Our home possibly has the most dangerous staircase in the entire Northwest. Back in 1890, the home’s builder wasn’t one to waste valuable floor space.
Rather than building a functional staircase with wide treads, a gentle climb, and landings, he went straight up in a style our family had dubbed “Victorian Mine Shaft.”
Our witty friends refer to it as “Whoa, is that your staircase?” Staircases tend not to be remodelable without tearing apart half the house. To make a killer staircase less hazardous without remodeling your home, it takes thinking creatively.
Evaluating the Problem
Before reworking your staircase, it helps to evaluate the problem. Take a careful look at the lighting, the handrail, and the treads, and note areas that can be improved.
In our home, we felt the biggest hazard of the staircase was the lack of light. The 1930s remodel closed up the stairwell in two locations which cut out natural light, a significant mistake since the staircase was only lit with a 25-watt closet bulb.
Adding to the darkness was flat parchment green paint on walls, ceiling, and millwork which contributed to the “mine shaft” feeling. A substandard handrail was also a problem since it tended to pull out of the wall when held.
Last but not least, the bare wood treads had been painted with glossy red paint which was entirely too slippery to walk on.
Once we identified the problems, coming up with a plan was really pretty easy. Here’s what we did to open up the staircase, and make it one of the more inviting features of our home. These tips may help your staircase be safer as well.
Bring in Natural Light
If your staircase is dark, look at the possibility of bringing in natural lighting through a skylight or by installing either an interior or exterior window.
With our staircase, we removed a retrofitted dividing wall that separated the staircase from the back bedroom hall and removed a fake “Craftsman” archway at the base of the staircase. These two modifications brought in incredible amounts of light from the bedrooms and eliminated the “mine shaft” look.
Paint or Wallpaper the Walls as Light as Possible
Since staircases do not tend to receive direct sunlight, semi-gloss paint and shiny wallpaper can reflect natural light around a room and make it appear both larger and brighter.
For our staircase, we brought the foyer wallpaper up the staircase and into the halls. The millwork was painted a semi-gloss white and the ceiling painted a mid shade of yellow. From the photograph, you can see the natural light bouncing on the walls.
Replace Existing Light Fixtures
In older vernacular homes, staircases often had a minimum of lighting. One small fixture at the top of the stairs was typical. By adding a second fixture, or relocating a more substantial fixture in the center of the stairwell, you can increase the brightness of the area.
Since our staircase was illuminated by a tiny closet fixture, we had our electrician move the parlor chandelier into the center of the stairwell, and update it to hold three 100-watt bulbs.
The old fixture was removed and placed in a coat closet elsewhere in the house. The combination of light paper and the new 300-watt chandelier made the stairwell comfortably bright.
Replace the Handrail
If your handrail is substandard, replacing it with a sturdier model will make it easier to grip.
Many vernacular homes I’ve been in over the years seemed to use a simple dowel for a handrail. These dowels usually rested on brackets that were anchored into the lathe and plaster.
Our staircase also had a dowel handrail that had pulled away from the walls after 130 years of folks grabbing for the rail as they tumbled down the staircase.
Part of our remodel included removing the existing lathe and plaster from the walls and replacing it with sheetrock.
The new handrail was secured to new support studs and now is sturdy enough to hold a person who trips while coming down the stairs. The curved profile of the new handrail offers a hand better purchase than the old dowel.
Slip Proofing the Treads
While there are many ways of making a staircase slip-proof, what you use depends on how your stairs are designed, to begin with. While a hardwood staircase looks wonderful, with the steep pitch of our staircase, plain wood would have been a safety hazard.
We opted to carpet the staircase in a commercial Berber carpet which provided the slip-proof surface we needed without showing wear and tear. Non slip rug pads are also a good choice if you want the best grip.
All staircases have different challenges, and what worked for us might not necessarily work for your home. However, by providing more light, a good rail to grip, and a solid place to set one’s feet while climbing or descending, you can make any staircase safer.