If there's a group of people we understand and identify with the most, it's easily the relatively small community of old home owners who are undertaking renovations either partially or fully on their own. It's one thing to own an old house, another to renovate it, but it's a whole other world to take on part or all of the work on your own. Any time we get together, either in person or virtually, I swear it's half party and half support group meeting.

Last week we were contacted by the fellow old house renovators and bloggers of Yellow Brick Home. Kim and Scott had a staircase dilemma. Their 120 year old Chicago home's stairs had seen better days. After removing the burgundy carpet that covered the stairs when they purchased the home (and undertaking a rather large renovation that included opening up the entryway), the treads and risers were chipped, pitted, and covered with cracked paint. After going through the many different options in their heads, Kim reached out to us for our two cents on how to handle their stairway conundrum. 

Scott and I keep going back and forth on a project, and we're just feeling really, really stuck. After consuming way too many hours trying to figure out the best way to do this, I thought I'd give it a try and ask you guys what you thought. Any input would be very, very much appreciated - so thank you in advance.

Okay, the project is our staircase! We simply want to paint the risers white and the treads black. The problem? We did a lead test on them, and the stairs are currently covered in lead paint. They're really pocked and chipped in a ton of places, so we would have to really lay on wood filler and sand, sand, sand - which we can't do with lead paint! So, we considered using Peel Away (1 or 7?) to get rid of it, but we've never used that before, and to be honest, we're worried it's going to be a MASSIVE task (not that we're looking for an easy way out, but removing lead paint is so far from our idea of a good time).

The other option would be to replace the risers and treads. I started pulling apart the top 2 steps tonight, and it took me about 30-40 minutes to do that, but I still need to pull out the rusty, 100 year old nails. So, suffice it to say that we have 16 steps, it would be an entire day of just pulling up the stairs, then potentially another day or two to put together treads and risers (we found treads at Lowes for $10/ea). Then we got nervous that maybe there's more of a science to building stairs then just that...

Have you encountered anything like this? Would you say that Peel Away is easy enough to use so we can fill/sand the stairs and paint them so they look decent? Or would it be so much of a nightmare, that building new treads/risers would actually be the better choice?

Photo Credit: Yellow Brick Home

Well, talk about a question that is absolutely and 100% right in our wheelhouse! We've both been there and done that, and we know exactly the dilemma they're dealing with. Back when we bought our house our stairs were covered in ugly carpet, and we had dreams of removing the carpet to find beautiful stairs that didn't need any work (I think we had been watching too many renovation reality shows).

Instead, we found great treads that needed to be refinished and risers full of lumpy paint, some of which was likely lead based.

We were thoroughly discouraged, but we threw our apprehension to the wind (while maintaining our caution in dealing with the lead paint) and decided to take the bull by the horns and strip the risers using Peel Away 7.

It wasn't an easy task by any means, but it turned out absolutely great, and our stairs are one of the aspects of our home, cracks, dings, and all, that keep the soul of the house intact and provide that real old house charm and character. 

If you want to read more about our stairs, be sure to check out our entry hall posts, but the reason for today's Ask Old Town Home has to do with Kim and Scott's stairs.

In looking over Kim's email I was brought right back to our early days in working on our house and the decisions we made. While we're happy with our outcome, Kim's end goal of black painted treads and white risers meant that she could entertain several different approaches to satisfy her desired outcome.

In my response I first climbed onto my old house soap box and supported the idea of keeping the old stairs intact and then laid out the two different scenarios I would consider if I were tackling their project with their goals in mind. They ranged from intensive and very time consuming to, well, slightly less intensive and mildly time consuming. 

(Remember, almost nothing when working on an old house should ever truly be fast and easy. If it's fast and easy, there's a good chance it may not be a very good solution. Sad fact.)

Old House Soap Box

Honestly, I can empathize with Kim's hesitation, and thoughts on taking out and possibly replacing the stairs, we had similar initial thoughts when looking at our slanted and slightly damaged stairs, but I'm pretty much going to absolutely suggest against that approach for several reasons (beyond the fact that I'm simply an old house nut and would hate to see those stairs go, in part or in whole).

The thing to remember is the age of the stairs, they were built to last. Sure, they might be chipped, pitted, and covered with lead based paint, but the stairs and parts themselves, at 120 plus years old, are likely in good shape.

First, old stairs are truly built to last, and the parts you can find at big boxes and normal lumber yards are not the old growth pine old homes are blessed with. The new stuff is unstable, tends to easily warp/splinter, and isn't cut to the correct dimensions for older homes. And if the stairs are sound structurally, without major cracks in treads, wobbly pieces, or significant damage, they're worth saving over covering or replacing.

Second, to properly replace treads and risers you essentially need to take apart the entire stair assembly, and the baseboards, and possibly other items that get into the whole "old house can of worms" that can easily spiral into a whole host of other unwanted projects (and you'd also have no way to get upstairs for a while).

