Dueling DIY: A Staircase Refinishing Throwdown

You guys know that in general I get pretty excited about starting any kind of project on the house. Even the ones that require standing on a 2×10 suspended over the staircase while I sand drywall desk directly into my eyeballs.

Actually, maybe I wasn’t very excited about that. But it’s a little rare for me to be dreading the start of a new project, at least until I met the likes to this beast:


Yeah. That staircase is ugly. It’s also a project that combines two of the most tedious things I’ve had to do on this house so far– floor sanding and spindle painting.

I was going to put it off indefinitely but then my friend Sarah @ UglyDucklingHouse started talking about refinishing her staircase and I was like, “Sarah! Why are you doing this to me?! You know if you start your staircase it’s going to guilt me into starting my staircase, and I’m just not emotionally ready to spend 432 more hours with a hand sander.”

And she was like, “Whatever, you wuss, my staircase is going to be so much more awesome than your staircase, and you are going to be jealous. And lazy.”

And I was like, “Shit. Where’s my sander?”

Okay. Maybe I’m paraphrasing a little bit. Regardless, the result of that conversation–that may or may not have happened entirely in my head–is the very first Dueling DIY project on this website.


That’s right. It’s going to be a DIY-style throwdown, in which Sarah is most likely going to kick my ass, but I will probably drink more beer. (Yes, Sarah, that was most definitely a challenge.)

So let’s talk a little about the epic battle of the staircases and how it’s going to go down.


Here’s what I need to do:

  1. Finish pulling the staples and tack-strips off the stairs.
  2. Sand down the treads.
  3. Stain the treads.
  4. Paint the backs of the stairs, trim, spindles, and handrail.
  5. Add in missing trim on outside of staircase and ceiling.

You can read about Sarah’s plan of attack for her staircase here.

I’m guessing this is going to take me, oh, eternity. The nice thing is that Sarah and I are playing on the same field– we’re both single chicks who own our own houses (and work full-time jobs to pay for them) and try to fit in our building and blogging in on the side– oh, and she’s also  in a full-time Masters program. So, you know, we both basically have zero free time, but still expect to have finished staircases sometime this year. This decade, maybe.

This won’t be the only project that either of us are working on (I heard a rumor that someone gutted their master bath recently, and I’ve personally got an office to finish and a mudroom that needs to be… not hunter green) but we’re moseying up to the start line this weekend, and who knows, when the starting pistol goes off I may actually be motivated to remove more than 3 staples before getting distracted. If there’s anything that will get my ass moving on a project I don’t really want to do (but needs to get done) it’s a little competition.

Things you can expect to see over the course of this adventure:

  • How many puncture wounds I will sustain in my bare feet before finally removing the tack strips on the landing
  • How much beer I can consume and still operate a sander
  • At least 15 unsuccessful techniques for keeping the cat off the stairs
  • How many spindles I can paint before my left eye develops a twitch
  • How much girls who DIY rock

If you’ve got a staircase to refinish and want to hop into this race, let us know. Or, you know, feel free to just stand comfortably on the sidelines and observe our madness.

Oh, and Sarah? May the odds be ever in your favor.

43 Responses

  1. Oh thats awesome. If only my little one story house had stairs I would be all over this challenge. The best of luck to you both although I’m secretly rooting for you. 😀

  2. Dueling DIY from two of my favorite blogs….. This is going to be good! It may even inspire me to tackle my unfinished staircase that has been staring at me for two years.

    1. Yes! This would be the perfect time, is all I’m saying. (Or maybe what I’m saying is that misery loves company… either way, join on in!)

  3. I just bought a farmhouse built in the early 1800’s and I am new to DIY. Since buying the house we’ve started with small projects and I have feverishly researched the DIY process for old houses like mine. I was over the moon happy to see a picture of your foyer and staircase, why? It’s identical to mine! There are 2 small differences, I have a wood trim with a small ledge on it going up the wall of the stairs and in my foyer, on the wall of the staircase I have some decorative wood work that I hate. I was wondering if you had thought of opening up the space under your stairs for a nook of some sort? I can’t wait to see your progress in this venture b/c I will likely be following your lead. Best of luck!

    1. Ah, yes, my old farmhouse is 1850, so it’s not surprising there would be similarities (although I’m 99% sure this staircase was a 1980’s addition).

      If you’re ever looking for more info on old farmhouses you should check out this book, The Architecture of Country Houses (free to read on google books), it was THE authority on house-building at the time… so interesting.

      Also, I’m definitely putting some kind of shelving/nook under those stairs eventually (instead of that odd little door) but that’s a “Phase 2” project– something I probably won’t get around to for another year, after I tackle all the other major stuff!

      1. Thank you so much for the book reference, I will def be reading it. I’m fascinated with my house and it’s history. We are currently redoing a room over the kitchen that was added sometime after 1906. We’ve stripped the walls and found hand cut boards that are shaped like the tree including where the branches were originally. I found a pic of my house online dated 1906 and I learned that 5 rooms in the house were later additions. I wish I could upload pics to show you what we’ve found so far. I can’t wait to see your progress !

  4. Oh, Kit. I love you both, and I can’t wait to see the action! (And ideas, as I’ve been avoid my own staircase reno for 6 mos).

