Maybe Matilda: Staircase Makeover

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Staircase Makeover

Guys, I’m tired. I’m so tired. Jeff and I have been working so dang hard on a million and one dang projects for this dang house and I. Am. So. Tired. Despite the fun and excitement of watching things starting to come together in the new abode (and it is SO fun to see it improve and start to show our style and hard work!), I’m sorry to say that I don’t think DIY home renovation projects are really our thing. We hate them. I’ve discovered that I am definitely more of a ‘nester’—I love doing the little homey decorating touches—but there is no joy in the journey for me when it comes to larger-scale home projects. It’s unfortunate, but it’s true. So I can’t say it’s been terrifically fun to be doing all this work ourselves, but the outcome (and money saved) has made it worth the work so far, and we are LOVING the progress we’re making. But you know how so many DIY home blogs seems to enjoy things like demo-ing and laying floors and painting and carpentry? They’re on crack. The end. I’d be perfectly happy if I never again, in my whole life, laid eyes on a can of paint or a floor saw.

I don’t want to show too many pictures until things are a bit closer to being completed—most of the house looks extremely unfinished still--but here are a few peeks. If you need a refresher on the dismally boring before, visit this post for the full tour.

Every single surface in the whole house got a desperately-needed fresh coat of paint . . . our bedroom color is probably my favorite:


The disgustingly filthy, stain-covered, pee-soaked carpets? Ancient history, replaced by these lovely dark wood floors downstairs, installed by Jeff (WHOA, right?! I didn’t know he could do that!):


There are fresh, clean, not-a-droplet-of-urine-in-sight (for now . . .) carpets upstairs:

DSC_0003 (2)

And, my personal favorite, the kitchen. Ahhhh, the kitchen! We still have a bit to do in here, but we are well on our way in the transformation from a dated, bland kitchen to a bright, clean, happy room, thanks to a kitchen cabinet makeover by yours truly and brand-spankin’-new countertops and hardware:


I’ll share more pictures and details of everything as we get closer to finishing some projects up, but that’s a start. I’ve been putting plenty of pictures on instagram if you’re interested in seeing more of our handiwork as we go—search me up, maybematilda.

But I do have ONE completed project to show you today . . . the staircase. Here’s what we started with:


It’s fine. It’s nothing special, nothing terrible, just kind of your standard, builder-grade stairway. But since we were getting rid of the oak look in the kitchen by painting the cabinets white, and everything was going to be torn up anyway as we replaced floors and repainted walls, and the lighter oak wood on the staircase surely wouldn’t look nice next to a rich, dark wood floor, I said to myself, “Self, why not perform a little stairway magic?” Sometimes I’m smart. So I listened to me.

We started by knocking out the goofy little spindle fake-banister thing on the far left of the picture above and throwing it away—it served very little purpose other than making the room feel smaller. So Jeff went about the very detailed and intricate demolition process of kicking it really hard until it popped off the wall. Done. We were re-doing the floors anyway, so the little space in the floor that it left exposed wasn’t an issue.

I wanted a dark banister/rail and white spindles/balusters (I’m not 100% sure I’m using the correct anatomical staircase terms . . . hopefully you know what I’m talking about here), so I figured I would just sand and stain the rail, and paint the balusters white. How difficult could that possibly be?

I started by priming the balusters, then finished them off with 3 or 4 coats of a high-gloss bright white trim paint—they looked lovely. I was doing great. Time to sand and stain . . . can’t be too hard.

Except for the part where I stink at home renovations, remember?


Uh-oh . . .



Project disaster! The entire rail was a streaky, splotchy, spotty mess. Not quite the look I was going for.


Not good. Not good at all.

I thought I had done a great job of sanding the rails and post—I went over every nook and cranny with a palm sander (twice!), then went at the hard to reach areas by hand with sandpaper. I truly thought I had gone above and beyond in the sanding department. Well, obviously not. Not even close. When I started staining, it became painfully clear that I am the worst sander in the history of sanding, and I didn’t know what to do to fix my project—it looked beyond awful.

My mom came up with the solution (doesn’t she always?)—why not just paint the rail/post a dark, chocolate brown? Then it will give the impression of being stained dark, my stain disaster would be hidden and solved, and no one’s the wiser.

