The Staircase Reveal: Part One

July 14, 2009

Whew!  After 30+ hours of intense labor, it is done.  Ladies and gentlemen, friends and fans, we are proud to announce the rebirth of our foyer.

Where to begin?  First, I must explain the problem.  The staircase was natural blonde oak.  Dated and dreadful.  NOT the first impression I ever wanted to give my guests.  What was a girl to do?  Replacing it with European style iron railing was the cost of an automobile.  Fixing it seemed too daunting.  Then I saw Rhoda at Southern Hospitality blog stained her entire oak staircase a lovely dark shade, from top to bottom, and it planted a big seed in my inquisitive brain.  If Rhoda could do it, surely I could too.

That same week I was watching one of my favorite classics ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ with Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor.  If you can take your eyes off either of them, which is almost impossible since they’re both practically perfect physical specimens, you notice that they frequently descend the incredibly beautiful staircase of Big Daddy’s plantation home.  When I saw it’s espresso dark railing, white balusters and base, it was true love.  I had to have it.  So yet another seed was planted.  After Rhoda, Paul and Liz, I was completely inspired.  Off to the home improvement store I went, daring myself to do the impossible: transform the oak monstrosity into something sophisticated and stylish.

That said, let’s begin.  Here is the before and after:


Update: the wallpaper was later changed to full white picture frame wainscotting after we added wood steps a year later – full reveal here


How We Went From Ordinary Oak to an Espresso Finish:

Step One:  After all the prep work, taping off the balusters and laying down carpet protection, I stripped the existing varnish off the staircase with Klean-Strip.  It was nasty, smelly full-of-chemicals stuff.  I had to ask Mr. CG to keep the kids away for an entire day.  I wore a mask, and the fumes gave me a bad headache.  And I still had to sand afterwards.  (See this follow up post on why I now use Citrustrip instead).

Step Two:  Sand, sand, sand, then sand again.  I spent about 4 hours just sanding until my fingers cramped and refused another stroke.

Step Three:  I cleaned off the sanding residue with wet wipes, then stained the upper hand rail with Minwax Gel Stain in Walnut.  This is a wonderful product which I had used before to redo the highboy dresser in the entry.  It’s not Minwax’s fault that I wasn’t satisfied.  It’s just the nature of oak.  It’s such a grainy wood.  When the stain was applied to the oak, it gave me too much of a stripe-like effect.  Darker was much better, but the product only took me half way to the look I desired.

Step Four:  I did something unconventional – I glazed the wood with two coats of semi-opaque Burnt Umber acrylic craft paint.  Yes, you heard me right.  Craft paint.  I know purist wood refinishers are absolutely appalled, but I’m telling you, the semi-opaque craft paint filled in the gaps and gave me just the espresso finish I wanted.  See the difference after one coat?

Yessir.  These were the three products that gave me the look I desired.  Minwax Gel Stain in Walnut, Burnt Umber semi opaque craft paint, and Minwax Wipe On Poly.

They gave me this finish:

Hello gorgeous !

Using the glazing effect with the semi-opaque watered down craft paint (about 1 drop of water to 1 tsp of paint) helped to preserve the visible grain of the wood.

Step Five:  With the help of a dear friend, and professional painter, we primed the bottom of the stairs with oil based primer, then finished it with two coats of ‘Swiss Coffee’ oil based white paint for durability.  Thanks Mike !

Here’s another peek at the staircase up close before and after it was stained and glazed:


Step Six:  To the upper railing only, I applied one coat of Minwax Wipe On Polyurethane.  This took maybe 20 minutes total.  Pour a few drops on a sponge, wipe on, and you’re done.  It was dry overnight, apply two coats!




 I hope you’re all encouraged to take action, and transform your oak into something classic and wonderful.  Yes you can!

For the full story on how we ripped out the carpet and installed hardwood, look here.

Update March 2012: The staircase railing has held up all these years even with two kids and their friends up and down those stairs, it works!


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197 Responses to “The Staircase Reveal: Part One”

  1. Tales From My Empty Nest says:

    Everything looks beautiful!! You all did an amazing job. Love & blessings from NC!

