Painting Wood Basement Steps

No pun-y title this time.  I figured with the lack of information I was able to find, I would make it simple for the next person who is trying to figure out how to paint wood steps.

The biggest decision I found was to poly or not.  All the paints that are recommended for floors are made so that polyurethane isn't needed, but I was worried about the wear and tear of steps that would see a lot of mixed action, (minds out of the gutters), like socked and bare feet, animals, and sometimes boots.  We've lived with our refinished floors for the last three years and the satin poly has held up to the everyday abuse.

I found only a few suggestions and decided to go with Sherwin Williams Porch and Floor Enamel, (since that's what we used in the laundry room), and RustOleum Pro Finisher Water-Base Polyurethane for Floors in Satin.  I was able to get a quart at SW and it was less than $20, but the poly was $40 at Home Depot and was only sold in a gallon size.  I bought both in the satin finishes, since I like the look of satin instead of gloss.

Floor PaintFloor Poly

We decided on dark treads and white risers, so the first step was to primer everything.  Then, I painted all the risers, trim, and paneling with 3 coats of our go-to trim paint, SW Pro-Mar 200 in semi-gloss, (un-tinted).

Next came the dreaded tape.  I'm not a taper when I paint, (I hate the extra time and clean-up and I have a pretty steady hand), so I was not looking forward to this step.  I actually used Frog Tape for the first time because all the bloggers are doing it, and I've had some bad experiences with the regular blue stuff.

Being a perfectionist, this took me forever, seriously, like 4 or so hours.  There's nothing worse then thinking you've got a nice clean tape line and then peeling it off to find a wonky line underneath.

I chose Seal Skin (SW7675) since it was almost black, but had a warmer tone than some of the other swatches we brought home.

Sherwin Williams Seal Skin SW7675 

I had planned to be smart and paint every other step so that I wouldn't be stuck downstairs, but it must have been the fumes that made me mess such a simple task up:

I actually just painted the next step down so we got a good stretch in when we went back upstairs.  After a couple hours, it was dry to the touch and was able to be repainted for a second coat.  Two coats was perfect coverage, so the next day I was able to paint the rest.

We could have stopped there since the paint is made for floors, but I was leery and read some reviews that the paint stayed tacky for a long time, so I went for the polyurethane for extra durability.  I got a little freaked out seeing my nice dark floors turn blue after the first coat.

The key to the poly is thin coats.  I used a foam brush for the edges and a foam roller for the rest.  This time I remembered to count and did every other step.  The poly dried quickly and was ready for another coat after an hour.  The label says to not do more than two coats, so I stopped there.  It also said that after 8 hours you can have light foot traffic, so by the time I finished everyday, the next morning we were good to go.

The landing in the middle of the steps created a problem since there was no way we could jump over that with only wet steps around, so I had to do that separately, and got some more stretching in when we jumped over that one for the night.

I'm really glad we did the poly since the floor paint was picking up everything.  I tried to take a (porrly white-balanced) photo to show the difference in just the dirt collection of the two surfaces.  The step on the right and the third step from the right have poly, while the second and fourth just have paint.  All are cured and were walked on with bare and socked feet. 

Every little piece of dirt, not to mention sock lint, stuck to the paint.  The only reason I could see someone not wanting to add polyurethane would be for fear of slipping, and while the poly is definitely not as sticky as the paint, it's not that slippery either.  It's actually a lot less slippery than our upstairs that are stained and finished with a Bona satin poly.

As for the tape, I knew it wasn't going to be perfect, but I kinda hoped it would be so that I could be done with these bad boys.  Every time I had to paint I would wake up sore from twisting and bending in weird positions to paint the nooks and crannies.  I'll probably have to get two small paint brushes, one with white, and one with black, and fix all the little imperfections.  I'm just glad to be able to walk up and down the stairs and not have to stretch over two or sometimes three wet paint steps.

We're both really happy with the results and I love the crisp white and dark contrast.

