Painting a stairwell presents a physical challenge from top to bottom. Reaching the tops of the walls can be difficult and dangerous, and painting around each step is tedious and time-consuming. Like most home improvement projects, however, the entire process is made much easier and less daunting with the right tools and techniques.
Professional painters use scaffolding to easily reach high places such as the tops of stairwells. A homeowner can rent scaffolding designed to be used in stairwells or use an extension ladder and lumber to create a platform. Safety must always be a priority, and the scaffolding or platform should be steady and well-secured. To create a platform, lean an extension ladder against the top rear wall of the stairwell above the steps so that the bottom rests against one of the bottom steps. Then place a heavy board across one of the ladder steps and the landing to serve as a platform. Be sure the ladder is very secure and the board is heavy enough, at least 2 inches thick, to bear a person's weight.
An extension pole eliminates the need for scaffolding and the danger of standing on a raised platform. The disadvantages, however, are that it is hard to be accurate near edges and corners, especially if the wall is a different color than the ceiling; and that it is possible to become dizzy or unbalanced while standing on a stair looking up to paint. Although extension poles are designed for use with paint rollers, it is possible to tie or attach a paintbrush to the end to reach into the corners that a roller won't cover. This method is best in places where the ceiling and the wall are the same color.
Carpeted stairs make it difficult to paint a straight line where the stairs meet the wall without getting paint on the carpet. Painter's tape doesn't stick well to carpet or create a good seal along the edge. A paint guard or wide ruler makes the job easier by pushing the guard into the crevice between the carpet and the wall and holding the carpet down and out of the way while painting. The problem is that it is awkward to use the guard along the vertical edges and insets. Use packing tape to protect the carpet by taping along the carpet, leaving about 1/4 inch overlapping onto the wall. Use a ruler to push the overlapping tape down between the carpet and the wall and then paint. Remove the tape immediately after painting. If the stairs are not carpeted, or surrounded by molding, use painter's tape to create a clean line.
The process for painting around stairs is similar to painting any other wall. Cover the stairs with a heavy drop cloth that won't bunch up or cause a hazard to protect against splatters and drips. Begin painting at the highest point, cutting in, or applying paint, in corners and around edges with a brush. Work your way down the wall, cutting in around the stairs last. Paint the rest of the wall with a roller.