It takes many steps to redo the finish on old stairs


July 11, 1992|By Karol V. Menzie and Randy Johnson

No doubt about it, paint is definitely a pesky substance. We get more letters about paint than about any other subject. Most of them are questions about how to keep paint on; but recently a reader in Ellicott City wrote about a problem getting paint off.

She explained that she and her husband have been renovating a 120-year-old farmhouse for several years and have finally gotten to the "decorative" stage. The problem is the staircase.

"Originally, she writes, "I thought I'd like to have the treads, banister and newel post natural wood and paint the risers and balusters. Unfortunately, the treads are coated with 8 (maybe more) coats of paint. I've tried removing them and find that the earliest coats resist removal. They are probably milk paint. I tried sanding them away but I found the underlying wood is soft poplar. . . . I've decided I'd rather paint the treads."

Which leads to a new problem: the floor and deck paints she researched, thinking they would be the most durable on stair treads, come in

limited colors. She wondered if it would be possible to use interior latex paint and go over them with polyurethane.

The problem with painting stairs, says Larry Horton, general manager of Budeke's Paint, of Baltimore, is the kind of wear they get. "On a stair tread, you get a step and a shuffle. It's like having sandpaper on your feet."

There are two kinds of polyurethane: solvent-based and water-based. The solvent-based would stand up better to stair traffic, Mr. Horton said, but it will add an amber hue to the color.

He also suggested that interior latex paint might not adhere to the residue of the old milk-based paint. Before any painting, he said, sand first, to rough up the surface.

Then, he suggested, use a pigmented shellac primer-sealer to help adhesion and seal the wood. Then the top coat doesn't have to be floor or deck paint; it can be any color of oil-based enamel you want. Gloss paint gives the hardest surface, he said, while a matte or semi-gloss would not take wear as well.

We've had to deal with stripping milk paint before, and we have only one word for it: Yuck.

You can get it off; a heat gun, sharp hand strippers, and coarse sandpaper used in turn and repeatedly will eventually remove it. But if you can live with painted treads, the intensive labor may not be worth it.

It's hard to offer design advice without knowing what the overall design scheme is, or what style the reader prefers. But there are a couple of things in keeping with the age and "farmhouse" nature of the structure that might work. One would be to paint the balusters and risers one color and the newel posts and treads another color. They could be neutral/intense colors (white or cream balusters and risers, Indian red or slate blue or forest green treads and post), or coordinating colors (lighter and darker shades of taupe), or contrasting colors (white and black, or mustard yellow and forest green).

Stencils are a nice touch on stairs: A simple repeating design on each riser, in a floral or Arts-and-Crafts motif would work; a more elaborate treatment would be to paint the risers and treads the same color, then use another color to trace a pattern up the stairs (ivy leaves, for instance, or a narrow checkerboard or diamond design).

Another old-fashioned treatment after painting is a country-weave or Oriental motif runner, held against the back of each step by brass carpet rods.

Next: Cooling summer's hot breath.

Mr. Johnson is construction manager for Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is a home writer for The Sun.

AIf you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N.

hTC Calvert St., Baltimore 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

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