How to tackle an old staircase

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How to tackle an old staircase

Our most recent reno project was small by comparison to everything else we’ve done, but I’m still in awe of how big of an impact it’s made. The very first thing you see when you walk into our house is the staircase leading upstairs. With its original 100-year-old-plus railing, the only TLC it’s had over the decades is a few coats of paint and a runner. By the time we arrived, both had seen better days.

In keeping with the neutral palette everywhere else in the house, we wanted to get rid of the cherry tint on the railing and drab grey on the walls, going for a contrast of black and white. The stairs also needed a complete refinish – there were cracks, dents, creaks and in some places chunks of the base rail were gone.

We could have put in a new, more modern railing, but in keeping with the heritage and integrity of the home, we instead decided to restore the original one. To start, we addressed the cosmetic issues, using putty to fill in the dents, sanding to smooth (and prep for painting) and caulking where there were cracks. The stairs creaked quite a bit, so we used construction adhesive to glue the stairs back together and screwed the treads and risers from underneath. Doing this also helped strengthen the steps. The top step was the biggest concern, so we reinforced it from below with wood framing.

Next came the design choices (personally, my favourite part of any home project). I consulted interior designer (and sister-in-law) Jessica Frehr of Madison Taylor, on the paint colours first. I told her I wanted a black rail and treads, so she suggested Benjamin Moore’s Black – a beautiful, true black. We also had to consider the paint finishes, going with Benjamin Moore Regal Pearl for durability on the railing and Benjamin Moore Patio & Floor Low Sheen Enamel on the treads.

For the runner, Frehr recommended Alexanian, as many designers trust the company’s years of experience (almost as old as our house), and extensive selection of brands. I went solo to Signature by Shelley Alexanian, the flagship, boutique-style store in Toronto. With limited capacity due to COVID restrictions, it was almost like having the shop to myself. Matt Barrett, the store’s manager, was by my side as I attempted to narrow down the hundreds (let’s be honest, probably thousands) of carpets I could select for the runner. At this point, I had wished I had brought my sister-in- law, but Barrett listened carefully to what I was drawn to (neturals, pattern), disliked (bold prints) and had concerns about (a cat that likes to claw, and a toddler).

A couple hours later, and many texts to a patient Frehr, we eventually narrowed the choices down to my top three. A subtle herringbone in a neutral hue, a black diamond pattern and a more traditional plaid. I lugged the samples back home to look at them in my space, get my husband’s opinion and sleep on it. The next day we decided on the diamond pattern – Recoleta Onyx by Couristan – that Barrett helped select was the winner. Thankfully, it was in stock – meaning we wouldn’t have to wait months to have it installed.

A few days later, Barrett came by to take the measurements to provide an accurate quote. After a couple weeks, Curvin Watson from Signature by Shelley Alexanian came by to do the templating. He got a bit of a surprise when he discovered we hadn’t removed the old runner. “Luckily, I have over 35 years of doing this,” he told us. “It won’t be a problem.” Phew. Thankfully his experience meant we didn’t have to frantically rip out our carpet, but lesson learned, you need a blank canvas for your runner to be templated.

5 benefits of a stair runner

  1. Adds style and texture to your space
  2. Protects treads from wear and tear
  3. Reduces noise by dampening sound
  4. Provides more traction and stability
  5. Hides imperfections in older homes

Our anticipation was growing, with the stairs painted and finished and the old runner out. It did confirm our decision to have a runner, as the uncovered stairs offered much less traction. Not to mention, we needed a runner to hide some of the imperfections years of wear had imparted on the treads.

It wasn’t long before the carpet was ready. Our installer, Abraham Daoud arrived bright and early on a Saturday morning. He was quick to point out our stairs were very uneven (not a surprise considering their age) – in some places there was as much as an inch from one end to the other, on a single step. This meant it would take extra precision to ensure the pattern lined up correctly as the carpet was fitted over each step. The pattern alignment would take precedence over the variations in distance on the top of the tread. Within a couple of hours, the install was complete, and as far as I could see, you would never know we have uneven, crooked stairs.

Adding a new entryway mirror, large black pendant light and vintage stool, we finally have a finished entryway and a stairway that pops. It goes to show how a few coats of paint and new carpet can completely revive a space.

Vendors: Signature by Shelly Alexanian. | Stair runner, Couristan. | Paint, Benjamin Moore. | Mirror and pendant, LD Shoppe.

A writer and editor for more than a decade, Stephanie Gray has covered everything from luxury travel to modern parenting challenges. Her work has been featured in publications including Glamour, Elle Canada and Best Health. She recently bought a century-old home north of Toronto, in need of updates, which she’s taking on with her husband (and toddler in tow).


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