And third, rebuilding stairs is just plain hard, especially when I'm willing to bet that the risers and treads are all slightly different size, shape, etc. Not significant differences, but old home differences, enough to throw you off by an inch or two once you reach the top in a full rebuild with consistent dimensions.

Given my feelings on "older is almost always better," I think you can probably also guess my feelings on re-covering treads and risers with new wood, it's sacrilege.  As I've said, I think old stairs are part of the true soul of an old house, and covering them with new wood is unnecessarily robbing a piece of that soul. Not to mention that it's something you can't just undo. When you cover old stairs you need to cut off the bullnose overhang of each tread. I just don't like it.

This is what happens when you suggest taking out old stairs.

Okay, I'm off of the "old is always awesome" soap box again and ready to offer up a few constructive solutions to achieve the stair goals Kim and Scott are looking for.

As I see it, given their desire to have painted stairs, there are two very doable options. One is relatively straight forward and one is...not at easy.

Option 1 -- The Not As Easy Approach

Strip all of that old paint off of the stairs, top to bottom, and then repaint. This will give you perfectly smooth stairs that are free of lead paint, but this obviously has it's significant drawbacks.

Speaking as someone who was exposed to lead during a summer job, I'm personally both paranoid about additional lead exposure, and also comforted that my issue was 17 years ago and I've not cut my ear off or otherwise gone mad at this point, and I spent 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 3 months breathing in lead dust without a mask or anything else to protect me. 

That being said, lead paint removal isn't like nuclear waste removal, and a DIYer can still take care of the job as long as proper precautions are taken. You'll need to check with your local jurisdiction on guidelines and preferred approaches for lead paint removal, as well as friendly advice. They'll likely recommend things like removing the paint using a paint stripper that is made for lead paint removal,sanding the surface by properly protecting the surrounding area and while using a mask that's rated for lead paint (and then thoroughly washing your clothes when you're done), and properly disposing of the paint and debris in accepted locations and correct vessels. All said, this type of paint stripping is definitely within reason for two capable adults, and far less of a massive undertaking than replacing stair risers and treads, you just need to be prepared to do the research and take the necessary precautions.

Given that we stripped the paint off the risers and stringer baseboards on our stairs when we bought the house 11 years ago, I can say that it's both doable and tedious, but the stairs look awesome when you're done.

If I were doing it today I would use the product called SmartStrip instead of Peel Away 1 or 7. You put it on, cover it with wax paper, then let it sit for about 18-24 hours. Then, come back with a flat pull scraper and scrape off what will come off. I scrape leaving the wax paper on and just scrape the paper right off with the paint. The first coat will likely not get more than the first few layers of paint. I wouldn't try to scrape more than that as you'll get into the lead dust zone, just take off what will come off. Then, put another coat of the SmartStrip, let it sit covered in wax paper again for 18-24 hours, then come back with the scraper. After the 2nd coat with this stuff I've had great luck in getting almost full removal. Stairs are also not horribly difficult since it's all flat surfaces, except for the nose of the treads, so you won't have to resort to dental tools for detailed areas.

As you work you'll want a garbage bag nearby so you can throw the wax paper and paint residue away right away. It's like a gross sludge, but that's what makes it so lead dust isn't an issue. The sludge means low/no dust since heat and sanding are not involved. One thing to consider, expect the sludge to get on your clothes, which will not wash out.

I'd try it out on a few stairs just to see how it goes. If you think you can tackle it do every other stair for the first round. That way you can still use the stairs while the stripper is on. Once you have it all stripped then do the stairs that you didn't complete already. After you've done the treads and risers, come back through and do the baseboards (actually can't quite tell if they're still there or not from the photo).

That being said, I'd really only take this route if you wanted to strip the stairs and stain them, or if the paint on them is so thick that you simply cant live with all of the drips (which was our case).

Option 2 -- The "easier" approach

My second, and much easier proposed approach is to go ahead and paint them, covering up the lead based paint. (The term of the day is "encapsulation.")

Photo Credit: Yellow Brick Home

I know there are dings and such, but the bad ones are easy to fill, and the sanding needed to smooth the wood filler wouldn't end up throwing up Pigpen style clouds of lead if you take the right approach.

To get started, grab the supplies you'll need. An alkyd/oil based primer, a random orbit sander attached to a Shop-Vac with a HEPA filter attached to it, plastic for protecting the surrounding rooms, and a dust mask rated for lead exposure. That will take care of the lead issues, especially if you get a long Vac hose and have the vacuum sit in an enclosed area away from you while you're sanding. The key here is that you're not sanding the paint, you're sanding the filler. 

