Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Shady Business: Ombre Staircase Renovation

Sometimes I just can't contain myself when it comes to design decisions.  There are some projects that should retain the classic mantra of "less is more".  Then there are projects that are bursting with so much potential, it's just freaking ridiculous.  And then you have me.  And a staircase.  Little 'ol me and a plain-Jane staircase.  I think you know where this is going by now.

Ombre. Need I discuss why this concept is amazing for a staircase?  No, hombre, I do not.

I feel that decorating a space doesn't have to come solely from material items.  In fact, much of our basement space's decor will come primarily from design features that we've implemented throughout the renovation process.  With white walls and ceilings, there is an incredible amount of potential to be had with the finishing details.  For instance, the beam across the ceiling will be accentuated with a few coats of stunning dark teal paint.  Oh and the doors?  They'll be a hip 'n sunny yellow.  Then of course, there's our fantastic ombre staircase.  Without a single piece of furniture, throw pillow, or tchotchke, our basement will already have loads of interest and character.  Since we opted to avoid a fully "finished" basement space (i.e., fully drywalled, insulation, flooring, etc), we wanted the space to have enough character to distract from the fact that it's still a cool, unfinished space with spider tenants (I asked them nicely, and they still refuse to move out).  I'd say we're on the right track.  On to the staircase:

The first stage of my uh-mazing staircase transformation was to revive the original oak steps.  Using a palm sander, I lightly sanded away 60 years of grime, stains, and yuck.  Since the steps had some extensive wear and tear, I didn't sand them down to the clean grain.  Once the steps were sanded, I vacuumed and wiped them off with a tack cloth to remove any lingering dust and debris.  Then it was time to party...in a 1950s-Cape-Cod-architecture-loving sort of way.  Using a foam brush, I carefully applied one coat of Minwax PolyShades in Mission Oak to the oak steps.  This product is amazing for refinishing furniture since it's the perfect cocktail of stain and poly-finish, so we figured it might work for the steps - sort of a "kill two birds with one stone" thought.  By comparing swatches, we thought Mission Oak looked pretty similar in color to the oak hardwood that we have throughout the house, but it actually came out much darker than we anticipated.  Much, much darker.  But I have to remind myself that this is a basement space, so perfection is not critical.  In fact, I've grown rather fond of the darker hue of the steps; it's sort of svelte and fancy.  Since PolyShades is not recommended for floors, I knew I had to apply some polyurethane over top of each step.  Before I did that, I lightly sanded the steps with steel wool and cleaned them off with a tack-cloth - when applying polyurethane it's critical to lightly sand between coats, otherwise your coats may peel overtime.  Then, using a clean foam brush, we applied two coats of polyurethane to the steps. 

I allowed the freshly redone steps to dry for a few days before walking on them, because quite frankly, a irreversible footprint on one of my pretty steps would haunt me forever.

Before I ventured off on my exciting stair-painting endeavor, I needed to do the necessary prep work.  Remember – prep work is key to ensuring snag-free productivity and having a fabulous final product.  Since it had been a couple of weeks since we refinished the steps, I wiped down the face of each step (where I will be painting) and swept any debris or dog hair from the steps themselves.  Next I ran a strip of Frog Tape over the top of each step where they meet the surfaces I planned on painting.  I specifically used Frog Tape since we’ve found that it is noticeably more gentile on surfaces and creates crisper paint lines than Scotch Blue Painter’s Tape.  Frog Tape is a ‘smidge more expensive than Scotch Blue, but we find that it’s much higher quality – plus, can you really resist green tape with a super cute frog staring back at you from the label?  We can’t.

With the steps cleaned and prepped, I was ready to round-up my supplies.  I gathered all of my paint – six colors in all!  I had a total of five test pots and 1 quart of the darkest color (for the bottom steps as well as the ceiling beam).  Instead of using multiple brushes or having to rewash brushes every time I changed colors, I opted to purchase a few sponge brushes – this way, I can throw them away when I’m through with them and not have to wash any brushes.  We decided to paint the ceiling beam the same color as the darkest color of our staircase gradient, so for that color I decided to use a brush as it will work better for applying paint to the beam.  Next I gave all of my paint pots a good shake since they had been sitting around the basement for a few weeks.  Finally, I grabbed a wet rag to wipe up any paint drips that I might make (this is something Chris always pesters me to have…but I drip paint a lot, so he’s allowed to nag me about it).  

