Your stairs are more than just a functional creation, but one more opportunity to enhance your home’s natural beauty and stand-apart uniqueness.
Given the amount of time we spend going up and down the stairs each day, we seldom stop to consider the many ways of making the experience worthwhile.
Stair trim is a fantastic way to add accent to your staircase without overwhelming the natural flow of its design. From the baseboard to the railing molding, there are countless areas in which to show off your aesthetic panache. The beauty of owning a home is the ability to curate a space that is entirely your own, and that includes the details of your routine ascents and descents.
Opting for a colored wall trim or refinished railing can lend one more precise but unforgettable layer to your already nuanced domicile.
In life it’s easy to overlook the smaller details in favor of the bigger picture. We focus on the large spaces that consume the greater part of one’s attention and leave the subtleties for a later time. Your staircase deserves its due recognition, and all those trims and rail upgrades are as effortless to achieve as they are long-lasting in effect.
You worked hard for the home you’ve procured, so why not make every step of every square foot worthy of your attainment?
1. Wainscoting Stair Trim Ideas
Wainscoting first appeared in homes during the 18th century where it was used as a durable, insulating wall covering. Its popularity never waned, although today it’s generally used only for visual appeal instead of serving any practical purpose. Indeed, these versatile panels can dress up any room and add a touch of elegance to a plain staircase wall.
In many homes, these chair-height panels are installed in the entryway and continue up or down the entryway stairs. Although the most common height for wainscoting is chair height (approximately 36”), homeowners can choose taller panels that stop at any other point from floor to ceiling. While traditional wainscot panels were made from solid wood, you can find economical versions made from a variety of materials including:
- Medium-density fiberboard (MDF)
- Molded drywall
- PVC plastic
- Ceramic tile
Embossed metal panels can also be used as wainscoting, with or without a wood frame. These panels have been used for centuries as decorative ceiling tiles and can often be found at antique markets. Embossed metal panels can be painted or left bare and look stunning when used along a staircase in a cottage-style home.
2. Beadboard and Shiplap Stair Trim Ideas
Technically another form of wainscoting, beadboard and shiplap have grown in popularity due to the warm, rustic feel they add to rooms and stairways. These textured panels have long appeared in farmhouses and Victorian homes, but can be found in virtually any type of house today. Both products were traditionally crafted of wood, although they now can be made from any number of manufactured materials. They are a simple way to add texture to your staircase walls and usually mesh well with your existing baseboards and railings.
Beadboard has vertical planks that are generally 2 ½ inches wide with a “bead” between them. This beaded effect is caused when the slats are fastened together with a tongue on one board and a groove on the other. They can also be called “tongue and groove” slats because of this. As with other types of wainscoting, it’s common to see beadboard in entryways and along staircases. It’s also a great look to carry over into your bathroom or kitchen.
Shiplap consists of thin wooden planks that are installed horizontally along the wall. They are usually between four and six inches in width. The name comes from its resemblance to the boards used when constructing wooden ships, as these boards had to fit tightly together to ensure a watertight finish. Shiplap is most often painted white but can be painted any color, or even left bare in certain contemporary or rustic applications.
3. Coffered Wall Stair Trim Ideas
A coffered wall has strips of wood arranged in a grid pattern, much like a series of framed boxes. Unlike wainscoting and beadboard, coffering usually extends from floor to ceiling instead of stopping at chair-rail height. This is a classic element of design with a simplicity that conveys a strong, masculine statement. Coffered walls and ceilings can be seen inside many famous American homes, including the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina and the Studebaker Mansion in Indiana.
These high-end examples of coffering were crafted from fine stained wood or stone, but it’s relatively easy to replicate the look with inexpensive materials today. For a subtle coffered effect, paint a coffered wall the same color as the other walls that are visible from the stairway. Conversely, make it stand out more by painting it with a contrasting color.
Watch the following video for an example of how to coffer a small room yourself for around $100. While measuring and cutting angles may be a bit trickier on a staircase than a basic rectangular wall, it is still an inexpensive way to add a stunning look to what is usually a boring area in most people’s homes.
4. Baseboards and Stair Skirt Stair Trim Ideas
A stair skirt or baseboard is the trim that runs along the bottom of the wall beside the steps. Often, it is made from the same baseboard used throughout the home, but it can also have a different appearance entirely. Baseboard trim can be cut with mitered corners and follow the angles of each tread and riser. While this method takes time to cut and install, it can look elegant when properly finished.
For a simpler appearance, cut a skirt board from a solid plank of wood. This board will slide between the wall and stairs and have a straight edge on top. If you want to DIY this type of molding, the most difficult part will probably be cutting mortises into the skirt board to accommodate your treads and risers.
Simple skirt boards can be embellished by fastening a textured quarter-round or other trim along the top of the straight edge. If made of a high-quality wood, they can be stained to match your hardwood floors.
5. Handrail Stair Trim Ideas
Staircase handrails are an important safety feature, but also provide a great spot to add a sense of style to your home. International building codes regulate the size and height of handrails but their overall appearance is up to you. Choose a style that coordinates with the rest of your décor and feels comfortable in your hand.
