth to protect the rug.

© 2018 Matt G.


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