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How To Paint A Stairwell

Painting a stairwell can be a pain in the rear!

They have high walls, uneven flooring and create awkward angles and spaces.

Stairwells tend to be one area that many DIYers draw the line and call a professional painter.

Painted walls over stairwell

But, with the right tools, the right know-how, and a few professional tips, you can get your stairwell painted safely, quickly, and without making a mess.

In this post, I am not going to dive too deep into the basics of actually painting walls. Rather, I will briefly cover standard things such as prep work, rolling and cutting. I’ve covered this in other areas of this website (which I will link to below). Instead, I am going to focus on the steps and strategies specific to how to paint a stairwell.

Gathering Your Tools & Materials

There aren’t too many specialty tools needed for painting stairwells. Along with your basic painting tools, you will need the following:

Prepping The Stairwell For Paint

Grey painted stairwell

The first thing you want to do when painting any room in your home is prep the room for paint.

Clean The Stairwell Area

Start by removing anything from the stairwell walls and floor where you will be painting, sweep or vacuum the area until it is clean.

Lay Out Your Drop Cloths

Once the area is cleaned out, you’ll want to lay down your drop cloths. These are to keep paint drips, splatter, and debris from getting onto your flooring or carpet.

Personally, I like to use enough drop cloths that I can cover the entire area without moving my drop cloths from place to place. This keeps me from spreading any drips that the drop cloths caught by dragging the drop cloth or stepping in it and spreading it that way.

Spackle Any Imperfections In The Walls

If you have holes, dents, or imperfections in your walls, now is the time to fill them with spackling paste (drywall mud) so that they have time to dry.

Sand Your Stairwell Walls Smooth

Once your spackle has had time to dry, you’ll want to sand your walls smooth.

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I like to use a Radius 360 round sanding disc on an extension pole. These discs don’t damage the walls as a rectangle sanding pole can. They also attach to extension poles like the Wooster 6′ – 12′ allowing you to easily sand your stairwell all the way up to the ceiling.

Clean The Trim

When you are done sanding, you’ll want to shop vac any sanding dust from your baseboards so that your tape will stick properly.

Tape Off Your Baseboards

Taping off your baseboards is one of those steps that can really make or break a paint job. A poor tape job can lead to paint bleed through onto your baseboards and an uneven line between your baseboards and walls.

If you want to read how I get a perfectly straight line with no bleed through, check out this post on How To Tape For Painting. I also have a great post on Choosing The Right Tape For Every Painting Project.

Cutting In The Ceilings Of A Stairwell

Using A Ladder To Get To The Ceiling

Cutting in the ceilings of a stairwell is easily the hardest part of this painting project. It involves getting up to the point where you can reach the corner where the walls meet the ceiling with a paintbrush.

I have found that the easiest and safest way to get to the ceilings of a stairwell is to use a Multi-Use Telescoping Ladder.

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These ladders are perfect for stairwells because of all the different ways that you can set them up. With so many possibilities, you can set up a multi-use telescoping ladder safely in almost any stairwell.

They can go straight up like an extension ladder, or fold into an A-frame on the stairs.

The Handyman Toolbox has a video showing one of these ladders in use in a stairwell. It shows perfectly how handy these ladders can be. The painting in the video is quite rough though!

A normal 16′ extension ladder can often also be used when painting a stairwell.

The real trick to painting a stairwell is to properly and safely set up your ladder. Slow down and be safe.

In all my years of painting, I have only found a couple of stairwells where I could not reach all areas with either an extension ladder or a multi-use telescoping ladder. Scaffolding should almost never be needed.

If you’re not comfortable with ladders keep reading. I will show you a handy technique that can help you paint your stairwell without ever leaving the comfort of the ground!

Cutting In The Ceiling

Now that you’re up at the ceiling in your stairwell, it’s time to cut in the walls along the ceiling with your new paint.

I recommend using a 2.5″ Purdy Pro-Extra Glide paintbrush for cutting in ceilings.

I also recommend brushing your paint down roughly 6″ from the ceiling. This gives you room when rolling out your walls so that you don’t accidentally bump with the ceiling with your paint roller.

Rolling Out The Walls Of A Stairwell

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Now that you have cut in the ceilings with your new paint, you’re ready to roll out the walls with your paint.

There are two ways of doing this, both are fine and depend on your preferences.

I like to keep my multi-ladder setup and roll out the walls using a 1/2 nap roller pad attached to a 2′-4′ extension pole.

This does require me to make a handful of trips up and down my ladder, but it also allows me to keep better control of my roller while painting. This gives me better texture, less chance of hitting the ceiling, and less shoulder fatigue.

You can also roll out the walls using the same roller pad and frame, only attach it to a Wooster 6′-12′ extension pole. Added to a reach of 6′, most people should be able to easily roll out a 16′ high stairwell wall.

How To Paint A Stairwell Without A Ladder

If you’re not interested in climbing up a ladder to paint your stairwell, there is another way where you can keep your feet on the ground.

NOTE: Personally, this is not my favorite way to paint a stairwell as it is really quite difficult to produce a perfect paint job, and it’s rather slow. But for many people, the tradeoff may be worth it.

So What Is This Method?

Shur-Line makes a brush holding attachment that you can screw onto the end of your extension pole.

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These brush attachments are very slow when used to cut in a high stairwell ceiling. They are also quite tough to get a straight line and exhausting on the shoulders. BUT, you don’t have to climb a ladder.

When you’re done cutting in, simply twist off the brush holder attachment and twist on your paint roller to roll out the walls.

Viola! You painted your stairwell walls without ever having to climb on a ladder!

De-Prep and Cleanup

When you’re done painting your stairwell, make sure to pull the tape off your baseboard before the paint has had time to cure. This way the paint is still soft if any bled through under your tape and you can easily scrape it off your baseboards.

Tips On How To Paint A Stairwell

Paint your walls one at a time to help keep a wet paint edge. This will help reduce flashing that happens when your wet paint edge dries out in the middle of a wall.

Not feeling comfortable on the ladder? Grab a second person to help stabilize the ladder and add a sense of security.

Don’t over-reach while on a ladder. Falls happen when people over-extend themselves while on ladders.

Want to read more on painting high walls, not just over stairwells? Check out our post on how to paint high walls.


Did this post help with your stairwell painting project? Got any questions about your project? Leave your questions and comments below, I always make sure to reply to every comment here on DIY Painting Tips!