The woman is a genius. A genius, I say!


I headed to Home Depot in a tizzy and picked out a deep, dark brown (Behr Bitter Chocolate in high gloss—it looks almost black in these pictures, but in real life it’s definitely more of a chocolate brown) and hid my terrible staining mistakes with it. All it took was two quick coats over the rail and post, and it looks for all the world as if that rail is a beautiful, dark-stained wood instead of massacred, splotchily-stained oak.


(You can see, in the background there, that we need some drywall work done where we knocked two walls out! That was exciting and terrifying—more on that later.)

I’m no renovation/design expert, but based on my experience, I would say that if you’re interested in going for the dark rail/light baluster look, just skip the sanding and staining process altogether and paint it dark instead. I think it came out beautifully, it’s holding up great so far (although I guess time will tell if the paint proves to be a good choice or not over the years), and the paint job looks infinitely better than my terrible stain disaster. Plus, if I had painted it to start with, it would have taken about a quarter of the time that the sanding/staining process took. It has exactly the striking, high-contrast look I was going for, and if I had thought of painting it first, I sure would have saved myself the headache of sanding and sanding and sanding and sanding and sweeping up sawdust and sanding and cleaning and staining and crying and starting from scratch with a paint can.

staircase makeover

What do you think? Do you prefer the new staircase look? Have you had better staining success than I have? (Sheesh, I hope so, I can’t imagine it going much worse than mine . . . )


  1. I'm not fan of the new carpet on the floor... kind of too much fluffy maybe.

    The dark rail is class, but with this carpet...

    The old picture makes me think about something classy (because of the colors), but the new picture is messy : class for the rail, and strange for the carpet.

    But I really cheer for the work you did on it !

  2. Oooo, the railings look awesome. I love the dark with white and the paint is definitely a better solution. I hat staining. I find that certain wood doesn't take stain well. Are you saying that the NewlyWoodwards are on crack? Because we totally are.

  3. Ummm... Helene? Are you insane? The carpet looks awesome and so comfy.

  4. I'm so impressed with all the work you've done. I actually have a friend who tried sanding and staining a glider (she was pregnant at the time) and it took her FOREVER. She said it was such a huge pain to sand and she went over it about a million times - so I definitely don't think it's just you. Note to self to never try to sand and/or stain anything ever.

  5. (and please dont be sad about my comment, it's not any criticizm, just a feeling, and my words may not be very good as I'm french)

  6. Helene, I am going to take your word for it and say the meaning was lost in translation . . .

    Rachel. Staining is the WORST, isn't it? We stained some kitchen stools that we had and I can honestly say I will never stain anything ever again. I like dark wood. I want it in my house. But I will never do it myself again.

    I love your colors and I can't wait to see the whole thing! And I must say, I have serious house envy right now. From having bought a house with a head full of ideas as to how to transform it, to learning to we were moving and thus not transforming it, to moving into a teeny apartment we pay more than double our mortgage for, I am really missing the opportunity to make something all my own.

    1. The absolute WORST! Are there professional stainers? If that's not already a profession, someone should get moving on that one and make a career out of it, because they would make bank. I'm so glad to hear I'm not the only one who hates it.

      Besides the obvious dismay I felt when I heard you guys were moving, I felt so sad for you that you had to leave your brand new house! It must have been so sad to leave it behind. I really hope you have plans to move back here someday. Or at least come back to visit . . . do you? Pretty please?!

  7. I think it looks fantastic! That stairwell really gleams now! That carpet looks so nice and pretty too! I don't mind small reno projects like painting or changing handles/lights, but I despise anything that requires sheetrock hanging/taping or hours spent on your knees. Unfortunately my husband and I live in a fixer that needs LOTS of fixing.

    1. Thanks! And I agree 100% on the DIY reno scale . . . small projects = fine. Big projects = DEATH. We've been completely avoiding drywall repairs for well over a month now because I just can't bear the thought of tackling them. Even hiring someone else to tackle big projects still means your house is a disaster in the meantime (and the PRICE . . . sheesh). At least the happiness of a finished project outweighs the horror of doing it yourself, right? ;-) Good luck on your fixer upper. I feel your pain.