Next, paint the stairs with your high quality alkyd/oil exterior primer (interior/exterior works too). 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. I don't have a specific brand that I like for this, but it should be something stable that won't shrink or crack. It doesn't need to be epoxy, but that it needs to stand up to foot traffic.

Once the wood filler spots have dried, 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 to cover any primer you sanded off and the new wood filler. You'll need to let the primer dry completely, which can take a while for the oil based stuff, and it can be pretty stinky, but it's worth it for the top coat.

Finally, paint the stairs with a high gloss exterior grade oil enamel (like the stuff they use on porches). This is why I suggest the oil primer, as it's necessary for the oil top coat. Be sure the paint you select is meant for wood, because several stores have been trying to pass off the formula for metal as an "all purpose." The best part about this paint is that It will dry really hard and will seal in any lead paint.

If you're painting the risers and stringer white, but the treads black, I'd actually paint the whole stairs white for the first coat, then start working on the different colors. I'd probably end up doing about three total top coats with a 24 hour dry time between coats. This obviously makes walking up and down the stairs a challenge, so timing of all of this is key.

In the end, I'm rather sure you'll have exactly the look you want, with a little added old house character in the way of pits and bumps.

This is easily the most economical, easiest, and most effective. Taking this approach also leaves the stairs intact, as you aren't cutting off the nose of each tread, and aren't changing the height of the first step or top stair riser. The best news is that you can always take another approach later if you're not happy with the results.

What do you think? If you were doing Kim's stairs and wanted black painted treads and white risers, how would you have gone about accomplishing it? Would you have primed, filled, and painted, or would you go the whole route of stripping? Or would you try your hand at modifying and resurfacing? 

If you want to see how Kim and Scott ended up handling the situation, check out their blog post about their weekend's worth of efforts. I'd say it turned out pretty great.

Disclaimer: Ask Old Town Home is meant simply as a friendly bit of advice and is provided free of charge. It is your responsibility to fully research any and all items related to projects or suggestions to ensure proper safety and code precautions and regulations are fully followed. In other words, any advice we provide is just our opinion, and our opinion is only worth the price we charge for it. :-)

Comments 17


12/11/2013 at 4:02 PM

Read their post earlier today and was all, "I 'KNOW' THEM!!" Fist bump to the old house DIYers.

Anthony Trezza
4/1/2015 at 10:17 AM

According to EPA you can not just encapsulate steps because itsa Friction Surface. It must be stripped first.
How could you recommend painting over lead on a staircase?

12/11/2013 at 4:03 PM

Your suggestions were perfect. I think people can go a little overboard worrying about lead and asbestos. If undisturbed and/or encapsulated, they pose no, or extremely low, risk.

I like what they ended up doing. It's the best of both worlds encapsulating, but also spiffing up without the hassle of stripping. The imperfections in older homes really do make them charming and homey. I read a lot of house decor/DIY blogs and I have to keep reminding myself of that too because it's easy to get into a funk when every one else's houses look so perfect online.

A question for you Alex, and for Kim & Scott...how wide/deep are your treads? My home's stair treads are narrow, I can barely fit my foot from toe to heel on a whole tread. Are yours like that? Does it make your feet hurt? I feel like I'm always walking up or down them on the balls of my feet. I don't think I can replace them with deeper treads either without messing with the stringers either I assume?

12/15/2013 at 2:21 PM

My original stairs were torn out, and replaced with a horrible excuse for a staircase. I'll be rebuilding them, but the treads, like yours, will be very narrow. I can't make them any deeper because the staircase ends in front of a doorway at the bottom, and in front of a wall in a narrow hallway above. I believe my finished stair treads will only be roughly 9", which is the same depth as my original basement stairs. Narrow treads are not uncommon in old homes. I once saw a staircase from a 1700's log home where the stairs were designed in a "zig-zag" pattern. Looking down from above, the treads were only about 4" wide (you have to go down them sideways)!

12/11/2013 at 4:27 PM

As typical, Alex is my always-right-blog-crush (not that there's anything wrong with that). Of all the parts of an old house with character, stairs could top the list. There's no way cheap treads from Lowe's will satisfy the soul like a set of restored historic treads, gently rounded over by a century of use, dings and all. I'd only consider replacing if the treads are cracked and split and essentially destroyed. And like Alex said, replacing stairs is more complicated than it seems.

Strip and refinish. For bulk paint removal, I like a variable heat gun set at 500 degrees. That's hot enough to soften paint, but not vaporize lead. One pass with the heat gun and a pull scraper will get 3-5 coats. Normally that leaves one last coat on the wood. Instead of Alex's Smartstrip (which all the good DC historic masonry repointers use) I prefer SoyGel by Franmar. It's effective and can be reused several times so you really get your money's worth. Just have to make sure to deactivate the surface with mineral spirits and let the stairs alone a good long time so that any SoyGel gunk left in a crack or corner dries out and doesn't mess with your new paint.

