When life gives you paneling… (you can paint it)

When I bought my duplex, the back stairway was a quite a menagerie: the walls were cracked, the ancient high gloss brown paint on the woodwork was coming off in sheets, there was faux wood paneling going halfway up the walls, and… to top it all off… dark green (argyle patterned!) shag carpeting. Oh, a bare bulb fixture and some stained curtains (those were easy enough to lose). It was only the back stairway, yes, but the trouble is this — every time I did a showing of the upstairs apartment, the tenants would want to see the laundry room. Which required parading them through this claustrophobic catastrophe. I could see on their faces how the stairway changed their impression of the apartment. And so began my first major cosmetic update project. After it was finished, the stairway had been transformed from mid-century tacky to bright and airy 1900s farmhouse — much better for showings.

Demolition generally seems to be the easist step. This stuff had been on the stairs since the 60s, so it was fairly easy to run a putty knife or screwdriver along the edges and start tearing it up. What I wasn’t prepare for: the DUST (40 years worth, I imagine), and all of the staples that would be left behind — to be taken out individually with a pliers. One surprise: the landing at the bottom of the stairs had some very old (and kind of cute) linoleum tile below it, I’m guessing circa 1940 or so. I left it exposed, as a testament to the history of the house.

With the fire-hazard carpeting out of the way, I felt more comfortable getting out the heat gun to start at the woodwork. I had no intention of stripping it ALL of the paint off — that’s certainly unwarranted in the back stairway of a duplex — however, there were a good ten layers of paint on the woodwork, and they had obfuscated all of the detail in the once quite ornate trim. I used the heat gun with a putty knife on flat areas (doors, plain moulding), and an old spoon on curved areas (decorative moulding). This allowed me to scrape off the bulk of the excess paint without using a chemical stripper — thus keeping the level of fumes to a minimum. However, the paint didn’t come off as easily as I had hoped — the bottom several layers seemed quite gummy, and needed to be sanded off — I was able to borrow a belt sander which worked quite well for large flat areas. The duplex was built in 1900, so my hunch is that the woodwork was originally painted with “milk paint,” which I’m told is quite difficult to remove.

I proceeded to use a full half gallon of spackle, wood putty, and several tubes of clear painter’s caulk to reduce the effects of time on my poor stairway. The steps were quite gouged from wear, and I filled in the biggest ones with wood putty. I caulked any gaps between the individual pieces of woodwork on the moulding, and around doors and windows. I also caulked along the top of the paneling, where it met the wall. I would soon be painting the paneling and woodwork white, and the walls a pale blue color, and didn’t want unsightly black gaps appearing anywhere. Using several layers of crack-filler, I was able to fill in a large 3″ hole that went all the way through one of the doors — presumably once holding a lock of some sort. After allowing all of this to dry, I sanded over any areas that had been filled with spack or wood putty.

Virtually every surface in the stairway was going to be painted, so I started at the top and worked my way down — this way, any drips would fall on a surface that was soon to be painted. I chose a pale blue flat paint for the ceiling and walls — easier to paint them both the same color than to try to outline a ceiling that’s 20 feet above. I selected a flat paint to better hide the surface imperfections in the walls. To reach the highest point, I purchased a $20 telescoping pole from the Home Depot. I was able to attach my existing rollers to it, and also purchased a tool that would allow the pole to hold a paintbrush–for getting in corners.

Rather than going through the trouble of removing the paneling (and dealing with whatever surprises lay behind it), I opted to paint it a nice cheery satin-finish white. First, I gave it a thorough scuff-sanding with a medium-gritt sandpaper. Then, after washing it a detergent/water solution and allowing it to dry, I applied two coats of heavy-duty primer. The primer is necessary here to keep the dyes in the paneling from seeping through — very necessary because my first two layers of primer turned orange where I had painted over the black strips in the paneling. I applied a third coat of primer (for good measure) and then two layers of satin latex paint — in the same color as the woodwork. Suddenly ugly paneling had become charming wainscoating — it looked like it came from pottery barn!

I wasn’t about to get into any tricky faux painting techniques, so I went a different route for this — I’ve seen a lot of old wood furniture from the early 1900s that is nearly black — making it difficult to make out the wood grain. It was difficult to find paint in exactly this color (black wouldn’t do, and most dark browns I found had a purplish cast to them), but Ralph Lauren’s “Traditional” (TH40) was just about what I was looking for. I bought the paint in a semi-gloss, and used it to paint the stair treads only – leaving the molding around them painted white.

I replaced the bare bulb light fixture with an inexpensive globe-style fixture from Menards, gave the railing a thorough cleaning, and put up some new weatherstripping around the exterior door. Although the stairway is now a bit more echoey, without the carpet to absorb all of that sound, I think that the visual effect is well worth it. Where I used to overhear the guests of tenants saying “Whoa, this place is falling apart!” I now hear “I really like how this stairway is painted.” And again, while this area isn’t the highest-traffic area of the house, it was by far the ugliest, and I think that getting rid of that sore thumb greatly improves the impression that people take away from the house as a whole after a showing.

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2 thoughts on “When life gives you paneling… (you can paint it)

  1. Hi, I think that if you have a hard surface for nailing, like cement, check into some “liquid nail” products at a home improvements store in your area. This product dispenses like caulking, and adheres the paneling to the surface. After measuring and cutting the next piece, apply the adhesive on the wrong side of the paneling, to all edges. Apply more at various places on the backside of the piece. Be generous with the adhesive, but there’s no need to completely cover the back of the paneling. After installing all of the paneling, you’ll need to use molding to conceal the edges of the paneling. Cut molding to fit corners, using a miter saw or a sharp knife. Use the liquid adhesive, if necessary, to attach the molding. You’ll probably need to tape the molding after placing it on the wall, until it is dry, or hold it for several minutes until it can grab on the wall paneling. Also use the molding around the bottom and in all corners. Jennifer.

  2. Hi, I think that banisters are striking when they are made of iron, too. I love the iron scroll work in the photograph below. Again, it compliments the shape of the stairway. The designer of this space did a great job combining Mediterranean and traditional genres. Jenny.

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