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A staircase paint job can quickly turn into a head-scratcher of an undertaking.

gamespirit/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Stairs are surprisingly finicky structures with multiple parts (some of which go by multiple names) that lead to multiple decisions. What seems like a simple DIY paint job can turn into a head-scratcher of a project. Before we talk aesthetics, let’s establish a quick glossary to ensure we’re speaking the same language.

A tread is the step you put your foot on, and a riser is the vertical piece at the back of the tread that leads to the next step. The wall string is the structural piece that looks like an exaggerated baseboard running up the wall. Still with me? And when we’re talking about the railing, the handrail (or banister) is what you hold, the spindles (also known as balusters) are the vertical safety posts, and the newel is the big vertical post at the bottom of the staircase. If you’re lucky, you may even have a decorative finial atop that newel.

The most classic, can’t-go-wrong formula looks like this: Paint the treads, handrail and newel post black; paint the wall string, risers, and spindles white. Of course, there are variations on the theme. I’ve admired all-black handrail-and-spindle combos (and all-white, too), and black wall strings. It’s pretty hard to get it wrong when you’re sticking with black and white, or charcoal and cream.

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Now that you understand the tried-and-true formula, let’s experiment further. If you’re ready for a more edgy or playful look – you did ask for drama, after all – you could paint the treads in an attention-getting colour. Choose something that can stand up to traffic, like a mid-tone blue or green; pastels will show wear quickly. I’ve also seen paint used to create a faux runner up the stairs in either one wide band or a wide band flanked by two narrower stripes (picture the stripes on a vintage French grain sack). All you need is a measuring tape and painter’s tape for crisp, perfect lines.

You could also try the reverse of that technique: Leave the middle part of the tread and riser as natural wood to act as the runner, and paint narrower bands of white up either side to blend in with the wall string and wall for a rustic-chic European effect.

Whatever you decide style-wise, use durable, low-sheen floor paint for slip-resistant treads – and good drama only.

Need some advice about interior design and decor? Send your questions to personaldesigner@globeandmail.com.

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