  2. Karli @ RockyBella says:

    OH MY GOD! I was blown away when I scrolled down for the "after". My mouth (very literally) dropped. I can not believe this is the same house. WOW. I LOOOOVE it, especially what you did when the detail inside the molding on the wall. WOW
    I have to feature this some day soon!

  3. callipygianchronicle says:

    That before was ho-hum, but livable. That after? Absolutely breathtaking fantastic. This is hands down my favorite of your re-dos. Absolutely stunning. I admire your guts for being willing to take it on. But take it on you did. Gorgeous.

  4. Enchanted Rose Studio says:

    Such a beautiful result on the bannister. The white balusters with the dark railings is very dramatic and elegant.


  5. Evy says:

    Oh wow, what a marvelous change! Your 'new' staircase looks absolutely stunning, and I have to say you're one of the most talented people I know!

  6. Holly says:

    Ah, who says blondes have more fun?!? This looks fab, makes me want to re-do mine – but where oh where do I stop!

  7. Vanessa says:

    Absolutely gorgeous!! Looks amazing! You've done a great job! Professional!

  8. Meg says:

    Love the change. I restained my blonde FLOORS last year, and have LOVED the results… stairs were way over budget. You may have just given me the inspiration to DIY!!!!

  9. Sara says:

    Oh my word! That is absolutely stunning! Hats off to you for 30+ hours of work!

  10. Tonya says:

    Breathtaking!!! Your hard work definately paid off! (-:

  11. Amanda @ Serenity Now says:

    Kate…wow!!!! That needs to be featured in a magazine! It looks absolutely fabulous. And I can totally agree with how Paul would keep you from noticing the woodwork at first. ;)

  12. Brenda says:

    Whoa!!!! That is so gorgeous!!! You did a terrific job! Love the wallpaper treatment and the dark stained railing. It looks fantastic!

  13. The Neppers says:

    Its incredible, as usual. Can't wait to see part 2!

  14. Blushing hostess says:

    Such a great update and so creative. Beautiful, thank you for sharing!

  15. pk @ room remix says:

    Now THAT is awesome! Doesn't look remotely close to being the same house! Love it…

  16. Melanie says:

    Spectacular makeover!

  17. Kristin says:

    Absolutely gorgeous!

  18. MrsRoy says:

    WOW is all I can say- that is amazing!!! It looks so beautiful and I can't believe you did it all. You truly are an inspiration- can't wait to hear about the wallpaper! :)

  19. Jo says:

    It's fabulous! What a lovely affect it's had on your foyer. Hmm … perhaps I should give this idea a try.

    Thanks for sharing ~

  20. Rhoda @ Southern Hospitality says:

    Kate, it's truly gorgeous!! I love how you did all those steps. I cheated with mine & took the easy route, but WOW, oh WOW, yours is just magnificent. Thanks for letting me share with my readers too. You're the best!

    Oh, and the wallpaper, love that too. Can't wait to see the new grasscloth either. I'd love to use that somewhere.

  21. southerninspiration says:

    OH MY GOSH….my stairs look JUST LIKE that, even the same little u=shaped landing thingy. I LOVE it. thanks to you, Paul, Liz and Rhoda, I have a new dream!! I want mine to look just like that! Oh my goodness I cannot believe it. FABULOUS!!


  22. P/F says:

    I am IN LOVE with what you did with your stairs, and already showed my husband one of our fall projects for the stairway. Thanks for always being an inspiration.

  23. Dawn says:

    I saw your reveal over at Rhoda's blog this morning and it made my jaw literally drop!

    It's absolutely unbelievable what you've done to transform your staircase and entry!

    Just beautiful!!!

  24. Monica the Bride says:

    This may be my fave CG project. I love it! Now I want to find a staircase to makeover. Darn the apartment living. Do you think the owners will mind if I do something to the outdoor staircase? Probably so.

  25. Lindsay With Lindsay says:

    Very beautiful!! I love how you did the wallpaper and moulding on the sides. Can't wait to read more about that!