    1. Ha! Love the way your stairs turned out Chelsea (and thanks for the warning… I’ll have to dig out the old heating pad if I can’t drown my aches with the alcohol.)

  5. Just dropping in to say I’ve really enjoyed all the posts since new year’s. Please don’t ask about my staircase.

  6. Thanks for giving me yet another blog to add to my reader. Probably why I don’t get much done on my own house. I might just add myself to this challenge. I’ll be cheating though because my staircase has no spindles (it’s enclosed). The stair treads are in horrible shape though and I still haven’t decided if I should paint, refinish or even just carpet them.

  7. THIS IS EPIC!! Seriously in my daily DIY Blog wanderings I go:

    I am so excited about this! This just made my LIFE! I love you both and cant wait to see this happen!

  8. Guys – awesome. I too have a staircase to complete (which I will not allow myself to start until I finish the bathroom reno that’s *nearly* done) – really excited to see how this goes!

    1. Props for your project-starting self-restraint, but I’m going to be a bad influence and tell you to join on in the “fun” with us! Come on… you know you want to!

      1. You almost had me – until my dad pointed out this weekend that if I wait to do the staircase until after I redo the upstairs bath, I don’t have to worry about damaging the stairs in the getting-the-old-bathroom-out process. It’s a bummer, but he’s right on that one.

  9. I follow both blogs already…this should be fun! Well, fun at least from a reader’s perch!

    “9,999 staples to pull from the floor, 9,999 staples to pull. I yank one out, toss back a Stout, 9,998 staples to pull from the floor.”

    Shall we take up a beer fund?

  10. I do not envy the spindles one single bit. But I am all about competition. Makes me wish I had a staircase. Anyone up for a Master Bed/Bath addtion competition? 😉

  11. Is your tetanus shot up to date? I am certain you will turn it into a thing of beauty. Good luck!

  12. Ahhh! I came to you from Sarah, as well. This may push me to convince my husband to let me work on our stairs next…maybe starting this weekend. 🙂 We have to a) also keep cats off stairs, b) sand them (I may or may not have pulled the carpet out at 11:30 one night after work, thus forcing my husband to remove staples and tack strips the next day), c) figure out a plan of attack to get to our bedroom and bathroom on the other end of the staircase. Should be interesting…but now I’m motivated!

    Love your blog- so glad Sarah sent us your way! 🙂

    1. So glad you popped over from the UggDuck! It sounds like you and I have a very similar set of, ah, challenges, with our staircases. I say dive in! (My plan for getting up to my bedroom/bathroom during refinishing is to stain every other stair first… then do the opposite stairs after they are done. I did this once before, it works, and is also great for the quads. lol)

  13. Sarah doesn’t seem to have your penchant for vaguely justifiable tool purchases. Have you concocted a plan to overwhelm her with excessive firepower? That is a LOT of spindles to strip. I’m pretty sure it might be faster to design and build a robot and then outsource the sanding and painting to HouseBot 3000…

    1. Oh, don’t let her fool you, that girl is as big a power tool junkie as I am. BUT, this is probably going to come down to a battle of sanding (me) vs. painting (Sarah)… and I am definitely not stripping those spindles. I’m crazy, but not that crazy. The spindles, handrail, and back of the stairs will all be white, the treads will be the same walnut as the re-finished floors.

  14. We rebuilt/refinished our stairs two years ago. One of our most aesthetically satisfying projects (it involved knocking down a wall to open up the staricase – hooah!) it was also one of our most frustating. On the bright side, not only did we drink a shit ton of beer, we found a very old Schlitz bottle inside the wall. Best inside-the-wall-trash surprise ev-eh. Good luck!!!!!

  15. Nice Hunger Games quote at the end 🙂

    The biggest questions is what kind of beer will be consumed? I mean, if you’re downing something like Guinness it could be awhile before anything gets done.

    Very excited to see how everything progresses.

  16. Oh ladies! I do not envy you doing this particular job! I have completed this project on my 1940’s Cape Cod and its as annoying as you are predicting it to be! But i am ancient (ok late 50’s) and the back/knees/wrists/fingers aren’t as nimble as they used to be. Hard to not slop your tread stain or paint onto the spindles and visa-versa no matter how carefully you tape off! I wish you patience and stay away from the beer until you are off the staircase for the day! May the tacks come up easy!

  17. My stair case needs some serious love too,. That would require me to refinish the upstairs hardwoods too since their stained the same color and after 81 years of being walked over and scuffled across look about the same amount of crapped up. I do hate looking at them, so this may jump pretty high on my to do list now that you’ve got me thinking about it.

  18. I’m so in!!! I’m currently working on my basement staircase and what a disaster that is. I’m also a DIY vixen who works and likes a good challenge and I’m just learning as I go. I’m on a rampage with my new power tools (best Christmas gifts EVER!) getting my house ready to put on the market.

    Oh, and my personal estimate on the whole “how much can I drink and still operate a sander?” question is around 2 glasses of wine or approximately 3 beers…not that I’m speaking from experience or anything…

  19. Pingback: staircase diy
  20. Pingback: Stair DIY
  21. I am not sure where you are getting your info, but great topic. I needs to spend some time learning much more or understanding more. Thanks for fantastic information I was looking for this info for my mission. eackgdeebdeg

Comments are closed.

I'm not interested in a mediocre life. I'm here to kick ass or die.

(formerly DIYdiva.net)