Let’s talk paint.  Since we had anticipated using small amounts of paint in many hues, I knew I wanted to purchase test pots of paint instead of quarts.  Not only are the test pots cheap, but they’re just the right amount of paint needed for the job.  We decided that the ceiling beam should somehow tie in to the color scheme, so we decided that it should be painted the same color as the darkest hue of the gradient – since we’d need more paint to accommodate the ceiling beam, we purchased a quart-size of the darkest shade instead of a test pot.  As for the paint brand, we strayed from our go-to Behr this time around (gasp).  For whatever reason, Home Depot only offers test pots in a flat finish, and since steps can see all kinds of dirt I wanted the surface to be cleanable; flat finish is not a surface that can be easily wiped clean.  So I decided to investigate the test pots at Lowes and discovered that they sell their Valspar test pots in a satin finish.  Seeing as how I’m a satin kind of gal, I was very pleased with this discovery.  I also took great appreciation in the Valspar paint chip display at Lowes – there seemed to be more order to their display, and I found it much easier to find a wide spread of gradients without having to match up any chips to create an on-the-fly ombre spectrum.  And unlike the options at Home Depot, I actually found a blue selection at Lowes that I really, really fancied…because there is such a thing as the perfect “cozy-bluey-tealish-blue”.  So if you’re in the market for some ombre stairs, I’d recommend checking out the Valspar color options at Lowes since they come in a great array of hues in the preferred satin finish.  Bonus: Since I hate it when paint colors aren’t noted in design photos, here are the names of all six paint colors that we used to paint our ombre staircase:

Okay, back to the good stuff – making my ombre dream a reality.  With 6 shades of blue and 12 steps to paint, my wizard mathematical calculation skills indicated that each shade in the ombre gradient needed to be 2 steps “wide”.  I wanted the bottom of the staircase to be the darkest of the spectrum, with the paint color fading to the lightest shade at the top of the staircase.  I also knew that it would be easier to start at the top of the steps and work my way down, so I grabbed my lightest blue and got my paint on.  Using a new sponge brush for each hue, I worked my way down to the bottom step.  By the time I finished painting the bottom step, the top steps were dry enough to receive their second coat; I climbed back up my beautiful ombre mountain of steps and worked my way down by applying the second coat, being ultra-careful not to bump any freshly-painted steps with my knees or feet.
Then I stood back and observed my handy work.  I elicited some sort of audible squeal of excitement, which luckily only attracted the attention of my dog.  

Even Roon thinks it looks awesome.

Check out the beam! It's the same color as the darkest steps.
Even though the steps are colorfully decorated, I’m not quite done with the staircase yet.  Here are my final things to cross off on the basement staircase-to-do list:

-          Clean and sand the entire staircase
-          Remove sanding dust from the steps
-          Apply new finish to steps and railing
-          Apply two coats of polyurethane to steps and railing
-          Clean steps again, prep for paint
-          Paint ombre colors on the face of the steps (yay!)
-          Replace missing balusters/spindles
-          Reinstall step molding
-          Paint the balusters/spindles, railing, and side of staircase in white semi-gloss
-          Reinstall and paint the wall railing at the top of the steps

So I’ve finally shared my favorite basement renovation task with you, and hopefully I didn’t talk it up too much.  I’m still really excited about it, and I like to think that somebody out there on the world-wide interwebz will find some inspiration within this post.  I received lots of interest regarding this project, so I just want to take a moment to say THANK YOUUUU TO ALL OF MY READERS – your interest in stalking my renovation projects keeps my paws typing away.  I love to inspire others to tackle DIY projects themselves by sharing what we encounter on the never-ending path to our perfect nest.  Thank you for all of your support, encouraging words, and funny side notes – I truly appreciate your readership. 


  1. You really did a fantastic job in renovating your staircase. You truly improved the atmosphere! And so I thought that ombre style was just for the hair. Well, I guess I was wrong. Hahaha! Your staircase looks so calm and peaceful. It’s as if you’re always heading towards the ocean whenever you go upstairs..
    Gabrielle Jeromy @ Majestic Exteriors

    1. Thank you so much, Gabrielle! I love carrying clean laundry up those stairs...something I never thought could be enjoyed! Happy New Year! :)

  2. Wow, it looks so beautiful, I wonder why it never came in my mind… Thank you for this nice idea, I am going to try it for sure.