  26. Design Esquire says:

    This is just the kick in the pants that I need to redo our foyer. I have a similar project in front of me, but our whole staircase is original wood (and very, very dark). I want to paint the trim white just like your staircase, and I think it will make my foyer look so much brighter and open (just like your's). Thank you so much for the inspiration, it is just gorgeous!

  27. 3XMom says:

    wow wow wow. so GORGEOUS! Congratulations!

  28. Mabry's gamma says:

    Good morning Kate, I came over from Rhoda's blog (love her blog too) and the transformation is stunning that you made. It is one of those OMG moments… LOVE it.


  29. Kelli says:

    Love, love, love it!!! Worth all the blood, sweat and tears!

  30. Astrid says:

    Gorgeous gorgeous gorgeous!!!!!!

    Could you explain what you mean with glazing? Did you just apply the craft paint over the stained wood or did you dilute it with something?

    Did you sand the base before painting it white?

  31. ALVN of WhisperWood Cottage and Junkologie says:

    Bland to grand is right! Insanely wonderful!!


  32. Kathy @ Creative Home Expressions says:

    Came over from Rhoda at Southern Hospitality's blog and I wanted to tell you what a great job you did on her banister and stairway. It is just beautiful!

    I'm curious though if you could get a similar look just by painting it (rather than stripping, sanding and staining).

  33. A Touch of Country says:

    She's a beauty! Love it!

  34. Jacylann Nix says:

    WOW! my jaw is hanging open! it is beautiful! you should be so proud!!! you deserve to brag about this FOREVER!

  35. Abbie says:

    Just beautiful!!! I am over from Southern Hospitality. My entryway is going on my to-do project list. Thanks for sharing how you got your deep espresso finish! Abbie

  36. Jamie says:

    Wow, congratulations! It looks so beautiful!

  37. tales from an oc cottage says:

    "But it's oak!"…If I hear that one more time!Yeesh! Like it's sacred or something! If it's gold…I'll still want to paint it! ;) LOVE the dark wood!!!! I was quite "Victorian" in my younger days and I still love the dark wood!! AMAZING job!!!

    m ^..^

  38. Jenglamgirl says:

    one word……… "STUNNING"

  39. marty39 says:

    The transformation is totally incredible. It is just stunning. You did a fabulous job and I just love it. I can't wait to learn about the wallpaper. Just beautiful. Hugs, Marty

  40. Nancy says:

    I live just south of Rhoda in Prattville, Alabama and came here via her post this morning! I've just added you to my list of Favorite Sites and will encourage my readers to visit here as well!
    Your staircase rocks!!! And yes, it looked horrid haha BUT very typical. You've given it such an awesome makeover and I cannot wait to come back and take time to read each and every post on this blog!!
    Have a beautiful week!

  41. Kelsee says:

    AMAZING!!!! Wow, that looks so good! Such a difference! Nice work! -Kelsee

  42. sarah m says:

    OMGOODNESS!!! I LOVE it!! You are the makeover queen! Can't wait to hear about the wallpaper treatments, too, those really give it a nice finish!!

  43. anhesty says:

    U R CENTSATIONAL! i love the way you used the wallpaper. that is def something i wouldn't be afraid of doing with wallpaper.

  44. Erin says:

    Truly stunning. I recently acquired an oak pedestal table and four chairs. I'm definitely doing the table in that deep espresso stain, but what do you suggest for the chairs? I've thought about a white/espresso combo, but I'm not sure. Thoughts?

  45. Haley Bird says:

    You did an awesome job!! You make anything seem possible!!!! Faaaubulous transformation! What a difference it made!!!!!!! Congrats :0) I know you are thrilled!

  46. Cassie Holder says:

    that is ABSOLUTELY gorgeous!! I'm now wishing I had a staircase to transform!! lovely:D

  47. Sarah says:

    STUNNING. wow.