  8. This had me literally laughing out loud. Great blog! Thanks Rachel!!

  9. The banister looks great. Very classy update to the oak. :)

  10. Love it! And I love your carpet.

    Yeah, we tried sanding/staining an old glider while I was pregnant too. We will never do anything like that ever again. Total waste of time. And it was *not* fun. I wish we would have just painted it like you did!

  11. Looks awesome so far! I love the wood floors! You'll give to email me and give me the scoop on those. Unless you plan on going into full detail about them on here.

    I love the railings! Have you thought about putting a coat or two of polycrylic to help the paint hold up?

    The carpet looks so fluffy and soft. I just want to roll around on it. Our carpet used to be fluffy and soft, but the people we bought the house from used the cheapest carpet and padding possible. Boo.

    Can't wait to see all the other stuff you've done!

  12. Fancy pants home renovator!! Your mom is wise. That railing looks fantastic!

    I'm tired just reading this. I blocked out the periods in my life where we built two houses. I seriously used to work 8+ hours and then paint for 3+ every single day. I have trouble finished dishes these days.

    Hope the end is in sight soon!!

  13. Oh my gosh. You hit that nail right on the head about the DIY bloggers who make it look (said in chipper voice) like, sooooo much FUN! And don't worry about the sanding woes. Our VERY FIRST project was to tear up the whole downstairs carpet to uncover the original wood floor, then sand, stain, and seal it. We didn't even rent the right machine the first time. I don't know how many times we sanded. and sanded. and sanded this #*%($ floor, but it was probably about 200 times too many for my sanity. And there are STILL spots where you can see the sanding was uneven.

  14. Some of those bloggers are on crack. I am sure of it. My stuff that I try always takes at least double or triple the time it takes them! I do like to paint though....I sort of find it relaxing...unless I am talking too many trips up and down a ladder. Your mother is a genius...looks great.

  15. I love the new look! (and the carpet) I too am a high-contrast lovin' girl. Personally I think I would have gotten rid of the lower stair case railing, but that's just me. I know nothing about decorating or staircase etiquette so I wouldn't listen to me on that one! But good job. I also love the white cabinets and the wood floor!! I think I'm right there with you...small projects are fun. Big ones would get tiresome real fast. Looks like you guys are doing terrific though! Keep going!!

  16. It looks SOOOO much better. The before wasn't terrible but definitely dated. I can't wait to see everything!! I'm in the same boat as you though. I hate home reno DIY projects. Our basement took 2 years...wait, we're still working on it. But 2 years until we could feel comfortable putting a couch down there. My next house will be move in ready! You guys are doing a great job though.

  17. Hey. I think we have the same wood floor...which my husband also installed himself last fall...which made for the longest month in my entire which time I also decided to redo the banister that goes around the stairs to the basement...I sanded and painted and painted and painted ( an idiot) and finally pulled back out the sander, went to town and now we have an, um, shabby chic inspired banister and spindles.

    I feel your pain. I wasn't cut out for massive home over hauls. But it's looking awesome. Hang in there.

  18. Are your countertops faux-granite laminate? They look great! I ask because we also bought a house that is a true fixer-upper, and we also thought we would enjoy DIY home improvement, but like you, we HATE it. Our current laminate countertops desperately need replacing, and because we're on a budget, we are considering laminate, though in a perfect world we would get granite or Corian.

    And I really like the staircase update!

    1. Lauren, you're right, they are laminate. Much as we would have loved something like granite, it just didn't fit in the budget. And honestly, I'm not sure I'd know they aren't the real deal if I hadn't picked them out myself . . . I think it's a pretty convincing fake! We got them from (and installed by) Lowe's--they are Wilsonart Milano-Quartz laminate ( We've been very happy with them so far--I'll get around to posting about them sooner or later, but in the meantime, let me know if you want me to email you some pictures.

    2. And good luck with your fixer-upper! I feel your pain . . . it's not as fun as it looks. (And it never really looked that fun to start with!)

  19. I'm so impressed! And I can't believe you're doing this all - we are just unbelievably NOT the DIY types.

  20. Ok, Rachel. Confess to me what you painted with! I don't see brush-strokes-- the bane of all my painting projects. TELL ME! (Yes I spent most of my free time today reading your blog).


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