Don't eat the chips. Don't sand and create lead dust. If you have to sand, wet sand and seal off the area with plastic sheets and drop clothes. Wet mop the vicinity at the end of the job. Lead paint is not a Cobalt-60 x-ray machine.

Alex Fan Club member #0237

12/11/2013 at 6:01 PM

I was going to say heat gun, a putty knife, and pull scraper, but Brendan beat me to it. That's what I used to strip our stairs, baseboards, doors, casings, windows, walls ... did I miss anything? After all this work, 4 days a week for months and months, my lead level (as tested by my Dr.) is now, and has always been, ZERO.

I like the clean nature of stripping paint with heat. No chemicals, no waiting, and no potential for ruining the floor if said chemicals drip. (I tried a couple of the Peel Away products, and I'm not a fan for a big job.) There's a lot to be said for the ability to drop a project on a whim, by putting away your tools and carefully gathering up your debris in your drop cloth. Can't say the same with chemical stripping.

Lead isn't going to jump up and bite you. You have to breathe it or eat it for it to hurt you. Gloves, mask, and common sense are required equipment.

12/12/2013 at 2:31 AM

I personally think you should go all wood - gives it a nice warm feel for an older home. Keep up the awesome work, the house is looking great!

12/14/2013 at 10:03 PM

I agree -- our original oak stairs are unpainted. Sometimes when I see pictures of white, black, or dark brown painted risers it is tempting but not enough to mess with a good thing. (We were lucky that our stairs had been covered with wall to wall carpeting for many years so were saved from much wear and tear, and came out great after refinishing.)

12/12/2013 at 4:39 AM

If the treads and risers were shellacked before they were painted, the paint will come off easy with a heat gun. Been there done that. My stairs were actually easier to strip than most of the stuff I have stripped in this house.

Heat gun is less messy. Number one tip in paint stripping with a heat gun is do not over heat. Number two is pick up your chips while they are in big pieces. No don step on them or crush them into dust.

Teri Lynn
12/12/2013 at 5:39 AM

Hooray encapsulation! I have an 1830's house and there have been some sections that have received a coat of quality paint over chipped lead paint just to at least keep it stable until having the time/money to do the right thing. I have had zero success with the peel away products but maybe I will try the product you suggested.

12/15/2013 at 2:26 PM

I think these are great suggestions. If it were my stairs (I wish!) I would probably just strip the treads, and scrape-out the bumps & repaint the risers to match the trim. I love old staircases because of their character, and even more when they are like yours (with a gentle bow/sag in the centre, which is character that you just can't recreate).

9/9/2014 at 11:03 AM

Thanks for sharing your experience! Reading the advice on encapsulation reminded me of how strong oil-based exterior grade floor paints are and likely saved me some hassle. Mine are in fairly good shape but I'd rather not risk pet exposure and strongly dislike carpet.

Thanks again

9/9/2014 at 11:29 AM

Thanks for sharing your experience! Reading the advice on encapsulation reminded me of how strong oil-based exterior grade floor paints are and likely saved me some hassle. Mine are in fairly good shape but I'd rather not risk pet exposure, strongly dislike carpet, and cannot justify stripping it off.

Thanks again

3/14/2018 at 6:17 AM

Wonderful experience.

4/17/2018 at 12:42 PM

I am in middle of doing this exact job, two coats of different stripping did not remove the lead paint. As I couldn't sand it off, I completely covered it in Rustoleum's wood filler which acts like a thick paint. Then I painted it over with "Retique It" paintable wood, and am now in middle of staining the risers with General Finishes gel wood stain. I tried a liquid stain first but that was a terrible mess. I will then seal it with a polycrylic and there I have all wood stairs! I don't want to have to repaint every year because of the beating that painted risers take and I find this to be a much more beautiful look. I hope to put up a video online to show the process when I'm finished.

Dan B5
4/2/2021 at 12:24 PM

This sounds good. I have a 3 story enclosed wood back porch staircase on a Chicago building over 120 years old. I think they have lead paint originally and possibly other paint and were covered with some latex floor enamel about 6 years ago when we bought the place. They get a lot of traffic and the paint is wearing off in the center by the front edge of the treads. I want to re coat with durable paint. Would I be best to use the alkyd primer and oil as recommended here or stick with latex floor paint? And I was thinking of light sanding the stairs (almost entirely the latex paint) or maybe a good washing to prepare before painting. What works best? I'd like to have a durable coating and wonder how to go forward with what I have now.

Mark Torreano
7/26/2021 at 2:55 PM

What is the piece of material that goes on the backside of an outdoor staircase to enclose it? That way you don't have to clean up wasp nests and spider webs every year. I saw one on a rental home we stayed at and can't find any online just now. The material I saw looked like house siding but maybe there is something better too????

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