The lines along the risers are pretty crisp, the ones I want to touch-up are mostly along the trim edge.  For normal people, it would probably be fine the way it is, but as Mike would say, I'm crazy, so I see the little imperfections every time I walk downstairs.

One of the thought-provoking decisions we had was how to stop the stair tread paint from the ledge above the paneling.  Something we definitely didn't think about when we were building.

I decided the only way was to tape it and paint it to match the rest of the exposed treads.  I measured the other steps and taped the same distance to make the illusion like it was the same.  It's not ideal, but it's the only thing we could come up with.

The frog tape was awesome here and made a perfect, crisp line.

I did notice that along the trim there was some wrinkling though.  I'm not sure what caused this, but I saw it here and another spot down a couple stairs.  Mike thinks I may not have let the dark paint completely cure before painting the poly, or that the polyurethane was a little thick along the edge.  I didn't do anything different to these steps than I did the others, so I'm not sure.

Either way, the fake edge looks a little weird up close, but the further you step back, the less noticeable it is. 

To finish everything off after cleaning up the lines we need to add a hand rail, build the doors to the built-ins, and create a little landing area for shoes and stuff.

Mike's biggest issue is now that the stairs look so great, the trim around the door to the basement, (that we had to remove to replace/fix the drywall down the stairs), doesn't look up to snuff of the rest of the renovations.

We decided the best thing to do would be to finish this off when we remodel the kitchen, (our next, and hopefully final, major project).  It bothers Mike to have such an unfinished entrance to such a great new space, but I warned him that under no circumstances will we be starting the kitchen project before our wedding this summer.  We have about 4 months to go, so we'll see how long Mike can hold off his sledgehammer. 


  1. I love your steps. I'm actually working on my steps and am planning on doing the same thing. We are redoing our steps so I have the luxury of painting the treads and risers in our workshop and then my husband will install painted. I'm sure their will be some touchup. I'm planning 2 coats of brown and then the poly. How are yours holding up?

  2. Real nice job. Tore the carpet off and going with your method. I was thinking black or something along those lines, but I like the Seal Skin better, little softer. You addressed some of the concerns I had with painting. Thanks for posting you results. My advantage is I work from home. Wife/kids out by 7:30am return after 5pm. Lots of time to work with.

  3. Thanks for the great detailed explanation. I've torn the carpet off my stairs, sanded, calked, puttied, and read every online article written on painting stairs -- yours has finally given me all the info I needed to move forward!

  4. Do you have sand unfinished stairs?? Or can I go right into prime?

    1. Unless your stairs are really smooth and don't have any imperfections, I would give it at least a light once over sanding. Paint will show any rough spot or blemish, and will be harder to fix once you've started painting.

  5. You have a real talent for writing unique content. I like how you think and the way you express your views in this article. I am impressed by your writing style a lot. Thanks for making my experience more beautiful. Basement Remodeling

  6. Hello, would you mind mentioning what primer you used? Thanks!

    1. Hi! I used Sherwin Williams Pro-Mar 200 primer for these steps. Hope that helps!

  7. Thank you for the write up as I am wondering what to do with my stairs. After 4 years could you please give an update on the durability? How slippery are these now after some use?

    1. Hi! We actually sold this house about a year and a half ago, but prior to that we lived with the painted steps for almost 5 years. They held up really well, actually the only touch up we had to do was to the white risers, and that was because at some of our parties people wore shoes and scuffed them.

      We never had issues with them being too slippery. I noted in the tutorial I think the difference between not adding the poly would be for fear of slipping, but after living with them for several years, they were fine.

  8. I hope I didn't miss it. How did you apply the primer and colored enamel? foam roller? Brush? Foam brush? Thanks!

    1. Hi Bridget! It looks like you didn't miss it, I forgot to share that part. I used a brush and small foam roller for the primer and enamel. A foam brush could possibly work, but I like the control of a regular short-handled brush for paint. The poly was light coats that didn't have to be perfect so I used a foam brush. Hope this helps!

  9. Hello, would you be able to share the color of your walls?

    1. Hi, sorry for the late response, but the wall colors are Behr Mineral.