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Home Painting Tips Updating a 90’s Oak Staircase

Updating a 90’s Oak Staircase

Oak Staircase Before Painting

So I’m guessing you’re here because you own a house built in the 90’s or earlier? Seems like a common trend back then was to have oak railings and oak stair treads. These oak staircases aren’t subtle, in fact, they scream 90’s please update the moment you see them. Below I’ll go through the process of the update and what you should do and not do when taking on this kind of painting project.

This post is a little different than most because this is actually my own house. My wife and I bought a beautiful house out here in Summerville SC that was a little of a diamond in the rough. It was built in 1994 and hadn’t had even a smidge of updating. I’m talking popcorn ceilings, old floors, oak cabinets, tile counters, and on.

How to Update This Oak Staircase?

Side view of oak staircase

We completely redid the entire house from top to bottom before moving in (I’ll save that for another post) except for the oak staircase. Throughout the entire renovation, we just scratched our heads over what to do with the ugly thing. Obviously, the carpet had to go and the stair treads underneath the carpet were oak and finished like the sides. At one point we thought about re-staining them to a nicer color but ultimately thought better of it.

You cannot stain over stain that has a clear coat on it. The stain will just lay on top and never completely dry. If the stain does dry it’ll just scratch right off because it had never soaked into the wood like it’s supposed to. The only way to stain over it is to completely strip the wood. Sanding it wouldn’t work because of the deep grain oak is notorious for. So, the only option left is to chemically strip it and that wasn’t something I was willing to get involved with. The only option that made sense was to paint it. By this point, moving day had come and gone the only thing left to do was paint the oak staircase.

How to Paint an Oak Staircase

Okay, so now we’ve decided to paint the thing, how to begin? First, we ripped off the old carpet and pulled ALL the staples. Be careful and make sure you get every single one, they really hurt when you run your finger over one sticking up later on.

The next step is to wood fill all the holes left from the staples. At this point, I also primed the railings with Zinnzer BIN and painted the underneath of the handrails black. I should mention, we decided to do three colors. The handrails were going to be painted black, the spindles and kickers white, and the stair treads a darker gray.

After the handrails were primed and the holes were filled I then sanded all the stair treads with my Festool dustless sander. Next up is to paint all the railing spindles and handrails. The spindles took two coats and the handrails took three to make it right. I used PPG Breakthrough Gloss on the handrails and Cornado RustScat semi-gloss on the spindles.

Painting oak railings

Painting Oak Stair Treads 

Now it was time to bring this project home! The handrails and spindles looked amazing. What a big difference it made just by getting rid of the oak handrail.

So next up is the oak stair treads! If you’re doing this at home, I highly recommend holding off on the kickers until you have two coats on the treads. When you paint the underneath of the treads it’s near impossible to not hit the kickers, waiting makes the most sense.

I painted the treads with a brush for the edges and a 4inch microfiber mini roller for the rest. The paint I used was a little different than what I’d normally recommend. I went with PPG Breakthough in satin, the exact same paint I used on the handrails and what I always use on my cabinet jobs. The Breakthough is rated for floors and I was curious just how well my goto cabinet paint would hold up to such abuse. For anyone else reading this, I suggest you use either a Porch and Floor Enamel or Sherwin Williams Tredplex.

After finishing the first coat of paint on the treads I noticed that I missed A LOT of holes from the staples! So again I broke out the wood filler and went to town, then resanded them again.

Wood Filling Staple Holes

More Prep Work! 

What more prep work? Always more prep work I say! You may have wondered by now why I haven’t caulked anything yet. Well, now is the time to go caulk crazy. I had a feeling that I’d miss a lot of holes so I purposely waited to caulk until this point. Sanding over fresh caulk never ends well so it’s best to hold off until you know for sure the sanding is done. Now is the time to caulk all the stair treads to the kickers and the stringers (the wood along the sides).

Let’s Finish This 90’s Oak

So we’ve got the oak handrails and spindles completely done. The oak stair treads have one coat of paint. They have been refilled, sanded, and caulked. We’re coming down the home stretch here! Next up is to paint another coat on the stair treads. After that second coat, I then painted the kickers (risers) and stringers two coats of white. There’s only one thing left to do and that to paint the stairs a third and final time. Boom done, it’s finished no more ugly 90’s oak to look at. Now we’re left with a gorgeous staircase that can be updated as needed simply by changing the paint colors.

Painted Oak Staircase

Side View of Oak Staircase

Oak Staircase After Painting

Give Paragon Painting a Call!!

If you have a 90’s oak staircase you’d like updated we’d be more than happy to help! We service the entire Charleston SC area from Mt. Pleasant to Summerville and beyond. 843-695-9450


I know it’s been a little while and I’ve been crazy busy but I do have an update. Not long after completing my 13 year old little dog fall slid down the stairs on several occasions. A couple of things could have been done to prevent this which I didn’t do. Firstly, I could have used SW TredPlex which I mentioned above because it states that it’s anti-slip in the product literature. However, I really wanted to put Breakthrough to the test and I have to say that after a year it still looks like I just did them. Secondly, I could have added a product called Skart Grip to the final coat of paint. It comes in a little jar and is a fine white powder that you mix into the paint. I’ve used Shark Grip quite a bit and it really does work, can can’t see the grip but if you run your hand over the surface you can feel it.

What I decided to do was buy little carpet treads from Amazon. It took some searching to find the right ones but I think they came out great and the stairs actually look better with the carpet tread than without. Let me know which you like better in the comments below.

Painted Oak Stairs with treads

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If you are looking for a Summerville SC Painting Contractor, give us a call at 843-695-9450 or complete our online request form.