  48. Felicia Kramer says:

    Be still my heart!! Gorgeous! I have been wanting to do something with my blonde oak trestle table and I think I just got my marching orders …

  49. Steph @ AnnoyinglyDomestic says:

    That is really, really pretty! I would be absolutely thrilled to have that in my home. It looks elegant without being over the top. Most of our walls are very similar in color to the top half of your staircase – I'm going to have to check out that Swiss Coffee color. I would love to have a kitchen that looked like your staircase! LOL

  50. Brie says:

    What a transformation! My hubby and I are renovating a 1908 house and the staircase has the same dark bannister and stair treads with white spindles and trim. We get the fun job of removing 7 layers of LEAD paint without being able to remove the spindles! Hopefully our bannister will shine likes yours someday! Love your blog…just found it a month or so ago :)

  51. Kim says:

    I love love love the dark color, and am totally impressed that you thought to use craft paint. Brilliant. Love it all and cannot WAIT to see your process on the wainscotting. I've been coveting wainscotting in our dining room and am waiting with baited breath.

  52. Liz says:

    It's official, you are a genius!! Truly, it's stunning, and I'm beyond impressed. The craft paint is brilliant, and surely no one else would have thought of that. Gorgeous!!

  53. Kim says:

    And, PS – I think almost all oak needs transformed. Once we painted our dining room set (an appalling honey oak), I decided this was my new mantra – If I dont love it, paint it.

  54. kelly (and dan!) says:

    incredible!!! one of these days when i'm feeling reeeeeeeally crazy i'll have to start stripping all of the original woodwork in my house, which currently has several coats of paint on it (what were the previous owners THINKING?!)

    these pictures alone are inspiration to get moving!

  55. Shelia says:

    Hi Most Centsational One! I found out about you over at Rhoda's blog! Oh, my goodness! What a beautiful transformation you've made in your stairway area! Your railings are gorgeous and the wall! Oh, you're too good!!
    Thanks for all the info on how to do this! I know I will be coming back to see you!
    be a sweetie,
    Shelia :)

  56. . says:

    Stunning…just stunning!

  57. Catherine Hansen Peart says:

    F.A.B.U.L.O.U.S. I love high contrast with dark timber and white.

  58. meohmyoh says:

    Oh my GOSH you have COMPLETELY floored me! I love love LOVE the use of the wallpaper, and the banister is perfection. WOW!


  59. Kristina with a K says:

    You've completely given me hope on my light colored oak cabinets!! Great job!

  60. Rachel says:

    GORGEOUS!!! I am still picking my chin up from my desk!!!

  61. AnNicole @ OurSuburbanCottage says:

    Okay…no joke…I've been planning to do the EXACT same thing to my honey oak railing (and adding white wainscoting on the wall leading up the staircase). Thank you sooo much for the great tips. I'm sure I'll be doing a post once mine is completed – although, I have a few projects to complete before I tackle this one.

    Thanks again, your staircase looks gorgeous.

  62. Tracy @ comfortandluxury says:

    Really beautiful… and brave! The wainscoting is pretty fantastic too! Found you vis Southern Hospitality… I'll be back to get a better look around.

  63. Runner Mom says:

    Hey, Katie! Hopped over from Rhoda's blog! Wow!! This is awesome! We need to call Southern Living magazine and see if they will go out to CA and do your before and after!!! Beautiful job!! Can't wait until tomorrow!!


  64. Struggler says:

    Kate, I hope you're enjoying all these lovely comments because they're so well-deserved. And thank you for being so honest about all the time this took – that was a huge investment on your part but it certainly paid off.
    I have kind of the opposite problem – my banisters have been painted (yes, painted)a nasty dark brown and I'm itching to do something about them. Your 'before' picture really is not so bad!

  65. Megan Lee says:

    Amazing, that's all I can say. I can't believe you did this all by yourself! You're awesome!

  66. Rebekah says:

    I for real actually gasped at the "after" photo. What a stunner!

  67. Jill says:

    I am so freaking impressed!

  68. Tanya says:

    It is gorgeous – love it!

  69. Sarah says:

    wow, great transformation!

  70. Re:Fresh Design Studio says:

    seriously. amazing. What an beautiful job you did! You are so brave and very talented! I love it!!!!! Quick question about how you stripped the railing? What did you use on the tight areas on the curved areas of the railing? I've heard a toothbrush works in the crevices, but it didn't work the best for me. Any advice?

