Our staircase: 4 pieces of advice when it comes to woodwork

When you buy an older house, what gives it character?

It’s not just the exterior of a property that’s important. Older properties come with heaps of character inside, whether that’s old cornicing, ceiling roses, detailed skirting boards or ornate staircases.

But it’s also worth being aware that anything that’s old, will probably need a lot of time spent on it.

I (Steph) remember being so impatient to start working on our staircase. I ripped up the old carpet, removed the staples, and began stripping the paint off the banister and several of the spindles.

Then I realised quite how long it was going to take to do all 52 of them…

Over the years, it seems that previous owners decided against putting the work in, and on one spindle we counted over ten layers of paint!!

Once a spindle had the paint stripped off, the work just continued. Sanding them took forever thanks to the detail of each one. When we finally reached the landing, I had a sinking feeling when I realised we were only halfway – despite putting in almost a month of work. Then, a friend of ours, who works as a full time painter-decorator, told us that he’d charge a customer for over an hour of work PER SPINDLE. I thought of how much money we’d saved by doing it ourselves, in evenings and at weekends.

Jobs like this take time but we’re so convinced that it will be worth it. A smooth finish on what is ultimately the centre piece of the house will be so much better than a quick fix, adding yet another layer of paint. Before long, those layers clog up and you start to lose the details that make them so special. It’s worth putting the hours in.

Having lost almost two months of our lives (on and off) to this project, we thought it was worth sharing a few tips on what to expect, and how to keep the motivation up!

  • Buy a decent heat gun. We actually went through several of these while working solely on the staircase. Two just stopped working after a few hours so in the end, we decided that it was worth spending a bit of extra money and getting something more reliable. Open up the windows to get a flow of air in, and wear a mask. We didn’t to start with but that was a rookie error.
    If you don’t want to use a heat gun, you could use Nitromors instead. We did try this but I got impatient waiting for it to work, then having to wash it all off, and reapply. Personally, I also didn’t think it took the paint off any neater than the heat gun. Sadly, with a heat gun and scraper you do risk damaging bits of the wood that are particularly fragile so Nitromors is more delicate on that front.
  • Have a stash of decorators gloves. These protect your hands when you’re paint stripping but they’ll also be a life saver when you’re sanding. No one likes it when you finish sanding and realise that you can pick up a microfibre cloth by your fingertips because your skin is so rough, it’s started to work like velcro!! (Trust me, it happens.)
  • If you’re working on a big project like stairs, count the spindles and see every one like a victory. After ten spindles, I really didn’t want to know how many I had left. But Luke thought I needed to – and he was right. Knowing how many spindles I had in total, allowed me to set mini targets. By the end of the week, I wanted to have stripped and sanded ten. Then to get to the top of the stairs – and so on. When a project is this time consuming and exhausting, it’s all about those baby steps.
  • Remember why you’re doing it. At times, I didn’t want to go home after a day at work because all I’d face was another night sanding. At that point, you need to take a break. Start doing something else (for us it was painting the lounge) and focus your energy elsewhere until you have that drive back. If possible, also find an image of what you’re aiming for. We found a picture on Pinterest that I loved, and it really kept us going and kept the bigger picture in mind. That’s helpful when you’re working on the 40th spindle and absolutely covered in dust…

Right now, we have just 5 spindles left to sand and then we’re onto the final stage – painting.

Wish us luck!

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