Stairway to heaven, DIY project from hell



Last week, in the midst of massive DIY regret and stress, my boyfriend and I discovered the primary difference between us. Don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of differences. I love (he loathes) the Dollar Store and I loathe (he loves) vegetables. He runs every day and I refuse to run unless there’s a contact sport involved or a wild animal is somehow chasing me. I am terrified of the oven and he is practically a gourmet chef. Plenty of differences.

But after two weeks of painting, scraping, sanding, stenciling, and arguing in craft stores, we stumbled upon the key difference between us: If he sees something he likes on social media, he thinks, “huh, that’s cool.” Maybe he shares it on Facebook. Maybe not.

If I see something I like on Pinterest or Etsy or Buzzfeed, I need to go to the craft store immediately to buy supplies to begin re-creating whatever it was that I liked. Now that I have a house, this comes up a little more often than it used to.

I don’t know where I saw it first, although my best guess is Pinterest, but I’ve been salivating over photographs of stairs painted to look like book spines for more than a year. Now that we have a house with 14 stairs leading from the first to the second floor, it was pretty much a given that the staircase books would be among my first projects. Colin very reluctantly agreed to participate, mostly because not participating would probably still mean participating at some point down the road or possibly watching me trail a rainbow of paint all over the house. He’s the one that insists that we block the cats out of our work zone to avoid a cat-paint fiasco; left to my own devices, the cats would probably run multi-colored paw prints across all three floors.

I don’t advise undertaking this project unless you’ve got a lot of time on your hands, are not a perfectionist, and really love books and the smell of paint. But if you’re anything like me, of course you’re going to do it at the very first opportunity so here’s how it all went down:

Choosing the books

This part sucked. Fourteen stairs means just 14 books. How could I possibly choose just 14 books, especially taking into account the fact that it was only fair that Colin’s opinion be accounted for and I wanted an equitable representation between male and female authors and my favorite genres?

Ultimately, these are the books and authors that didn’t make it that I really wanted to make it: Edith Wharton’s short stories, Robert Frost’s poetry, The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin, Tana French, Dune by Frank Herbert, Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, and Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls.

These are the books that did make it, after a great deal of back and forth and some small remaining doubts on my part:

  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  • American Gods by Neil Gaiman
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
  • A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  • Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  • Winterdance by Gary Paulsen
  • House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
  • The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

Stripping it down

The stairs were covered by a dark green carpet runner when we moved in and I had no idea what was underneath—a testament to the bliss of ignorance. We pulled the carpet, along with about 20 tacks, out of the floor in a DIY frenzy only to discover well, we’re still not entirely certain what we discovered. The sides of the stairs was the pretty lavender we expected but the middle was thick with white paint and some sort of unidentified adhesive.

After one unpleasant encounter with Colin’s choice of paint stripper which melted through a cup, his gloves, and made the entire house smell like it should be tented and condemned, we turned to Citristrip which somehow managed to work better than the radioactive sludge, smelled delightfully of oranges, and did not melt any gloves or cups in the process. Paint gone. Awesome. Not so much with the unidentified adhesive forming clumps across the stairs. We tried Goo Gone, scraping, vinegar, and sanding but nothing was as effective as we would have liked. After a week of traveling back and forth between our house and the Ace Hardware store a few blocks away and scrubbing until our hands were raw and smelled like oranges, we pretty much decided “good enough” and applied two layers of a dark stain to the tops of the stairs.

We were concerned the unknown adhesive would prevent the stain from taking, but instead it created an interesting patterned effect not unlike petrified wood. After completing the stain, it occurred to me that it would have been really interesting to apply text, just letters and quotes and words, across the top of the stairs before applying the stain but I’m not so in love with the idea that I’m willing to try to strip off the stain.

The actual project: Painted risers

We have 14 sets of stairs broken up into two sets of seven. We chose seven sort of generic colors that could be generic book colors—a dark red that could be called carmine or carnelian, midnight blue, forest green, brown, lavender, cornflower, and a very light brown—and painted each stair a different color, two red, two brown, two blue, etc.

I thought it would be easy to match the books to the colors, but it turns out that Colin and I follow very different thought patterns when it comes to that. He wanted to exactly match our copies of the books to the colors we’d chosen whereas I wanted to thematically match the books to the colors. Just because my copy of Frankenstein happened to be beige did not mean I wanted Mary Shelley’s masterpiece on the generic light brown stair. We compromised as best we could.

Actually painting the risers was a fairly quick and satisfying process that took a couple of days in order to accommodate the drying paint. I have to admit that the first glimpse of the stairs with the painted risers and stained treads was immensely satisfying once we’d removed all of the blue painter’s tape.

The actual project: The damn lettering

I had a couple sets of alphabet stencils but we wanted more so we hit up a couple different craft stores to buy more alphabet stencils. We also wound up buying some laser cut stencils to embellish the stairs, which turned out to be a fantastic decision. In total, we had about 10 different sets of lettering, four laser cut stencils for visual appeal, three small brushes (which I think was a mistake in that we could have used more brushes as well as a few round stencil brushes which we did not have).

The hardest part, undeniably, was the lettering. Even though we had stencils, we were painting them at odd angles, heads tilted and bodies twisted across the stairs. I’d wanted to paint all the titles horizontally, which would have been easier but Colin pointed out that not all book spines are titled that way and since we were putting in all the work anyway we figured we might as well do the thing properly.

We started with Winterdance, mostly because it was a simple design with lettering that worked perfectly with the stencils we happened to have on hand. It turned out well and then I moved on to Anne of Green Gables while Colin drew a copy of American Gods that would make you weep. As soon as I saw his copy of American Gods, I knew the project would turn out OK.

Stair Case_Upper Level_5

And it did. Ripping away the blue painter’s tape after it was all over was immensely nerve-wracking and, like every other aspect of the project, took longer than I thought it would. But there they were. Beautiful stairs. My favorite books.

I might wait a couple weeks before starting a new home improvement project. Then again, I might not.



  1. Don’t forget to put it up on Pinterest!


  1. […] Painting our staircase to resemble a bookcase […]

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