  71. Jenny says:

    That turned out beautifully! You are so darn creative!

  72. Melissa Stover says:

    it does look great and i love that bit of wallpaper right there.

  73. Haute Decor Gal says:

    as usual, it looks AMAZING!!!!!!!! i don't think any custom work done by a professional would have come out better than this! Huge pat on the back for you :)

  74. *A* says:

    That is gorgeous, and the EXACT color I've been trying to get my hand me down entertainment center to be! Good thing I'm not a purist wood refinisher, because I'll be mimicking your idea. Thank you!

  75. Natasha says:

    Love this – Can't wait to try it out at myself

  76. sara says:

    That is FABULOUS!! Thanks for the inspiration, this is EXACTLY what I've been wanting to do to my stairwell!!

  77. SoBella Creations says:

    Fabulous transformation!!! You did a fantastic job.

  78. Amy says:

    That looks absolutely fantastic!!!

  79. The Cockrells says:

    holy cannoli! wow. that is just damn impressive! =)

  80. Southern Savvy says:

    Fantastic! Amazing and inspiring transformation!

  81. ohbrooke says:

    It looks AMAZING! You are turning your tract home into a one of a kind!

  82. Shea says:

    If I had a stairwell, I would do this! I almost can't believe it. It's so beautiful! GREAT JOB!!!!!!!!!! It was a lot of work but looks like it was more than worth it.

  83. Anonymous says:

    AMAZING!!! I love it!!! and I am in the middle of rethinking my own stairs, so this couldn't have come at a better time!

  84. Avian | says:

    Wow.. that's such an amazing transformation!! I'm totally impressed. I love the mahogany feel of the oak… so historic, yet so modern. =)

  85. Diane @ Four Paws and Co says:

    Simply stunning! Thanks for the step by step – I'm going to have to find a project for this one – it's amazing! ☺ Diane

  86. mrso' says:

    This looks great! Thank you for sharing! I have light colored floors and want to stain my railings as well.. my husband could not see it with the light floors so I sent him your pics! Great job!

  87. Domestic Goddess..Diva sometimes says:

    Beautiful! I love love love what you did! You guys did an awesome job! :)

  88. [email protected] says:

    WOW! It looks AMAZING! I was irrationally excited to discover I have the same OB candle sconces as you. I bet I won't ever be able to walk by them again without thinking of your blog.

  89. Marie says:

    Hello Kate – oh my, what a beautiful staircase make-over! Just fabulous. Can't wait to see how you did that gorgeous wallpaper design! You are such an inspiration.


  90. Crystal says:

    WOW!!! This staircase is absolutely GORGEOUS! I am so jealous of your talent!

  91. Laurel @ Ducks in a Row says:

    WOWIE! You did an incredible job. Even though 30 hours sounds like a long time, you did so much in that time! It's amazing.

  92. Finding Home says:

    This is absolutely incredible! The transformation is leaving me speechless. I can't wait to read about your wall treatment tomorrow.

  93. The Rambling Rose says:

    Awesome! Can't wait to see part two!

  94. do it yourselfer says:

    That is freakin' beautiful! omgosh…amazing! I have been wanting to rip the carpet off my stairs and paint them. You've inspired me!

  95. Sarah says:

    Beautiful! I love that dark stain and the white paint and I love the wall treatment you did in the stairway as well. It all came together perfectly!

  96. Denise @ A Room With A View says:

    OMG, one word. Rad-i-cool. You're a better woman than I. ;) Never in a million years would I have attempted that monster of a project. The wallpaper…maybe. Can't wait to see the how-to. Excellent job.

  97. Anonymous says:

    YOur transformation is AWESOME – totally! I adore the look of what you did. YOu are talented. Can't wait to see tomorrow's part II.

  98. Petit Debutant says:

    looks awesome! And I love that you framed teh wallpaer.

  99. JoeyfromSC says:

    ABSOLUTELY GORGEOUS!!:) I can't wait to hear how you did the wallpaper with NO paste lol

  100. Anonymous says:

    I love it. It doesn't even look like the same house! I love that you used craft paint. No high end, "professional" concoction but an item that anyone might have on hand.

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