Handrails made from wood are classic and can be shaped, painted, or stained to suit you. Rounded wooden rails are smoother to the touch, but squared handrails made of wood can add warmth to a home with lots of clean lines and minimalist décor. Wooden handrails look equally stunning with either wooden or metal balusters. Rough-hewn wooden beams make a strong rustic statement in a cabin or other back-to-nature home. Just remember to sand them enough so that you aren’t picking up splinters on your way up and down.
Metal is another solid design option for stair handrails in a variety of settings. Black metal handrails and balusters are a popular choice today, but note that metal can be painted any color to suit your style. Natural metal finishes are beautiful in their own right, with industrial steel, brass, copper, and wrought iron topping design charts today. Metal handrails can have a sleek, smooth finish or include a bit of texture. Popular textures on metal handrails and balusters include hammered and brushed finishes.
6. Colorful Accent Stair Trim Ideas
Accenting a baseboard or beadboard with a coat of contrasting paint can be a stunning way to add a pop of color to a boring staircase. Even if your overall color theme is neutral, matching paint to one of the darker tones in your hardwood or tile floor can visually anchor the stairway. If your interior design is somewhat eclectic, feel free to choose a favorite bright color to make your staircase features stand out.
You can also choose your handrail or balusters as places to add a splash of color. Even stair treads can become canvases for color, either by adding a stair runner rug in a Persian print or going for a simple jute runner. Mediterranean homes often feature stair risers decorated with colorful tiles, mosaics or painted embellishments.
7. Baluster and Newel Design Stair Trim Ideas
Balusters are the vertical posts that support the handrail. They can also be called spindles or pickets. The newel is the larger vertical post at the base of a stairway that helps give the balustrade its strength. There may also be a half-newel at the other end of the stairs. This feature is made from cutting a matching newel post in half vertically and attaching it to the wall where the handrail ends.
Like handrails, balusters and newels can be made from wood or metal. A common design choice is to pair metal balusters in two or more designs with a wooden handrail. All-metal balustrades can feature scrolls and other elaborate wrought iron designs, or have an angular sleekness that goes well with midcentury or modern décor.
To give the illusion of an open stairway, consider using clear glass or acrylic panels instead of balusters. A truly modern home may feature horizontal metal cables instead of vertical posts.
A newel should be bigger than the balusters—most times by quite a bit. In a Craftsman or Victorian house, the newel might be designed to mimic the shape of the home’s front porch columns. In contemporary homes, a newel may be only slightly thicker than the balusters, to maintain a simplistic effect. Newels can be painted the same color as the spindles, but they are often finished in a contrasting color to really stand out.
8. Finial Stair Trim Ideas
A finial is a decorative ornament that rests atop a newel. A simple type of finial might be a basic wooden knob or a slightly pointed newel post cap. Antique lovers can shop online for old newels and finials. Elaborate versions of both were common in the Victorian era and can add a completely unique touch to an otherwise new wooden staircase. Replicas of just about any type of antique wood finial can be found today, with many being made of affordable polyurethane instead of expensive wood.
More complex finials include metal orbs, glass balls, and urn-like shapes. Newel post finials are often made to resemble items found in nature, such as acorns, pineapples, or artichokes. Embossed or carved leaves and flowers also make beautiful design statements when swirled around a newel finial.
9. Bullnose and Volute Stair Trim Ideas
Unless you have a degree in interior design, you probably haven’t heard these quirky terms for staircase features. However, you’ve no doubt seen how these elements can turn a plain staircase into one that wows. A bullnose is the first starting step that has a different shape or design from the rest of the treads. This bullnose extends out from the side of the stairs and is usually curved or rounded on its edges. Sometimes the bullnose area includes two or more starting steps leading up to the main staircase.
A volute is a curved handrail fitting that often follows the same silhouette as the bullnose step. It may connect to the top of a newel post, or in many cases, its curved design rests atop a series of balusters arranged in a circular or semi-circular configuration. Volutes are an attractive design feature on both wooden and metal balustrades.
10. Lighting Stair Trim Ideas
Lights are a practical feature to add to a staircase along its skirting or baseboard trim. Not only do lights add a certain ambiance at night, they can help you see how to navigate your way up or down without dealing with the brightness of an overhead light. If you have an owner’s suite on the main floor and your children’s rooms are upstairs, baseboard lighting is practically a necessity for safe nighttime trips between floors.
Simple recessed lights can be found to coordinate with any type of décor and blend especially well into a white or light-colored wall. If your home features a modern or industrial vibe, turn stair lighting into a design element by installing metal-framed fixtures.
Stair Trim FAQs
Finances are tight, but this 1980s honey oak banister has to go. What’s the best—and easiest—way to update a staircase on a budget?
If you’re willing to invest a long weekend and a good bit of elbow grease, you can update a wooden stair rail and banisters yourself without spending a lot of money. As demonstrated in the following video, new gel stain products can be applied without having to strip the original finish first. This cuts the preparation time significantly and makes the DIY process much easier.
Is it against building code to install a staircase without a handrail?
While having an open staircase without handrails can look dramatic, it’s not safe. Furthermore, it’s against building codes to eliminate this important feature. According to the International Residential Code, no guardrails are required if the highest surface is 30 inches or less above the ground. However, since a fall from even that short height can result in a significant injury, most staircases are built with a balustrade that extends to the bottom step.